Keep Your Eye on Radar Networks

Radar Networks LogoI’ve been following the news and rumors on Radar Networks for a few years now, a company that’s about to unveil a new semantic web application. What originally brought it to my attention was the fact that my brother was the chief architect of the underlying system during its conception, and is now on the board of advisors. But it’s not blood relation that’s perpetuating my interest; it’s the potential revolutionary nature of the product they’re about to release. As we get closer to their beta, the shroud of secrecy is gradually being lifted.

Nova SpivackRadar Networks is a company working on the next step in semantic web technologies for the general public, and what brief descriptions of the system that have been revealed sound very exciting. A recent Business 2.0 article contains the most vivid and revealing description of their application as of yet, as told by Nova Spivack, CEO and founder of Radar Networks:

The first consumer app Radar plans to launch is a sort of personal data organizer. It will allow you to bring in e-mail, contacts, photos, video, music –anything digital, really — from anywhere on the Web, turn it into RDF, and access it in one place.

Semantic tags are added manually, or automatically if the item is a photo from Flickr or a video from YouTube. “We add a new level of order to connect and interact with these things at a higher level than is possible today,” Spivack says. “We are letting you build a little semantic Web for your project, your group, or your interest.”

Sounds dreamy. A new information layer to merge several online applications into one. Not only that, but in such a way that it allows computers to understand data, make suggestions, intelligently assist me get organized. Most have heard the term “semantic web” in relation to Web 3.0 buzz. Wikipedia’s first paragraph describes it as follows:

The semantic web is an evolving extension of the World Wide Web in which web content can be expressed not only in natural language, but also in a form that can be read and used by software agents, thus permitting them to find, share and integrate information more easily.

To explain further, todays web is populated by data that’s easy for humans to read but computers have a difficulty interpreting. For example, an online search for “blue velvet” can bring up results for the fabric as well as information on David Lynch’s movie. There’s no information associated with the keywords that allows the computer to easily discern the two.

A solution to this problem is a semantic web: providing machine-processable tags for data with a markup language (like RDF) and an ontology that describes what things in the world are, and how they are related. In an ontology, the movie Blue Velvet could, for example, be defined as a type of “Film“, and this specific instance of Film have an associated “Director” type. On top of such framework, we can build AI applications to enable more precise and intelligent search methods; and a web that understands that questions such as “Who directed Blue Velvet?” refer to a film, not a fabric.

The Web 2.0 wave popularized some services to tag data. Flickr and Technorati tags are a step in the right direction, but they’re not quite there yet. There are no semantics in modern tags: Even though an article about me, for example, is tagged with the keywords “Hrafn Thorisson” — the services don’t know that this is a name of a person, and that a person is a type of human, and that human is a type of animal. It’s just a keyword, a category.

The B2.0 article continues with Spivack giving a brief demonstration of the system:

To illustrate, Spivack flips open his computer and pulls up his own Radar-enabled page. On it are groups of people he knows and interests he’s pursuing, including the space industry, alternative energy, physics, Internet-related technology, and skiing. In each of these categories are objects that Spivack has collected and tagged or, if it is a topic that has multiple people included, that they have collected and tagged.

In the skiing topic, for example, Spivack has posed a question: Where should we go skiing? One of the responses is Alta, Utah. When Spivack clicks on that item, the Radar engine goes out and finds all the things in the Radar Networks database related to Alta. It “knows” that Alta, in this case, refers to a place (as opposed to the Spanish word for “high”), so there are hotel suggestions. There are also photos, videos, trail maps, and comments from people in his group who have skied there before.

Kristinn R. ThorissonA social network combined with a personal central hub for your information online, data cocooned in a layer of meaning processable by computers. Sounds like something I’d sign up for. I’m excited to see more details on how you manually tag things. I’ve been testing the beta of Freebase for some time now [a semantic, free database], and they have a really great auto-fill feature that makes tagging remarkably easy (Freebase is material for a whole new entry). My brother Kris is, as all involved, sworn to secrecy regarding RN, but I’ve sometimes spotted a glee of excitement in his eyes when I mention it. Bodes well!

Of course, that leaves me with about as much information on RN as the other promising soon-to-be-released products out there, and we must wait for launch for the ultimate verdict on its value. Nonetheless, if you’ve grown skeptical regarding killer apps that fail to live up to their promise, or buzz about Web 3.0 technologies that aren’t there — Radar Networks should steam up the old feeling of excitement. Especially considering that they’re staffed by individuals with very impressive backgrounds, and the company itself is running on almost $10 million USD in venture funding.

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