Toward a framework for resolving conflicts in ontologies (with COVID-19 examples)

Among the many tasks involved in developing an ontologies, are deciding what part of the subject domain to include, and how. This may involve selecting a foundational ontology, reuse of related domain ontologies, and more detailed decisions for ontology authoring for specific axioms and design patterns. A recent example of reuse is that of the Infectious Diseases Ontology for schistosomiasis knowledge [1], but even before reuse, one may have to assess differences among ontologies, as Haendel et al did for disease ontologies [2]. Put differently, even before throwing alignment tools at them or selecting one with an import statement and hope for the best, issues may arise. For instance, two relevant domain ontologies may have been aligned to different foundational ontologies, a partOf relation could be set to be transitive in one ontology but is also used in a qualified cardinality constraint in the other (so then one cannot use an OWL 2 DL reasoner anymore when the ontologies are combined), something like Infection may be represented as a class in one ontology but as a property infectedby in another, or the ontologies differ on the science, like whether Virus is an organism or an inanimate object.

What to do then?

Upfront, it helps to be cognizant of the different types of conflict that may arise, and understand what their causes are. Then one would want to be able to find those automatically. And, most importantly, get some assistance in how to resolve them; if possible, also even preventing conflicts from happening in the first place. This is what Rolf Grütter, from the Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL, and I have been working since he visited UCT last year. The first results have been accepted for the International Conference on Biomedical Ontologies (ICBO) 2020, which are described in a paper entitled “Towards a Framework for Meaning Negotiation and Conflict Resolution in Ontology Authoring” [3]. A sample scenario of the process is illustrated informally in the following figure.

Summary of a sample scenario of detecting and resolving conflicts, illustrated with an ontology reuse scenario where Onto2 will be imported into Onto1. (source: [3])

The paper first defines and illustrates the notions of meaning negotiation and conflict resolution and summarises their main causes, to then go into some detail of the various categories of conflicts and ways how to resolve them. The detection and resolution is assisted by the notion of a conflict set, which is a data structure that stores the details for further processing.

It was tested with a use case of an epizootic disease outbreak in the Lemanic Arc in Switzerland in 2006, due to H5N1 (avian influenza): an administrative ontology had to be merged with one about the epidemiology for infected birds and surveillance zones. With that use case in place already well before the spread of SARS-CoV-2 that caused the current pandemic, it was a small step to add a few examples to the paper about COVID-19. This was made possible thanks to recently developed relevant ontologies that were made available, including for COVID-19 specifically. Let’s highlight the examples here, also so that I can write a bit more about it than the terse text in the paper, since there are no page limits for a blog post.

Example 1: OWL profile violations

Medical terminologies tend to veer toward being represented in an ontology language that is less or equal to OWL 2 EL: this permits scalability, compatibility with typical OBO Foundry ontologies, as well as fitting with the popular SNOMED CT. As one may expect, there have been efforts in ontology development with content relevant for the current pandemic; e.g., the Coronavirus Infectious Disease Ontology (CIDO) [4]. The CIDO is not in OWL 2 EL, however: it has a class expressions with a universal quantifier (ObjectAllValuesFrom) on the right-hand side; specifically (in DL notation): ‘Yale New Haven Hospital SARS-CoV-2 assay’ \sqsubseteq \forall ‘EUA-authorized use at’.’FDA EUA-authorized organization’ or, in the Protégé interface:

(codes: CIDO_0000020, CIDO_0000024, and CIDO_0000031, respectively). It also imported many ontologies and either used them to cause some profile violations or the violations came with them, such as by having used the union operator (‘or’) in the following axiom for therapeutic vaccine function (VO_0000562):

How did I find that? Most certainly NOT by manually browsing through the more than 70000 axioms of the CIDO (including imports) to find the needle in the haystack. Instead, I burned the proverbial haystack to easily get the needles. In this case, the burning was done with the OWL Classifier, which automatically computes which axioms violate any of the OWL species, and lists them accordingly. Here are two examples, illustrating an OWL 2 EL violation (that aforementioned universal quantification) and an OWL 2 QL violation (a property chain with entities from BFO and RO); you can do likewise for OWL 2 RL violations.

Following the scenario with the assumption that the CIDO would have to stay in the OWL 2 EL profile, then it is easy to find the conflicting axioms and act accordingly, i.e., remove them. (It also indicates something did not go well with importing the NDF-RT.owl into the cido-base.owl, but that as an aside for this example.)

