Blog for the September 2018 Seminar: Ontology is cool!

Our first speaker, Helen Lippell, is a freelance taxonomist and is an organiser of the annual Taxonomy Boot Camp in London.  She also works with organisation on constructing thesauri, ontologies and link data repositories.   As far as she is concerned, the point of ontology construction is to model the world to help meet business objectives, and that’s the practical angle from which she approached the topic.  Taxonomies and ontologies are strongly related.  Taxonomies are concerned with the relationships between the terms used in a domain, ontologies focus more on describing the things within the domain and the relationships between them.  Neither is inherently better: you choose what is appropriate for your business need.  An ontology offers greater capabilities and a gateway to machine reasoning, but if you don’t need those, the extra effort will not be worth it.  A taxonomy can provide the controlled vocabularies which help with navigation and search.

Using fascinating examples, Helen, listed a number of business scenarios in which ontologies can be helpful: information retrieval, classification, tagging and data manipulation.  She is doing a lot of work currently on an ontology that will help in content aggregation and filtering, automating a lot of processes that are currently manual.

Implementing an ontology project is not trivial.  It starts with a process of thoroughly understanding and modelling everything connected to the particular domain in which the project and business operate.  Information professionals are well suited to link between the people with technical skills and others who know the business better and can advocate for the end-users of these systems.

Finally, Helen discussed the software that can facilitate this work, both free and to be purchased.  Her talk was followed by an exercise where we produced our own model, with plenty of help and advice from the speakers. We looked at problems in London that we could help solve such as guiding visitors to London or a five-year ecology plan.  It was fun, although we were not quite up to achieving a high-quality product ready to change the world!

In the second part of the meeting, we heard from Silver Oliver, an information architect.  Again, there was a short talk and then a practical exercise.   We learnt that Domain Modelling is fundamental to compiling successful taxonomies, controlled vocabularies and classifications schemes, as well as formal ontologies.  When you set out to model a domain, it is beneficial to engage as many voices and perspectives as possible.   It is helpful to do this before you start exploring tools and implementations so that you don’t exclude people from being able to participate with their different views and perspectives.   The exercise that followed looked at creating a website focusing on food and recipes, which was a pleasant topic to work on in our small groups.

The seminar finished with a set of recommendations:

  • Don’t dive into software: start with whiteboards.
  • Don’t work alone data modelling in the corner. Domain modelling is all about understanding he domain, through conversation and building shared language.
  • Be wary of getting inspiration from other models you believe to be similar. Start with conversations instead – though stealing ideas ca be useful!
  • Rather than ‘working closed’ and revealing your results at the end – keep the processes open and show people what you are doing.
  • An evolving ontology of the domain is a good way to capture these discussions and agreements about what things mean.
  • Rather than evolving a humongous monolithic domain model which is hard to get your head around, work with smaller domains with bounded contexts.

That led to a break with refreshments and general conversations based on our experiences during the afternoon.

Extract from a report by Conrad Taylor.

If you want to read the full account of this seminar – follow this link: