A controlled language for competency questions

The formulation of so-called competency questions (CQs) at the start of the development of an ontology or a similar artefact is a recurring exercise in various ontology development methodologies. For instance, “Which animals are the predators of impalas?” that an African Wildlife ontology should be able to answer and “What are the main parsers for compilers?” that a software ontology may be able to answer. Yet, going by the small number of publicly available CQs, it seems like that many developers skip that step in the process. And it turned out that for those who at least try, a considerable number of purported CQs, actually aren’t at all, are mis-formulated for even having a chance for it to work smoothly (for, say, automated formalisation), or are grammatically incorrect (a depressing 1/3 of the sentences in our test set, to be more precise). Also, there’s no software support in guiding a modeller to formulate CQs, nor to actually do something with it, such as converting it automatically into SPARQL; hence, it is disjointed from the actual artefact under development, which doesn’t help uptake.

In an attempt to narrow this gap, we have developed a controlled natural language (CNL) called CLaRO: a Competency question Language for specifying Requirements for an Ontology, model, or specification [1] for CQs for ‘TBoxes’ (type-level information and knowledge, not instances). Advantages of a CNL for CQs include that it should be easier—or at least less hard—to formalise a CQ into a query over the model and to formulate a CQ in the first place. CLaRO more specifically operates at the language layer, so it deals with noun and verb phrases, rather that the primitives of a representation language and the predetermined modeling style that comes with it. It is also the first one that has been evaluated on coverage, which turned out to be good and better than earlier works on templates for CQs. To add more to it, we also made a basic tool that offers assistive authoring to write CQs (screencast).

We got there by availing of a recently published dataset of 234 CQs that had been analysed linguistically into patterns. We analysed those patterns, and that outcome informed the design of CLaRO. Given the size, this first version pf CLaRO is template-based, with core CQs and several variants, totalling to 134 templates. CLaRO was evaluated with a random sample from the original 234 CQs, a newly created set of CQs scrambled together for related work, and half of the Pizza CQs, as well as evaluated against templates presented elsewhere [2,3]. The results are summarised in the paper and discussed in more detail in a related longer technical report [4]. Here’s the nice table with the aggregate data:

Aggregated results for coverage of the three test sets. The best values are highlighted in italics. (CLaRO results are for the complete set of 134 templates) (source: based on [1])

Given the encouraging results, we also created a proof of concept CQ authoring tool, which both can assist in the authoring of CQs and may contribute to get a better idea of requirements for such a tool. One can use autocomplete so that it proposes a template, and then fill in a selected template, or just ignore it and write a free-form CQ, hit enter, and save it to a text file; the file can also be opened and CQs deleted. Here are a few screenshots on selecting and adding a CQ in the tool:

We will be presenting CLaRO at the 13th International Conference on Metadata and Semantics Research (MTSR’19) in Rome at the end of October. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, please don’t hesitate to contact us. The CNL specification in csv and XML formats, the evaluation data, and the tool with the source code are available from the CLaRO Github repo.

 

References:

[1] Keet, C.M., Mahlaza, Z., Antia, M.-J. CLaRO: a Controlled Language for Authoring Competency Questions. 13th Metadata and Semantics Research Conference (MTSR’19). 28-31 Oct 2019, Rome, Italy. Springer CCIS. (in print)

[2] Ren, Y., Parvizi, A., Mellish, C., Pan, J.Z., van Deemter, K., Stevens, R.: Towards competency question-driven ontology authoring. In: Extended Semantic Web Conference (ESWC’14). LNCS, Springer (2014)

[3] Bezerra, C., Freitas, F., Santana, F.: Evaluating ontologies with competency questions. In: Proceedings of the 2013 IEEE/WIC/ACM International Joint Conferences on Web Intelligence (WI) and Intelligent Agent Technologies (IAT) – Volume 03. pp. 284-285. IEEE Computer Society, Washington, DC, USA (2013)

[4] Keet, C.M., Mahlaza, Z., Antia, M.-J. CLaRO: A data-driven CNL for specifying competency questions. University of Cape Town. Technical Report. 17 July 2019. https://arxiv.org/abs/1907.07378

Tutorial: OntoClean in OWL and with an OWL reasoner

The novelty surrounding all things OntoClean described here, is that we made a tutorial out of a scientific paper and used an example that is different from the (in?)famous manual example to clean up a ‘dirty’ taxonomy.

I’m assuming you have at least heard of OntoClean, which is an ontology-inspired method to examine the taxonomy of an ontology, which may be useful especially when the classes (/universals/concepts/..) have no or only a few properties or attributes declared. Based on that ontological information provided by the modeller, it will highlight violations of ontological principles in the taxonomy so that the ontologist may fix it. Its most recent overview is described in Guarino & Welty’s book chapter [1] and there are handouts and slides that show some of the intermediate steps; a 1.5-page summary is included as section 5.2.2 in my textbook [2].