Example 2: Modelling issues: same idea, different elements

Let’s take the CIDO again and now also the COviD Ontology for cases and patient information (CODO), which have some overlapping and complementary information, so perhaps could be merged. A not unimportant thing is the test for SARS-CoV-2 and its outcome. CODO has a ‘laboratory test finding’ \equiv {positive, pending, negative}, i.e., the possible outcomes of the test are individuals made into a class using the ObjectOneOf constructor. Consulting CIDO for the test outcomes, it has a class ‘COVID-19 diagnosis’ with three subclasses: Negative, Positive, and Presumptive positive. Aside from the inexact matches of the test status that won’t simplify data integration efforts, this is an example of class vs. instance modeling of what is ontologically the same thing. Resolving this in any merging attempt means that either

  1. the CODO has to change and bump up the test results from individuals to classes, or
  2. the CIDO has to change the subclasses to individuals in the ABox, or
  3. take an ‘outside option’ and represent it in yet a different way where both the CODO and the CIDO have to modify the ontology (e.g., take a conceptual data modeling approach by making the test outcome an attribute with a few possible values).

The paper provides an attempt to systematize such type of conflicts toward a library of common types of conflict, so that it should become easier to find them, and offers steps toward a proper framework to manage all that, which assisted with devising generic approaches to resolution of conflicts. We already have done more to realize all that (which could not all be squeezed into the 12 pages), but more is still to be done, so stay tuned.

Since COVID-19 is still doing the rounds and the international borders of South Africa are still closed (with a lockdown for some 5 months already), I can’t end the blog post with the usual ‘I hope to see you at ICBO 2020 in Bolzano in September’—well, not in the common sense understanding at least. Hopefully next year then.



[1] Cisse PA, Camara G, Dembele JM, Lo M. An Ontological Model for the Annotation of Infectious Disease Simulation Models. In: Bassioni G, Kebe CMF, Gueye A, Ndiaye A, editors. Innovations and Interdisciplinary Solutions for Underserved Areas. Springer LNICST, vol. 296, 82–91. 2019.

[2] Haendel MA, McMurry JA, Relevo R, Mungall CJ, Robinson PN, Chute CG. A Census of Disease Ontologies. Annual Review of Biomedical Data Science, 2018, 1:305–331.

[3] Grütter R, Keet CM. Towards a Framework for Meaning Negotiation and Conflict Resolution in Ontology Authoring. 11th International Conference on Biomedical Ontologies (ICBO’20), 16-19 Sept 2020, Bolzano, Italy. CEUR-WS (in print).

[4] He Y, Yu H, Ong E, Wang Y, Liu Y, Huffman A, Huang H, Beverley J, Hur J, Yang X, Chen L, Omenn GS, Athey B, Smith B. CIDO, a community-based ontology for coronavirus disease knowledge and data integration, sharing, and analysis. Scientific Data, 2020, 7:181.

A set of competency questions and SPARQL-OWL queries, with analysis

As a good beginning of the new year, our Data in Brief article Dataset of Ontology Competency Questions to SPARQL-OWL Queries Translations [1] was accepted and came online this week, which accompanies our Journal of Web Semantics article Analysis of Ontology Competency Questions and their Formalisations in SPARQL-OWL [2] that was published in December 2019—with ‘our’ referring to my collaborators in Poznan, Dawid Wisniewski, Jedrzej Potoniec, and Agnieszka Lawrynowicz, and myself. The former article provides extensive detail of a dataset we created that was subsequently used for analysis that provided new insights that is described in the latter article.

The dataset

In short, we tried to find existing good TBox-level competency questions (CQs) for available ontologies and manually formulate (i.e., formalise the CQ in) SPARQL-OWL queries for each of the CQs over said ontologies. We ended up with 234 CQs for 5 ontologies, with 131 accompanying SPARQL-OWL queries. This constitutes the first gold standard pipeline for verifying an ontology’s requirements and it presents the systematic analyses of what is translatable from the CQs and what not, and when not, why not. This may assist in further research and tool development on CQs, automating CQ verification, assessing the main query language constructs and therewith language optimisation, among others. The dataset itself is indeed independently reusable for other experiments, and has been reused already [3].

The key insights

The first analysis we conducted on it, reported in [2], revealed several insights. First, a larger set of CQs (cf. earlier work) indeed did increase the number of CQ patterns. There are recurring patterns in the shape of the CQs, when analysed linguistically; a popular one is What EC1 PC1 EC2? obtained from CQs like “What data are collected for the trail making test?” (a Dem@care CQ). Observe that, yes, indeed, we did decouple the language layer from the formalisation layer rather than mixing the two; hence, the ECs (resp. PCs) are not necessarily classes (resp. object properties) in an ontology. The SPARQL-OWL queries were also analysed at to what is really used of that query language, and used most often (see table 7 of the paper).

Second, these characteristics are not the same across CQ sets by different authors of different ontologies in different subject domains, although some patterns do recur and are thus somehow ‘popular’ regardless. Third, the relation CQ (pattern or not) : SPARQL-OWL query (or its signature) is m:n, not 1:1. That is, a CQ may have multiple SPARQL-OWL queries or signatures, and a SPARQL-OWL query or signature may be put into a natural language question (CQ) in different ways. The latter sucks for any aim of automated verification, but unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an easy way around that: 1) there are different ways to say the same thing, and 2) the same knowledge can be represented in different ways and therewith leading to a different shape of the query. Some possible ways to mitigate either is being looked into, like specifying a CQ controlled natural language [3] and modelling styles [4] so that one might be able to generate an algorithm to find and link or swap or choose one of them [5,6], but all that is still in the preliminary stages.

