Semantic interoperability in Europe

Semantic Interoperability can enable IT-solutions independent of languages and administrative boundaries. So, the EU should care. Luckily, they do. is a European repository of semantic assets launched in June 2008. Already, experts from over 20 countries are discussing under the SEMIC.EU umbrella. Some 30 assets are now available in the repository, which must be called reasonable, considering the project just kicked off. It has be said that the EU's concept of semantic assets is on the low end and includes XML schema.

How effective is their approach? The current European e-government action plan (2006) says cross border data exchange is a governmental challenge in Europe. Semantic interoperability is about drawing together data from different sources and relating data to real life objects – so the initiative makes sense. However, the Euregov-project (2008) points to the current lack of incentives to create cross-border services. Does provide sufficient incentives to upload semantic assets?

I think the approach is viable but only if supported by a critical mass of partners at the outset. Also, there are likely sub-communities with radically different interests and priorities in each vertical (retail, finance, health, education etc.). While focuses on public sector, even the many verticals inside public sector do not necessarily talk to each other.

The current danger is that Member State bilateral collaboration turns into small, non-transparent consortia setting their own requirements. In fact, cannot be the only step we take at European level – is a first step. In the end, our interoperability approaches must be global, not European. So, a process must be in place whereby that dimension comes in. Where are the global partners?

Tim Berners-Lee's vision is of course a semantic web that goes across sectors, applications, and layers. W3C activities regarding service oriented architectures and the semantic web include Resource Description Framework (RDF) and web ontology language (OWL).

The stakeholders who are active in W3C are often among the first to integrate semantic standards into their products. What is needed now is wide implementation of these and other semantic standards. If can assist, that is great.

Reflecting on the expression “Semantic asset” which seems key to the approach, it strikes me that something is only a proper asset when it is shared and it is only semantic when there is a shared meaning. So, we need to make sure both happen. The challenges we face are indeed semantic, but also global, and sometimes not technical at all. We need to find new ways to manage and agree. Based on the experience with I am more optimistic on sharing high level concepts than actual models.

Sharing is difficult. There are all kinds of obstacles. I think may have underestimated the need for face-to-face encounters. They seem to rely a bit too much on a passive portal of assets. But few will pick up assets unless they are packaged well – and discussed. Creating a sharing culture is important.

Semantic interoperability challenges mindset, management and momentum. It is simply hard to do. The only way to guarantee that semantic assets are embedding in our societies (not only in our technologies) is to standardize.

While there is immense value in gathering, sharing, discussing ontologies for various domains, we must strive to consolidate, simplify and agree on what we want machines to understand. Only then can industry build more powerful software to solve your challenges. So, is a good first step in a process. The process is more important than the result, since the activities will be iterative, constantly evolving. I would recommend you to dare to also speak of the less technical, more political aspects of semantics. Meaning is necessarily contested – until there is shared meaning. I trust IDABC with EIF 2.0, the CAMSS-project (sharing principles for interoperability frameworks) and with a high-level strategy for use by CIO-levels of government in Europe can accomplish common aims: → Global standards → CAMSS → EIF 2.0 → CIO-strategy → Open standards based procurement

The only way to guarantee wide adoption is to standardize: must advocate open standards – and demonstrate their efficiency. is only sustainable if the aim is to prepare to standardize semantic assets.


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Trond Undheim, Ph.D, Director of Standards Strategy and Policy at the Oracle Corporation, speaker, entrepreneur, blogger, and author, is one of the world’s leading experts on technology and society. LinkedIn profile


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