FOIS’18 conference report

To some perhaps surprisingly, despite being local organizer, I could attend all sessions of the 10th International Conference Formal Ontology in Information Systems as participant (cf. running around for last-minute things). It just wasn’t as much of a trip as it usually is: only 15 minutes to town at the Atlantic Imbizo conference venue, which is situated between the Clock Tower and (award-winning) Zeitz MOCAA at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront. This blog post has turned into a longer post than intended—yet, there’s still so much left out to talk about—and it is divided up into sections on keynotes, presentations, ontologies, and the (ontologically inappropriate basket of) other things.



The first keynote was presented by (emeritus) professor in philosophy Peter Simons from Trinity College Dublin and Universität Salzburg, on the ontology of aboutness (slides).

Peter Simon during his keynote talk

That may sound a bit abstract, but it is not unusual for some information system that it will have to record statements about something, such as different medical opinions, changes of policies, plans or expectations, and we need a way to represent that and deal with it. Simons discussed several earlier proposals before proposing his own, which includes as main entities a bearer, act, time, act-type, mental content, mental content type, intentional objects, referent, and referent type (slide 16), and then variants for pictorial and linguistic (speech and writing). And, in closing, his advice of “Don’t get involved in irrelevant philosophical disputes”.

The second keynote was presented by Alessandro Oltramari, who works at Bosch Research and Technology Centre in Pittsburgh, USA. He presented several of Bosch’s projects where ontologies are used in one way or another (slides) and that he was involved in. One of them was about knowledge-based intelligent IoT and another on an emergency assistant, or, in business sales parlance, a “personal guardian angel” mobile device that has location awareness, safety information of those locations, a decision support system for alternate route computation, and automatic escalation. The ontologies used include the foundational ontology DOLCE, the domain ontology of semantic sensor networks (SSN) from the W3C, and specific schemas developed in-house. Another project on a knowledge-based chatbot for healthcare policies links up DOLCE,, and some in-house schemas with Highmark-specific information (and is not ashamed of using SKOS). Om my question what methods and methodologies were used for the in-house ontology development, the (disappointing) answer was, unfortunately, only “DOLCE and OntoClean”, but the former is neither a method nor a methodology (it implies a top-down approach), and the latter is some 15 years old, as if nothing has happened in ontology engineering in the meantime (more about that further below). Regardless, it was good to see that ontologies are being used in industry.

The third keynote (slides) was by Riichiro Mizoguchi from the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (JAIST), on a state-centric methodology, which I’ll leave for a separate post.

Riichiro Mizoguchi during his keynote talk.



The report on the presentations easily could take up several pages, but I’ll try to keep it short, lest otherwise this post never gets posted. The first session of the conference was on foundations. This included Antony Galton’s assessment of the treatment of time in upper ontologies [1]. It was mildly entertaining in that it turned out that BFO would need abstract things for its treatment of time (which it doesn’t have and doesn’t like) and adheres to Newtonian physics cf. the latest scientific theories. It is definitely on my list of papers to read in more detail. Another paper-for-printing to read is Torsten Hahmann’s work on mereotopology, which extends it to multidimensional space [2]. A nice bonus (though it ought not to be perceived as such) is that at least the theorems in the paper have been proved with Prover9 and Vampire (cf. having to double-check them manually). Laure Vieu presented a proposal for a graph-based approach to represent structure among the components of an entity [3], which is apparently different from the graph-based approach for representing molecules (within the Semantic Web context); I’ll have to look at that in more detail, for it sounds like it might be of some use for the parts aspects of part-whole relations.

Besides such theoretical contributions that are rather distant from applications, there were two of note that were motivated from praxis more clearly. One was about the ontological foundations of competition and the sort of competitive relations there are [4], which was presented by Tiago Prince Sales. The other one was presented by Pawel Garbacz, whose presentation conveyed more than the paper so as to get a real feel of the problem, being identity criteria for localities [5], with complicating use cases extracted from a Polish history project. He presented some examples of changes and a proposal for how to identify a locality/settlement. For instance, settlements can get moved altogether, have a population-only move, split into two, be merged, renamed and renamed again, deserted by a population and repopulated and renamed, and so on. When is it the same settlement and when is it another one? The paper [5] describes a first solution for identity criteria with an event-based approach to identity of localities.

My presentation on part-whole relations in Zulu language and culture [6] was scheduled in the ‘applications’ session, which had positive feedback and some pointers that may assist with future work.


