Home / Technology Policy & Ethics / May 2018 / Semantic Web in the Age of Big Data: A Perspective

Semantic Web in the Age of Big Data: A Perspective

Will we drown in a data tsunami or enter a knowledge utopia?

By: Syed Ahmad Chan Bukhari, Ali Kashif Bashir, and Khalid Mahmood Malik

May 2018

We are awash with “Big Data” to this very day because of the technological advancements made during the past decade. The notion of Big Data1 refers to the datasets which are gigantic in size to be processed by conventional databases and management techniques (volume), are extremely diverse so that no single data model can capture all elements of the data (variety) and are produced or gathered at an unprecedented scale (velocity)1. Because of this sheer volume, variety, and velocity of big data, enterprises are facing data heterogeneity, diversity and complexity challenges. However, this big data era came with big opportunities by resolving the associated challenges, so it could transform our traditional way of decision-making. Enterprises with the technical expertise of managing big data are now replacing their usual guesswork and laborious legacy data modeling based decision making processes with facts derived from big data2.

Semantic web technologies3 such as ontologies help to contextually interpret the heterogeneous big data by associating the data concepts with ontology classes. Ontologies are sets of machine-readable controlled vocabularies that provide the “explicit specification of a conceptualization” of a domain4. Moreover, ontology orchestrates the domain concepts (both generalized and specialized) in a hierarchical order to foster this hierarchical modeling through the logical relations among them. Such arrangement of concepts provides ontologies with the highest degree of semantic richness of all common models for knowledge representation such as the glossary, topic map, and thesaurus5. Therefore, semantic mapping (linking of data concepts with ontology classes) not only helps machines to interpret the heterogeneous big data to comprehend the corresponding context but can also help to detect big data anomalies and complete the missing information.

Over the past two decades, ontologies have been widely recruited for knowledge representation in various domains ranging from engineering6–8, biomedical9–12 to physics13,14 and agriculture15. We also have observed an adoption trend by scientists (See bar chart below) and from big tech giants such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook to utilize semantic technologies for data integration, data interoperability and semantic data search.

Ontology adoption trend in Big Data Application

(Trend generated through the web of knowledge application by Clarivate Analytics)

For instance, Google introduced knowledge graph in 2012 by semantically exposing a subset of Google knowledge base through the linked data. Linked data is a widely used semantic web format with its applications in various scientific disciplines 16, 17, 18. It utilizes the Web to connect related data that was not previously linked. The Google knowledge graph19 contains over 0.5 billion concepts along with 18 facts which are arranged semantically that help software understand the meaning of the user queries. When data itself is intelligent, even less computation hungry search algorithms are able to fetch the related information. However, applying intelligent algorithms on top of semantic data produce invariably precise results19. This is the case with Google knowledge graph. The result of a Knowledge Graph search is not only relevant information far more accurate than what you would find with traditional searches, but also related and extended information. For example, if you search for the title of an action movie, the results will include similar movies. Likewise, searching for a particular inventor will show further inventors with similar inventions and awards. Although several applications using semantic technologies and natural language processing are in amalgamation to answer questions in natural language have been developed, however, a majority of them operate with smaller datasets20,21. Facebook introduced a semantic search engine with a natural language querying interface22. The Facebook Open Graph protocol enhances any web page by enriching with ontologies and employing them back to be part of its a social graph. It further allows users to ask questions in natural language to get answers in the most intuitive way possible. Facebook Graph Search23 works with Big Data acquired from over one billion users and external data into a search engine to provide advanced, accurate, and user-specific search results. Other well-known applications include semantic similarity, complex name-entity recognition, question answering, ontology alignment, and word sense disambiguation24. In near future, Knowledge-based systems are expected to play a vital role for machines to better understand real-world data. For examples, machines will be able to better predict the occurrence of certain diseases by understanding various implicit and explicit risk factors mentioned in clinical narratives25. For applications to process complex multimodal big data, knowledge-based approaches are particularly useful when a) large-scale hand-labeled data required for unsupervised machine learning techniques is not available26, b) the input unstructured text to be recognized is complex for traditional information extraction applications due to presence of complex/compound entities, implicit entities, and subjectivity (emotions, intention) , c) applications require integration and extraction of information from multimodal data24.

Despite having clear advantages over conventional technologies, it took several years for semantic technologies to win its wider acceptance in scientific community. Within the current semantic web landscape, several ontology repositories are available: NCBO BioPortal27, EMBL OLS28 and some with quality guidelines such as OBO foundry29. Improved semantic mapping (annotations) and recommendations tools 30 are available and new lightweight formats have emerged, e.g., JSON-LD 31 that promise to preserve semantics at certain level. Moreover, with the popularity of graph data several NoSQL engine, triple-stores and graph databases extended their support to incorporate linked big data such as StarDog32, Allegrograph33, Virtuoso34. Querying language SPARQL 1.135. Interfaces and accessing protocols recently have started supporting for distributed processing. Steep learning curve, the proliferation of non-standard resources, scarcity of specialized researchers are the few reasons preventing the wider adoption of the semantic web for Big data. Other technical challenges for the wider adoption of the semantic web for Big data include reasoning over large scale data and performance optimization of semantic data-driven systems 36. With that, the new trends such as FAIR data37 and Blockchain37 technologies make the overall big data and semantic web landscape interesting and challenging at the same time. Next few years are critical as technology will recalibrate the fate of scientists. We might drown in a data tsunami or enter a knowledge utopia!


