IBM becomes a tagger to improve searching

Big Blue's new search framework and the blogosphere

You can find Irving Wladawsky-Berger's fingerprints on most of IBM's key initiatives: on-demand, open source, Linux, autonomic, and grid computing. So when he launched his blog in May, I became a charter subscriber.

There are not many of us yet — not nearly as many as his thoughtful and informative posts should attract. Case in point: IBM's plan to open source its UIMA (Unstructured Information Management Architecture) SDK. Wladawsky-Berger's blog posting linked to every relevant item, including the software-download page, the press release, the blogosphere's analysis of the announcement, and — most crucially for me — an issue of the IBM Systems Journal devoted entirely to UIMA's architecture and applications.

The details are gnarly, but the general plan will look familiar to anyone who's thinking in terms of service-oriented architecture. The UIMA software provides a framework for coordinating many different text analysers. Each runs as a service that consumes and produces data in common formats. Applications are composed by declaratively combining sets of analysers.

Using a potpourri of technologies, these analysers pore through unstructured text looking for named entities (people, places, companies, or products, for example) and relationships among them. Then the analysers tag these entities to enable structured search. Queries are XML fragments that can nest entities, such as "person" and "organisation", inside relationships, such as "president_of".

If such tagging were already present in the document, or linked to it by way of an external tagging service, you could skip the rocket-science analysis phase and proceed directly to the query endgame.

Yeah, sure, and if pigs had wings they could fly. UIMA quite reasonably assumes that people cannot and will not compose texts using semantic markup to denote entities and relations. It also assumes that the semantic clues we can find on the public Web — thanks to linking and, more recently, social tagging — won't be as available in the enterprise, given its vastly smaller scale and complex security regime.

The more machine analysis we can do, the better. But we should also keep looking for ways to extract the semantic metadata that people carry around in their heads. As blogging begins to play a greater role in enterprise knowledge management, two strategies will present themselves.

First, there's social tagging. It's true that the web dwarfs the enterprise, but people who use social tagging services form small communities around specific tags. Maybe such communities can flourish at enterprise scale.

The second strategy is microformats. The idea here is that your blogging tool should make it easy to post items that contain nuggets of structure. Examples on the public web include calendar events and book reviews. In the enterprise, the nuggets would be things like meetings and status reports. People won't know that these nuggets are embedded as XML fragments within their blog postings. They'll just appreciate having an easy way to create styled elements, and an easy way to find them later.

Will Irving Wladawsky-Berger connect the dots between UIMA and the blogosphere? If he does, I'll be one of the first to read about it.

Udell is lead analyst at the InfoWorld Test Centre

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