Meanwhile, there is that freely available dataset and the in-depth rigorous analysis, so that, hopefully, a solution may be found sooner rather than later.



[1] Potoniec, J., Wisniewski, D., Lawrynowicz, A., Keet, C.M. Dataset of Ontology Competency Questions to SPARQL-OWL Queries Translations. Data in Brief, 2020, in press.

[2] Wisniewski, D., Potoniec, J., Lawrynowicz, A., Keet, C.M. Analysis of Ontology Competency Questions and their Formalisations in SPARQL-OWL. Journal of Web Semantics, 2019, 59:100534.

[3] 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 vol 1057, 3-15.

[4] Fillottrani, P.R., Keet, C.M. Dimensions Affecting Representation Styles in Ontologies. 1st Iberoamerican conference on Knowledge Graphs and Semantic Web (KGSWC’19). Springer CCIS vol 1029, 186-200. 24-28 June 2019, Villa Clara, Cuba. Paper at Springer

[5] 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 vol 10249, 371-386. Portoroz, Slovenia, May 28 – June 2, 2017.

[6] Khan, Z.C., Keet, C.M. Automatically changing modules in modular ontology development and management. Annual Conference of the South African Institute of Computer Scientists and Information Technologists (SAICSIT’17). ACM Proceedings, 19:1-19:10. Thaba Nchu, South Africa. September 26-28, 2017.

Localising Protégé with Manchester syntax into your language of choice

Some people like a quasi natural language interface in ontology development tools, which is why Manchester Syntax was proposed [1]. A downside is that it locks the ontology developer into English, so that weird chimaeras are generated in the interface if the author prefers another language for the ontology, such as, e.g., the “jirafa come only (oja or ramita)” mentioned in an earlier post and that was deemed unpleasant in an experiment a while ago [2]. Those who prefer the quasi natural language components will have to resort to localising Manchester syntax and the tool’s interface.

This is precisely what two of my former students—Adam Kaliski and Casey O’Donnell—did during their mini-project in the ontology engineering course of 2017. A localisation in Afrikaans, as the case turned out to be. To make this publicly available, Michael Harrison brushed up the code a bit and tested it worked also in the new version of Protégé. It turned out it wasn’t that easy to localise it to another language the way it was done, so one of my PhD students, Toky Raboanary, redesigned the whole thing. This was then tested with Spanish, and found to be working. The remainder of the post describes informally some main aspects of it. If you don’t want to read all that but want to play with it right away: here are the jar files, open source code, and localisation instructions for if you want to create, say, a French or Dutch variant.

Some sensible constraints, some slightly contrived ones (and some bad ones), for the purpose of showing the localisation of the interface for the various keywords. The view in English is included in the screenshot to facilitate comparison.

Some sensible constraints, some slightly contrived ones (and some bad ones), for the purpose of showing the localisation of the interface for the various keywords. The view in English is included in the screenshot to facilitate comparison.

The localisation functions as a plugin for Protégé as a ‘view’ component. It can be selected under “Windows – Views – Class views” and then Beskrywing for the Afrikaans and Descripción for Spanish, and dragged into the desired position; this is likewise for object properties.

Instead of burying the translations in the code, they are specified in a separate XML file, whose content is fetched during the rendering. Adding a new ‘simple’ (more about that later) language merely amounts to adding a new XML file with the translations of the Protégé labels and of the relevant Manchester syntax. Here are the ‘simple’ translations—i.e., where both are fixed strings—for Afrikaans for the relevant tool interface components:


Class Description



(Label in Afrikaans)

Equivalent To Dieselfde as
SubClass Of Subklas van
General Class axioms Algemene Klasaksiomas
SubClass Of (Anonymous Ancestor) Subklas van (Naamlose Voorvader)
Disjoint With Disjunkte van
Disjoint Union Of Disjunkte Unie van


The second set of translations is for the Manchester syntax, so as to render that also in the target language. The relevant mappings for Afrikaans class description keywords are listed in the table below, which contain the final choices made by the students who developed the original plugin. For instance, min and max could have been rendered as minimum and maksimum, but the ten minste and by die meeste were deemed more readable despite being multi-word strings. Another interesting bit in the translation is negation, where there has to be a second ‘no’ since Afrikaans has double negation in this construction, so that it renders it as nie <expression> nie. That final rendering is not grammatically perfect, but (hopefully) sufficiently clear:

An attempt at double negation with a fixed string

An attempt at double negation with a fixed string

Manchester OWL Keyword Afrikaans Manchester OWL

Keyword or phrase

some sommige
only slegs
min ten minste
max by die meeste
exactly precies
and en
or of
not nie <expression> nie
SubClassOf SubklasVan
EquivalentTo DieselfdeAs
DisjointWith DisjunkteVan


The people involved in the translations for the object properties view for Afrikaans are Toky, my colleague Tommie Meyer (also at UCT), and myself; snyding for ‘intersection’ sounds somewhat odd to me, but the real tough one to translate was ‘SuperProperty’. Of the four options that were considered—SuperEienskap, SuperVerwantskap, SuperRelasie, and SuperVerband SuperVerwantskap was chosen with Tommie having had the final vote, which is also a semantic translation, not a literal translation.

