How The Semantic Web Can Boost Africa's Fortunes

In recent years we've seen Facebook go public with a $100 billion valuation and General Motors, formerly the world’s biggest company, go effectively bankrupt and need to be bailed out. And hot digital properties like Instagram , SnapChat and WhatsApp have built communities of millions of people in a very short period with very lean resources.

Amazing isn’t it?

We are now witnessing the complete transformation of business models that we knew. Value chains are now being subsumed by value networks.

Facebook produces no content. Uber, the taxi replacement service, with a valuation of $50 billion has no cars. Alibaba, an ecommerce outfit, with a valuation of $167 billion has no inventory. Airbnb, the room and accommodation rental service has a valuation of $10 billion but owns no rooms and its worth more than Hyatt Hotels or Wyndham Worldwide. These companies represent a new trend in business models that have given them huge valuations, profitability, faster growth and higher return on assets.

What do all these companies have in common?

Data.

The web is currently evolving from its present Web 2.0 (#web20) status into Web 3.0 (#web30) which has the Semantic Web (#SemanticWeb) as a component of it.

The Semantic Web was predicted over 10 years ago but it is now finally coming to reality. This evolution will be more disruptive than the first web or Web 1.0 (#web10). Its disruption will be felt in every aspect of our society namely business, medicine, education, agriculture, media, etc.

It will threaten or destroy some of today’s seemingly all ­powerful technology giants or behemoths like IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Yahoo, and Google if they adapt slowly or unsuccessfully. And it will create new leaders and inventions that are barely on the radar now.

There is a name for this phenomenon: Creative Destruction (#CreativeDestruction), and this is happening because the Semantic Economy where organisations drive and leverage value networks instead of value chains is about to explode.

Africa 3.0

Imagine an Africa where every bit of data or information is directly linked to its meaning where user queries or enquiries generate answers, not results, and a knowledge base that gives everyone an equal ability to make decisions or create information products that yield revenue or wealth based on its value to end users.

Imagine an Africa where every citizen tailors services they need to their requirements, acts as sensors, give feedback, interact with the professionals that deliver them and put they, the citizens and not public servants in control.

Imagine an Africa where every government can use reliable data to make economic policies that will turn the fortunes of its citizens and the environment.

Imagine an Africa where organizations’ competitive advantage is achieved mostly by creating information that can be used in a variety of different ways.

Creative Destruction is what happens when innovative companies, innovation or breakthrough technologies revolutionize and dominate industries and then have exactly the same thing done to them.

A classic example: Microsoft and Intel, destroyed many mainframe computer companies; but in the process, entrepreneurs created one of the most important inventions of this century.

That is what the Semantic Web and the Semantic Economy can do for Africa when fully embraced and exploited.

What is Web 3.0?

Also known as the “Web of Data”, an interconnected, distributed, global data space, Web 3.0 enables people to share structured data on the Web as easily as they can currently share documents on the Web.

The availability of this global data space creates new opportunities for the exploitation of Artificial Intelligence techniques in relation with knowledge representation, information extraction, data mining, information integration, and intelligent agents.

Today’s web is centered on documents and data silos. Its benefits have been enormous and made it possible for everyone to have access to information and being able to communicate with one another in a way that previous generations couldn’t dream of. But it also came with a problem which was that it was designed for humans only and was difficult for machines (computers, apps, bots, agents, software, etc) to understand.

Previously, machines used algorithms to tear down these documents so as to understand them but it never really worked. It became inefficient and was a "hit and miss thing".

To solve this challenge, a machine friendly version needed be created alongside the human friendly web pages. This version would be in form of data using an approach called Linked Data (#LinkedData). With this approach, we can now easily free the data embedded in web pages.

The Semantic Web is about having data that can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone or “Open Data” on the Web defined and linked (Linked Open Data) in a way that it can be understood and used by machines not just for display purposes for humans, but for automation, integration, and reuse across various applications through a language for semantically enhanced structured data representation known as RDF (Resource Description Framework).

With this, humans and machine can browse in harmony, fetching what they need, traversing links. Just as it hosts trillions of human-readable web pages, Linked Data allows the web to host data on any scale, each piece uniquely identified. This has also made machines are as welcome on the open web as humans.

The Semantic Web lives on top of the existing Web by including machine ­readable information in files without modifying the existing Web structure.

It builds on the web’s foundation key components: URIs (identifiers that start with http:// and uniquely locate things), HTML (format for web pages) and security (HTTPS & SSL).

Why Is The Semantic Web Important?

Semantic Web has a way of describing things.

This “descriptive framework” enables us to link data between entities that allows for rich self describing of interrelations of data on the web in a format that computers can readily interpret and relate to other complex entities (#LinkedData). The format, reference language and structure enable brand new relationships between datasets that previously didn’t exist.

It is a shift from publishing in human readable HTML format to machine readable formats thereby making it possible for machines to work and think on our behalf.

Presently, raw HTML text and images contain meta­information that is readily understandable by humans, but has little or no meaning to machines.

