In today’s multi-screen world we need to be able to get relevant content to the customer, at the right time in their format and language of choice. Life is no longer as simple as making PDF documents, we need to feed consistent information to all our multi-channel publications (web/mobile/print) and those of our partners. This blog post explains how NXP is tackling these challenges.
At NXP, similar to many other large organizations, we have what you might call a ‘brownfield’ information landscape. Data and content is scattered and duplicated across numerous applications and databases leading to inconsistent information, complex systems and inefficient processes. The outcome is that people are unable to find what they are looking for, or find conflicting information. Common approaches like Data Warehousing, Master Data Management and Service-Oriented Architecture all tackle parts of the problem, but none provide a total solution.
Our aim is to provide a single, up-to-date ‘canonical’ source of information that is easy to use and that data consumers (be they human or machine) can trust. By doing this we can make sure all our publications are kept up-to-date with the minimum amount of fuss.
The answer we found was to take the best of the previously mentioned approaches and combine with a liberal sprinkling of “Linked Data”. The result is a giant graph of data. Think of it like a social network, but with things (products, places, technologies, applications, documents, web pages) as well as people.
Linked Data… what’s that?
The idea of the Linked Data has been around for a while already, as Sir Tim Berners-Lee put it “The Semantic Web isn’t just about putting data on the web. It is about making links, so that a person or machine can explore the web of data. With linked data, when you have some of it, you can find other, related, data.” In the past few years this approach has been used in publishing government data sets and has been steadily gaining traction within media and enterprise sectors.
We have been eager to jump into this approach ourselves. For the the past few years we have been making use of data dictionaries to ensure high-quality, structured product data based on canonical property definitions. So far we have mostly been using this data to reproduce existing publications like data sheets and product web pages in a more efficient manner. However we always felt “spoofing” these publications was not really showing off the data to its full potential. So in the past year we have been looking at new and innovative ways to publish our product data. When looking at Linked Data and RDF, we recognised an immediate affinity with our dictionary-based strategy.
The main business drivers for this have, so far, been mostly internal: how to ensure product data is available across internal systems in an easy-to-use and efficient manner. In many areas simple XML messages and other B2B standards are applicable, but within a portfolio of over 20,000 products across a broad variety of functions and technology it simply is not possible to describe the complex properties of an electronic component with a handful of standard XML elements. Also the tree-based XML DOM soon starts to become a limitation when dealing with a highly-interlinked web of information. The answer (as it turns out) is quite simple: think graph.
The benefits of the Linked Data approach are clear: we provide data consumers a single, trustworthy, easy to use source of information about our products. The Linked Data is the API. The benefit to our end-customer is that the information published on our website, data sheets, selection guides and partner websites is consistent and up-to-date.
Progress so far
Following the basic Linked Data principles we have assigned HTTP URIs as names for things (resources) providing an unambiguous identifier. Next up we have converted data from a variety of sources (XML, CSV, RDBMS) into RDF.
One of the key features of RDF is the ability to easily merge data about a single resource from multiple sources into a single “supergraph” providing a more complete description of the resource. By loading the RDF into a graph database, it is possible to make an endpoint available which can be queried using the SPARQL query language. We are currently using Dydra as their cloud-based database-as-a-service model provides an easy entry route to using RDF without requiring a steep learning curve (basically load your RDF and you’re away), but there are plenty of other options like Apache Jena and OpenRDF Sesame. This has made it very easy for us to answer to complex questions requiring data from multiple sources, moreover we can stand up APIs providing access to this data in minutes.
By using a Linked Data Plaform such as Graphity we can make our identifiers (HTTP URIs) dereferencable. In layman’s terms when someone plugs the URI into a browser, we provide a description of the resource in HTML. Using content negotiation we are able to provide this data in one of the standard machine-readable XML, JSON or Turtle formats. Graphity uses Java and XSLT 2.0 which our developers already have loads of experience with and provides powerful mechanisms with which we will be able to develop some great web apps.
For now, as mentioned above, the main drivers are internal. However, where possible/relevant, we are planning to make data publicly accessible under an open license. We’re currently experimenting with making test data available via a beta public SPARQL endpoint and linked data app as we develop it. These are by no means finished, but represent our current progress.
Over the coming months we will be making more and more data available as linked data and gradually reworking our existing publications to use the new data source. Alongside this we are confident that development of new and exciting ways to explore and visualize information will be made much easier by having a great easy-to-use source of information. We already have some cool ideas for faceted search type interfaces that we will be launching in beta as soon as we can. Keep your eyes peeled!
We’d really appreciate your input and thoughts. If you have any cool ideas about how you might want to use our data, or would like to see more of our data published using other vocabularies, we’d love to hear from you. Also we’d be very interested to hear from anyone else in the electronics industry interested in making product data more open and aligned. Please leave a comment below or tweet us at @nxpdata.