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Dr. Syed Ahmad Chan Bukhari is a semantic data scientist, a tech consultant and an entrepreneur. He received his PhD in computer science from University of New Brunswick, Canada. He is currently working as postdoc associate at Yale University, School of Medicine and at National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) under scientific visitor’s program. At Yale, he is working as part of two NIH-funded consortia, the Center for Expanded Data Annotation and Retrieval (CEDAR, http://metadatacenter.org) and the Human Immunology Project Consortium (HIPC, http://www.immuneprofiling.org). Dr. Bukhari specific research efforts are concentrated on several core problems from the area of semantic data management. On the standards side, his focus is on the development of metadata and data standards development, and improving data submission and reuse through the development of methods that leverage ontologies and semantic web technologies. As part of the AIRR community (AIRR,http://airr.irmacs.sfu.ca) data standards working group, Dr. Bukhari with his colleagues have introduced an initial set of  ontology-aware metadata recommendations for publishing AIRR sequencing studies. On the application side, his research aims are providing non-technical users with scalable self-service access to data, typically distributed and heterogeneous. Semantic technologies, based on semantic data standards and automated reasoning, alleviate many data access-related challenges faced by biologists and clinicians, such as data fragmentation, necessity to combine data with computation and declarative knowledge in querying, and the difficulty of accessing data for non-technical users. As an entrepreneur, Dr. Bukhari and his team is working on the development of a collaborative annotation toolkit for radiologist. His startup scaai labs (http://scaailabs.com) was in top-ten innovators list of 2015 contest at sillicon valley (http://www.globaltechsymposium.com/innovators.html). His research and entrepreneurial work has  been picked by the CBC Canada, PakWired, and UNB News.

Ali Kashif Bashir (M’15, SM’16) is working as an Associate Professor in Faculty of Science and Technology, University of the Faroe Islands, Faroe Islands, Denmark. He received his Ph.D. degree in computer science and engineering from Korea University, South Korea. In the past, he held appointments with Osaka University, Japan; Nara National College of Technology, Japan; the National Fusion Research Institute, South Korea; Southern Power Company Ltd., South Korea, and the Seoul Metropolitan Government, South Korea. He is also attached to Advanced Network Architecture Lab as a joint researcher. He is supervising/co-supervising several graduate (MS and PhD) students. His research interests include: cloud computing, NFV/SDN, network virtualization, network security, IoT, computer networks, RFID, sensor networks, wireless networks, and distributed computing. He is serving as the Editor-in-chief of the IEEE INTERNET TECHNOLOGY POLICY NEWSLETTER and the IEEE FUTURE DIRECTIONS NEWSLETTER. He is an Editorial Board Member of journals, such as the IEEE ACCESS, the Journal of Sensor Networks, and the Data Communications. He has also served/serving as guest editor on several special issues in journals of IEEE, Elsevier, and Springer. He is actively involved in organizing workshops and conferences. He has chaired several conference sessions, gave several invited and keynote talks, and reviewed the technology leading articles for journals, such as the IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON INDUSTRIAL INFORMATICS, the IEEE Communication Magazine, the IEEE COMMUNICATION LETTERS, IEEE Internet of Things, and the IEICE Journals, and conferences, such as the IEEE Infocom, the IEEE ICC, the IEEE Globecom, and the IEEE Cloud of Things.

Khalid Mahmood Malik, PhD received his PhD from Tokyo Institute of Technology in 2010. Currently, he is as an assistant professor at School of Engineering and Computer Science, Oakland University, Rochester, MI, USA since 2014. Before joining Oakland University, he worked at Sanyo Electric Co. Japan and DTS Inc. Japan as visiting researcher and project manager semantic research group respectively.  His research interests broadly include distributed computing, semantic web, and information security. His research thrusts include algorithm design and analysis for precision medicine-based intelligent healthcare clinical decision support system, medical image analytics, ontology-based information extraction from clinical corpus, automated ontology generation framework, and multicast cryptographic systems.


Dr. Saman Iftikhar received her M.S and Ph.D. degrees in Information Technology in 2008 and 2014, respectively, from National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST), Islamabad, Pakistan. Currently she is serving Prince Mugrin University as an Assistant Professor in Medinah, Saudi Arabia. Her research interests include information security, cybersecurity, distributed computing, machine learning, data mining and semantic web. On her credit, ten research papers have been published in various reputed journals. Nine research papers have been presented in prestigious conferences in Pakistan, Dubai, Japan, Malaysia and America. One book chapter is also included in her publications. She is also a member of IEEE, IEEE WIE, IEEE IAS, IEEE Computer Society and IEEE Communication Society. She was also with “IEEE Academic Pakistan” initiative as a Speaker and Coordinator.