At the recent SemTech Berlin conference, husband-and-wife team Michael Trevor McDonald and Kim Chandler McDonald, CTO and Executive VP, respectively, of KimmiC, led a session that discussed a marriage of a different sort: that between the Semantic Web and the user interface.  The session was described as providing the audience insight into the benefits of the semantic web, given that so much of the world’s economic brain/ecosystem is tied up in the relationships between companies, consumers and suppliers – an interaction between systems and people that is a real-life ‘Matrix’ whose ubiquity is hampered by the lack of a common way of talking about things such that they can be utilized and shared simply, and in a confidential, secure, and vendor-neutral manner.

The Semantic Web Blog had an opportunity to have an email discussion with the Australian-based minds behind KimmiC, and its FlatWorld cloud-based technology for enabling the global, digital economy, to learn more about the SemWeb/UI marriage.

Semantic Web Blog: Help us better understand this idea of The Matrix in the context described – considering the movie, is that a positive analogy and what does the Semantic Web have to do with it?

Michael: I think we can use the analogy pretty well as is. What we have seen in the market is essentially a few large companies trying to subvert the intent of the web into a controlled matrix (controlled by them) that they can exploit – it is, in fact, the cornerstone of their business models.

We view that consumers, once they become more aware of it, will see themselves as a “knowledge/insight” commodity in that they a) control their information and b) control who, when and where (what part) companies/friends/family etc. have access to them – it is most probably the next big frontier.

Kim: In fact, I believe President Obama is just about to announce a consumer privacy ‘Bill of Rights,’ which looks to give web users more control over their data), which is a great start. It’s amazing to me… the current situation is not unlike allowing some random stranger to come into your house, rummage through your things, read your diary to find out what your likes and dislikes are, and then sell you items they think will appeal to you.

Michael: We need a way the users can create their own “knowledge/insight” matrix in a vendor-neutral way – rather than creating a new plethora of “protocols and standards” (yet another way to try and create an artificial monopoly). We see that there is already a standard that enables this outcome – primarily the Semantic Web standards.

Kim: Vendor neutrality is imperative, otherwise there will always be some sort of ‘wall’ between certain ‘things’ talking to — or playing well — with each other. I’ve always been adamant that I want to be able to communicate and collaborate with anything and anyone I want. Why should it be any different for technologies and processes? Just as a ‘side note’ if you will, re: the ‘Privacy Bill of Rights’… I think there will be many consequences to individuals taking back the ownership of their data, but one consequence in particular keeps coming to the forefront of my mind. I think that, though the matrix of social media companies and eCommerce businesses will continue to flourish, market forces will compel them to share revenue from profits they make using this data via monetary trusts — trusts perhaps set up by an organization like the United Nations, as part of its project to ensure Internet connectivity as a basic human right. This publicly-owned money could pay for things such as free, international, broadband connectivity.

Semantic Web Blog: So there’s much potential for business to service clients in an open and neutral way, but what are the challenges or problems in the Semantic Web and the user adoption marriage to get there — is it the technology itself, the user experience, or how they intertwine?

Michael: I think it is its origin – it came from academia and never tried to engage the business world – and in some respects it has tried to re-invent the whole world rather than focusing on what it’s good for, which is a vendor-neutral expression and association. I think semantic has its strengths – but without integration into the business technology stack, and a lot of ‘world on’ simplification, and relevance to the business and consumer world, it will pretty much stay where it is – yet another largely unknown standard that didn’t gain traction.

Kim:  I have to be honest and say that too often, the Semantic Web is explained in a manner which is far too complex, and frankly, dull. Most users — and lets face it, most people are users, not programmers — don’t want to have to listen to a lecture about how something works before they use it. They want to ‘Plug and Play.’ I don’t care how a car works, I just want to know it looks good and it gets me where I want to go. It’s the same thing with user adoption of the Semantic Web – too many Semantic Web designers think that it’s okay to expect me — the user — to be interested in how it works… and that has, to date, generally lead to a lousy user experience.

Michael: I’ve had twenty plus years in the corporate IT software space and have always looked for better ways to solve problems. My first contact with semantic information via the web, i.e. the website, was that it was extremely obtuse and difficult to comprehend when coming from a business software background. I persevered, but I’m sure the majority do not.

Semantic Web Blog: So take us to the altar and tell us about your FlatWorld technology, and how it tackles these issues.

Michael: In a nutshell, FlatWorld is a cloud-based combination of corporate-grade technology and processes that enables dynamic, secure collaboration, which brings people, processes and applications together more simply, securely and inexpensively than existing approaches. The Semantic Web is one of the technologies we use to do this. We utilize semantic standards, and we ‘play well’ from a standards point of view. It is designed to fit seamlessly into existing corporate environments, in particular, security environments.

As I noted in the first question, there is a need for a vendor-neutral way of talking about a ‘thing’ and how that ‘thing’ relates/links to other things. I don’t think that there is anything better than triples to describe this domain – and I think simple ontologies will also have their day – but all of this should be done transparently to the user. As Kim said, she doesn’t want to know how it works, as long as it works. With FlatWorld, we use the Semantic Web as part of the engine but not for how we talk with our user. I do think that this is one of the aspects that is missing in most semantic technology.