venue during a Q&A session


Besides presentations, there was a discussion session on “what constitutes a good ontology paper?” for the Applied Ontology journal. Seeing the ontology papers at FOIS now, they should have done such as session for FOIS as well. There are four papers in the proceedings describing OWL files: “Amnestic forgery” (AF, conceptual metaphors) [7] presented by Mehwish Alam, UNiCS for research and innovation policy [8] presented by Fernando Roda, SAREF4Health [9] presented by João Moreira, and religious and spiritual belief (ORSB) [10] presented by Stefan Schulz. Skimming through each paper, AF, UNiCS and ORSB do not use a methodology explicitly, none of them uses existing methods, but they all do use a foundational or top-level ontology or the WordNet material, and then it’s cool enough to get into FOIS, apparently. This is a bit disappointing. At least SAREF4Health presented a set of competency questions, a systematic approach and broader framework, and some evaluation, and ORSB reuses not only top-level and top-domain ontologies but also tests some patterns. AF and ORSB have some interest to it as they’re addressing relatively novel modeling issues to solve and the ORSB discussion could be used more broadly for any “terms of dubious reference”. UNiCS is not really an ontology but an information model or, at best, a conceptual data model (e.g. calling “SCOPUS subject” an ontology is pushing it a bit too far); it makes their OBDA scenario easier to realize, true, but that’s a separate discussion. Fig 1 of SAREF4Health doesn’t look any better either, which has all the hallmarks of a plain UML Class Diagram (attributes with data types and such), with object diagram components attached and coloured in and annotated with OntoUML. SAREF4Health’s other downsides are things like “implementing the ontology as RDF” that just hurts to read (it is left implicit for AF that is plugged into the LOD cloud), as is the download in Turtle format (cf. the required exchange syntax of OWL 2), which isn’t even available at the provided link when you click on it (copy-paste gets you in the right direction), but is [I think] in some github sub-directory that has a whole bunch of ttl files with neither head nor tail, but one of them is called saref4health.ttl. On first inspection, it has plenty of data properties and data type use, and the class-as-instance issue here and there (e.g., ‘Rechargeable Lithium Polymer battery’ as instance cf. class), and others (e.g., a ‘series’ of measurements is not a subclass of a measurement) and very many classes directly subsumed by top, though some are knock-on effects from imports.

And then ontologists at FOIS deplored that there are many domain ontologies that are of poor quality and artifacts presented as ontologies but aren’t. The FOIS reviewers themselves apparently can’t even get their act together in the reviewing process, where artifacts that are sold as domain ontologies but aren’t (UNiCS, SAREF4Health) make it not only through the reviewing process but, moreover, even get a best paper award from the PC chairs (SAREF4Health). The PC chairs wanted to make a political statement to communicate that FOIS accepts domain ontology papers. It is good that the FOIS topics are becoming less narrow and I’m not saying they are pointless papers or lousy artifacts per sé—they are useful reference papers and UNiCS and SAREF4Health perform the application tasks they’re supposed to be performing, which is a good thing. Maybe, collectively, ontology developers can’t do better or don’t need to do better w.r.t. applied ontology? Either way, once upon a time there were principles for what ontologies are; what happened to that? Also, there are multiple methodologies for domain ontology development, and there are a myriad of methods and tools, which have been mostly ignored. For instance, using one foundational ontology over another ‘just because I know x’ is neither a scientific nor a sound engineering approach. There are comparisons, requirements, and a mix of the two to help you figure out which one is the best to use; an early tool for that is ONSET, the ONtology Selection and Explanation Tool, developed by Zubeida Khan (more data). To name one example.

Coincidentally, ontology engineering papers with such a content do not, or very rarely, make it into FOIS; but just that they don’t (because they’re typically not philosophical enough), doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Just in case a FOIS ontologist would like to explore methods, methodologies and tools for ontology development: ESWC, EKAW, and K-CAP are good/top conferences covering such topics in whole or in part, and Chapter 5 of the ontology engineering textbook provides a sampling as well (as do some other sections in Block II). Considering my critical comments, one may ask whether my ontologies and ontology papers are any better, or anyone else’s for that matter. Perhaps, perhaps not. You can check for yourself some of my recent papers on domain ontologies that also have OWL files[1] that I was involved in developing; one paper was intended as a reference paper for the domain ontology [11], another paper was a bit of both domain ontology and some framework [12], and yet another turned into a core ontology [13] (v1, with the main categories; there’s an updated version for the relations).

Anyway, returning to the first sentence of this section: the open forum discussion did not make it any clearer as to what would be the characteristics of a good ontology paper for the Applied Ontology journal (or FOIS, for that matter). Mainly just Protégé screenshots certainly is not, but opinions varied as to what would be. Going by examples of the ontology papers that made it through: use of a top-level or foundational ontology and some modeling issues and solutions seems to be preferred, evaluation and usage & uptake as a nice-to-have. Is developing an (domain) ontology science? That question wasn’t answered unanimously; I think it was leaning towards a ‘mostly no’ w.r.t. applied ontology but it may be if it’s the first to solve a modeling issue. How to evaluate the ontology? Another question without a satisfactory answer. Overall, the criteria for an ontology paper—let alone for the ontology itself—are “TBD” and meanwhile one has to hope that one will get a supportive ‘reviewer 2’.



In case you have clicked-though to one or more of the listed papers, you may have noticed that the FOIS’18 proceedings are Open Access—paid for by those who registered for the conference (it was calculated in the registration fee). I suppose the next FOIS organisers and the IAOA exec may like your opinion on that approach.

mentors of the early career symposium papers

Besides the best paper award for SAREF4Health [9], there were two “distinguished paper awards”, which went to aforementioned paper on the graph-based approach for structured universals by Laure Vieu and Claudio Masolo [3] and to the foundational ontologies for units of measure by Michael Grüninger and co-authors [14]. The early career symposium went well and from hearsay they had a good social activity, too. There were lots of interesting conversations, networking, good food, and so on, and lots more to write about. There are also more photos.

Some of the postgraduate students and a recent PhD graduate in the spotlight at the closing ceremony, being thanked for chairing the sessions.

Last, but not least: the next FOIS in 2020 will be in Bolzano, Italy, as part of a ‘Bolzano summer of knowledge’ with more co-located conferences, workshops, and summer schools.



[1] Antony Galton. The treatment of time in upper ontologies. Proc. of FOIS’18. IOS Press, 306: 33-46.

[2] Thorsten Hahmann. On Decomposition Operations in a Theory of Multidimensional Qualitative Space. Proc. of FOIS’18. IOS Press, 306: 173-186.

