Is GoodRelations a Game Changer?

One  ontology  worth watching might be GoodRelations, which is being implemented by   Best Buy.      The central component of this architecture was an ontology called GoodRelations developed by Martin Hepp, who presented at SemTech in San Francisco last week via Skype from Munich, Germany.    GoodRelations is a retail ontology which uses RDFa from XHTML webpages to populate global ontology.   But why would a major retailer use this  architecture?

Best Buy discovered that it was impossible to be the top dog  in search engine optimization (SEO)  in every search category for every product.  To do this, they needed to have finely tuned individual pages.  They also wanted to provide immediate content about “open box” – returned items at local stores.    looking for a solution that could add more granularity, precision and localization, but still enable global search and have metadata that was controlled by the enterprise.

GoodRelations is a retail ontology, which offers facets or classes, metadata descriptions and attributes  that are common in the retail industry.   It is expressed in RDFa which is a flavor of RDF that works in web browsers.  Yahoo Search Monkey supports RDFa,  Facebook directed graphs will support RDF.  Google snippets also support RDFa.

Because there is common metadata, it is easy for employees or customers (who are called “user agents” in the semantic world) to tag content via templates which populate the RDF.  RDFa can be maintained in a corporate or enterprise repository which can be configured as needed for distribution in the enterprise.

In the GoodRelations RDF, the additional metadata might include price, color, dimensions, model and other attributes that interest consumers.  GoodRelations is an ontology that can be shared over any retail enterprise in any country.  The cost per webpage, once implemented, is minimal because “user agents” are familiar with how to complete forms over the web. The RDFa can then be appended to an HTML page written in XHTML or HTML5.  These HTML code for adding the specific metadata attributes is about 30-50 lines.  This creates HTML that has more granularity than a typical <keyword> metatag. The high costs are in the metadata management.

Adding RDFa as metadata to a webpage should be easy to adopt because it works in the current web paradigm.   Google is offering RDFa markup language that can be appended to a webpage called Google Rich Snippets.  Snippets is competing with the another format called Microformat.  The problem is that every domain needs a shared set of s metadata attributes to enable search across smaller domains.   Google is rolling out examples of RDFa for restaurants, currently only has 2500 markup pages. To see an example of snippets,  try a search on Google for “Baked Ziti.”  Drupal 7 also offers RDF, and has been implemented in, as part of the Obama Administration transparency initiative.

Why does this interest me as a  classy taxonomist (future ontologist)?  Clearly, this technology has evolved to a point of adoption, but further adoption depends on political and organizational work to get other applications to take the risk to try RDFa.    RDFa depends on common adoption of similar metadata  This requires political and organization skills to define and manage common metadata knowledge models.  First, taxonomists understand vocabulary and metadata as a way to capture common knowledge and shared metadata.  Second, if this innovation becomes more widely adopted and gains traction,  there may be interest in building similar process in other applications in making any information that has to be shared.

Further, if RDFa coupled with ontology and metadata management, makes data management and querying easier through SPARQL,  then more attention can be paid to the political and organizational work of working with local agencies to contribute good data and content.

There is a long way to go to make this vision a reality.. browsers have to adopt RDFa, applications have to prove the viability and ontologies in other domains need to be created.  But in the long run, this might be a more democratic way to extend information access on the web.

However,  to move toward this vision, faceted navigation and defining common metadata and taxonomies is  good intermediate step.  By creating faceted taxonomies and browsing, and collecting data, user communities are moving towards understanding what search fields, common language, and unambiguous terms that matter to their users.  A little semantics goes a long way.

~Marlene Rockmore



This week, I am at the 201o Semantic Technology conference where there are technologists who have built ontologies.   So this seems like the location to find out  what exactly is the difference between an ontology and a taxonomy and what skills will matter.

In the ontology world, a taxonomy strictly speaking, is a hierarchical arrangement of terms.   Taxonomists populate term nodes and decide what the form of the term is, any variants, equivalents, and semi-equivalents and create hierarchies.   Ontologists do the heavy lifting — they decide what the classes will be and define the links and generate RDF and OWL.

But there is a bright spot in this rather dull picture of  taxonomy work.   The most progressive and insightful taxonomists insist on sorting terms into facets or classes. These facets are derived from an analysis of user needs, content, and domain knowledge.   The core of an ontologists work is   also to define classes or facets and links between classes.   These links between facets can then be inherited or asserted between classes.    A taxonomist who hasn’t thought about classes and design will create a taxonomy that looks like spaghetti, and an ontologist who lacks that skill can create an ontology that makes bad inferences and assertions.

The bottom line is that there is overlap between taxonomy and ontology — so I would like to suggest a term to describe this synergy:  Taxo-ology.    By thinking in terms of Taxo-ology,  we can begin to overlap and have synergy between taxonomists and ontologists:

