While the commercial promise of the Semantic Web is obvious, the technology also is rapidly taking off among academic researchers, particularly in the sciences. About five years ago, McGuinness noticed her work was finding a new audience. First a geologist at another university asked if she could help direct his searches for data. Soon after, another request for assistance came from a government computational scientist. Then a well-respected immunologist had a similar request. “I kept being contacted by scientists in radically different domains,” she says.
They were all after the same thing: a better way to find and distribute research information.
At a time when science is expanding globally, it is increasingly difficult to keep track of all the relevant research in a field the old-fashioned way by looking through journals or even by the more recent method of checking online collections of papers. Complicating the situation is the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of contemporary research, which means scientists are not always sure where to look for information in the first place.
“The nature of scientific research is changing,” says McGuinness. “In the old world, projects had a single lead researcher who was very well-schooled in a single discipline. But now people are finding they need expertise from another sub-discipline in which they’re not expert, or from another discipline not that closely related to theirs. If you try to take on a problem like global warming, no single expert scientist is going to solve that. Instead, you need to collaborate across disciplines and share data.”
For these reasons, the Semantic Web holds the promise of becoming a vital technology powering the scientific enterprise in years to come. The limits of keyword searches, whether on the Web or even on a proprietary database about a scientific topic, become magnified when dealing with thousands of scientific papers on related topics. “One of the reasons interdisciplinary science is such an attractive place to look at the Semantic Web is precisely because keyword-based search doesn’t work,” Hendler says.
Dean Zhao believes the Semantic Web will become a useful tool for researchers across myriad disciplines. “Data today is readily available through the Web. The tetherless group can help scientists discover where that data is, and can use that expertise to help professors in any area,” he says.
Berners-Lee also sees the potential for connecting multiple disciplines. “The whole Semantic Web will never be totally consistent,” he says. “But some global data sets will be very solid. In the life sciences, or in financial reporting, we will have a few central concepts shared internationally.”
McGuinness now is involved in a pilot project called the “Virtual Solar-Terrestrial Observatory,” a Web site serving as a repository of data for solar and atmospheric researchers, featuring multiple data clearing houses including data collected through the Mauna Loa Solar Observatory in Hawaii. Users can sort through data by instrument, date, or by the subject of study in order to have a more flexible way of getting directly at data.
Another project in the works would use data from the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the U.S. Geological Survey, among others, to link together information from atmospheric science, the study of volcanoes, and from geological research in order to help government scientists and officials react to a potential volcanic eruption. “People want to bring that data together so that in such a crisis, they can do a more efficient job predicting how dangerous the fallout is from a volcanic eruption, to figure out when they should evacuate people,” McGuinness says. “They also want to bring data together to help determine the impact of volcano eruptions on the atmosphere.”
Rensselaer’s strength in data science means a variety of researchersin bioinformatics or chemical informatics, for instancecould be open to collaboration on future projects that would help them better crunch through their data.
And then there are some projects that might seem surprising for a group of computer scientists to undertake, but are very much on the constellation’s agenda, like a collaboration with the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, in which the constellation hopes to lend its expertise to help design projects and installations. “Interdisciplinary Web science is a great starting point for that,” says Hendler.
With a fertile field of possible research collaborations ahead, the Tetherless World constellation is already in the business of connecting the world.