In order for your XBRL information work on the Semantic Web or within your internal semantic web, or in any computer system for that matter, your data and metadata need to be unambiguous.
Before I get started here, I want to explain a few terms to business people. Business people need a working knowledge of these terms in order to understand what is important to making your systems work, to making your XBRL unambiguous.
Why is this Important?
You may have heard terms like "metadata" and "semantic web". But what do these terms mean and how do they relate to you. In his book Pull, David Siegel explains these two important terms and how they will change the Web. While the terms are defined in the book, what provides you the understanding are the countless examples of what having a "semantic web" will mean to you.
For anyone who lived through the beginning of the Web, to say there was hype surrounding the notion of how the Web would change life as we know it on planet earth is an understatement. However, you have to admit that a lot of things have changed. Just because there is hype does not mean that the Web is "empty", nor is it the case that "the Semantic Web" is empty. In fact as I understand it, the Semantic Web was Sir Tim Berners-Lee's vision of what the Web needs to be, the Web as we know it today is just an interim step in that direction.
It has been my experience that technical people like to complicate the notion of "metadata". Perhaps they like to keep things mysterious. You can go search the Web for a definition, in fact here is an explanation of metadata on Wikipedia. I even hear techies use the term "meta-metadata"!
So what is metadata? Metadata is just data. It is just at a different level from what you normally thing of as data. Metadata, like data, describes something. That is it. What is more important is to understand why metadata or data is important. Computers are not magical things. They can do magical things, but all this is enabled by the data and metadata which is provided by and linked together by humans. For example, if you have a list of files on your computer you can only sort them in ways you have information about those files, the "data" or "metadata" about a file; such as the date you saved the file or the name of the file or the type of file. The more data or metadata you have, the more a computer can do with data.
Metadata and data is the foundation of the Semantic Web. David Seigel gives a very simple explanation of the Semantic Web by posing two simple questions:
- Is it unambiguous?
- Is it on the Web?
So now we have a number of other terms floating around here: semantic and unambiguous. If you are a glutton for punishment, you can go here and read about semantic. Fundamentally, semantic is about unambiguous meaning.
When I say Semantic Web, you can look at the scope of the "web" in a number of different ways. It woulc be the "Semantic Web" meaning the open to the public on the Web, it could mean "semantic web" meaning only available within your organization, or it could just be some smaller subset of users in some sort of closed system, not open to everyone. The type of web makes no difference.
As David Seigel explains in his book,
Data that is semantic means exactly the same thing to any system or person who uses it.
That is the key to making data usable to a computer. You need to be unambiguous. This is not to say that everyone has to interpret the information in the same way, this is about consistency in the meaning of the data and metadata.
Making XBRL Unambiguous
So, if you are creating XBRL you want to be unambiguous. This does not mean unambiguous to you, it means unambiguous in general, to everyone. There are ways to test to see if your information is unambiguous. As a business person you don't actually have to do these things yourself, you can ask the technical people implementing the system if they have done any of these.)
- Try to express it in RDF (Resource Description Framework) /OWL (Web Ontology Language). If you can, and it makes sense, then it is unambiguous.
- Try and express your information model in UML (Unified Modeling Language) and see if it makes sense. Again, if the UML model makes sense, then the data and metadata will likely make sense.
- Try and use the data. If the system works, then the data and metadata are unambiguous and logical. If not, then something needs to be fixed.
If you have not tested your systems there is a high probability that your system is not providing information which is unambiguous. It is the testing which helps you achieve this desired goal and makes your system usable.
This is particularly true when your system allows extensibility, where those submitting information can make any sort of adjustment to an XBRL taxonomy. Those extending your XBRL taxonomy have to be given guidance to create those extensions as you had anticipated and consistently with one another.
This testing is best done during the time when you are architecting your XBRL taxonomy and other aspects of your system, not when your system is live. Waiting until your system goes live to do this testing may mean the need to re-architect your system.