Screenshot of the object properties description, with comparison to the English

The Spanish version also has multi-word strings, but at least does not do double negation. On the other hand, it has accents. To generate the Spanish version, myself, my collaborator Pablo Fillottrani from the Universidad Nacional del Sur, Argentina, and Toky had a go at it in translating the terms. This was then implemented with the XML file. In case you do not want to dig into the XML file and not install the plugin either, but have a quick look at the translations, they are as follows for the class description view:


Class Description



(in Spanish)

Equivalent To Equivalente a
SubClass Of Subclase de
General Class axioms Axiomas generales de clase
SubClass Of (Anonymous Ancestor) Subclase de (Ancestro Anónimo)
Disjoint With Disjunto con
Disjoint Union Of Unión Disjunta de
Instances Instancias


Manchester OWL Keyword Spanish Manchester OWL Keyword
some al menos uno
only sólo
min al mínimo
max al máximo
and y
or o
not no
exactly exactamente
SubClassOf SubclaseDe
EquivalentTo EquivalenteA
DisjointWith DisjuntoCon

And here’s a rendering of a real ontology, for geo linked data in Spanish, rather than African wildlife yet again:

screenshot of the plugin behaviour with someone else’s ontology in Spanish

One final comment remains, which has to do with the ‘simple’ mentioned above. The approach of localisation presented here works only with fixed strings, i.e., the strings do not have to change depending on the context where it is uses. It won’t work with, say, isiZulu—a highly agglutinating and inflectional language—because isiZulu doesn’t have fixed strings for the Manchester syntax keywords nor for some other labels. For instance, ‘at least one’ has seven variants for nouns in the singular, depending on the noun class of the noun of the OWL class it quantifies over; e.g., elilodwa for ‘at least one’ apple, and esisodwa for ‘at least one’ twig. Also, the conjugation of the verb for the object property depends on the noun class of the noun of the OWL class, but in this case for the one that plays the subject; e.g., it’s “eats” in English for both humans and elephants eating, say, fruit, so one string for the name of the object property, but that’s udla and idla, respectively, in isiZulu. This requires annotations of the classes with ontolex-lemon or a similar approach and a set of rules (which we have, btw) to determine what to do in which case, which requires on-the-fly modifications to Manchester syntax keywords and elements’ names or labels. And then there’s still phonological conditioning to account for. It surely can be done, but it is not as doable as with the ‘simple’ languages that have at least a disjunctive orthography and much less genders or noun classes for the nouns.

In closing, while there’s indeed more to translate in the Protégé interface in order to fully localise it, hopefully this already helps as-is either for reading at least a whole axiom in one’s language or as stepping stone to extend it further for the other terms in the Manchester syntax and the interface. Feel free to extend our open source code.



[1] Matthew Horridge, Nicholas Drummond, John Goodwin, Alan Rector, Robert Stevens and Hai Wang (2006). The Manchester OWL syntax. OWL: Experiences and Directions (OWLED’06), Athens, Georgia, USA, 10-11 Nov 2016, CEUR-WS vol 216.

[2] Keet, C.M. The use of foundational ontologies in ontology development: an empirical assessment. 8th Extended Semantic Web Conference (ESWC’11), G. Antoniou et al (Eds.), Heraklion, Crete, Greece, 29 May-2 June, 2011. Springer LNCS 6643, 321-335.

[3] Keet, C.M., Khumalo, L. Toward a knowledge-to-text controlled natural language of isiZulu. Language Resources and Evaluation, 2017, 51:131-157. accepted version

Design rationale and overview of the African Wildlife tutorial ontologies

(update 30-7-2020: more details are described in the journal article published in the Journal of Biomedical Semantics)

There are several tutorial ontologies, which typically focus on illustrating one or two aspects of ontology development, notably language features and automated reasoning. This may suffice for one’s aims, but for an ontology engineering course, one would need to be able to illustrate a myriad of development factors and devise exercises for a wider range of tasks of ontology development. For instance, to illustrate the use of ontology design patterns, competency questions, foundational ontologies, and science-based modelling practices, neither of which is addressed easily by the popular tutorial ontologies (notably: wine and pizza), perhaps because they predate most of the advances made in ontology engineering research. Also, I have noticed that my students replicate examples from the exercises they carry out and from inspecting popular and easy-to-find ontologies. Marking the practical assignments, I got to see sandwich and ice cream and burger ontologies with toppings and value partitions, and software and mobile phone ontologies where laptop models are instances rather than classes. Not providing good and versatile examples holistically, causes the propagation of sub-optimal ontology development at least in the exercises, which then also may affect negatively the development of an operational domain ontology that the graduates may have to develop later on.