Besides that paper-based description [1], there have been two attempts to get the reasoning with the meta-properties going in a way that can exploit existing technologies, which are OntOWLClean [3] and OntOWL2Clean [4]. As the names suggest, those existing and widely-used mechanisms are OWL and the DL-based reasoners for OWL, and the latter uses OWL2-specific language features (such as role chains) whereas the former does not. As it happened, some of my former students of the OE course wanted to try the OntoOWLClean approach by Welty, and, as they were with three students in the mini-project team, they also had to make their own example taxonomy, and compare the two approaches. It is their—Todii Mashoko, Siseko Neti, and Banele Matsebula’s—report and materials we—Zola Mahlaza and I—have brushed up and rearranged into a tutorial on OntoClean with OWL and a DL reasoner with accompanying OWL files for the main stages in the process.

There are the two input ontologies in OWL (the domain ontology to clean and the ‘ontoclean ontology’ that codes the rules in the TBox), an ontology for the stage after punning the taxonomy into the ABox, and one after having assigned the meta-properties, so that students can check they did the steps correctly with respect to the tutorial example and instructions. The first screenshot below shows a section of the ontology after pushing the taxonomy into the ABox and having assigned the meta-properties. The second screenshot illustrates a state after having selected, started, and run the reasoner and clicked on “explain” to obtain some justifications why the ontology is inconsistent.

section of the punned ontology where meta-properties have been assigned to each new individual.

A selection of the inconsistencies (due to violating OntoClean rules) with their respective explanations

Those explanations, like shown in the second screenshot, indicate which OntoClean rule has been violated. Among others, there’s the OntoClean rule that (1) classes that are dependent may have as subclasses only those classes that are also dependent. The ontology, however, has: i) Father is dependent, ii) Male is non-dependent, and iii) Father has as subclass Male. This subsumption violates rule (1). Indeed, not all males are fathers, so it would be, at least, the other way around (fathers are males), but it also could be remodelled in the ontology such that father is a role that a male can play.

Let us look at the second generated explanation, which is about violating another OntoClean rule: (2) sortal classes have only as subclasses classes that are also sortals. Now, the ontology has: i) Ball is a sortal, ii) Sphere is a non-sortal, and iii) Ball has as subclass Sphere. This violates rule (2). So, the hierarchy has to be updated such that Sphere is not subsumed by Ball anymore. (e.g., Ball has as shape some Sphere, though note that not all balls are spherical [notably, rugby balls are not]). More explanations of the rule violations are described in the tutorial.

Seeing that there are several possible options to change the taxonomy, there is no solution ontology. We considered creating one, but there are at least two ‘levels’ that will influence what a solution may look like: one could be based on a (minimum or not) number of changes with respect to the assigned meta-properties and another on re-examining the assigned meta-properties (and then restructuring the hierarchy). In fact, and unlike the original OntoClean example, there is at least one case where there is a meta-property assignment that would generally be considered to be wrong, even though it does show the application of the OntoClean rule correctly. How best to assign a meta-property, i.e., which one it should be, is not always easy, and the student is also encouraged to consider that aspect of the method. Some guidance on how to best modify the taxonomy—like Father is-a Male vs. Father inheres-in some Male—may be found in other sections and chapters of the textbook, among other resources.

 

p.s.: this tutorial is the result of one of the activities to improve on the OE open textbook, which are funded by the DOT4D project, as was the tool to render the axioms in DL in Protégé. A few more things are in the pipeline (TBC).

 

References

[1] Guarino, N. and Welty, C. A. (2009). An overview of OntoClean. In Staab, S. and Studer, R., editors, Handbook on Ontologies, International Handbooks on Information Systems, pages 201-220. Springer.

[2] Keet, C. M. (2018). An introduction to ontology engineering. College Publications, vol 20. 344p.

[3] Welty, C. A. (2006). OntOWLClean: Cleaning OWL ontologies with OWL. In Bennett, B. and Fellbaum, C., editors, Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Formal Ontology in Information Systems (FOIS 2006), Baltimore, Maryland, USA, November 9-11, 2006, volume 150 of Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence and Applications, pages 347-359. IOS Press.

[4] Glimm, B., Rudolph, S., Volker, J. (2010). Integrated metamodeling and diagnosis in OWL 2. In Peter F. Patel-Schneider, Yue Pan, Pascal Hitzler, Peter Mika, Lei Zhang, Je_ Z. Pan, Ian Horrocks, and Birte Glimm, editors, Proceedings of the 9th International Semantic Web Conference, LNCS vol 6496, pages 257-272. Springer.

