Unified View of the Customer. Let’s Do It!

(co-written with David Boardman, twitter.com/dbboardman)

A battle cry heard around the world in enterprises and start-ups.  Hundreds, if not thousands of these initiatives start every day.  From the entrepreneurial social networking start-up to the world’s largest enterprises.  They all start by getting a group of people to decide on what data to put on the profile.  Sounds easy right? Try it. Get any group of more than 3 people, much less departments within an enterprise or competing corporations, to agree on what data is important to collect.  Next, hand out a schema to 3 more people or enterprise software providers, and convince them to change their system to query your definition of the consumer.  It’s hard.

There is hope.  The semantic web promises to make all of this easier.  The semantic web creates a world wide web in which the meaning (semantics) of information and services on the web is defined, making it possible for the web to "understand" and satisfy the requests of people and machines to use the web content.  The fuel of the semantic web is ontologies.  It’s possible to envision a semantic web where ontologies and tools are used to develop a deep understanding of a customer with a standard set of tools to access and manipulate. 

Sounds great.  But the semantic web isn’t here yet.  Do we need to wait until the ontology and schema are standardized by the industry? 

We have a proposal to change everything, where we realize the vision of the semantic web now, while we wait for ontologies to emerge and gain mass adoption.  We call it Schema-Agnostic Action on a Profile. 

Imagine if you could launch a unified view of the customer initiative and didn’t have to get a group of people or departments to agree on what data to collect or what format that data should adhere to.  Now imagine third party applications could query this profile without understanding the structure and content.  We assert that this transformational approach would allow more unified view of the customer initiatives to take less time, require less effort, and yield greater results. 

Schema-Agnostic Action on a Profile

We want to share what we think is one of the most differentiating concepts behind the technology we have been working on recently at Atigeo – the notion that it is possible to act on the attributes of an entity without knowledge of the schema with which that entity is represented.

To share or cooperatively act on the profile of an entity (business, person, object, thing) today requires agreement between the parties interacting in terms of the profile or content attributes/metadata, take for example MPEG7/21 efforts around media metadata.

Most commonly, systems interact through query-style interfaces where results are returned based on attributes or filters on attributes that are matched.  Among the most sophisticated systems today, some are able to step beyond attribute matching to exploit ontologies, graphically-expressed relationships between attributes or attribute sets.  These allow relationships that are understood (“my sister is my son’s aunt”, “the Nexus One is a Google Android-based cellular phone).

Not only do the underlying semantics of some domains evolve rapidly, but often "local terminologies" develop for the same concepts that subsequently need to be reconciled. (BTW – the latter turns out to be a very interesting graph-theoretic problem – see the work of the SHER team at IBM Research).

There are many domains for which there isn’t a standard data format. Additionally, there are many more domains for which, until the Semantic Web becomes pervasive, ontologies don’t yet exist.

Our technology is a solution to automatic hierarchy-free ontology discovery. As a corollary, this allows us the ability to determine affinity of an unstructured profile to content in the absence of “structured/direct match”. Uniquely, the ontology discovery process allows learning, refinement and expansion through user interaction, and through real-time tracking of content generated in the domain of question.

Ok – Got It.  But So What?

Imagine an enterprise launches yet another unified view of the customer initiative.  Now instead of teams of people battling it out over what attribute should go on a profile, we just set up a profile and start attaching data to it.  Interesting.  Now imagine handing out a set of APIs to enterprise IT staff and 3rd party application developers that allow them to act on the unified view of the consumer without providing a schema in a domain for which there isn’t an ontology.  Possible?  With a more humanistic query language that understands the meaning of the data, the process, and the persona, applications can be built quickly without being constrained by the definition of the data. 

In our next blog post we will explore the proposed framework for a transformational query language that breaks the schema and ontology shackles off of the developer and the data they are acting on. Stay tuned.

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