The evolution of the Web has brought great change to the insurance industry in the past two decades, both in cost reduction possibilities and in insurers’ value to consumers. As insurers uncover opportunities derived from Web-based technologies, yet another branch of the Internet tree beckons with a golden apple. The “semantic web” has the potential to deliver even more change—and opportunities—to insurers. So says a report issued by the London office of Celent, a research and consulting firm.

The semantic Web, the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) vision of the Web of linked data and its associated technologies, enable people to create data stores on the Web, build vocabularies, and write rules for handling data, notes Craig Beattie, author of the report.

Beattie says the principal goal of the semantic Web is to make explicit the meaning surrounding the data held in Web documents. He describes the semantic Web as having the ability to automate some of what humans do on the Internet. Where documents and the links between them are now human-readable, the semantic Web seeks to make the meaning in the documents and links machine-readable.

For example, a human looking at a Facebook profile understands from the context of the page how the owner relates to other people mentioned on the page. The page may even say that the owner of the profile is married to the owner of a second profile. It is very difficult, however, for a machine to reliably parse and use the context of information on the Internet.

One Facebook implementation that most people are aware of is the “like” button, which uses semantic Web principles. The “like” button allows users to express an interest in content on websites other than Facebook, and share it with their friends. Other examples include the U.S. government’s data.gov and data.gov.uk in the UK, and the BBC has a number of projects organizing data on music, wildlife, and sports.

The technologies surrounding the semantic web will explicitly describe not only how things link to each other but also the meaning of those links and the meaning of the data. It is common for shoppers to search online for a local store, but even this data is often difficult for a computer to parse and reliably search.

So what does this mean for insurers? Beattie says that the semantic Web should not be thought of as a simple academic vision; rather, it has practical applications for insurers. “Insurers, their partners, and vendors are already looking at ways in which existing assets can be usefully exposed through new channels,” he says in the report. “Service-oriented architecture techniques have enabled services to be reused and repurposed to new channels. Insurers hoping to share and use data in new ways should look to linked data and the semantic Web. Celent believes that the semantic Web will play a key role in future technology decisions within the insurance industry.”

Beattie offers another SOA analogy to his position: SOA offers technologists a paradigm for sharing services in a reusable way. The semantic Web offers such a paradigm for sharing linked data to a limited set of subscribers or customers.

“Insurers are investing in data-sharing projects now,” Beattie says in the report. “The race to provide added value through data and innovative interfaces on devices such as the iPhone and through the Web are driving data-sharing investments. Such investments may be better reused and leveraged in the future if linked data technologies are employed.”

Beattie cautions that the concepts in the semantic Web and in linked data are useful and offer a CIO and an enterprise architect another tool to help solve business problems. “There are many applications where classic methods and technologies are most appropriate,” he says.

This article can also be found at InsuranceNetworking.com.

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