Language annotation on the Web with MoLA

The Web consists of very many resources in many languages and has information about even more. Sure, the majority of Internet users speak English, Chinese, or Spanish, but there are sites, pages, paragraphs, and documents in other languages and about lesser known ‘languoids’ (language, dialect, variant, etc.), ranging from, say, a poem about the poor man’s dinner written in an old Brabants dialect that used to be spoken in the south of the Netherlands to the effects of mobile phones on Zimbabwean (cf. South African) isiNdebele [1]. How should that be annotated? Here’s a complex use case of languoids for old French:

(source: [2])

The extant multilingual Semantic Web models, such as W3C’s ontolex-lemon community standard have outsourced that to a ‘the language tag comes from some place’, as they focus on the word-level and/or sentence-level for the multilingual (semantic) Web. There are indeed standardisations of language tags. Notably, there are the ISO 639 codes (parts 1, 2, 3 and 5) for some 8000 languages—but there are more languoids that are not covered by the ISO list, with an estimated 8-15K or so currently spoken languoids and 150K extinct. There are also Glottolog, Ethnologue, and MultiTree, which are more comprehensive in some respect, but they are limited and problematic in other cases. For instance, Glottolog—the best among them—still uses the broader/narrower than, has artificial names for grouping languoids, has inconsistencies in modelling decisions, and is still incomplete in coverage.

My co-authors—Frances Gillis-Webber, also at UCT, and Sabine Tittel, with the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities—and I aim to change that so as to allow for more comprehensive and more inclusive language tags and annotations on the Semantic Web.

In order to be able to do so, we developed a Model for Language Annotation (MoLA) that caters for relatively comprehensive languoid annotations and how they are related, such as allowing recording which languoid evolved from or was influenced by which other languoid, when it was spoken and where, its preferred and alternate names, what sort of lect it is (e.g., dialect, pidgin), which dialect cluster or language family it is a member of, and backward compatibility with the ISO 639 codes.

The design approach was that of labour-intensive manual modelling, including competency questions, an extensive use case, and iterative development of the model at the conceptualisation stage using the Object-Role Modeling (ORM) language. This model was then formalised in OWL (well, most of it). It was tested on the competency questions, smaller use case scenarios, and validated with the large use case. A snippet for Spanish is as follows, as the one for Old French gets quite lengthy (some details).

It enhances Glottolog’s model on several key points, including proper relations between languoids cf BT/RT, a languoid can be associated with zero or more regions, and it allows for multiple names of a languoid both concurrently and over time.

This sounds like a smooth process, but there were a few modelling hurdles that had to be overcome. One of them is level of granularity of analysis of a languoid. For instance, one could argue both that isiXhosa is a language—it’s one of the 11 official languages of South Africa—but also that it is a dialect cluster (i.e., a collection), as there are multiple dialects of isiXhosa. This is a similar case for Old French that’s a language and member of the Romance family of languages, but also can be seen as a collection of dialects (e.g., Picard and Norman), and dialects, in turn, may have varieties (e.g., Artois and Santerre for Picard). On the bright side, this now can be represented and, because it is represented explicitly, it can be queried, such as “Which languoids are dialects of French that were spoken in the middle ages in France?” and “Which languoids are a member of Nguni?”. The knowledgebase still needs to be populated, though, so it won’t work yet with all languoids.

More details can be found in the paper that was recently published [2]. It will be presented in a few weeks at the 1st Iberoamerican Conference on Knowledge Graphs and Semantic Web (KGSWC’19), in Villa Clara, Cuba, alongside 13 other papers on ontologies. The first author, Frances, is soon travelling to the ISWS summer school, so I will present it at KGSWC’19.

 

References

[1] Nkomo, D., Khumalo, L. Embracing the mobile phone technology: its social and linguistic impact with special reference to Zimbabwean Ndebele. African Identities, 10(2): 143-153.

[2] Gillis-Webber, F., Tittel, S., Keet, C.M.. A Model for Language Annotations on the Web. 1st Iberoamerican conference on Knowledge Graphs and Semantic Web (KGSWC’19). Springer CCIS. 23-30 June 2019, Villa Clara, Cuba.

Ontology, part-whole relations, isiZulu and culture

The title is a mouthful, but it can go together. What’s interesting, is that the ‘common’ list of part-whole relations are not exactly like that in isiZulu and Zulu culture.

Part-whole relations have been proposed over the past 30 years, such as to relate a human heart to the human it is part of, that Gauteng is located in South Africa (geographically a part of), and the slice of the cake is a portion of the cake, and they seemed well-established by now. The figure below provides an informal view of it.

Informal taxonomy of common part-whole relations (source: [2])

My co-author, Langa Khumalo, and I already had an inkling this hierarchy probably would not work for isiZulu, based, first, on a linguistic analysis to generate natural language [1], and, second, the Shuter & Shooter English-isiZulu dictionary already lists 18 translations for just ‘part’ alone. Yet, if those ‘common’ part-whole relations are universal, the differences observed ought to be just an artefact of language, not ontological differences. To clear up the matter, we guided ourselves with the following questions:

  1. Which part-whole relations have been named in isiZulu, and to what extent are they not only lexically but also semantically distinct?
  2. Can all those part-whole relations be mapped with equivalence relations to the common part-whole relations?
  3. For those that cannot be mapped with equivalence relations: is the difference in meaning ontologically possibly interesting for ontology engineering?
  4. Is there something different as gleaned from isiZulu part-whole relations that is useful in improving the theoretical appreciation of part-whole relations?