  • Facets and classes:  Both taxonomists and ontologists need to create classes in which to classify terms.
  • Discipline in Creating Homogenous Hierarchies:  Hierarchies, ideally, should have homogenous properties. For example, Secretary of State is a constitutional office of the United States;  Hillary Rodham Clinton is filling that role, but it is one of many roles she has had.  Christine Connors,  a semantic web guru, uses “Prince of Wales” as her example. That role is there whether or not Charles is Prince.  It is part of the institution of English Monarchy.   Even for the practical reason of longterm maintenance,  these entities need to be in their own class (facet) and linked.
  • Greater Use of Linkages using Associative Relationships: Once terms are sorted homogenous buckets, associative relationships (sometimes with semantic labels for the relationship) can be used to link between classes or  term nodes within a class
  • Better Skill Sets:   Someone who is a Taxo-ologist knows how to use rich ontology tools, like TopBraid, understands OWL and XML output but can also adapt to other tools and content management software such as auto-categorization.  A taxo-ologist can apply the best practices of building classes/facets, homogenous hierarchies, and developing associative relationships
  • Better models for paying Taxo-ologists:  Taxonomists sometimes get paid by the number of terms built-out, but in the world of taxo-ology, compensation needs to be based on results — sometime strategic (is our organization collecting, sharing and exchanging the information  changing market, technical and economic conditions) to tactical need to the right SOP at the right time.  Search, for example, is a great example of how less is more, when good tax0-ologists can make smaller, sleeker taxologies  that can be uses to auto-tag concepts across facets.  Or they create smaller taxonomies that have higher matches to user queries because of use of variants.

Taxologists seems like a good word to help bridge the gap between these disciplines, but there needs to be a discussion and synergy between the taxo community and the ontology world.     Taxonomists to apply more discipline to how they do their work and embrace the autocategorization and semantic tools that make it easier to process content.    The semantic world can save some time  in its development process by learning from the practical experience taxonomists have built by being in the enterprise, libraries, doing card sorts, understanding user experience, analyzing content, and merging all that with domain knowledge.

My goal this week is to find out more about what will help semantic technologies gain more traction, what are the practical, killer applications, and what are the future skills.    Be sure to stop by Christine’s booth to find out more about how ontologists can help with strategic information management and technical integration with semantic web technologies.

~ Marlene Rockmore (blogging from SemTech San Francisco 2010)

First Aid for the Accidental Taxonomy

Many successful information systems utilized taxomies and metadata, but finding taxonomists to support this work usually happens by accident. Taxonomy design and development is a specialized skill – maybe even a talent. A large organization may employ information architects, SharePoint architects, content managers, and corporate librarians, but these people most likely lack strong taxonomy experience. Although the closest matching formal education for taxonomy work is a masters in library and information science, many corporate librarians specialize in research (such as in business intelligence) and may only know about classification and organization of information based on a past library school course taken. Information architects’ experience with taxonomies may be limited to small taxonomies that fit within the limits of menu labels.

When an organization decides it needs an enterprise taxonomy or needs to leverage and redesign existing taxonomies, then any of these aforementioned types of employees are often pressed into working as taxonomists, without prior experience.   This is what I refer to as the “accidental taxonomist,” as in the title of my recent book (see Heather Hedden, The Accidental Taxonomist, Information Today Inc., 2010 ).

While reading my book is a good idea for anyone who becomes an accidental taxonomist, a book alone cannot teach all the needed skills. Designing and building taxonomies is a process that is fraught with decision-making. If a taxonomist or taxonomy manager is not a defined position within an organization, the “accidental taxonomists” who temporarily assume this role, no matter how skilled, still have their regular jobs to do and may not be able to devote the needed time for the taxonomy.

Starting with a good taxonomy foundation will make it easier to maintain the taxonomy. It will save money, time and resources to get some outside help, especially during the initial stage of taxonomy development, which requires the greatest investment of hours.

How can a taxonomy consultant help?

  • How should terms be assigned to facets
  • Should hierarchies be more deep or more broad
  • Is a complex hierarchy needed or will simpler arrangements work
  • Should taxonomy term labels be complex or simple
  • What governance is needed for longterm management of the taxonomy
  • Who should be on the governance team, and what training is needed

Related to different levels of experience there is also a distinction between explicit knowledge, which may be explained in a book, and tacit knowledge, which is gained through expertise and is more difficult to explain or document. Taxonomists are trained to follow the industry standard guidelines, such as ANSI/NISO Z39.19-2005 Guidelines for the Construction, Format, and Management of Monolingual Controlled Vocabularies. But these are just “guidelines,” and in practical applications the guidelines may need to be modified slightly, such as when there are significant restraints on the taxonomy design. Knowing where and when it is appropriate to bend the rules and when it is not, is a part of tacit knowledge. Having the right knowledge, however, does not necessarily mean the taxonomy work gets done.

Even within the narrower area of taxonomy expertise, it often helps to discuss and work out issues among multiple people who have an understanding of taxonomies Taxonomy work in a large organization can be a team effort. It requires different skills and perspectives to serve all its goals. In addition to the lead taxonomist with an information science background, other people needed include information architects and user experience professionals to ensure that the taxonomy fits well into the user interface and is easy to use, subject matter experts as authorities on the terminology, and IT professionals for the technical implementation of the taxonomy.

If you are the sole taxonomist in your organization, you may want to consult with other, outside taxonomists, such as through online discussion groups, to bounce your ideas off them and get additional feedback based on their varied expertise. It’s hard to work alone without support.

If you are at SLA Annual Conference in New Orleans on June 16, come hear my talk : “Taxonomy Made Easy: An Introduction to Taxonomies for the Accidental Taxonomist.” SLA members are mostly corporate librarians, who are likely candidates to become accidental taxonomists. I’ll help you develop your own taxonomy skills and also identify where you might need to talk to your management about consulting with others skilled in taxonomies. First aid for the accidental taxonomist is always available!

~ Submitted by Heather Hedden

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