[3] Claudio Masolo, Laure Vieu. Graph-Based Approaches to Structural Universals and Complex States of Affairs. Proc. of FOIS’18. IOS Press, 306: 69-82.

[4] Tiago Prince Sales, Daniele Porello, Nicola Guarino, Giancarlo Guizzardi, John Mylopoulos. Ontological Foundations of Competition. Proc. of FOIS’18. IOS Press, 306: 96-112.

[5] Pawel Garbacz, Agnieszka Ławrynowicz, Bogumił Szady. Identity criteria for localities. Proc. of FOIS’18. IOS Press, 306: 47-56.

[6] C. Maria Keet, Langa Khumalo. On the Ontology of Part-Whole Relations in Zulu Language and Culture. Proc. of FOIS’18. IOS Press, 306: 225-238.

[7] Aldo Gangemi, Mehwish Alam, Valentina Presutti. Amnestic Forgery: An Ontology of Conceptual Metaphors. Proc. of FOIS’18. IOS Press, 306: 159-172.

[8] Alessandro Mosca, Fernando Roda, Guillem Rull. UNiCS – The Ontology for Research and Innovation Policy Making. Proc. of FOIS’18. IOS Press, 306: 200-210.

[9] João Moreira, Luís Ferreira Pires, Marten van Sinderen, Laura Daniele. SAREF4health: IoT Standard-Based Ontology-Driven Healthcare Systems. Proc. of FOIS’18. IOS Press, 306: 239-252.

[10] Stefan Schulz, Ludger Jansen. Towards an Ontology of Religious and Spiritual Belief. Proc. of FOIS’18. IOS Press, 306: 253-260.

[11] Keet, C.M., Lawrynowicz, A., d’Amato, C., Kalousis, A., Nguyen, P., Palma, R., Stevens, R., Hilario, M. The Data Mining OPtimization ontology. Web Semantics: Science, Services and Agents on the World Wide Web, 2015, 32:43-53.

[12] Chavula, C., Keet, C.M. An Orchestration Framework for Linguistic Task Ontologies. 9th Metadata and Semantics Research Conference (MTSR’15), Garoufallou, E. et al. (Eds.). Springer CCIS vol. 544, 3-14.

[13] Keet, C.M. A core ontology of macroscopic stuff. 19th International Conference on Knowledge Engineering and Knowledge Management (EKAW’14). K. Janowicz et al. (Eds.). 24-28 Nov, 2014, Linkoping, Sweden. Springer LNAI vol. 8876, 209-224.

[14] Michael Grüninger, Bahar Aameri, Carmen Chui, Torsten Hahmann, Yi Ru. Foundational Ontologies for Units of Measure. Proc. of FOIS’18. IOS Press, 306: 211-224.

[1] I have others developed as part of methods & tools research


ISAO 2018, Cape Town, ‘trip’ report

The Fourth Interdisciplinary School on Applied Ontology has just come to an end, after five days of lectures, mini-projects, a poster session, exercises, and social activities spread over six days from 10 to 15 September in Cape Town on the UCT campus. It’s not exactly fair to call this a ‘trip report’, as I was the local organizer and one of the lecturers, but it’s a brief recap ‘trip report kind of blog post’ nonetheless.

The scientific programme consisted of lectures and tutorials on:

The linked slides (titles of the lectures, above) reveal only part of the contents covered, though. There were useful group exercises and plenary discussion with the ontological analysis of medical terms such as what a headache is, a tooth extraction, blood, or aspirin, an exercises on putting into practice the design process of a conceptual modelling language of one’s liking (e.g.: how to formalize flowcharts, including an ontological analysis of what those elements are and ontological commitments embedded in a language), and trying to prove some theorems of parthood theories.

There was also a session with 2-minute ‘blitztalks’ by participants interested in briefly describing their ongoing research, which was followed by an interactive poster session.

It was the first time that an ISAO had mini-projects, which turned out to have had better outcomes than I expected, considering the limited time available for it. Each group had to pick a term and investigate what it meant in the various disciplines (task description); e.g.: what does ‘concept’ or ‘category’ mean in psychology, ontology, data science, and linguistics, and ‘function’ in manufacturing, society, medicine, and anatomy? The presentations at the end of the week by each group were interesting and most of the material presented there easily could be added to the IAOA Education wiki’s term list (an activity in progress).

What was not a first-time activity, was the Ontology Pub Quiz, which is a bit of a merger of scientific programme and social activity. We created a new version based on questions from several ISAO’18 lecturers and a few relevant questions created earlier (questions and answers; we did only questions 1-3,6-7). We tried a new format compared to the ISAO’16 quiz and JOWO’17 quiz: each team had 5 minutes to answer a set of 5 questions, and another team marked the answers. This set-up was not as hectic as the other format, and resulted in more within-team interaction cf. among all participants interaction. As in prior editions, some questions and answers were debatable (and there’s still the plan to make note of that and fix it—or you could write an article about it, perhaps :)). The students of the winning team received 2 years free IAOA membership (and chocolate for all team members) and the students of the other two teams received one year free IAOA membership.

Impression of part of the poster session area, moving into the welcome reception

As with the three previous ISAO editions, there was also a social programme, which aimed to facilitate getting to know one another, networking, and have time for scientific conversations. On the first day, the poster session eased into a welcome reception (after a brief wine lapse in the coffee break before the blitztalks). The second day had an activity to stretch the legs after the lectures and before the mini-project work, which was a Bachata dance lesson by Angus Prince from Evolution Dance. Not everyone was eager at the start, but it turned out an enjoyable and entertaining hour. Wednesday was supposed to be a hike up the iconic Table Mountain, but of all the dry days we’ve had here in Cape Town, on that day it was cloudy and rainy, so an alternative plan of indoor chocolate tasting in the Biscuit Mill was devised and executed. Thursday evening was an evening off (from scheduled activities, at least), and Friday early evening we had the pub quiz in the UCT club (the campus pub). Although there was no official planning for Saturday afternoon after the morning lectures, there was again an attempt at Table Mountain, concluding the week.

