Vocabulary Management at W3C (Draft) [ontology and vocabulary as synonyms]

Vocabulary Management at W3C (Draft)

From the webpage:

One of the major stumbling blocks in deploying RDF has been the difficulty data providers have in determining which vocabularies to use. For example, a publisher of scientific papers who wants to embed document metadata in the web pages about each paper has to make an extensive search to find the possible vocabularies and gather the data to decide which among them are appropriate for this use. Many vocabularies may already exist, but they are difficult to find; there may be more than one on the same subject area, but it is not clear which ones have a reasonable level of stability and community acceptance; or there may be none, i.e. one may have to be developed in which case it is unclear how to make the community know about the existence of such a vocabulary.

There have been several attempts to create vocabulary catalogs, indexes, etc. but none of them has gained a general acceptance and few have remained up for very long. The latest notable attempt is LOV, created and maintained by Bernard Vatant (Mondeca) and Pierre-Yves Vandenbussche (DERI) as part of the DataLift project. Other application areas have more specific, application-dependent catalogs; e.g., the HCLS community has established such application-specific “ontology portals” (vocabulary hosting and/or directory services) as NCBO and OBO. (Note that for the purposes of this document, the terms “ontology” and “vocabulary” are synonyms.) Unfortunately, many of the cataloging projects in the past relied on a specific project or some individuals and they became, more often than not, obsolete after a while.

Initially (1999-2003) W3C stayed out of this process, waiting to see if the community would sort out this issue by itself. We hoped to see the emergence of an open market for vocabularies, including development tools, reviews, catalogs, consultants, etc. When that did not emerge, we decided to begin offering ontology hosting (on www.w3.org) and we began the Ontaria project (with DARPA funding) to provide an ontology directory service. Implementation of these services was not completed, however, and project funding ended in 2005. After that, W3C took no active role until the emergence of schema.org and the eventual creation of the Web Schemas Task Force of the Semantic Web Interest Group. WSTF was created both to provide an open process for schema.org and as a general forum for people interested in developing vocabularies. At this point, we are contemplating taking a more active role supporting the vocabulary ecosystem. (emphasis added)

The W3C proposal fails to address two issues with vocabularies:

1. Vocabularies are not the origin of the meanings of terms they contain.

Awful, according to yet another master of the king’s English quoted by Fries, could only mean awe-inspiring.

But it was not so. “The real meaning of any word,” argued Fries, “must be finally determined, not by its original meaning, it source or etymology, but by the content given the word in actual practical usage…. Even a hardy purist would scarcely dare pronounce a painter’s masterpiece awful, without explanations. [The Story of Ain’t by David Skinner, HarperCollins 2012, page 47)

Vocabularies represent some community of semantic practice but that brings us to the second problem the W3C proposal ignores.

2. The meaning of terms in a vocabulary are not stable, universal nor self-evident.

The problem with most vocabularies being they have no way to signal the the context, community or other information that would help distinguish one vocabulary meaning from another.

A human reader may intuit context and other clues from a vocabulary and use those factors when comparing the vocabulary to a text.

Computers, on the other hand, know no more than they have been told.

Vocabularies need to move beyond being simple tokens and represent terms with structures that capture some of the information a human reader knows intuitively about those terms.

Otherwise vocabularies will remain mute records of some socially defined meaning, but we won’t know which ones.

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