To figure this out, we first took a bottom-up approach with evidence gathering, and then augmented it with further ontological analysis. Plodding though the isiZulu-English dictionaries got us 81 terms that had something to do with parts. 41 were discarded because they were not applicable upon closer inspection (e.g., referring to creating parts cf. relating parts, idioms). Further annotations and examples were added, which reduced it to 28 (+ 3 we had missed and were added). Of those 28, we selected 13 for ontological analysis and formalisation. That selection was based on importance (like ingxenye) and some of them that seemed a bit overly specific, like iqatha for portions of meat, and meat only. The hierarchy of the final selection is shown in the figure below, with an informal indication of what the relation relates.

Selected isiZulu terms with informal descriptions. (Source: [2])

They held up ontologically, i.e., some are the same as the ‘common’ ones, yet some others are really different, like the hlanganyela for a collective (cf. individual object) being part of (participating in) an event. Admitted, some of the domains/ranges aren’t very clearly delineated. For instance, isiqephu relates solid and ‘solid-like’ portions, as in, e.g., Zonke izicezu zesinkwa ziyisiqephu sesinkwa esisodwa ‘all slices of bread are a portion of some loaf of bread’. Where exactly that border of ‘solid-like’ is and when it really counts as a liquid (and thus isiqephu applies no more), is not yet clear—that’s a separate question orthogonal to the relation. Nonetheless, the investigation did clear up several things, especially the more precise umunxa that took me a while to unravel, which turned out to be a chain of parthood relations; e.g., the area where the fireplace is in the hut is a portion of the hut (sample use with the verbaliser: Onke amaziko angumunxa wexhiba). We didn’t touch upon really thorny issues that probably will deserve a paper of their own. For instance, the temporalised parthood isihlephu is used to relate a meaningful scattered part with identity to the whole it was part of, such as the broken-off ear of a cup that was part of the cup (but it cannot be used for the chip of the cup, as a chip isn’t identifiable in the same way as the ear is).

We did try to test the terms against the isiZulu National Corpus to see how the terms are used, but with the limited functionalities and tooling, not as much came out of it as we had hoped for. In any case, the detailed assessment of a section of the corpus did show the relevant uses were not contradicting the formalisation.

Further details can be found in our paper “On the ontology of part-whole relations in Zulu language and culture” that will be presented at the 10th International Conference on Formal Ontology in Information Systems 2018 (FOIS’18) that will be held from 17 to 21 September in Cape Town, South Africa.

As far as I know, this is the first such investigation. Checking out other languages a bit (mainly Spanish and German), and some related works on Turkish and Chinese, it might be the case that also there the ‘common’ part-whole relations may not be exactly the same. We carried out whole process systematically, which is described as such in the paper, so that anyone who’d like to do something like this for another language region and culture, could follow the same procedure.

 

References

[1] 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, 174-183.

[2] Keet, C.M., Khumalo, L. On the ontology of part-whole relations in Zulu language and culture. 10th International Conference on Formal Ontology in Information Systems 2018 (FOIS’18). IOS Press. 17-21 September, 2018, Cape Town, South Africa. (in print)

Not sorry at all—Review of “Sorry, not Sorry” by Haji Dawjee

Some papers are in the review pipeline for longer than they ought to be and the travel-part of conference attendance is a good opportunity to read books. So, instead of writing more about research, here’s a blogpost with a book review instead, being Sorry, not sorry—Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa by South African journalist Haji Mohamed Dawjee. It’s one of those books I bought out of curiosity, as the main title intrigued me on two aspects. First, it contradicts—if you’re not sorry, then don’t apologise for not doing so. Second, the subtitle, as it can be useful to read what people who don’t get much media coverage have to say. It turned out to have been published only last month, so let me break with the usual pattern and write a review now rather than wait until the usual January installments

The book contains 20 essays of Dawjee’s experiences broadly and with many specific events, and reflections thereof, on growing up and working in South Africa. Depending on your background, you’ll find more or less recognisable points in it, or perhaps none at all and you’ll just eat the whole spiced dish served, but if you’re a woke South African white or think of yourself as a do-gooder white, you probably won’t like certain sections of it. As it is not my intention to write a very long review, I’ve picked a few essays to comment on, but there’s no clear single favourite among the essays. There are two essays that I think the book could have done without, but well, I suppose the author is asserting something with it that has something to do with the first essay and that I’m just missing the point. That first essay is entitled ‘We don’t really write what we like’ and relates back to Biko’s statement and essay collection I write what I like, not the Writing what we like essay collection of 2016. It describes the media landscape, the difficulties of people of colour to get published, and that their articles are always expected to have some relevance and insight—“having to be on the frontlines of critical thinking”—rather than some drivel that white guys can get away with, as “We too have nice experiences. We think about things and dream and have magic in us. We have fuzzy fables to share.”. Dawjee doesn’t consider such airy fairy stories by the white guys to be brave, but exhibiting opportunity an privilege, and she wants to have that opportunity and privilege, too. This book, however, is mainly of the not-drivel and making-a-point sort of writing rather than flowery language devoid of a message.