The participants came from all over the world, including relatively many from Southern Africa with participants coming also from Botswana and Mauritius, besides several universities in South Africa (UCT, SUN, CUT). I hope everyone has learned something from the programme that is or will be of use, enjoyed the social programme, and made some useful new contacts and/or solidified existing ones. I look forward to seeing you all at the next ISAO or, better, FOIS, in 2020 in Bolzano, Italy.

Finally, as a non-trip-report comment from my local chairing viewpoint: special thanks go to the volunteers Zubeida Khan for the ISAO website, Zola Mahlaza and Michael Harrison for on-site assistance, and Sam Chetty for the IT admin.

An Ontology Engineering textbook

My first textbook “An Introduction to Ontology Engineering” (pdf) is just released as an open textbook. I have revised, updated, and extended my earlier lecture notes on ontology engineering, amounting to about 1/3 more new content cf. its predecessor. Its main aim is to provide an introductory overview of ontology engineering and its secondary aim is to provide hands-on experience in ontology development that illustrate the theory.

The contents and narrative is aimed at advanced undergraduate and postgraduate level in computing (e.g., as a semester-long course), and the book is structured accordingly. After an introductory chapter, there are three blocks:

  • Logic foundations for ontologies: languages (FOL, DLs, OWL species) and automated reasoning (principles and the basics of tableau);
  • Developing good ontologies with methods and methodologies, the top-down approach with foundational ontologies, and the bottom-up approach to extract as much useful content as possible from legacy material;
  • Advanced topics that has a selection of sub-topics: Ontology-Based Data Access, interactions between ontologies and natural languages, and advanced modelling with additional language features (fuzzy and temporal).

Each chapter has several review questions and exercises to explore one or more aspects of the theory, as well as descriptions of two assignments that require using several sub-topics at once. More information is available on the textbook’s page [also here] (including the links to the ontologies used in the exercises), or you can click here for the pdf (7MB).

Feedback is welcome, of course. Also, if you happen to use it in whole or in part for your course, I’d be grateful if you would let me know. Finally, if this textbook will be used half (or even a quarter) as much as the 2009/2010 blogposts have been visited (around 10K unique visitors since posting them), that would mean there are a lot of people learning about ontology engineering and then I’ll have achieved more than I hoped for.

UPDATE: meanwhile, it has been added to several open (text)book repositories, such as OpenUCT and the Open Textbook Archive, and it has been featured on in the week of 13-8 (out of its 14K free ebooks).

Ontology pub quiz questions of ISAO 2016 and JOWO 2017

In 2016 when I was a PC chair of the International School for Applied Ontology (ISAO 2016), the idea of organising a contest for the participants turned into a pub quiz somehow. The lecturers provided one or more questions on the topics they’d be teaching and I added a few as well. This set of ISAO16 ontology pub quiz questions is now finally online. It comes with the warning that it is biased toward the topics covered at ISAO 2016, and it turned out that there were a few questions not well formulated and/or not everyone agreed with the answer.

Notwithstanding, it was deemed sufficiently ok as idea in that the general chair of the Joint Ontology Workshops (JOWO 2017) wanted one for JOWO 2017 as well. Several questions were thrown out of the ISAO16 set for various reasons and more general Ontology questions made their way in, as well as a few ‘fun’ and trivia ones in the hope to add some more entertainment to the ontology pub quiz. The JOWO17 pub quiz question set with answers is now also online to play with, which, in my opinion, is a nicer set than the ISAO16 one. Here are a few questions to give you a taste of it:

  • Where/when can a pointless theory be relevant?
  • What is the goal of guerrilla ontology?
  • No Italian pizza has fruit as topping. Which of the following is (an)/are Italian pizza(s)? Pizza Hawaii, Pizza margherita, Pizza bianca romana (‘white roman pizza’)
  • When was the earliest published occurrence of the word “ontology”?

It turned out that it still was not entirely free of debate. If you disagree with one of the answers now, then let me paraphrase Stefano Borgo, who co-ran the JOWO17 pub quiz at the Irish pub in Bolzano on 23 September: maybe there’s something there to write up and submit a paper to FOIS 2018 :-). Or you can write it in the blog post comments section below, so that those questions will/should not be recycled and I can add longer answers to the questions.

Orchestrating 28 logical theories of mereo(topo)logy

Parts and wholes, again. This time it’s about the logic-aspects of theories of parthood (cf. aligning different hierarchies of (part-whole) relations and make them compatible with foundational ontologies). I intended to write this post before the Ninth Conference on Knowledge Capture (K-CAP 2017), where the paper describing the new material would be presented by my co-author, Oliver Kutz. Now, afterwards, I can add that “Orchestrating a Network of Mereo(topo) logical Theories” [1] even won the Best Paper Award. The novelties, in broad strokes, are that we figured out and structured some hitherto messy and confusing state of affairs, showed that one can do more than generally assumed especially with a new logics orchestration framework, and we proposed first steps toward conflict resolution to sort out expressivity and logic limitations trade-offs. Constructing a tweet-size “tl;dr” version of the contents is not easy, and as I have as much space here on my blog as I like, it ended up to be three paragraphs here: scene-setting, solution, and a few examples to illustrate some of it.



