May 2007 Archives

OH! So That's What That Means!

--- Originally published on the Adaptive Path Blog ---

I'll admit it, I'm stubborn. Perhaps it's my pedantic librarian roots, but I like words to mean what they mean. It drives me nuts when vendors take perfectly good terms and corrupt them for their own purposes. For example, it took me years to accept the use of the term "taxonomy" in a non-scientific classification context. Now it's something that I use all the time, but I'm sure to be clear what definition I am using. Language is ambiguous enough as it is without vendors and marketers muddying the waters further.

"Ontology" is one of those words that up until yesterday, I felt protective of. It drove me nuts when folks would use it as a synonym for taxonomy or thesaurus. "We have perfectly good words to describe these things," I'd tell myself. "We don't need to use ontology as well." Perhaps it was my own failure to truly grasp even the original meaning of the word that led to this stance. I mean, "the metaphysical study of the nature of being and existence" is a bit much to work into casual conversation. But ontology has just made a huge jump to the top of the list of words I use on a regular basis. Why is that?

This week I'm attending the Semantic Technology Conference in San Jose, CA. I'm finding myself surrounded by big brains who think and dream in OWL standards and RDF triples. It's been a long time since I've been to a conference where they actually show lines of code up on the screen. But this emersion has been great. I'm making all kinds of strange and wonderful connections between what I know and what I sort of thought I knew but now realize I had no idea about but oh gosh am I excited about it now.

The best example of this is "ontology." I finally understand what those database folks mean when they say it. Ontologies aren't synonyms for taxonomies — they work together. Ontologies are the rule sets — they set up the structure of how things are related to each other. They take the "related terms" of a thesaurus and completely blow it out of the water with the complexity and depth of relationships that are possible. With an ontology you set up how concepts and information relate together, and then use that as a blueprint to build out the instances, or what I would call the taxonomy or thesaurus.

But the ontologies go one step further than just being glorified vocabulary maintenance tools. Because of their close relationship to data modeling and database content, they allow connections, learnings, and inferences to become clear. And they, along with some other technology that I don't fully understand yet, make those connections happen. I've said for years that building a thesaurus will help improve the results in your enterprise search system, or that you can relate terms in your thesaurus together to auto-populate related content or highlight cross-sell and up-sell opportunities. But I now see that this was only one part of the solution. The semantic relationships within the ontology are what enable the computer build out those connections. It's the magic fairy dust that makes this stuff happen. And oh boy is that cool!

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