For instance, what it was like from the journalism side when Mandela died, and the magazine she was working for changing her story describing a successful black guy into one “more Tsotsi-like”, because “[t]he obvious reason for the editorial manipulation was that no-one wanted a story of a good black kid. Only white kids are intrinsically exceptional.” (discussed in the essay ‘The curious case of the old white architect’). Several essays describe unpleasant behind-the-scenes experiences in journalism, such as at YOU magazine, and provide a context to her article Maid in South Africa that had as blurb “White people can walk their dogs, but not their children”, which apparently had turned out to cause a shitstorm on social media. There was an opinion-piece response by one of Dawjee’s colleagues, “coming to my ‘rescue’” and who “needed to whitesplain my thoughts and sanitise them with her ‘wokeness’” (p190). It’s a prelude to finishing off with a high note (more about that further below), and illustrates one of the recurring topics—the major irritation with the do-gooders, woke whites, the ones who put themselves in the ‘good whites’ box and ‘liberal left’, but who nonetheless still contribute to systemic racism. This relates to Biko’s essay on the problems with white liberals and similar essays in his I write what I like, there described as category, and in Dawjee’s book illustrated with multiple examples.

 

In an essay quite different in style, ‘Why I’m down with Downtown Abbey’ (the TV series), Dawjee revels in the joys of seeing white servants doing the scurrying around, cooking, cleaning etc for the rich. On the one hand, knowing a little of South African society by now, understandable. On the other hand, it leaves me wondering just how much messed up the media is that people here still (this is not the first or second time I came across this topic) seem to think that up in Europe most or all families also have maids and gardeners. They don’t. As one Irish placard had put it, “clean up your own shite” is the standard, as is DIY gardening and cooking. Those chores, or joys, are done by the women, children, and men of the nuclear family, not hired helps.

Related to that latter point—who’s doing the chores—two essays have to do with feminism and Islam. The essay title ‘And how the women of Islam did slay’ speaks for itself. And, yes, as Dawjee says, it cannot be repeated often enough that there were strong, successful, and intelligent women at the bedrock of Islam and women actually do have rights (unlike under Christianity); in case you want some references on women’s rights under Islam, have a look at the essay I wrote a while a go about it. ‘My mother, the true radical’ touches upon notions of feminism and who gets to decide who is feminist when and in what way.

 

I do not quite agree with Dawjee’s conclusion drawn from her Tinder experiences in ‘Tinder is a pocket full of rejection, in two parts’. On p129 she writes “Tinder in South Africa is nothing but fertile ground for race-based rejection.”. If it were a straightforward case of just race-based swiping, then, statistically, I should have had lots of matches with SA white guys, as I surely look white with my pale skin, blue eyes, and dark blonde hair (that I ended up in the 0.6% ‘other’ box in the SA census in 2011 is a separate story). But, nada. In my 1.5 years of Tinder experiment in Cape Town, I never ever got a match with a white guy from SA either, but plenty of matches with blacks, broad and narrow. I still hypothesise that the lack of matches with the white guys is because I list my employer, which scares away men who do not like women who’ve enjoyed some higher education, as it has scared away countless men in several other countries as well. Having educated oneself out of the marriage market, it is also called. There’s a realistic chance that a majority of those South African whites that swiped left on Dawjee are racist, but, sadly, their distorted views on humanity include insecurities on more than one front, and I’m willing to bet that Dawjee having an honours degree under her belt will have contributed to it. That said, two anecdotes doesn’t make data, and an OKCupid-type of analysis like Rudder’s Dataclysm (review) but then of Tinder data would be interesting so as to get to the bottom of that.

 

The two, imho, skippable essays are “Joining a cult is a terrible idea” (duh) and “Depression: A journal”. I’m not into too personal revelations, and would have preferred a general analysis on how society deals, or not, with mental illness, or, if something more concrete, to relate it to, say, the Life Esidimeni case from whichever angle.

 

Meandering around through the various serious subtopics and digressions, as a whole, the essays combine into chronicling the road taken by Dawjee to decolonise her mind, culminating in a fine series of statements in the last part of the last essay. She is not sorry for refusing to be a doormat, saying so, and the consequences that that will have for those who perpetuate and benefit from systemic racism, and she now lives from a position of strength rather than struggling and doubting as a receiver of it.

 

Overall, it was an interesting book and worthwhile to have read. The writing style is very accessible, so one can read the whole book in a day or so. In case you are still unsure whether you want to read it or not: there are free book extracts of ‘We don’t really write what we like’, ‘Begging to be white?’, and ‘And how the women of Islam did slay’ and, at the time of writing this blog post, one written review on News24 and Eusebius McKaiser’s Radio 702 interview with Dawjee (both also positive about the book).