For instance, popular search engines can help you locate files containing specific words, but this content may not actually be what you're looking for.

The word “Benin” could mean a country, a city, a river, etc. Human language can efficiently operate when using the same term to mean somewhat different things, but computers does not. For computers to comprehend, the Semantic Web will overturn its old ways of organizing information and create a Web based on the relationships of people, places and “things” or entities as they exist in the real world.

To sum it up, properly structured data will be the web of the future. This web will be built on a framework that ‘understands’ the data contained within it in a deeper way. It will use logic and reasoning to pull data and serve information to users.

What Technologies Are Essential To Develop Semantic Content?

The most important technology for developing the Semantic Web is the Resource Description Framework (RDF) which is a language used to create machine­understandable representations of data resources on the Web in a natural language.

RDF

In RDF, a document makes assertions that particular things have properties (such as "is a brother of," "is the CEO of", “is a kind of tea”) with certain values. This structure turns out to be a natural way to describe the majority of data processed by machines.

How Does The Semantic Web Relate To Artificial Intelligence?

The Semantic Web is about connecting pieces of data, information, knowledge on the web, putting it in a massive graph database called Linked Open Data (LOD) cloud that can be read and understood by machines.

LOD

Currently, most Web pages are designed to be read by humans only but because linked, graph­based data is machine­readable, computers will be able to answer increasingly sophisticated questions for us — to interpret the meaning of information, understand context, infer meaning and do reasoning on a mass scale thereby making computers to think and to understand human queries, then find and combine exactly the information we humans need to make ever­smarter decisions.

This will help make people’s lives easier on a daily basis.

Utilizing semantic search, machines will be able to present consumers with predictive results through sentiment analysis. This can give consumers access to information that they didn’t even know they wanted or weren’t aware of.

For example, let’s say you want to eat Italian but you cannot remember the name of the restaurant you ate at was 33rd or 3rd. Semantic search could out-think your own memory and find it. Other examples are even more disruptive.

That means your refrigerator will understand when it’s running low on a specific item or will be able to tell you what you can make based on the items in your fridge.

If it sees you’re missing milk, it could place the order for you and have it delivered.

Artificial Intelligence through 'intelligent agents' can also be used as personal assistants. The Semantic Web structures the meaningful content of web pages and creates an environment in which these agents, wandering from web page to web page, can carry out complex tasks for users in a relatively independent way.

Intelligent agents are small software programmes that scour the internet to find information that meets the instructions of the users. Agents will enable people to spend less time on searching for information, and more time on using or analysing 'relevant' information that it comes up with.

How Africa Should Embrace Semantic Web Or Enable The Semantic Economy?

Here are some of the ways Africa should exploit Semantic Web technology.

No Data Silos

Africa should desist from data silo strategy that we see in the big technology companies.

Data silos are the product of Database Hugging Disorder (DBHD).

Instead, Africa should opt for connected intelligence by embracing Linked Open Data, Crowdsourcing and innovation, making data (market prices, information about crops, farming techniques, etc) available to everyone so that they can generate new kinds of ideas or data, and build new information applications thereby creating new more possibilities for everyone.

Also hidden amid all of these data is the key to knowledge essential for the growth of Africa including how to cure diseases, improve food production, create new products, make more money and govern Africa more effectively and efficiently.

Ethics

Africa must create institutions ensuring that these technologies will be used in a beneficial, ethical, and responsible way.

This will unleash much bigger social and economic benefits.

Startups

Startups in Africa should be thinking of embracing Web 3.0 especially the Semantic Web so as to become “SmartUps” or smarter and end up being among those that will reap from the coming Semantic Web explosion.

This, with crowd-sourcing and Open Government Data we can rapidly eradicate the curse of oil (or natural resources) and all its myopia.

"Data is the new electricity." - Kingsley Uyi Idehen

Government Adoption

African governments should restructure to adopt a lean startup and smartup culture and mentality when embracing Semantic Web, Linked Data and digital Innovation.

Policy

African policy makers need to embrace “Smart Regulation” so as not to kill innovation especially in agriculture, health and finance.

Big Data

Organizations in Africa should embrace Big Data because it has the fuel for innovation and disruption.

Internet of Things

If possible, organizations should fully exploit the Internet of Things.

Openness

Organizations in Africa should embrace “openness” and strategically exploit co-creation with competitors and consumers so as to be more innovative.

Competitive advantage is conferred on those who can create new informational value for the entire network.

Expected Disruptions and Value Propositions

Semantic web is already taking shape globally and we can see how it could be valuable to Africa. The old economy based on scale is gradually being replaced by a semantic economy, where information flows freely across once impermeable boundaries of firm and industry resulting in openness via collaborative networks which include partners, start-ups and consumers creating values over open innovation.

The following are some of the ways we think the Semantic Web will be beneficial to Africa.

Drug Research

“Information is the lifeblood of modern medicine, [and] health information technology is destined to be its circulatory system” - David Blumenthal

Researchers now know that in most cases no single lab, library or data repository contains all the information necessary to create or discover new drugs. Rather, the information needed to understand the complex interactions between diseases, biological processes and the vast array of chemical agents is spread across disparate databases and documents.