I’ve been exploring alternatives and variants over the past 11 years in the ontology engineering courses that I have taught yearly to about 8-40 students/year. In an attempt to systematise and possibly generalise from that, I’ve identified 22 requirements that contribute to a good tutorial ontology, which concern the suitability of the subject domain (7 factors), the ease of demonstrating logics and reasoning tasks (7), and assistance with demonstrating engineering aspects (8). Its details are described in a technical report [1]. I don’t claim that it’s an exhaustive list, but that it is one that may help someone to develop their own tutorial ontology in a fun or interesting topic if they so wish—after all, not everyone is interested in pizzas, wines, African wildlife, pets, shirts, a small university, or Robert Stevens’ family.

I’ve tried out a variety of extant tutorial ontologies as well as a range of versions of the African Wildlife Ontology (AWO) over the years (early experiences), eventually settling for a set of 14 versions, all the way from the example from the Primer [2] to DOLCE- and BFO-aligned to translated in several languages, and some with possible answers to some of the exercises. A graphical rendering of the main classes and relations is shown in the following figure:

The versions of the AWO are summarised in the following table, which is also mentioned as annotation in the OWL files.


The AWO meets a majority of the 22 requirements, is mature by now, and it has been used yearly in an ontology engineering course or tutorial since 2010. Also, it is links up with my ontology engineering textbook with relevant examples and exercises. The AWO provides a wide range of options concerning examples and exercises for ontology engineering well beyond illustrating only logic features and automated reasoning. For instance, it assists in demonstrating tasks about ontology quality, such as alignment to a foundational ontology and satisfying competency questions, versioning, and multilingual ontologies. For instance, it is easier to demonstrate alignment of a class Animal to DOLCE’s (Non-Agentive) Physical Object than, say, debating what Algorithm aligns with or descend into political debates on the gender binary or what constitutes a family. One can use the height or the colours of the plants and animals to discuss how to model attributes as qualities or dependent entities cf. OWL’s data properties or an artificial ValuePartition. Declare, say, de individual lion simba as an instance of Lion, rather than the confusion regarding grape varieties. Use intuitively obvious disjointness between animals and plants, and subsequently easy catches on sensitising modellers to the far-reaching effects of declaring domain and range axioms by first asserting that animals eat animals, and then adding that carnivorous plants eat insects. In addition, it links up easily to topics for ontology integration activities, such as with biodiversity data, wildlife trade, and tourism to create, e.g., an OBDA system with freely available data (e.g., taken from here) or an ontology-enhanced website for an organisation that offers environmentally sustainable safaris. More examples of broad usage options are described in section 2.3 in the tech report.

The AWO is freely available under a CC-BY licence through the textbook’s webpage at in this folder. A more comprehensive description of the requirements, design, and content is described in a technical report [1] for the time being.



[1] Keet, CM. The African Wildlife Ontology tutorial ontologies: requirements, design, and content. Technical Report 1905.09519. 23 May 2019.

[2] Antoniou, G., van Harmelen, F. A Semantic Web Primer. MIT Press, USA. 2003.

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).



[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.

About modelling styles in ontologies

As any modeller will know, there are pieces of information or knowledge that can be represented in different ways. For instance, representing ‘marriage’ as class or as a ‘married to’ relationship, adding ‘address’ as an attribute or a class in one’s model, and whether ‘employee’ will be positioned as a subclass of ‘person’ or as a role that ‘person’ plays. In some cases, there a good ontological arguments to represent it in one way or the other, in other cases, that’s less clear, and in yet other cases, efficiency is king so that the most compact way of representing it is favoured. This leads to different design decisions in ontologies, which hampers ontology reuse and alignment and affects other tasks, such as evaluating competency questions over the ontology and verbalising ontologies.

When such choices are made consistently throughout the ontology, one may consider this to be a modelling style or representation style. If one then knows which style an ontology is in, it would simplify use and reuse of the ontology. But what exactly is a representation style?

While examples are easy to come by, shedding light on that intuitive notion turned out to be harder than it looked like. My co-author Pablo Fillottrani and I tried to disentangle it nonetheless, by characterising the inherent features and the dimensions by which a style may differ. This resulted in 28 different traits for the 10 identified dimensions.  For instance, the dimension “modular vs. monolithic” has three possible options: 1) ‘Monolithic’, where the ontology is stored in one file (no imports or mergers); 2) ‘Modular, external’, where at least one ontology is imported or merged, and it kept its URI (e.g., importing DOLCE into one’s domain ontology, not re-creating it there); 3) ‘Modular, internal’, where there’s at least one ontology import that’s based on having carved up the domain in the sense of decomposition of the domain (e.g., dividing up a domain into pizzas and drinks at pizzerias).  Other dimensions include, among others, the granularity of relations (many of few), how the hierarchy looks like, and attributes/data properties.