‘Problem shopping’ and networking at IST-Africa’18 in Gaborone

There are several local and regional conferences in (Sub-Saharan) Africa with a focus on Africa in one way or another, be it for, say, computer science and information systems in (mainly) South Africa, computer networks in Africa, or for (computer) engineers. The IST-Africa series covers a broad set of topics and papers must explicitly state how and where all that research output is good for within an African context, hence, with a considerable proportion of the scope within the ICT for Development sphere. I had heard from colleagues it was a good networking opportunity, one of my students had obtained some publishable results during her CS honours project that could be whipped into paper-shape [1], I hadn’t been to Botswana before, and I’m on sabbatical so have some time. To make a long story short: the conference just finished, and I’ll write a bit about the experiences in the remainder of this post.

First, regarding the title of the post: I’m not quite an ICT4D researcher, but I do prefer to work on computer science problems that are based on actual problems that don’t have a solution yet, rather than invented toy examples. A multitude of papers presented at the conference were elaborate on problem specification, like them having gone out in the field and done the contextual inquiries, attitude surveys, and the like so as to better understand the multifaceted problems themselves before working toward a solution that will actually work (cf. the white elephants littered around on the continent). So, in a way, the conference also doubled in a ‘problem shopping’ event, though note that many solutions were presented as well. Here’s a brief smorgasbord of them:

  • Obstacles to eLearning in, say, Tanzania: internet access (40% only), lack of support, lack of local digital content, and too few data-driven analyses of experiments [2].
  • Digital content for healthcare students and practitioners in WikiTropica [3], which has the ‘usual’ problems of low resource needs (e.g., a textbook with lots of pictures but has to work on the mobile phone or tablet nonetheless), the last mile, and language. Also: the question of how to get people to participate to develop such resources? That’s still an open question; students of my colleague Hussein Suleman have been trying to figure out how to motivate them. As to the 24 responses by participants to the question “…Which incentive do you need?” the results were: 7 money/devices, 7 recognition, 4 none, 4 humanity/care/usefulness, 1 share & learn, and 1 not sure (my encoding).

    Content collaboration perceptions

    information sharing perceptions

    With respect to practices and attitudes toward information sharing, the answers were not quite encouraging (see thumbnails). Of course, all this is but a snapshot, but still.

  • The workshop on geospatial sciences & land administration had a paper on building a national database infrastructure that wasn’t free of challenges, among others: buying data is costly, available data but no metadata, privacy issues, data collected and cant ask for consent again for repurposing of that data (p16) [4].
  • How to overcome the (perceived to be the main) hurdle of lack of trust in electronic voting in Kenya [5]. In Thiga’s case, they let the students help coding the voting software and kept things ‘offline’ with a local network in the voting room and the server in sight [5]. There were lively comments in the whole session on voting (session 8c), including privacy issues, auditability, whether blockchain could help (yes on auditability and also anonymity, but consumes a lot of [too much?] electricity, according to a Namibian delegate also in attendance), and scaling up to the population or not (probably not for a while, due to digital literacy and access issues, in addition to the trust issue). The research and experiments continue.
  • Headaches of data integration in Buffalo City to get the water billing information system working properly [6]. There are the usual culprits in system integration from the information systems viewpoint (e.g., no buy-in by top management or users) that were held against the case in the city (cf. the CS side of the equation, like noisy data, gaps, vocabulary alignment etc.). Upon further inquiry, specific issues came to the surface, like not reading the water meters for several years and having been paying some guesstimate all the while, and issues that have to do with interaction between paying water (one system) and electricity (another system) cause problems for customers also when they have paid, among others [6]. A framework was proposed, but that hasn’t solved the actual data integration problem.

There were five parallel sessions over the three days (programme), so there are many papers to check out still.

As to networking with people in Africa, it was good especially to meet African ontologists and semantic web enthusiasts, and learn of the Botswana National Productivity Centre (a spellchecker might help, though needing a bit more research for seTswana then), and completely unrelated ending up bringing up the software-based clicker system we developed a few years ago (and still works). The sessions were well-attended—most of us having seen monkeys and beautiful sunsets, done game drives and such—and for many it was a unique opportunity, ranging from lucky postgrads with some funding to professors from the various institutions. A quick scan through the participants list showed that relatively many participants are affiliated with institutions from South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda, but also a few from Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Angola, and Malawi, among others, and a few from outside Africa, such as the USA, Finland, Canada, and Germany. There was also a representative from the EU’s DEVCO and from GEANT (the one behind Eduroam). Last, but not least, not only the Minister of Transport and Communication, Onkokame Kitso, was present at the conference’s opening ceremony, but also the brand new—39 days and counting—President of Botswana, Mokgweetsi Masisi.