As ontologists know, parthood is used widely in ontologies across most subject domains, such as biomedicine, geographic information systems, architecture, and so on. Ontology (the philosophers) offer a parthood relation that has a bunch of computationally unpleasant properties that are structured in a plethora of mereologicial and meretopological theories such that it has become hard to see the forest for the trees. This is then complicated in practice because there are multiple logics of varying expressivity (support more or less language features), with the result that only certain fragments of the mereo(topo)logical theories can be represented. However, it’s mostly not clear what can be used when, during the ontology authoring stage one may want to have all those features so as to check correctness, and it’s not easy to predict what will happen when one aligns ontologies with different fragments of mereo(topo)logy.



We solved these problems by specifying a structured network of theories formulated in multiple logics that are glued together by the various linking constructs of the Distributed Ontology, Model, and Specification Language (DOL). The ‘structured network of theories’-part concerns all the maximal expressible fragments of the KGEMT mereotopological theory and five of its most well-recognised sub-theories (like GEM and MT) in the seven Description Logics-based OWL species, first-order logic, and higher order logic. The ‘glued together’-part refers to relating the resultant 28 theories within DOL (in Ontohub), which is a non-trivial (understatement, unfortunately) metalanguage that has the constructors for the glue, such as enabling one to declare to merge two theories/modules represented in different logics, extending a theory (ontology) with axioms that go beyond that language without messing up the original (expressivity-restricted) ontology, and more. Further, because the annoying thing of merging two ontologies/modules can be that the merged ontology may be in a different language than the two original ones, which is very hard to predict, we have a cute proof-of-concept tool so that it assists with steps toward resolution of language feature conflicts by pinpointing profile violations.



The paper describes nine mechanisms with DOL and the mereotopological theories. Here I’ll start with a simple one: we have Minimal Topology (MT) partially represented in OWL 2 EL/QL in “theory8” where the connection relation (C) is just reflexive (among other axioms; see table in the paper for details). Now what if we add connection’s symmetry, which results in “theory4”? First, we do this by not harming theory8, in DOL syntax (see also the ESSLI’16 tutorial):

logic OWL2.QL
ontology theory4 =
ObjectProperty: C Characteristics: Symmetric %(t7)

What is the logic of theory4? Still in OWL, and if so, which species? The Owl classifier shows the result:


Another case is that OWL does not let one define an object property; at best, one can add domain and range axioms and the occasional ‘characteristic’ (like aforementioned symmetry), for allowing arbitrary full definitions pushes it out of the decidable fragment. One can add them, though, in a system that can handle first order logic, such as the Heterogeneous toolset (Hets); for instance, where in OWL one can add only “overlap” as a primitive relation (vocabulary element without definition), we can take such a theory and declare that definition:

logic CASL.FOL
ontology theory20 =
then %wdef
. forall x,y:Thing . O(x,y) <=> exists z:Thing (P(z,x) /\ P(z,y)) %(t21)
. forall x,y:Thing . EQ(x,y) <=> P(x,y) /\ P(y,x) %(t22)

As last example, let me illustrate the notion of the conflict resolution. Consider theory19—ground mereology, partially—that is within OWL 2 EL expressivity and theory18—also ground mereology, partially—that is within OWL 2 DL expressivity. So, they can’t be the same; the difference is that theory18 has parthood reflexive and transitive and proper parthood asymmetric and irreflexive, whereas theory19 has both parthood and proper parthood transitive. What happens if one aligns the ontologies that contain these theories, say, O1 (with theory18) and O2 (with theory19)? The Owl classifier provides easy pinpointing and tells you the profile: OWL 2 full (or: first order logic, or: beyond OWL 2 DL—top row) and why (bottom section):

Now, what can one do? The conflict resolution cannot be fully automated, because it depends on what the modeller wants or needs, but there’s enough data generated already and there are known trade-offs so that it is possible to describe the consequences:

  • Choose the O1 axioms (with irreflexivity and asymmetry on proper part of), which will make the ontology interoperable with other ontologies in OWL 2 DL, FOL or HOL.
  • Choose O2’s axioms (with transitivity on part of and proper part of), which will facilitate linking to ontologies in OWL 2 RL, 2 EL, 2 DL, FOL, and HOL.
  • Choose to keep both sets will result in an OWL 2 Full ontology that is undecidable, and it is then compatible only with FOL and HOL ontologies.

As serious final note: there’s still fun to be had on the logic side of things with countermodels and sub-networks and such, and with refining the conflict resolution to assist ontology engineers better. (or: TBC)

As less serious final note: the working title of early drafts of the paper was “DOLifying mereo(topo)logy”, but at some point we chickened out and let go of that frivolity.



[1] Keet, C.M., Kutz, O. Orchestrating a Network of Mereo(topo)logical Theories. Ninth International Conference on Knowledge Capture (K-CAP’17), Austin, Texas, USA, December 4-6, 2017. ACM Proceedings.

Aligning different relations: the case of part-whole relations—LDK2017

Despite the best intentions, I did not get around to writing a post on the paper that I presented last week at the First International Conference on Language, Data and Knowledge 2017, 19-20 June, Galway, Ireland, and now Paul Groth also ‘beat’ me to it writing a nice conference report of it. On the bright side, it is an opportunity to say upfront I really enjoyed the conference and look forward to the next edition in 2019. The ESWC’17 organisers might be slightly disappointed that there was no special track on the multilingual semantic web after all, but I did get the distinct impression that the LDK17 authors might just all have gambled on LDK17—an opportunity to binge two days on all things natural language & Semantic Web—rather than on one track at an overpriced conference (despite the allure of it being A-rated).

