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Has the Semantic Web Killed MDM?

By   /  November 30, 2011  /  5 Comments

By Christine Denney

It’s no secret that I am pro-MDM (Not the “throw everything in a hub” type of MDM, but the discipline of identifying and managing the “who, what, and where” entities that are important to the Enterprise).  However, it may not be well-known that I am also pro-Semantic Web.  I still see just as much promise in its ability to integrate disparate data sets as I did when a co-worker and I founded a W3C interest group a few years ago.  When the opportunity to attend a talk about the Semantic Web presented itself, I jumped at the chance to hear someone else’s perspective on using Semantics to tackle data issues.

Normally, it would not be especially contentious at an informational talk, but this time the speaker launched into a rant about how the Semantic Web has eliminated the need for MDM and how MDM was a failure, just like universal standards.  As I listened, I was sure that I heard that 1980’s classic song “Video Killed the Radio Star” playing softly in the background and mocking me with the words “Semantics Killed the MDM Hub”, but I wasn’t going down without a fight.

The fact that I have a background in both the Semantic Web and MDM made holding my tongue through the presentation quite difficult, but somehow I managed to persevere.  Anyone with a background in MDM and Data Management would have easily recognized that they were being unfairly criticized and that the Semantic Web was being oversold (It wasn’t exactly subtle, but not completely surprising – the speaker was from one of the big Semantic Web tool companies).  Among the most troubling statements were:

Modeling isn’t necessary: There were several negative statements made about modeling (and over-modeling). While I agree that there is a point when something has been modeled to death, we need to distinguish a failure in using a technique wisely from the technique itself.  Ontologies have models (and, believe it or not, they look amazingly similar to conceptual data models).  With the semantic web, you still have to know the “things” and identifying attributes of the “things”.  The W3C group I co-founded did have to create a model to understand how patient data would link together. Check out figure 1 of our Translational Medicine ontology. The speaker made a quiet side-comment about “models other than ontologies” (which many attendees may have missed), but it rang loud and clear in my ear. The bottom line is that modeling is still needed and even the semantic web is not exempt from having some degree of modeling. It seems to me that the degree to which the model is extensible is the real issue here.

Universal standards are not valuable: The last time I checked, things like XML, UML, and guidance developed by the W3C were in fact standards… universal standards, no less! I would hardly call them useless.  Even the concepts for semantic web interoperability revolve around standards (Why else would you need a URI?).  I agree that creating standards for the sake of standards does not add value, but we need to be careful when diminishing the value of standards that serve to unite information and information technology disciplines.

Master Data is a failure: The speaker implied that master data and data integration were competing schools of thought.  This could not be more wrong.  They are, in fact, COMPLEMENTARY.  Linking data requires sources (e.g. the Linked Data project – the linked data cloud does have several pieces of master data within it.).  Sources need some sort of identity (i.e. a “key”) to link one thing to another. Master Data Management seeks to provide identities for the core entities that are used as nodes in the ontology (and after bashing on MDM, the speaker did, in fact, make a comment as to how the classes on the left of his screen were similar to MDM entities.  Hmmmm…. interesting….).  The speaker also questioned whether it is ever possible to have a “single version of the truth” because truth is in the eyes of the person using the data.  I am not sure where the speaker got his information on MDM (he made a vague reference to a conversation with an analyst), but this “single version of the truth” doesn’t apply to all data or all uses of data.  Having a “single version of the truth” means that you have a trusted source for the identity of a thing – the same way that the semantic web needs a URI to identify a thing. Master data management can combine together all of the locally-created identities into something that can be filtered of “noise” and used for more formal or regulated processes.

Did I enlighten the speaker with all of these points?  Unfortunately, no.  The talk was running late and the question and answer period was cut short.  But if I’m lucky, maybe the speaker will read this blog.

Thanks for listening to my rant. Please share your thoughts on this topic!

NOTE: Opinions voiced in this blog are those of the author, not her employer.

About the author

Christine Denney is responsible for Enterprise MDM strategy and implementation at a fortune 500 company. She has almost 20 years of experience in systems development and data management, with a focus on Data Governance, Reference Data, and Master Data Management for the past 12 years. She is co-founder of the Translational Medicine Ontology task force, a W3C Healthcare and Life Sciences Interest Group, and serves as the VP of Communications for DAMA Indiana. Christine has a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science, holds mastery CDMP and CBIP certifications, and is ITIL v3 certified. Christine can be followed at: http://twitter.com/im4infomgt NOTE: Thoughts expressed in blogs and articles are the author's and not her employer's.

  • Richard Ordowich

    Both perspectives are worthy of consideration. The concept of the semantic web (or what people perceive as the semantic web, Google) helps people find things. No matter what nonsensical query you put in, Goggle will respond. Like an idiot savant. Most people are satisfied with the results they get. So why can’t business systems be built to respond to queries such as “how many customers do we have”?

    To answer this question you need to define customer and once you start down that path there is no end. You’re into a semantic wonderland. Everyone has an opinion on this subject. If it’s the CEO asking the question, there is only one answer; the one he wants. He doesn’t care about the semantics, ontology’s, taxonomies or master data. He just wants the answer to his question.

    There are concepts of MDM, RDF and semantics that can help answer this question but it’s not easy and it’s not consistent. You can take the CEO’s question and discover his definition of a customer and make that a standard for the enterprise. But in spite of the CEO’s omnipotent power the CFO may have to define a customer differently in order to comply with accounting and regulatory practices. The result maybe that there are two answers to the question “how many customers do we have?” Of course the sales VP may want yet another answer and so it goes.

    MDM tries to manage the who, what, where but what happens when there are dozens of views for the who, what when? Each viewer, CEO, CFO and VP of sales has their view of master data.

    Semantics can help, RDF can help and MDM can help but no one approach results in a satisfactory solution nor does it result in a singularity (single version of the truth).

  • Christine Denney

    Hi Richard, Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! I completely agree that the business wants answers, not certain IT solutions and no one approach gets us to where we need to be.

  • Hi Christine and Richard. I enjoyed reading both of you your insights. Clearly the speaker needed a “hook” in her/his presentation to help sell her/his software. Even though Semantic Web tools may be the first class of SW that may actually help address the “data problem,” a SW salesman is still a SW salesman.

    Semantic Technology should be used to help the Discipline of MDM. I believe the technology is a real improvement but still complicated and something that Richard’s proverbial CEO doesn’t want to hear about.

    I skimmed your TMKB paper Christine and I wondered if your group has had any traction with it. And I also wondered (speaking of standards) whether you ‘hooked’ the TMO to any Upper Ontology?

  • Chrisitne Denney

    Hi Brian,

    Thank you for your comments!

    The TMO group is working closely with NIH and the NCBO. (see http://bioportal.bioontology.org/ for NCBO) Here are some of the data sources: http://www.w3.org/wiki/HCLSIG/PharmaOntology/Data.

    This site (http://code.google.com/p/translationalmedicineontology/) talks about the high-level ontology and its purpose of joining other ontologies.


  • David Eddy

    I’ve been attending W3C/SemWeb meetings for 3+ years & I’ll be darned if I’ve seen anything to do with semantics.

    From what I’ve seen, the assumption seems to be when you need to go that last inch to know what a piece of data is… what a piece of data MEANS… you ask the expert (because they’re sitting around with nothing better to do?).

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