No doubt there will be a 14th installment of the conference next year. The paper deadline tends to be in December and extended into January.

 

References

(papers are now only on the USB stick but will appear in IEEE Xplore soon)

[1] Mjaria F, Keet CM. A statistical approach to error correction for isiZulu spellcheckers. IST-Africa 2018.

[2] Mtebe J, Raphael C. A critical review of eLearning Research trends in Tanzania. IST-Africa 2018.

[3] Kennis J. WikiTropica: collaborative knowledge management in the field of tropical medicine and international health. IST-Africa 2018.

[4] Maphanyane J, Nkwae B, Oitsile T, Serame T, Jakoba K. Towards the Building of a Robust National Database Infrastructure (NSDI) Developing Country Needs: Botswana Case Study. IST-Africa 2018.

[5] Thiga M, Chebon V, Kiptoo S, Okumu E, Onyango D. Electronic Voting System for University Student Elections: The Case of Kabarak University, Kenya. IST-Africa 2018.

[6] Naki A, Boucher D, Nzewi O. A Framework to Mitigate Water Billing Information Systems Integration Challenges at Municipalities. IST-Africa 2018.

Book reviews for 2017

The third, and probably for a while last, post in a row that has not much, or even nothing, to do with my current job and research interest: the seventh installment of short book reviews and opinions on a selection of fiction and non-fiction books I read last year.

Non-Fiction

Dataclysm by Christian Rudder (2014). This is a highly entertaining book about some interesting aspects of Data Science. The author, one of the founders of the dating site OkCupid, takes his pile of OkCupid data and data from some other sources, and plays with it. What do those millions of up- and down-votes and match answers reveal? What’s the difference between what people say in surveys and how they behave online on the dating site? A lot, it appears. The book makes the anonymised aggregates fun and look harmless rather than Big Brother-like to haunt an individual. A bunch of people copy-and-paste messages, but it doesn’t seem to matter for replies and interaction. Looks matter, a lot, but weirdness, too. You’re a women over, say, 25 and the man says you’re gorgeous? Probably lying: they dig the looks of 20-year old women most, no matter how old they are. The portion of people identifying as gay correlates with societal and legal acceptance of same-sex relationships and marriages. And so on. One has to bear in mind that the conclusions drawn from the data should be seen in the light of self-selection (are the OkCupid members average in the sense of collectively being like the whole population?), that pattern-finding is different from hypothesis testing, and accidental data is different from collecting data in a controlled setting. That said, it’s still interesting to read about what the data says and it offers a peek into the kitchen of online dating sites.

What the dog saw by Malcom Gladwell (2009). It’s not nearly as good as the others. In a way, the narrative is the opposite of Dataclysm (as Rudder also discusses): Gladwell’s books are more about the peculiar particular and trying to generalise from that, whereas Rudder takes the aggregates over very large amounts of instances that is the general trend backed up by data rather than anecdotes (which isn’t the plural of data). Both books were very USA-centric, which became annoying in What the dog saw but not with Dataclysm.

Gastrophysics—the new science of eating by Charles Spence (2017). I’ve met people who can’t even believe there’s such thing as food science—an established applied science and engineering discipline—so perhaps the reader’s first response to the term ‘science of eating’ may be even less credulous. But sure enough, there’s truth to that. As the blurb about the book ended up longer than intended, it got its own blogpost: gastrophysics and follies. In short: the first part is very highly recommended reading.

I didn’t manage to finish Slavoj Zizek’s “Trouble in paradise—from the end of history to the end of capitalism”. There were fine parts in it, but there was too much rambling on too many pages, piling dialectical upon dialectical topped-off with upside-downs that the plot got lost and the logic missing. I searched online for book reviews of it, wondering if it was just me being too tired to concentrate, but turned out I’m not the only one. 17 contradictions and the end of capitalism by David Harvey was better (reviewed a few years ago).

Fiction

Indaba, my children—African tribal history, legends, customs and religious beliefs by Credo Mutwa (1964). This book was recommended to me with the note that although the author made it all up, for there are no such stories among the amaZulu, it is great storytelling and a must-read nonetheless. It is indeed. The first part chronicles in a fantastic way the story of creation and the first humans as a poem that is best read aloud for the most dramatic effect of the unexpected turns of events. Parts two and three see successive interactions with intruders and societies rising and falling, the organisation of society, their laws, customs, rites, and quests for power, with a bit of interference and nudging here and there by the goddesses, immortals, and the tree of life. Part four consists of reflections, events, stories, and criticisms of the recent past. Woven into these stories are how the things came to be as they are, such as the creation of the moon, the naming of the marimba (a type of xylophone), how/from where the Swazi and amaXhosa originate, and so on. The tome of almost 700 pages takes a while to finish; yet at the same time, one feels that loss once having finished a great book.