So, what was my paper about that could have been submitted to either? I ended up struggling—and solving—an issue with aligning OWL object properties that were not simple 1:1 mappings, in a similar scope as our ESWC17 paper (introduced here) [4], but then with too many complications. Complications were due to the different conceptualisations of part-whole relations and that one of the requirements was to solve what to do with an object property (relation, relationship) that does not have a neat, single, label, and therewith neither fitting with the common OWL modelling paradigm nor with the recently agreed-upon ontolex-lemon model for linguistic annotations.

The start of all this sounded nice and doable: we need to generate natural language for healthcare, using, e.g., SNOMED CT, in local languages in South Africa, focussing on the largest one, being isiZulu. Medical terminologies are riddled with part-whole relations, so we sought to address that one (simple existentials already having been solved), availing of a standard list of part-whole relations (e.g. [1]). That turned out to be a non-trivial exercise, but doable eventually [2]. What wasn’t addressed in [2] was that some ‘common’ part-whole relations, such as membership and containment, weren’t like that in isiZulu, at all. Moreover, it wasn’t just a language issue, but ontological as well. The LDK17 paper “Representing and aligning similar relations: parts and wholes in isiZulu vs English” [3] describes this in some detail.

Here’s a (simplified) list of (assumed to be) common part-whole relations, which takes into account both transitivity differences and domain and range:

Now here’s the one based on the isiZulu language and some ontological analysis of that:

That is: there are both generalisations—some distinctions are not being made—and specialisations—some distinctions are made here but not elsewhere. For instance, ‘musician is part of some orchestra’ and ‘heart is part of some human’ (or vv.) is all done and described in the same way (ingxenye ‘part of’ and SC+CONJ for ‘has part’ [more about that below]). Yet, there is a difference between an individual (e.g., a voter) participating in some process and a collective (e.g., the electorate) participating in a process, or vv. The paper describes this more precisely, going into some detail regarding the differences in categories of domain and range and into the consequences on transitivity of mereological parthood.

The other ‘odd thing’—cf. current multilingual Semantic Web assumptions and technologies, that is—is that while the conceptualisation of ‘has part’ exists, it does not have a single label as in English (or in several other languages, such as heeft as deel), but it is dependent on the noun class of the noun of the class that play the part and play the whole in the relation. It combines the subject concord (~conjugation) of the noun class of the noun that plays the whole with a conjunction that is phonologically conditioned based on the first letter of the noun that plays the part; with verbalisation in the plural and three phonological cases, there are 18 possible strings all denoting ‘has part’. This still could be sorted with a language with inverses, provided the part-of direction has a name, like the ingxenye. This is not the case for containment, however. Instead of the relation (object property) having a name—be this a verb like ‘contained in’ or some noun phrase—it is the noun that plays the whole (the container, if you will) that gets modified. For instance, imvilophu ‘envelope’ and emvilophini denoting ‘contained in the envelope’, or, for individuals and locations, the city iTheku ‘Durban’ and eThekwini meaning ‘located in Durban’ (no typo—there’s some phonological conditioning I’m brushing over). While I have gotten used to such constructions, it generated some surprise among several attendees that one can have notions, concepts, views on or interpretations or descriptions of reality, that exist but do not have even one single string of text throughout to refer to regardless the context it is used.

The naming issue was solved by adding some arbitrary string as ‘name’ of the object property, and relating that to the function that verbalises that specific part-whole relation. The former issue, i.e., not all the same part-whole relations, required a bit more work, using ontology pattern alignments, by extending one correspondence pattern from the ODP catalogue and introducing a new one (see paper for the formal details), using the same broad framework of formalisation as proposed in [4].

All this was then implemented and aligned, and verified to not result in some unsatisfiable classes, object properties, or inconsistency (files). This also works in the isiZulu verbalisation tool we demo-ed at ESWC17 (described in the previous post) [5], all as part of the NRF-funded GeNI project.

Now, ideally, I already would have had the time to read the papers I flagged in my LDK17 conference notes with “check paper”. I haven’t yet due to end-of-semester tasks. So, on the basis of just a positive-seeming presentation, here are a few that are on the top of my list to check out first, for quite different reasons:

  • Interaction between natural language reading capabilities and math education, focusing on language production (i.e., ‘can you talk about it?’) [6], mainly because math education in South Africa faces a lot of problems. It also generated a lively discussion in the Q&A session.
  • The OnLiT ontology for linguistic [7] and LLODifying linguistic glosses [8] terminology (also: one of the two also won the best paper award).
  • Deep text generation, for it was looking at trying to address skewed or limited data to learn from [9], which is an issue we face when trying to do some NLP with most South African languages.



[1] Keet, C.M., Artale, A. Representing and Reasoning over a Taxonomy of Part-Whole Relations. Applied Ontology, 2008, 3(1-2):91-110.

[2] Keet, C.M., Khumalo, L. On the verbalization patterns of part-whole relations in isiZulu. 9th International Natural Language Generation conference (INLG’16), September 5-8, 2016, Edinburgh, UK. ACL.

[3] Keet, C.M. Representing and aligning similar relations: parts and wholes in isiZulu vs English. In: Gracia J., Bond F., McCrae J., Buitelaar P., Chiarcos C., Hellmann S. (eds) Language, Data, and Knowledge LDK 2017. Springer LNAI vol 10318, 58-73.