Therefore the most exciting discoveries will come from the serendipitous combination and integration of data drawn from diverse sources.

Semantic Web technology will definitely aid speedier discovery of drug due to its de-silofication nature that enables data being linked, shared and reused under more flexible licensing models that allow strategic value to be created through the combination of one’s intellectual property with that of others.

Open Data

The technological breakthroughs of the18th and 19th centuries helped shaped the industrial revolution that changed the socioeconomic and cultural landscape of our society. The technology created during this era changed nearly every aspect of life.

Now we are in another industrial revolution but this time it is powered by data. Like the previous revolution, the concepts are the same. Data is helping to develop new markets, business and improving our standard of living, just like the technological advancements of the industrial revolution. Globally, governments have recognized that by opening their data sets, and creating a platform for innovation, business can create new services to improve their economic standing, and gain a competitive advantage.
Data is changing how businesses operate.

Data is driving improved productivity and efficiency, reducing costs and overhead for organizations. Private and public sector organizations alike, leaders are challenged to unlock insights from data to drive organizational change.

Recent studies have shown that wealth of a nation is strongly correlated with their level of openness of data. The wealthiest nations in the world are the ones more willing to open their data.
African governments need to adopt and embrace Open Data policies.

E-commerce

Ecommerce is one of the main reasons for the tremendous growth of the web, if not the most crucial one. Presently, only humans are able to understand product information published online. The development of this Web-based business can be deemed one of the driving forces behind the remarkable growth of the global economy in recent times as it has opened new areas of financial activity unimaginable before.

Over 400 million searches are conducted daily on the web by people trying to find what they need or desire. Most of these searches are in the domain of consumer ecommerce, where a Web user is looking for something to buy. This represents a huge cost in terms of people hours and an enormous drain of resources.

Semantic Web Technologies enable machines to interpret data published in a machine-interpretable form on the web. Presently, only humans are able to understand product information published online. Imagine the consequence if product information is made in machine-interpretable form, this will deeply influence the further development of the Internet Economy, Internet GDP (iGDP) or the Semantic Economy.

“Intelligent Agent” enabled semantic search will still have a dramatic impact on the precision of these searches. It will reduce and possibly eliminate information asymmetry where a better informed buyer gets the best value. This alone can make the Semantic Web disrupt or evolve new business and economic models that will create more values.

Big Data

"Data is arguably the most important natural resource of this century," – Michael Dell

The closed silos of relational databases that have dominated the last 50 years or more will no longer exist. Instead, data will be open, linked, free­flowing and accessible to anyone and everyone. It will now be possible for machines to find information currently difficult or impossible to find as well as connect and communicate with that information.

With the World Wide Web being a content management system, and combined with the Semantic Web technology will create analytical engines of almost unimaginable power with clever algorithmic techniques. And this can be consumed in any sector or verticals of the economy and even in niche areas like bioinformatics.

Our ability to process data has increased exponentially. The combination of accelerating returns in technology and rapidly improving algorithmic approaches has made it possible to analyze incredible amounts of information at blazing speed.

Organizations who adopt a data driven approach can achieve scale without mass by implementing the results of data analytics instantly across the enterprise.

Internet of Things

Think of Africa where everything–buses, farming tools, parking spots, refrigerators, water pumps, bridge structures, lighting, cooking stoves, livestock, your home electronics–has embedded sensors that can send and receive information via the Internet. Whatever you call it, it’s happening, and its potential is huge.

IoT requires a semantic backbone to work. Connecting 25 or 50 billion different devices that are interoperable can only happen when those devices can browse, connect and communicate with the Web like humans do. It becomes even more important when in about a decade or so we will reach a trillion sensors that are connected to the web.

Today, low cost-low power sensors are enabling us to collect data directly from physical objects in real time which we can use to improve our services, products or businesses. These data can also be fed into algorithms designed to recognize patterns or machines which can then identify further opportunities, such as predicting what consumers will buy through the analysis of sales data.

Conclusion

The new business possibilities will be endless, and endlessly exciting, as the Semantic Economy takes over. That’s because the “creative” part of Creative Destruction is a powerful economic force for making societies wealthier.

Competitive advantage will be conferred on those who create new informational value for the entire network in Africa but unfortunately data, the fundamental building block of any fully functional information age, remains disconnected from our business models.

The good news is that all of the essential tools, resource and infrastructure required to launch the knowledge economy exist today.

African companies can simply be very profitable by making the flow of information within and between businesses more efficient.
Computers that understand speech and think fast like IBM’s Watson computer will anticipate and find the answers to questions we haven’t even thought to ask yet. That is what we call artificial intelligence and it works. Google is maybe the most tangible proof.

Ask any question and Google will answer.

To sum it up, Web 3.0 is about the web being more connected, open, and intelligent, with semantic Web technologies, distributed databases, natural language processing, machine learning, machine reasoning, and intelligent agents.

Cover Image: Data Represented in an Interactive 3-D Form | Idaho National Laboratory

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