Semantic Technologies Really Do Pay Off

As the former Chief Information Officer of Europe’s largest internet bank, Egg plc, the decision to select semantic technologies to underpin the launch of my next large scale consumer business, Garlik (, was not one I took lightly.

At Egg, I had been responsible for 4 million online banking customers running a secure, scalable and robust 24x7 operation, so I was very aware of what it takes to run industrial strength services. With Garlik as a new startup, the key question was whether, by taking the technology risk of adopting semantic technologies at the core, we would see the payback in terms of competitive advantage that we sought. The answer is an unambiguous yes!

Garlik is an online identity company aimed at consumers. We provide identity protection services such as DataPatrol, a weekly sweep of the digital world looking through millions of web pages and records and alerting the subscriber to the risk of ID theft. We have also just launched a new service called Qdos ( that calculates a score for the size and shape of your digital status and presence. It does this for 45 million adults, as well as high profile people ranging from Barack Obama to Bill Gates, from top bloggers like Robert Scoble to religious leaders like the 14th Dalai Lama. And all of this is delivered in real-time at huge scale, and all based on semantic technologies.

In making the decision to select semantic technologies, and knowing that I would have to convince my hard-nosed investors to travel on this technology adventure with me, I asked myself five key questions.

Did I believe:

  • That the web itself is evolving from a web of documents to a web of data, where context or the ‘semantics’ describing that data becomes paramount?
  • That this evolution will happen to a material extent over the coming five years?
  • That really smart people are involved in this area and solid background research has been done?
  • That the semantic technology has matured to a stage that Garlik can build a robust, scalable, and secure platform?
  • That by doing this, Garlik will have given itself a sustainable competitive advantage?

I looked into this over a period of six months in 2005 and concluded with positive answers to each of these questions. On the back of that evaluation, we have been able to build Garlik into a business that has launched 2 unique products, attracted tens of thousands of users, raised nearly $20m in venture funding and recently been selected as a 2008 Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum, Davos.

Different from the Norm

Garlik had the luxury of architecting and building a large scale semantic platform from the ground up. We have crafted an interval-calculus based ‘people’ ontology. We perform semantically informed search, harvesting and information extraction processing across millions of web pages. We have developed from scratch a large-scale clustered RDF ‘quad’ store. This store, called JXT, is distributed across multiple linux boxes and scales to several billion triples. It has been in production at this scale for over a year now and the early teething problems have all been ironed out. We believe it has the capacity to scale to 60 billion triples. It is also SPARQL compliant. We are fortunate to have Sir Tim Berners-Lee on our Advisory Board so it is not a good idea for us to veer too far away from W3C standards!

So we like to think of Garlik as ‘semantic web ready.’ As the web changes shape, as we believe it inevitably will, the power of our platform will come to the fore and give us a distinct advantage over the competition.

However, even today we are seeing real benefits of having gone down the semantic technology path. This manifests itself primarily in flexibility and speed of development. We can incorporate new data sources, whether structured, semi-structured or unstructured, and new data items and build and change applications at a pace that I could only dream of in previous corporate incarnations. This stuff really works! The semantic web is coming. It is time to get ready.