[4] Fillottrani, P.R., Keet, C.M. Patterns for Heterogeneous TBox Mappings to Bridge Different Modelling Decisions. 14th Extended Semantic Web Conference (ESWC’17). Springer LNCS. Portoroz, Slovenia, May 28 – June 2, 2017.

[5] Keet, C.M. Xakaza, M., Khumalo, L. Verbalising OWL ontologies in isiZulu with Python. 14th Extended Semantic Web Conference (ESWC’17). Springer LNCS. Portoroz, Slovenia, May 28 – June 2, 2017. (demo paper)

[6] Crossley, S., Kostyuk, V. Letting the genie out of the lamp: using natural language processing tools to predict math performance. In: Gracia J., Bond F., McCrae J., Buitelaar P., Chiarcos C., Hellmann S. (eds) Language, Data, and Knowledge LDK 2017. Springer LNAI vol 10318, 330-342.

[7] Klimek, B., McCrae, J.P., Lehmann, C., Chiarcos, C., Hellmann, S. OnLiT: and ontology for linguistic terminology. In: Gracia J., Bond F., McCrae J., Buitelaar P., Chiarcos C., Hellmann S. (eds) Language, Data, and Knowledge LDK 2017. Springer LNAI vol 10318, 42-57.

[8] Chiarcos, C., Ionov, M. Rind-Pawlowski, M., Fäth, C., Wichers Schreur, J., Nevskaya. I. LLODifying linguistic glosses. In: Gracia J., Bond F., McCrae J., Buitelaar P., Chiarcos C., Hellmann S. (eds) Language, Data, and Knowledge LDK 2017. Springer LNAI vol 10318, 89-103.

[9] Dethlefs N., Turner A. Deep Text Generation — Using Hierarchical Decomposition to Mitigate the Effect of Rare Data Points. In: Gracia J., Bond F., McCrae J., Buitelaar P., Chiarcos C., Hellmann S. (eds) Language, Data, and Knowledge LDK 2017. Springer LNAI vol 10318, 290-298.

On that “shared” conceptualization and other definitions of an ontology

It’s a topic that never failed to generate a discussion on all 10 instalments of the ontology engineering course I taught from BSc(hons) up to participants studying toward or already having a PhD: those pesky definitions of what an ontology is. To top it off, like I didn’t know, I also got a snarky reviewer’s comment about it on my Stuff ontology paper [1]:

A comment that might be superficial but I cannot help: since an ontology is usually (in Borst’s terms) assumed to be a ‘shared’ conceptualization, I find a little surprising for such a complex model to have been designed by a sole author. While I acknowledge the huge amount of literature carefully analyzed, it still seems that the concrete modeling decisions eventually relied on the background of a single ontologist

Is that bad? Does that make the Stuff Ontology a ‘nontology’? And, by the by, what about all those loner philosophers who write single-author papers on ontology; should that whole field be discarded because most of the ontology insights were “shared” only from paper submission and publication?

Anyway, let’s start from the beginning. There’s the much-criticized definition of an ontology from Gruber that, it seems, only novices seem to keep quoting (to my irritation, indeed):

An ontology is a specification of a conceptualization. [2]

If you wonder why quite a bit has been written about it: try to answer what “specification” really means and how it is specified, and what exactly a “conceptualization” is. The real fun starts with Borst et al.’s [3] and then Studer et al.’s [4] refinement of Gruber’s version, which the reviewer quoted above alluded to:

An ontology is a formal, explicit specification of a shared conceptualization. [4]

At least there’s the “formal” (be it in the sense of logic or formal ontology), and “explicit”, so something is being made explicit and precise. But “shared”? Shared with whom? How? Is a logical theory that not one, but two, people write down an ontology, then? Or one person develops an ontology and then emails it to a few colleagues or puts it online in, say, the open BioPortal ontology repository. Does that count as “shared” then? Or is it only “shared” if at least one other person agrees with it as is (all reviewers of the Stuff Ontology did, btw), or perhaps (most or all of) the ‘conceptualization’ of it but a few axioms would need a bit of tweaking and cleaning up? Do you need at least a group of people to develop an ontology, and if so, how large should that group be, and should that group consist of independent sub-groups that adopt the ontology (and if so, how many endorsers)? Is a lightweight low-hanging-fruit ontology that is used by a large company a real or successful ontology, but a highly axiomatised ontology with a high tangledness that is used by a specialist organization, not? And even if you canvass and get a large group and/or organization to buy into that formal explicit specification, what if they are all wrong on the reality is supposed to represent? Does it still count as an ontology no matter how wrong the conceptualization is, just because it’s formal, explicit, and shared? Is a tailor-made module of, say, the DOLCE ontology not also an ontology, even if the module was made by one person and made available in an online repository like ROMULUS?

Perhaps one shouldn’t start top-down, but bottom-up: take some things and decide (who?) whether it is an ontology or not. Case one: the taxonomy of part-whole relations is a mini-ontology, and although at the start only ‘shared’ with my co-author and published in the Applied Ontology journal [5], it has been used by quite a few researchers for various (and unintended) purposes afterward, notably in NLP (e.g., [6]). An ontology? If so, since when? Case two: Noy et al. converted the representation of the NCI thesaurus into OWL DL [7]. Does changing the serialisation of a multi-authored thesaurus from one format into another make it an ontology? (more on that below.) Case three: a group of 5 people try to represent the subject domain of, say, breast cancer, but it is replete with mistakes both regarding the reality it ought to represent and unintended modelling errors (such as confusing is-a with part-of). Is it still an ontology, albeit a bad one?

