Turns out that supply chains need the Semantic Web, too. The iCargo project, co-funded by the 7th Framework Programme of the European Commission, was formally launched last year to help make global logistics across multiple modes of transport more sustainable, both in terms of lowered costs and greater energy efficiency.

The project is composed of multiple components, including technical tasks where semantic interoperability plays a key role in the goal of developing an open information architecture that lets real-world objects, existing systems and new apps to better cooperate with each other. Things have progressed to the point where the semantic capabilities it’s developed are to be included in prototypes debuting in May.

“Enabling interoperable supply chains could provide us better intermodal door-to-door services, and semantic technologies will provide the interoperability between services,” says Germán Herrero Cárcel, head of sector, Full Electric Vehicle & Supply Chain Sector, MRS Market, Research & Innovation at international IT services company Atos, which is coordinating the iCargo consortium of 29 organizations with experience in the field of logistics, supply chain management and ICT.

That’s particularly useful in inter-modal logistics scenarios, where cargo travels by different means across its routes. “This project is aligned with the European 2020 strategy that sets specific goals for energy efficiency, and carbon traffic management, and economic growth requiring that the transportation infrastructure be more effective.”

Among the developments is the Goods platform for semantic business services descriptions. “Internally it uses an ontology that has been implemented in parallel with iCargo and another European project called Cassandra,” which is about improving visibility in a supply chain for risk management,” explains Jose Gato Luis, technical coordinator in the Research & Innovation department in Atos Spain. “So in both cases we need a specific ontology for logistics, and both projects will take advantage of the ontology in the Goods platform.” The iCargo ontology is developed to semantically support descriptions in a multi-layer service provider logistics profile that includes interactions, like a transport booking status report; business transactions, like a booking phase; and business activities like trans-shipment. End-user logistics experts will be able to describe their activities through a simplified web forms user interface, though – no semantic tech background is required to leverage the platform.

Another example of how semantic tech will be in action at iCargo is a semantic distributed registry, where different entities – a business service description, a physical box, and so on – are registered and semantically annotated to help with collaboration and interoperability events between themselves and other entities participating in a supply chain.

“The entity provides its own interfaces, services or information, and then we also include a mechanism to communicate these entities based on events,” says Gato. So the idea, he says, is to have an infrastructure where, for example, an entity like a truck with a GPS provides interfaces to support queries about its position; then, for instance, it will provide tools or apps to facilitate relations between the truck entity and the boxes inside the truck to support other applications being worked on in the iCargo project, like re-planning routes or deliveries.

So, it could be determined that, if the truck’s GPS location indicates it’s behind where it should be, that the boxes inside that truck are also running late, to kick off alternatives to help drive an on-time delivery. “The idea is that you should be able to create more automatic applications to do those kinds of things thanks to these entities, the interoperability with semantics – if you are going to be late, for example, using Goods for business services description you can find other alternatives,” he says.

Because there are so many small- and medium-size enterprises in the logistics domain in Europe, iCargo has to pay attention to providing its capabilities using ICT tools that won’t impose high costs, says Herrero. Indeed, the iCargo project also is providing flexibility to supply chain players, who can collaborate directly using the tools it’s developing, or they could use their own systems with the help of a semantic gateway – a set of semantic tools to make translations between iCargo’s semantic model and their legacy systems like relational databases. “We think that maybe to use the semantic gateway is a first step to be more quickly integrated without making too many changes in your system,” says Gato. “But the ideal world it’s better ultimately that you create or adapt your system in order to, for example, describe business services using Goods or register your entities in the entity registry.”