We tried to “eat our own dogfood” and applied the dimensions and traits to a set of 30 ontologies. This showed that it is feasible to do, although we needed two rounds to get to that stage—after the first round of parallel annotation, it turned out we had interpreted a few traits differently, and needed to refine the number of traits and be more precise in their descriptions (which we did). Perhaps unsurprising, some tendencies were observed, and we could identify three easily recognisable types of ontologies because most ontologies had clearly one or the other trait and similar values for sets of trait. Of course, there were also ontologies that were inherently “mixed” in the sense of having applied different and conflicting design decisions within the same ontology, or even included two choices. Coding up the results, we generated two spider diagrams that visualise that difference. Here’s one:

Details of the dimensions, traits, set-up and results of the evaluation, and discussion thereof have been published this week [1] and we’ll present it next month at the 1st Iberoamerican Conference on Knowledge Graphs and Semantic Web (KGSWC’19), in Villa Clara, Cuba, alongside 13 other papers on ontologies. I’m looking forward to it!



[1] Keet, C.M., Fillottrani, P.R.. Dimensions Affecting Representation Styles in Ontologies. 1st Iberoamerican conference on Knowledge Graphs and Semantic Web (KGSWC’19). Springer CCIS vol 1029, 186-200. 24-28 June 2019, Villa Clara, Cuba. Paper at Springer

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).

Our ESWC17 demos: TDDonto2 and an OWL verbaliser for isiZulu

Besides the full paper on heterogeneous alignments for 14th Extended Semantic Web Conference (ESWC’17) that will take place next week in Portoroz, Slovenia, we also managed to squeeze out two demo papers. You may already know of TDDonto2 with Kieren Davies and Agnieszka Lawrynowicz, which was discussed in an earlier post that has been updated with a tutorial video. It now has a demo paper as well [1], which describes the rationale and a few scenarios. The other demo, with Musa Xakaza and Langa Khumalo, is new-new, but the regular reader might have seen it coming: we finally managed to link the verbalisation patterns for certain Description Logic axiom types [2,3] to those in OWL ontologies. The tool takes as input an ontology in isiZulu and the verbalisation algorithms, and out come the isiZulu sentences, be this in plain text for further processing or in a GUI for inspection by a domain expert [4]. There is a basic demo-screencast to show it’s all working.

The overall architecture may be of interest, for it deviates from most OWL verbalisers. It is shown in the following figure:

For instance, we use the Python-based OWL API Owlready, rather than a Java-based app, for Python is rather popular in NLP and the verbalisation algorithms may be used elsewhere as well. We made more such decisions with the aim to make whatever we did as multi-purpose usable as possible, like the list of nouns with noun classes (surprisingly, and annoyingly, there is no such readily available list yet, though probably will have it somewhere but inaccessible), verb roots, and exceptions in pluralisation. (Problems for integrating the verbaliser with, say, Protégé will be interesting to discuss during the demo session!)

The text-based output doesn’t look as nice as the GUI interface, so I will show here only the GUI interface, which is adorned with some annotations to illustrate that those verbalisation algorithms in the background are far from trivial templates:

For instance, while in English the universal quantification is always ‘Each’ or ‘All’ regardless the named class quantified over, in isiZulu it depends on the noun class of the noun that is the name of the OWL class. For instance, in the figure above, izingwe ‘leopards’ is in noun class 10, so the ‘Each/All’ is Zonke, amavazi ‘vases’ is in noun class 6, so ‘Each/All’ then becomes Onke, and abantu ‘people’/’humans’ is in noun class 2, making Bonke. There are 17 noun classes. They also determine the subject concords (SC, alike conjugation) for the verbs, with zi- for noun class 10, ­a- for noun class 6, and ba- for noun class 2, to name a few. How this all works is described in [2,3]. We’ve implemented all those algorithms and integrated the pluraliser [5] in it to make it work. The source files are available to check and play with already, you can do so and ask us during the ESWC17 demo session, and/or also have a look at the related outputs of the NRF-funded project Grammar Engine for Nguni natural language interfaces (GeNi).



[1] Davies, K. Keet, C.M., Lawrynowicz, A. TDDonto2: A Test-Driven Development Plugin for arbitrary TBox and ABox axioms. Extended Semantic Web Conference (ESWC’17), Springer LNCS. Portoroz, Slovenia, May 28 – June 2, 2017. (demo paper)

[2] Keet, C.M., Khumalo, L. Toward a knowledge-to-text controlled natural language of isiZulu. Language Resources and Evaluation, 2017, 51:131-157.

[3] Keet, C.M., Khumalo, L. On the verbalization patterns of part-whole relations in isiZulu. 9th International Natural Language Generation conference (INLG’16), 5-8 September, 2016, Edinburgh, UK. Association for Computational Linguistics, 174-183.