It gets more muddled when the representation language is thrown in (as with case 2 above). What if the ontology turns out to be unsatisfiable? From a logic viewpoint, it’s not a theory then (a consistent set of sentences, is), but if it’s formal, explicit, and shared, is it acceptable that those people who developed the artefact simply have an inconsistent conceptualization and that it still counts as an ontology?

Horrocks et al. [8] simplify the whole thing by eliminating the ‘shared’ aspect:

an ontology being equivalent to a Description Logic knowledge base. [8]

However, this generates a set of questions and problems of its own that are practically also problematic. For instance: 1) whether transforming a UML Class Diagram into OWL ‘magically’ makes it an ontology (answer: no); 2) The NCI Thesaurus to OWL (answer: no); or 3) if you used, say, Common Logic to represent it, that then it could not be an ontology because it’s not formalised in Description Logics (answer: it sure can be one).

There are more attempts to give a definition or a description, notably by Nicola Guarino in [9] (a key paper in the field):

An ontology is a logical theory accounting for the intended meaning of a formal vocabulary, i.e. its ontological commitment to a particular conceptualization of the world. The intended models of a logical language using such a vocabulary are constrained by its ontological commitment. An ontology indirectly reflects this commitment (and the underlying conceptualization) by approximating these intended models. [9]

That’s a mouthful, but at least no “shared” in there, either. And, finally, among the many definitions in [10], here’s Barry Smith and cs.’s take on it:

An ONTOLOGY is a representational artifact, comprising a taxonomy as proper part, whose representational units are intended to designate some combination of universals, defined classes, and certain relations between them. [10]

And again, no “shared” either in this definition. Of course, also with Smith’s definition, there are things one can debate about and pose it against Guarino’s definition, like the “universals” vs. “conceptualization” etc., but that’s a story for another time.

So, to sum up: there is that problem on how to interpret “shared”, which is untenable, and one just as well can pick a definition of an ontology from a widely cited paper that doesn’t include that in the definition.

That said, all this doesn’t help my students to grapple with the notion of ‘an ontology’. Examples help, and it would be good if someone, or, say, the International Association for Ontology and its Applications (IAOA) would have a list of “exemplar ontologies” sooner rather than later. (Yes, I have a list, but it still needs to be annotated better). Another aspect that helps explaining it comes is from Guarino’s slides on going “from logical to ontological level” and on good and bad ontologies. This first screenshot (taken from my slides—easier to find) shows there’s “something more” to an ontology than just the logic, with a hint to reasons why (note to my students: more about that later in the course). The second screenshot shows that, yes, we can have the good, bad, and ugly: the yellow oval denotes the intended models (what it should be), and the other ovals denote the various approximations that one may have tried to represent in an ontology. For instance, representing ‘each human has exactly one brain’ is more precise (“good”) than stating ‘each human has at least one brain’ (“less good”) or not saying anything at all about it an ontology of human anatomy (“bad”), and even “worse” it would be if that ontology ware to state ‘each human has exactly two tails’.


Maybe we can’t do better than ‘intuition’ or ‘very wieldy explanation’. If this were a local installation of WordPress, I’d have added a poll on definitions and the subjectivity on the shared-ness factor (though knowing well that science isn’t governed as a democracy). In lieu of that: comments, preferences for one definition or the other, or any better suggestions for definitions are most welcome! (The next instalment of my Ontology Engineering course will start in a few week’s time.)



[1] Keet, C.M. A core ontology of macroscopic stuff. 19th International Conference on Knowledge Engineering and Knowledge Management (EKAW’14). K. Janowicz et al. (Eds.). 24-28 Nov, 2014, Linkoping, Sweden. Springer LNAI vol. 8876, 209-224.

[2] Gruber, T. R. A translation approach to portable ontology specifications. Knowledge Acquisition, 1993, 5(2):199-220.

[3] Borst, W.N., Akkermans, J.M. Engineering Ontologies. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 1997, 46(2-3):365-406.

[4] Studer, R., Benjamins, R., and Fensel, D. Knowledge engineering: Principles and methods. Data & Knowledge Engineering, 1998, 25(1-2):161-198.

[5] Keet, C.M., Artale, A. Representing and Reasoning over a Taxonomy of Part-Whole Relations. Applied Ontology, 2008, 3(1-2):91-110.

[6] Tandon, N., Hariman, C., Urbani, J., Rohrbach, A., Rohrbach, M., Weikum, G.: Commonsense in parts: Mining part-whole relations from the web and image tags. In: Proceedings of the Thirtieth AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence (AAAI’16). pp. 243-250. AAAI Press (2016)

[7] Noy, N.F., de Coronado, S., Solbrig, H., Fragoso, G., Hartel, F.W., Musen, M. Representing the NCI Thesaurus in OWL DL: Modeling tools help modeling languages. Applied Ontology, 2008, 3(3):173-190.

[8] Horrocks, I., Patel-Schneider, P. F., and van Harmelen, F. From SHIQ and RDF to OWL: The making of a web ontology language. Journal of Web Semantics, 2003, 1(1):7.

[9] Guarino, N. (1998). Formal ontology and information systems. In Guarino, N., editor, Proceedings of Formal Ontology in Information Systems (FOIS’98), Frontiers in Artificial intelligence and Applications, pages 3-15. Amsterdam: IOS Press.

[10] Smith, B., Kusnierczyk, W., Schober, D., Ceusters, W. Towards a Reference Terminology for Ontology Research and Development in the Biomedical Domain. KR-MED 2006 “Biomedical Ontology in Action”. November 8, 2006, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.