Kim : We often say, only half jokingly, that I am one of Michael’s greatest assets because he has to get the technology — in particular the U.I. (user interface) past me — if I don’t ‘get it’, then regular users won’t get it. And frankly, FlatWorld is made for regular users — that’s how technology becomes ubiquitous, by being simple. We’re not about Tier One, we’re about Tier None – the millions and millions of SMEs (small and mid-size enterprises) that deserve corporate-level capabilities, but can’t afford it either in time, or capital.

Michael: The other part is context-based security – most examples of Semantic Web usage I’ve seen are open linked data, data which is generally from one company. This in no way mirrors the business world, where security – who can see anything and everything, who can see what, how much of it, and for how long (i.e. the length of a joint venture contract, but no longer) – is essential for any business regardless of size. I think that semantics’ origins explain this gap, but it does not change the fact that it is missing.

The KimmiC/FlatWorld approach, since we come from the business world, is to enable a company’s existing authentication/authorization technology/process to be used to control who can see what (if anything) – but also appreciate that some entities may not be from the same company. Take for example an order form: what the customer, supplier, delivery company, accounts receivable etc. can, and should see, is different even though they are talking about the same information – the same form.

And the Cloud is about 24/7 access via whatever devise you have. The cloud is the best way of providing this level of service.

Semantic Web Blog: And, what does it mean to be a FlatWorld navigator?

Kim: I guess the first thing I should do is explain the origins of the Flat World Navigator (FWN), especially as my bio notes that I am the first person ‘branded’ as such. There is a series of five very short videos, ‘Are You Lost in the Flat World’ which explain the concept in a fairly full fashion, but to keep it short and sweet, I believe that a FWN is, in many ways, the modern equivalent of a well-connected salon hostess in 18th-century France. An FWN gathers like-minded, interested and interesting individuals together — generally to discuss/work on a common goal or theme. However, instead of a salon she has her flat world — the place she works in the digital economy, combining and leveraging both traditional and web-based networks to reach out, communicate and collaborate globally.

Michael: We’ve already seen the transformation that social networks are having on consumer power. I think that the same is happening, or at least starting to, on the business front…. Our focus is that people are looking for real information and they also want to see your behavior – the most democratized view of this is via the Web. For these reasons, the Flat World Navigator is absolutely critical and strategic to our goals. … It is an essential role. I think it’s the true evolution of sales and marketing though to R&D, embodied as an honest avatar of the company. It’s the real world conduit for a dialogue between the consumer and the supplier.

Semantic Web Blog: Can you discuss a little more about how your technology is particularly relevant to the business, government and healthcare sectors?

Kim: The difference between eHealth (electronic health) and meHealth is, to my mind, an individual’s responsibility to expect and demand that all healthcare stakeholders at the local, regional, national and international level work together to ensure that affordable, effective healthcare is available to one and all. The only feasible way for that to happen is using the empowering and enabling capabilities of Web 3.0 and Semantic Web technologies. However, noting that healthcare and health insurance costs are skyrocketing, it is, once again, imperative that these technologies are simple and inexpensive.

To be honest, the impetus to creating FlatWorld in the first place was the healthcare crisis; we wanted to enable the healthcare sector to operate as an effectively co-ordinated, interconnected, affordable, simple system. And frankly, it’s not just about saving money, it’s about saving lives.

It is much the same when you look at government and business — there just isn’t the fat in budgets to allow wastage (at best) and, frankly, fraud (at worst) to continue. What is necessary is a system which is simple, inexpensive and easily auditable. Again, using technologies, which include the Semantic Web, can enable this. The Semantic Web is great, but it can’t accomplish these things alone – that’s why it’s only a part of FlatWorld, it’s part of the ‘marriage’ of technologies that we use.

Semantic Web Blog: So regarding the marriage analogy, if I may: First, what leads you to believe this approach has the legs to see the marriage through to a “golden anniversary,” so to speak?

Michael: I think that the world needs to be included, not just the rich countries and the mythical “enterprise” customers. I think that IT has in some ways delivered well, for well-understood domains, but has generally failed to deliver in really embracing the human condition – and the fact that everything will most probably be able to be collaborated with – for example, the washing machine, electricity meter, etc. – the Internet of Things is upon us.

We have focused on this and leveraged technology that will enable simple, secure, ubiquitous access regardless of where or when you are – at a cost that generally get you into business for the cost of a few cups of coffee.

Semantic Web Blog: And if I may allude to another movie in addition to The Matrix: Is there a possible 7-Year Itch problem that companies could come up against in terms of feeling they’ve been trying semantic stuff and are not seeing the ROI they thought, so let’s look elsewhere.

Michael: I don’t think that semantics even got off the ground from my perspective, so there is no seven-year itch. I do think that semantic technology is brilliant as part of a solution – but it is not, nor will it ever be, the entire solution. History is littered with great ideas that never took off. That said, I do think that the KimmiC/FlatWorld vision is the one that will bring semantic technology to the front.

To me, noting the examples I’ve seen…. there is, as of yet, no ROI, because I haven’t seen an example yet that has a link to revenue or meaningful cost savings. Unless it’s playing in the mainstream of a business, ROI concepts are completely meaningless when talking about the Semantic Web.

Our vision is that semantics has a place in the main game, and we use it as such. However, our purpose is broader than just semantics, so in the ROI context of today, you get a return in days. FlatWorld has been developed to be as simple as possible (for both users and, if required, developers) to get a result, and inexpensive enough that it can be funded out of OPEX easily — i.e. no large CAPEX, change-the-world projects, just quick, focused ‘GSD’ projects – that are easily managed from both an implementation and risk mitigation perspective.