Using taxonomies to support ontologies

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Estimated reading time 4–6 minutes

What is an ontology?
Ontologies are emerging from the techie background into the knowledge organisation foreground and – as usually happens – being touted as the new panacea to solve all problems from content management to curing headaches. As with any tool, there are circumstances where they work brilliantly and some where they aren’t right for the job.

Basically, an ontology is a knowledge model (like a taxonomy or a flow chart) that describes relationships between things. The main difference between ontologies and taxonomies is that taxonomies are restricted to broader and narrower relationships whereas ontologies can hold any kind of relationship you give them.

One way of thinking about this is to see taxonomies as vertical navigation and ontologies as horizontal. In practice, they usually work together. When you add cross references to a taxonomy, you are adding horizontal pathways and effectively specifying ontological rather than taxonomical relationships.

The flexibility in the type of relationship that can be defined is what gives ontologies their strength, but is also their weakness in that they are difficult to build well and can be time consuming to manage because there are infinite relationships you could specify and if you are not careful, you will specify ones that keep changing. Ontologies can answer far more questions than taxonomies, but if the questions you wish to ask can be answered by a taxonomy, you may find a taxonomy simpler and easier to handle.

What are the differences between taxonomies and ontologies?
A good rule of thumb is to think of taxonomies as being about narrowing down, refining, and zooming in on precise pieces of information and ontologies as being about broadening out, aggregating, and linking information. So, a typical combination of ontologies and taxonomies would be to use ontologies to aggregate content and with taxonomies overlaid to help people drill down through the mass of content you have pulled together.

Ontologies can also be used as links to join taxonomies together. So, if you have a taxonomy of regions, towns, and villages and a taxonomy of birds and their habitats you could use an ontological relationship of “lives in” to show which birds live in which places. By using a taxonomy to support the ontology, you don’t have to define a relationship between every village and the birds that live there, you can link the birds’ habitats to regions via the ontology and the taxonomy will do the work of including all the relevant villages under that region.

Programmers love ontologies, because they can envisage a world where all sorts of relationships between pieces of content can be described and these diverse relationships can be used to produce lots of interesting collections of content that can’t easily be brought together otherwise. However, they leave it to other people to provide the content and metadata. Specifying all those relationships can be complicated and time-consuming so it is important to work out in advance what you want to link up and why. A good place to start is to choose a focal point of the network of relationships you need. For example, there are numerous ways you could gather content about films. You could focus on the actors so you can bring together the films they have appeared in to create content collections describing their careers, or focus on genres and release dates to create histories of stylistic developments, or you could link films that are adaptations of books to copies of those books. The choices you make determine the metadata you will need.

Know your metadata
At the moment, in practice, ontologies are typically built to string together pre-existing metadata that has been collected for navigational or archival taxonomies, but this is just because that metadata already exists to be harvested. There is a danger in this approach that you end up making connections just because you can, not because they are useful to anybody. As with all metadata-based automated systems, you also need to be careful with the “garbage in garbage out” problem. If the metadata you are harvesting was created for a different purpose, you need to make sure that you do not build false assumptions about its meaning or quality into your ontology – for example, if genre metadata has been created according to the department the commissioning editor worked for, instead of describing the content of the actual programme itself. That may not have been a problem when the genre metadata was used only by audience research to gather ratings information, but does not translate properly when you want to use it in an ontology for content-defining purposes.

Feeding your ontology with accurate and clearly defined taxonomies is likely to give you better results than using whatever metadata just happens to be lying about. Well-defined sets of provenance metadata – parametadata – about your taxonomies and ontologies is becoming more and more valuable so that you can understand what metadata sets were built for, when they were last updated, and who manages them.

Why choose one when you can have both?
Ontologies are very powerful. They perform different work to taxonomies, but ontologies and taxonomies can support and enhance each other. Don’t throw away your taxonomies just because you are moving into the ontology space. Ontologies can be (they aren’t always – see Steve’s comment below) big, tricky, and complicated, so use your taxonomies to support them.