Semantic Web technology will be at the heart of the new software tool kit, says Peter Fox, a Rensselaer physics professor and a co-chair of the school's Tetherless World Constellation research team spearheading the project. (At Rensselaer, "constellations" are multidisciplinary teams of senior faculty, junior faculty, graduate students and undergraduates.) "With the new tool kit, the idea is for us to get out and train communities and create a shared resource," Fox says. "This is a tool for e-Science," which is essentially the open collaboration among different scientific disciplines across interconnected networks.
Rather than offering researchers a simple keyword search across a single database that returns information in pieces, the semantic approach proposes to create a more intelligent Internet infrastructure that can assign meaning to the concepts being searched and even to some degree have an understanding of the researcher's intent. Using ontologies, which are formal representations of concepts within a particular discipline and of the relationships among these concepts, searches could understand different nomenclatures that express the same ideas, providing links to related Web sites, nonprofit organizations, upcoming bills before Congress, and even multimedia podcasts, digital images and video files. "The semantic Web is the way of coming up with a shared expression for a common meaning," Fox says.
Ideally, researchers and Web surfers alike will also have the ability to review and correct information when necessary, similar to Wikipedia's model. Access to certain data sets could also be controlled using semantic tags attached to the data, helping those searching for the information to more easily credit the original creator of the data that they are using, whereas data creators could track exactly who is looking at their data, says Deborah McGuinness, a Rensselaer professor of computer science and cognitive science as well as a co-chair of the school's Tetherless World Constellation. Fox and McGuinness are developing the tool kit with the help of fellow Tetherless World co-chair and Rensselaer computer and cognitive sciences professor, Jim Hendler.
A semantic interface would allow a researcher to visit a single research site, describe the information required, and then let ontology and semantics take care of the rest. "The Semantic Web has it's own query language that takes advantage of meanings of concepts and their relationships," Narock says. "You ask your question at very high level, and it takes care of filling in the details for you."
Such a conversion won't be easy, though. As Narock points out, people in charge of massive databases would have to develop ontologies that make the information more accessible, although Fox says Constellation's plan is to have some prepackaged ontologies for programmers to use. To make the Semantic Web work, Narock says, tools such as the one Constellation is developing need to be widely available and, just as importantly, used as data is created.