For the first 35 of its 40-odd years, Talis was – and still is – one of the UK’s leading providers of library management software. Its roots, therefore, lie in helping organisations with lots of information make it easier to navigate and manage.
In 2005, the company decided to take this focus in a new direction by developing its expertise in so-called semantic web technology. This bore fruit in 2007 in the form of the Talis Platform, a web-based repository for data.
The platform’s critical feature is that it allows organisations to describe their information using the resource description framework (RDF), a method of encoding what the data means – whether it is the title, or author, or subject of a book, for example. This description can be used to manage information internally, or it can be shared with the public over the web.
This has myriad applications. The latest versions of Talis’s library software are based on the platform, meaning that libraries can link their catalogue data with one another. Among other benefits, this allows people researching a given topic to find books and documents across multiple collections.
But while library software still brings in the majority of its revenue, Talis is using its semantic data platform to branch out. One target for expansion is the education sector.
“We have a particular vision for the future of education,” explains CTO Ian Davis. More and more educational establishments are putting free materials online, he says, but it is not always possible to find and navigate these materials based purely on their subject.
Some universities already use Talis’s platform to make reading lists for courses publically available, but Davis says semantic web technology has more to deliver.
“The next stage is to allow cross-connections between resources, so when I’m participating in a course, and I have a particular reading list, I can connect to videos of other lecturers delivering the same material in a different way,” he says. “It is now possible to use the web to connect these materials together and to use the semantic web to understand what these connections really mean.”
Another application for Talis’s technology is in open government; its platform supports the search and querying function of Data.gov.uk, the government’s open data portal. “That’s a strong use case for us,” says Davis. “A lot of the government’s data should already be publically available, but what’s stopped them in the past has been the ability to do that in a way that scales.”
Semantic web technology is also being used in business, Davis reports. “What we see happening on the web in public, we also see happening in enterprise,” he says.
There are outward-facing use cases. Commercial organisations such as Tesco and electronics retailer BestBuy are using RDF to publish details of their product catalogues, allowing third parties to build applications around that data (this is not based on Talis technology).
But Davis says there is also an opportunity for enterprise organisations to use the technology internally, for example to draw links between their disparate data sets. “If you’ve got a database of sales contacts and a database of prospects, and they are separate but there’s some overlap between them, then RDF lets you draw the connection between those things.”
Another quality of ‘linked data’ that makes it appropriate for open government data initiatives also has an application in enterprise IT. Each item of data has its own uniform resource identifier (URI), which allows the user to trace that data back to its source.
When it comes to open government data, this means that citizens can make sure any reported statistics are based on official figures, Davis explains. In the enterprise, it means that employees can check that reports or analyses are based on approved internal sources.
Davis says that the company is seeing “really strong growth in terms of uptake” of its platform in the commercial and educational sectors. But despite a long history of academic research into semantic technology, he concedes that it is still seen as an emerging technology.
“We’re still riding up the adoption curve, in terms of commercial availability,” he says. “For many years there was a lot of research into the semantic web, but we’ve done enough research now. What we’re trying to do is make it useful.”