The drowning by Camila Lackberg (2012, translated from Swedish). This is a ‘whodunnit’ crime novel with twists and turns and even if you think near the end of the book that you know who’s behind the threats and murders, you’ll still be surprised, and perhaps somehow a bit sad, too. That much for spoilers. The general storyline has the novel set in a village in Sweden where village life seems idyllic, but all sorts of things are not what they seem—the ‘marital bliss’ that’s not so blissful after all, and so on. Christian Thydell published his first novel and gets great reviews, but has been receiving anonymous threats, and soon a few other men in the village get them as well. Gradually, a few people die or are murdered. Erica Falck sets out to uncover the truth informally, while her detective husband tries to do so in the official police investigation. With the cross-fertilisation of information, eventually the mystery is resolved.

How to fall in love by Cecelia Ahern (2014). I recall the time when Ahern’s first novel came out in Ireland, where the first reactions that she’d published a book was a like “well, bleh, but she’s the daughter of…” [the then Taoiseach ‘prime minister’, Bertie Ahern], yet then reviews came in like “actually, it’s really sweet/nice/quite good/etc.” and it ended up as an international bestseller and a movie (P.S. I love you). So, when I was recently in Ireland, I decided to buy one of her books to see for myself, which turned out to be her latest novel How to fall in love. Sounds just as cheesy, true, but the nutshell version of the story is quite grim. The protagonist, Christine Rose, talks a stranger (Adam) out of his suicide attempt with a deal: that she can convince him in two weeks’ time that life is worth living; if she can’t, then he still can go off and kill himself. She had just walked out of a relationship; he had found his fiancé cheating with his best friend (among other reasons why he wanted to kill himself). Christine then comes up with a range of ‘mini-adventures’, mostly set in Dublin, trying to fix it yet having no real experience in suicide-prevention support. Some activities and meddling work out better than others. The storytelling is heart-warming, funny, and light-hearted, yet at time serious and depressing as well (suicide is quite a large problem in Ireland, and higher than the world average). Several unexpected turns in the story and development of the characters and their motivations keep it interesting. It is a fairly quick read for its easy writing style, yet also one of those books that one would like to read again for the first time.

Woman on the edge of time by Marge Piercy (1976). I bought the book because it said “The Classic Feminist Science Fiction Novel” on the front cover. Frankly, that’s rubbish. If Americans think that’s feminism and sci-fi, then no wonder gender parity hasn’t been achieved and science is facing tough times there. Anyway, the story. The protagonist had dreams of education and independence and is sane but was put in the insane box and she goes along with it, with some weakness and whining about oppression here and there. What exactly is feminist about that?! The supposedly sci-fi part is the protagonist doing some mental trips to a future of “sexual, racial, and environmental harmony”. She can do that because here mind is “receptive”. Seriously? Really, there’s no smell of ‘sci’ there, just a lot of ‘fi’. If there were a single classic in the genre of ‘futurist fiction for feminists’, I’d say it’s most definitely kinderen van moeder aarde children of mother earth’ by Thea Beckman that I read back in the mid ‘80s. I still can remember the storyline now, more than 30 years later, without having read it since. The setting is in Greenland that, after some terrible nuclear war that has moved continents, was pushed south into a moderate climate whereas Europe ended up at a latitude where it’s a scorching hot climate. Thule (Greenland) is governed by women—because it was the men who screwed up with their wars—and now a dirty steamboat with exploitative patriarchal Europeans is arriving. The book describes how that society functions where women run the show (e.g., there are no prisons). The protagonists are two teenagers—one son of a female member of the governing body, the other his girlfriend from the commoners—who think that it isn’t fair that only women from the ruling hierarchy rule. In the end, they manage to neutralise the invaders and a few men get some say in governance.

The Power by Naomi Alderman (2016). As the saying goes, don’t judge a book by its cover. But the book’s front cover looked really cool and the back cover story sounded like an interesting scenario, so I ended up impulse-buying it anyway. It turned out to be a page-turner. The main part of the novel describes the unfolding events of an eclectic set of main characters across the world when, from one day to the next, women turn out to have ‘the power’. That is, there’s an organ that only women have that has suddenly become active with which, while it does not make girls and women physically stronger than men, they can hurt or kill men with or rape them through administering an electrical surge at a certain place. This obviously affects the status quo of the patriarchal societies across the world, and the girls and women respond differently on the new powers gained based on both their personal background and how bad it was for them in their subculture and country. The men respond differently to it as well. Without revealing too much, it could be categorised in the ‘futurist fiction for feminists’, sort of, as it’s also about ‘what if for millennia sexism was reversed?’ and ‘what if it were to be reversed now and it’s payback time?’. The answers that the author came up with make for useful reading, and perhaps also contemplation, for both women and men. Whether you think at the end it’s a dystopian novel, fanciful daydreaming, futurist fiction for feminists, a thriller, a useful mirror to the current society we live in, or stick another label to it—an opinion you’ll have of it :).

If these books don’t interest you, then perhaps one of the previous ones I posted about in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 just might (I’m an omnivorous reader).