[4] 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)

[5] Byamugisha, J., Keet, C.M., Khumalo, L. Pluralising Nouns in isiZulu and Related Languages. 17th International Conference on Intelligent Text Processing and Computational Linguistics (CICLing’16), Springer LNCS. April 3-9, 2016, Konya, Turkey.

New OWL files for the (extended) taxonomy of part-whole relations

Once upon a time (surely >6 years ago) I made an OWL file of the taxonomy of part-whole relations [1], which contains several parthood relations and a few meronyic-only ones that in natural language are considered ‘part’ but are not so according to mereology (like participation, membership). Some of these relations were defined with a specific domain and range that was a DOLCE category (it could just as well have been, say, GFO). Looking at it recently, I noticed it was actually a bit scruffy (but I’ll leave it here nonetheless), and more has happened in this area over the years. So, it was time for an update on contents and on design.

For the record on how it’s done and to serve, perhaps, as a comparison exercise on modeling, here’s what I did. First of all, I started over, so as to properly type the relations to DOLCE categories, with the DOLCE IRIs rather than duplicated as DOLCE-category-with-my-IRI. As DOLCE is way too big and slows down reasoning, I made a module of DOLCE, called DOLCEmini, mainly by removing the irrelevant object properties, though re-adding the SOB, APO and NAPO that’s in D18 but not in DOLCE-lite from DLP3791. This reduced the file from DOLCE-lite’s 534 axioms, 37 classes, 70 OPs, in SHI to DOLCEmini’s 388 axioms, 40 classes, 43 OPs, also in SHI, and I changed the ontology IRI to where DOLCEmini will be put online.

Then I created a new ontology, PW.owl, imported DOLCEmini, added the taxonomy of part-whole relations from [1] right under owl:topObjectProperty, with domain and range axioms using the DOLCE categories as in the definitions, under part-whole. This was then extended with the respective inverses under whole-part, all the relevant proper part versions of them (with inverses), transitivity added for all (as the reasoner isn’t doing it [2]) annotations added, and then aligned to some DOLCE properties with equivalences. This makes it to 524 axioms and 79 object properties.

I deprecated subquantityOf (annotated with ‘deprecated’ and subsumed by a new property ‘deprecated’). Several new stuff relations and their inverses were added (such as portions), and annotated them. This made it to the PW ontology of 574 axioms (356 logical axioms) and 92 object properties (effectively, for part-whole relations: 92 – 40 from dolce – 3 for deprecated = 49).

As we made an extension with mereotopology [3] (and also that file wasn’t great, though did the job nevertheless [4]), but one that not everybody may want to put up with, yet a new file was created, PWMT. PWMT imports PW (and thus also DOLCEmini) and was extended with the main mereotopological relations from [3], and relevant annotations were added. I skipped property disjointness axioms, because they don’t go well with transitivity, which I assumed to be more important. This makes PWMT into one of 605 (380 logical) axioms and 103 object properties, with, effectively, for parts: 103 – 40 from dolce – 3 for deprecated – 1 connection = 59 object properties.

That’s a lot of part-whole relations, but fear not. The ‘Foundational Ontology and Reasoner enhanced axiomatiZAtion’ (FORZA) and its tool that incorporates with the Guided ENtity reuse and class Expression geneRATOR (GENERATOR) method [4] describes a usable approach how that can work out well and has a tool for the earlier version of the owl file. FORZA uses an optional decision diagram for the DOLCE categories as well as the automated reasoner so that it can select and propose to you those relations that, if used in an axiom, is guaranteed not to lead to an inconsistency that would be due to the object property hierarchy or its domain and range axioms. (I’ll write more about it in the next post.)

Ah well, even if the OWL files are not used, it was still a useful exercise in design, and at least I’ll have a sample case for next year’s ontology engineering course on ‘before’ and ‘after’ about questionable implementation and (relatively) good implementation without the need to resorting to criticizing other owl files… (hey, even the good and widely used ontologies have a bunch of pitfalls, whose amount is not statistically significantly different from ontologies made by novices [5]).



[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. Detecting and Revising Flaws in OWL Object Property Expressions. 18th International Conference on Knowledge Engineering and Knowledge Management (EKAW’12), Oct 8-12, Galway, Ireland. Springer, LNAI 7603, 252-266.

[3] Keet, C.M., Fernandez-Reyes, F.C., Morales-Gonzalez, A. Representing mereotopological relations in OWL ontologies with OntoPartS. 9th Extended Semantic Web Conference (ESWC’12), Simperl et al. (eds.), 27-31 May 2012, Heraklion, Crete, Greece. Springer, LNCS 7295, 240-254.

[4] Keet, C.M., Khan, M.T., Ghidini, C. Ontology Authoring with FORZA. 22nd ACM International Conference on Information and Knowledge Management (CIKM’13). ACM proceedings, pp569-578. Oct. 27 – Nov. 1, 2013, San Francisco, USA.

