XML Travel Schema and Ontology
The Open Travel Alliance just published its version 2011B XML Schema specification with many new enhancements and additions. The OpenTravel specification can be used to more easily build software that is interoperable with disparate travel systems.
Earlier this year, OpenTravel green-lighted a new project to produce a car rental ontology, building upon components donated by Avis Budget Group as constructed by Thematix, a member of the Open Travel Alliance.
What does this mean for the Travel Industry? How do XML schema and ontologies connect? Why does it matter? Should you care? We asked Jim Rhyne, Partner at Thematix, to help answer these questions.
Who will benefit when the schema and ontology are linked?
Think about a conversation in which both parties have a vocabulary of 200 words – it’s
going to be a pretty limited discussion. This is typically the case when computers talk to each other or to humans. People, on the other hand, can invent vocabularies and use the constructive principles of natural language to communicate just about anything. To do this, they need both grammatical rules for constructing sentences (the syntax) as well as methods for encoding and decoding meaning (the semantics).
XML is like the syntax of a natural language – it tells you where the nouns, verbs and adjectives go, but does not help you make sense of the combinations of words.
When you add ontology to XML messages, you can make sense of the “words” that are the XML content using the syntax supplied by the XML.
Suddenly, you can have any conversation you like without having to change the syntax of the language.
When the conversation is between a traveler and a computer, the traveler benefits from greater freedom to express what they are looking for. The seller, whose offers are mediated by the computer, benefits because the buyer is more satisfied (repeat business) and the margins are greater (customer demand, improved management of inventory).
Every buyer wants to deal with an understanding and helpful person, but this is expensive and there are not enough of them to go around. Talking with computers is efficient – they never get tired or make mistakes, and they are consistent. People have to provide the computer with “person-like understanding” and creating this understanding via programming is very labor intensive. Semantic Technology is a shortcut. It allows people to tell computers what words and phrases mean. A “green car” is one that “seats four people and has city EPA mileage estimates of greater than 30 MPG”. The definition of “green car” allows the car rental company to search its available inventory for a car meeting these criteria.
What exactly does this mean for me, and what do I need to do to maximize value?
As a travel buyer, I get more freedom to express what I want and the reasons and conditions for the trip; e.g., family vacation with young children, romantic get away, sight seeing with lots of baggage, college reunion, stress free business trip with golf bags, etc. I want to tell you what I want, need, desire so you can “unpack” implicit requirements and persuade me that you have the best package. This fundamentally shifts the burden back to the travel supplier to sell me, rather than merely array the goods so I can buy them off of a price matrix. This requires a vocabulary for content so that the computers can understand what I am saying.
As a seller of travel services or products, I need to commit to continually improving the ability of my computers to understand and respond to the requests from prospects and buyers. It means backing up my advertising and merchandising content with vocabulary and understanding for my computers, and expanding the power of the knowledge base with reasoning. In the beginning, success will be measured by stripping out irrelevant choices, and over time, learning what the words mean relative to final purchase.
Where can this be applied on the Travel Roadmap from Dreaming and Researching to Booking then Experiencing and Sharing?
The “Travel Roadmap” refers to a process that a traveler goes through when traveling. It starts with “Dreaming,” which entails forming ideas and gathering general information, perhaps serendipitously, to help formulate a goal. “Researching” involves ass
embling information and plans that will help fulfill a goal. “Booking” is the implementation of a plan. “Experiencing” and “Sharing” happen during and after the travel, and involve the role of information in helping enhance and share the trip.
Dreaming and Researching are strongly coupled, at least online. Translating a dream into a research activity is all about words. Pictures tend to be too literal – how can I tell whether a photograph of a handsome man lounging at a beach refers to any beach or the specific beach where the photograph was taken? Words are explained by their ontology and construction – “a beach” and “that beach” mean quite different things in the context of a conversation.
Sharing is also a language activity. What words do I use to describe a travel experience and encourage others to have my experience, or be jealous of it? Some of these words are value-descriptive: “fabulous”, “breathtaking”, “enriching”. Other words are found in the Dream/Research cycle: “resort”, “luxury”, “Hawaii” “surf and scuba.” Taken together, these words enable others to convert their dreams into bookings by providing an effective starting point for the research activity.
When will this become really valuable?
We are in a position now where there are first mover advantages with consumer benefits powerful enough to create sustainable competitive advantage and lasting market share gains.
As with any first mover advantage, fast deployment with iterative improvement is the name of the game. Offering a new paradigm and transforming the interaction into one with more value and meaning will generate higher levels of satisfaction.
Many consumers are aching for more relevance and a spot-on recommendation; they are not asking for more choices that are largely out of band in the first place.
As with many technologies, there will be many ways to define and implement at your core site, cooperatively with trading partners and agents, and to explore alternative activities to broaden the scope via long tail key words, for example.
This investment is not without risk, nor should it be a singular IT or eCommerce implementation. It is essential to carefully align your marketing strategy, product and content with your eChannel (internet, mobile, voice, etc.) support for the Research phase of the Travel Roadmap. It is also essential to monitor how your buyers (potential and actual) respond to your eChannel capability and how they respond to the travel services you provide them. In particular, you should consider engaging a monitoring service with the capability of digesting blogs, Twitter feeds, Facebook and Google+ postings for material about your brand and services.
Why should I care?
The travel services industry is in the midst of a major transformation to direct eChannel (internet, mobile, voice, etc.) interactions for Research, Booking Experiencing and Sharing. Such transformations always create opportunity for growth by enterprises that fully engage them.
For those companies already using XML Schema, the addition of Ontology and semantics is the next logical step for improvements to the user experience and relevance of results, both within the booking engine and on search engines like Bing, Google and Yahoo!. This technology is already being applied in many ways, by many sectors particularly Retail, Health Care, and Government, and is being deployed in Finance and Entertainment.
How do I proceed and how do I sell it to management?
How you proceed is dependent upon the role your company plays in the travel industry, and what your current eChannel strategy and capabilities are. There are also other pesky issues such as planning cycles, development budgets, state of existing architecture, and other strategic imperatives.
Regardless, if you are a travel provider with strong eChannel capability and revenue dependencies, you will have a strong case for investment in Ontology and Semantics for revenue, competitive, and technical reasons. A logical first step would be to propose a limited scope pilot.
If your eChannel capability is not strong or represents only a small portion of revenue, it would make the most sense to partner with a complementary provider whose eChannel capabilities are stronger; work with them to test a few alternatives and enhancements to your interactions.
This technology is disruptive and is leading the next phase of travel buying and selling; management needs to know.