Part-whole relations are considered essential in knowledge representation and reasoning and, more practically, in ontology development and conceptual data modelling, especially in the subject domains of biology, medicine, geographic information systems, and manufacturing. In contrast to Ontology that sticks to one type of part-of, the modellers and subject domain experts have come up with a plethora of part-whole relations, some of which are considered real parthood relations and others only meronymic (or: due to imprecise natural language use). For instance, the Foundational Model of Anatomy has 8 basic locative part-whole relations , GALEN has come up with 26 part-whole relations , and in cognitive science and conceptual data modelling, it hovers around about 6 types [3,4]. They have been structured in a taxonomy of part-whole relations that makes a distinction between mereology and meronomy, transitivity and in- or non-transitivity, and the domain and range of the relationship , and some initial usage guidelines were proposed in .
But that’s not enough for the complex subject domains and demands on the representation and reasoning over the ontologies. This holds in particular when one has to represent that some things are contained in or located in something else. For instance, the way how Paris and France relate is somehow different from how the euro coin in your wallet relate to each other—the latter being an example of (spatial) containment, but not structural part of—whereas in other case, the spatial containment of regions of space and the structural parthood of the objects occupying those regions do coincide, e.g., your heart in your body. Or consider representing that Alto Adige/Südtirol is a border province of Italy (bordering Austria), where we have to handle both the notion of administrative entities and connecting geographical regions. That is, handling regions and ‘things’ that occupy those regions (mereotopology).
Being more precise about how the things relate provides nice inferences. Take, e.g., NTPLI as ‘non-tangential proper located in’—a part is located in the whole but not at the boundary of it—and , with the following instances in our knowledge base , , and , then it deduces correctly that , whereas with a mere ‘part-of’, we would not have been able to obtain this result.
Besides these examples, there are actual system requirements for, among others, annotating and querying multimedia documents and cartographic maps, such as annotating a photo of a beach where the area of the photo that depicts the sand touches the area that depicts the seawater so that, together with the knowledge that Varadero is a tangential proper part of Cuba, the semantically enhanced system can infer possible locations where the photo has been taken, or, vv., it can propose that the photo may depict a beach scene.
But how to cater for such things?
Let me summarise the three main basic problems that have to be resolved first:
- There is lack of oversight on plethora of part-whole relations, that include real parthood (mereology) parts with their locations (mereotopology), and other part-whole relations (from meronymy);
- The challenge to figure out which one to use when;
- The underspecified representation and reasoning consequences when one has to put up with less expressive languages for which technological infrastructure exists.
We propose to solve that in the following way, which is described in detail in  that recently got accepted at the 9th Extended Semantic Web Conference (ESWC’12).
The short answer for the reader who is not interested in all the theory, design, and evaluation, but just wants to model quickly: the OntoPartS tool guides you to choose the most appropriate relation and saves the selection into your OWL file.
Now for a slightly longer answer. First, we extend the taxonomy of part-whole relations of  with the novel addition of a taxonomy of formally defined mereotopological relations, which is driven by the KGEMT mereotoplogical theory of Varzi , resulting in a taxonomy of 23 part-whole relations—mereological, mereotopological, and meronymic ones—therewith ensuring a solid ontological and logic-based foundation.
Second, some things have to be simplified from the KGEMT theory to make it implementable in OWL, and we describe the design rationale and trade-offs so that OntoPartS can load OWL/OWL2-formalised ontologies, and, if desired, modify the OWL file with the chosen relation. Which OWL species is best suited obviously depends on your individual requirements, but from a representation & reasoning and mereotopology viewpoint, OWL 2 DL and OWL 2 RL seem to fit better than the other ones. (Note: there are papers on DL and representing spatial relations and on DL and parthood, and alternative representation choices are discussed in the paper, yet, as far as we are aware of, none deals with mereotopological relations in OWL or, more generally, in DL.)
Third, there is the ‘how to select’ from the 23 relations. To enable a quick selection of the appropriate relation, we avail of a simplified OWL-ized DOLCE ontology—well, just the taxonomy of categories—for the domain and range restrictions imposed on the part-whole relations and with that, we can let the user take shortcuts compared to a lengthy decision procedure. In this way, we reduced the selection procedure to 0-4 options based on just 2-3 inputs. All of this has been structured neatly in implementation-independent activity diagrams, and subsequently has been implemented; see also the demos, the tool, and the OWL version of the taxonomy of the 23 relations.
Last, we have tested OntoPartS with modellers in controlled experiments and it was shown to improve efficiency and accuracy in modeling of part-whole relations.
As mentioned, further details can be found in , Representing mereotopological relations in OWL ontologies with OntoPartS, which I co-authored with Francis Fernández-Reyes, with the Instituto Superior Politécnico “José Antonio Echeverría” (CUJAE), and Annette Morales-González, with the Advanced Technologies Application Center (CENATAV), both located in Cuba (the example on semantic annotation of multimedia with spatial relations comes straight from the image processing research being done at CENATAV). A tidbit of non-scientific information: the first version of the OntoPartS tool was developed as part of the mini-project that Francis, Annette (and Alexis, who is into fish fulltime now) had chosen to carry out for the ontology engineering course I taught at the University of Havana in 2010 (mentioned earlier here and here). For the paper, we added some more theory, minor refinements to the tool, and a user evaluation with several CUJAE and UKZN students and a few FUB colleagues (thanks again for their cooperation and interest). We’ve started work on additional features, so if you have any particular request, drop me a line.
- Mejino, J.L.V., Agoncillo, A.V., Rickard, K.L., Rosse, C.: Representing complexity in part-whole relationships within the foundational model of anatomy. In: Proc. of the AMIA Fall Symposium. pp. 450–454 (2003)
- http://www.opengalen.org/tutorials/crm/tutorial9.html up to http://www.opengalen.org/tutorials/crm/tutorial16.html/.
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- Keet, C.M.: Part-whole relations in object-role models. In: Proc. of ORM’06, OTM Workshops 2006. LNCS, vol. 4278, pp. 1116–1127. Springer (2006)
- Keet, C.M., Fernández Reyes, F.C., Morales-González, A.: Representing mereotopological relations in OWL ontologies with OntoPartS. In Simperl, et al., eds.: Proc. of ESWC’12. LNCS, Springer (2012) 27-31 May 2012, Heraklion, Greece.
- Varzi, A.: Handbook of Spatial Logics, chap. Spatial reasoning and ontology: parts, wholes, and locations, pp. 945–1038. Berlin Heidelberg: Springer Verlag (2007)