[5] Keet, C.M., Suarez-Figueroa, M.C., Poveda-Villalon, M. Pitfalls in Ontologies and TIPS to Prevent Them. In: Knowledge Discovery, Knowledge Engineering and Knowledge Management: IC3K 2013 Selected papers. Fred, A., Dietz, J.L.G., Liu, K., Filipe, J. (Eds.). Springer, CCIS 454, pp. 115-131. 2015.

An exhaustive OWL species classifier

Students enrolled in my ontology engineering course have to do a “mini-project” on a particular topic, chosen from a list of topics, such as on ontology quality, verbalisations, or language features, and may be theoretical or software development-oriented. In terms of papers, the most impressive result was OntoPartS that resulted in an ESWC2012 paper with the two postgraduate students [1], but also quite some other useful results have come out of it over the past 7 years that I’m teaching it in one form or another. This year’s top project in terms of understanding the theory, creativity to do something with it that hasn’t been done before, and working software using Semantic Web technologies was the “OWL Classifier” by Aashiq Parker, Brian Mc George, and Muhummad Patel.

The OWL classifier classifies an OWL ontology in any of its ‘species’, which can be any of the 8 specified in the standard, i.e., the 3 OWL 1 ones and the 5 OWL 2 ones. It also gives information on the DL ‘alphabet soup’—which axioms use which language feature with which letter, and an explanation of the letters—and reports on which axioms are the ones that violate a particular species. An example is shown in the following screenshot, with an exercise ontology on phone points:


The students’ motivation to develop it was because they had to learn about DLs and the OWL species, but Protégé 4.x and 5.x don’t tell you the species and the interfaces have only a basic, generic, explanation for the DL expressivity. I concur. And is has gotten worse with Protégé 5.0: if an ontology is outside OWL 2 DL, it still says the ‘old’ DL expressivity plus an easy-to-overlook tiny red triangle in the top-right corner once the reasoner was invoked (using Hermit 1.3.8) or a cryptic “internal reasoner error” message (Pellet), whereas with Protégé 4.x you at least got a pop-up box complaining about the ‘non-simple role…’ issues. Compare that with the neat feedback like this:


It is also very ‘sensitive’—more so than one would be with Protégé alone. Any remote ontology imports have to be available at the location specified with the IRI. Violations due to wrong datatype usage is a known issue with the OWL Reasoner Evaluation set of ontologies, and which we’ve bumped into with the TDD testing as well. The tool doesn’t accept the invalid ones (wrong datatypes—one can select any XML data type in Protégé, but the OWL standard doesn’t support them all). In addition, a language such as OWL 2 QL has further restrictions on types of datatypes. (It is also not trivial to figure out manually whether some ontology is suitable for OBDA or not.) So I tried one from the Ontop website’s examples, presumably in OWL 2 QL:


Strictly speaking, it isn’t in OWL 2 QL! The OWL 2 QL profile does have xsd:integer as datatype [2], not xsd:int, as, and I quote the standard, “the intersection of the value spaces of any set of these datatypes [including xsd:integer but not xsd:int, mk] is either empty or infinite, which is necessary to obtain the desired computational properties”. [UPDATE 24-6, thanks to Martin Rezk:] The main toolset for OWL 2 QL, Ontop, actually does support xsd:int and a few other datatypes beyond the standard (e.g.: also float and boolean). There is similar syntax fun to be had with the pizza ontology: the original one is indeed in OWL DL, but if you open the file in Protégé 5 and save it, it is not in OWL DL anymore but in OWL 2 DL, for the save operation snuck in an owl#NamedIndividual. Click on the thumbnails below to see the before-and-after in the OWL classifier. This is not an increase in expressiveness—both are in SHOIN—just syntax and tooling.







The OWL Classifier can thus classify both OWL 1 and OWL 2 ontologies, which it does through a careful orchestration of two OWL APIs: v1.4.3 was the last one to support OWL 1 species checking, whereas for the OWL 2 ontologies, the latest version is used (v4.2.3). The jar file and the source code are freely available on github for anyone to use and to take further. Turning it into a Protégé plugin very likely will make at least next year’s ontology engineering students happy. Comments, questions, and suggestion are welcome!



[1] Keet, C.M., Fernandez-Reyes, F.C., Morales-Gonzalez, A. Representing mereotopological relations in OWL ontologies with OntoPartS. 9th Extended Semantic Web Conference (ESWC’12), Simperl et al. (eds.), 27-31 May 2012, Heraklion, Crete, Greece. Springer, LNCS 7295, 240-254.

[2] Boris Motik, Bernardo Cuenca Grau, Ian Horrocks, Zhe Wu, Achille Fokoue, Carsten Lutz, eds. OWL 2 Web Ontology Language: Profiles. W3C Recommendation, 11 December 2012 (2nd ed.).