Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Eric Little presents at San Diego Semantic Web Meetup

Just returned from my first Semantic Web Meetup in San Diego, here are some impressions:

In comparison to the Vancouver SW meetups that I have attended
    1. Quite a different crowd. Larger group, zero t-shirts, generally older,
      stronger industry representation, heavily weighted towards biomedical
      folks - even an actual surgeon in attendance.
    2. As with everything in Southern California, it involved a fairly long drive.
    3. If I was a small fish in Vancouver, I'm a microbe here.
    A few bullets from the (very good) talk
    1. The presenter, Eric Little, did his PhD with Barry Smith (in formal biomedical ontology) and came from a background in philosophy. He is now the chief knowledge engineer at CTG - a fairly large (revenue in the 100's of millions) Information Technology and Consulting company.
    2. He talked for a while about how ontologies should provide "actionable intelligence" and gave some nice stories about the benefits gained when links are formed across semantic groups - for example, they created a diagnosis ontology by linking the disease ontology to the LOINC (logical observations, identifiers, names, and codes). Kind of the same old story here, but good examples.
    3. He then got to the meat of the talk (according to the abstract), which was about their MedMap application. He, correctly IMHO, pointed out that pretty much every attempt at an interface for dealing with large ontologies more or less sucks. No offense... He then proceeded to claim that their solution in the MedMap application was much better. The comparison to things like Protege and Concept Map builders was a bit unfair as the MedMap application is targeted towards end users rather than ontology engineers but, I can't say I disagree with the picture he painted.
    4. The MedMap application is a very nifty widget-based approach built using Adobe Flex on the top and with combination of Top Quadrant products underneath (notably SPARQLMotion). It looks a lot like the iGoogle interface, with a user-customizable collection of what he called "analysis portlets". Each of the portlets has a dedicated task, but they all sit on top of the same massive knowledge base. The examples he gave were clinical - for example, he showed one scenario where patients were being automatically classified into different risk groups with a nice little graphical representation of the different classes; however, the technology and many of the interface modules are clearly fairly general purpose. He mentioned that they are in fact working in quite different domains such as the petroleum industry.
    5. To get your own MedMap-like solution for your problem, starting rates are on the order of $300-400,000 for about a 3 month long push for a first usable product. They are after big fish like the health insurance industry.
    6. His opinion was that the only companies that are likely to be interested in buying semantic IT solutions are those that a) have a lot of money, b) are more forward-thinking than average, and c) have already tried other approaches (e.g. relational databases) and watched them fail.
    Personal notes/reactions
    1. The sheer slickness of that Flex interface still has me all in a quiver.. It makes me want to delete everything we have been doing on my current attempt at a semantic application (I am now embarrassed to put in the link) and start over - or perhaps it is just time to concede that its impossible to build Ferraris like I what just saw without employing a staff of people that know what they are doing.
    2. It was cool to reconnect with Barbara Starr, my former supervisor at SAIC - which was prior to my MSc, my foray into bioinformatics, and my PhD! Grey hairs...
    3. It was also very cool that she is about to start working on an application of the GoodRelations ontology by Martin Hepp. I am proud to say that Martin sent me unsolicited positive feedback about my first research project in grad school several years ago. He concurred with my claim that ontology development/maintenance practices were too expensive given typical knowledge engineering practices and that techniques that tapped into the collective knowledge of the web (a la 2.0) were the way to go. (Note that this contention is in stark contrast to the ontologies of "reality" from Barry Smith.)
    All in all a very good meeting and I am very much looking forward to the next one.