A Mobile Web That Knows All About You
By Mark Frauenfelder, Wed Nov 03 07:00:00 GMT 2004

The problem with smart phones and personal digital assistants is that, without the necessary contextual information, they can't be smart or personal. That's where the Semantic Web comes in.


Tim Berners-Lee wants to change the world again. When he invented the World Wide Web over a decade ago, he gave computers the ability to easily and instantaneously exchange documents. As we now realize, the effects of this seemingly simple idea have been astounding. Now Berners-Lee is going a level deeper by giving computers the ability to exchange data. That may not sound like much of a difference, but the implications could be as revolutionary as the Web itself was.

Berners-Lee, who heads up the World Wide Web Consortium in Cambridge, Massachusetts, calls his idea the Semantic Web. It's a set of standards and protocols designed to make the data on the Web not only machine-readable, but also machine-understandable. For instance, consider the way today's comparison shopping agents work. They're designed to crawl through various online sites and pull price information from the product listings and present the compiled results to the user. The crawling software has to be hand-tuned to extract the price information from each site. This process, known as "screen-scraping," is time consuming and brittle, because if a retailer changes the way its products are listed, the software breaks.

But in a semantically-enabled Web world, retailers will have the option of formatting the information on their sites with metadata (data about data) that would allow a Semantic Web agent to grab and process the data even if the site design changes.

Context is King
That just scratches the surface of what the Semantic Web can do. It will be especially useful as part of the mobile Internet. Today's mobile applications don't know anything about you, such as where you are, what you're doing, what you're looking for, where you want to go, or what you like and dislike. Sure, you might have some of that information written down somewhere on your mobile, but the applications can't do much with it. But the Semantic Web allows for the creation of nimble, context-aware agents that take action based on information that they continuously capture from users' data profiles and behaviors.

This kind of automation is especially useful in the mobile arena for two reasons. First, data input on mobiles is difficult and prone to errors. It's much easier to tap a button on an announcement for an upcoming event and have your agent fit it into your calendar than it is to enter it in by hand. Second, mobile devices are a very useful storage and communications medium for dealing with people's schedules, making them ideal platforms for software agents.

MyCampus, My Data
The most advanced mobile-based Semantic Web project is taking place at Carnegie Mellon University. Called MyCampus, the project is headed up by professor Norman Sadeh, director of the Mobile Commerce Lab at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science in Pittsburgh. MyCampus was specifically set up to develop context-aware mobile services for the university's community. The system runs on PDAs and across 700 WLAN access points located around the university, and it is used daily by 3,000 people to help them study, socialize, plan meals, attend events, shop, and engage in extracurricular activities.

MyCampus consists of several task-specific agents that automatically capture contextual information. Each MyCampus user has a database, called a "Semantic eWallet," which is a repository for users' personal information, such as class schedules, list of friends and classmates, and lifestyle and event preferences. Location data is generated using Pango's WiFi access-point triangulation. All the data is marked with Semantic metadata so that MyCampus agents can make use of it. User's can set access privileges to allow certain people to know where they are at any given moment, or what their schedule for the upcoming week is.

One of the most popular applications is the “restaurant concierge” agent, which recommends places based on a user's dining tastes, schedule, location, and weather conditions. If there's a storm brewing, the concierge will recommend a place that doesn't require stepping outside, and if the user has a study group meeting in 30 minutes, it'll suggest a fast food joint within a block or two.

Virtual Posters for Real Events
Recently, a group of students at CMU developed an application for MyCampus called InfoBridge, which lets users post and read "virtual posters" about upcoming events. For example, say a user has indicated that she likes track and field events. She’ll be notified about events as soon as another person makes a virtual poster about it, unless she’s sitting in class. If that’s the case, she won’t be notified until class is over. If she wants to attend the event, she clicks on a link and, because the data has been tagged with Semantic Web metadata, it’ll be added it to her calendar. If there’s a scheduling conflict, it’ll notify her and present her with options. All this data exchange is done with agents -- no human screen scraping.

MyCampus offers a taste of the Semantic Web that's coming down the pipeline for mobile users everywhere. I'm interested in hearing what members of TheFeature community think about the Semantic Web and how important its role will be in the mobile Internet.