Ontology and The Semantic Web

The wide-scale systems of the web are seen as providing an ontological infrastructure for digital information. The semantic web attempts to enact this through technical specifications (Semantic Web – W3C, no date) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Shirky (2005) describes the applied ontology from different perspectives:

‘The main thread of ontology in the philosophical sense is the study of entities and their relations. The question ontology asks is: What kinds of things exist or can exist in the world, and what manner of relations can those things have to each other? Ontology is less concerned with what is than with what is possible.’


‘The knowledge management and AI communities have a related definition — they’ve taken the word “ontology” and applied it more directly to their problem. The sense of ontology there is something like “an explicit specification of a conceptualization.”’

(Shirky: Ontology is Overrated — Categories, Links, and Tags, 2005)

As Shirky identifies, the idea of ontology from a technical engineering perspective is that the explicit categorisation that wide-scale digital information structures require, provides an opportunity to develop a schema of knowledge that will help with the task of correlating information from different domains, thereby providing a powerful basis for new tools and insights (Schema ref RB?). This again is the powerful idea that the collective endeavour of distributed users gives rise to new metadata which has value is describing relationships in information structures. 2005 could be considered the early years of what was called Web 2.0, which defined the web as more of a platform for user generated content than an infrastructure for the one-way delivery of static information. In this context Shirky goes on to develop the idea that categorisation by ontologically ascribing information hierarchies misses the real nature and potential of digital information by reinforcing the ontological biases of, for example, history, power and control that are at work in our analogue repositories of knowledge. If this new era of user generated content is freed from this hierarchical determinism and part of the task of categorisation is left to users to ascribe en masse through user action (tagging, reassigning, commenting, rating etc.), a crowd-based ontological schema could emerge that is richer and more useful, in that it does not pre judge its relationships to other things. Shirky specifically discuss the practice of tagging in this context, as below;

‘The strategy of tagging — free-form labeling, without regard to categorical constraints — seems like a recipe for disaster, but as the Web has shown us, you can extract a surprising amount of value from big messy data sets.’ (Shirky: Ontology is Overrated — Categories, Links, and Tags,)

This shows that at the heart of systems built on top of the idea of the semantic web also lies the idea that such systems create extra value by capturing the interactions of users and developing new data sets accordingly. In this context, my research explores what kind of data are created by designers when considered as a subgroup of specialist users, and specifically any useful user generated ontology in the design domain.

In the 10 years since Shirky’s talk, these ideas have been further explored by subgroups of the HCI community. A good example of this was Eighth International Conference on Design Science Research in Information Systems and Technology whose abstract below shows a mature context for some of the issues from an HCI perspective:

‘Theme: Design Science at the Intersection of Physical and Virtual Design

There has been a surge of interest in design science research in Information Systems in the last few years and we can say that this is now a mature field. The goal of the design science research paradigm is to extend the boundaries of human and organizational capabilities by designing new and innovative constructs, models, methods, processes, and systems. Scholars from different backgrounds – such as information systems, computer science, software engineering, energy informatics and medical informatics – are actively engaged in generating novel solutions to interesting design problems in Information Systems.’ (DESRIST 2013 | Eighth International Conference on Design Science Research in Information Systems and Technology)

Within the published conference proceedings (Brocke et al., 2013) ‘Ontological Explorations’ are specifically discussed in the context of developing a specific model of cross-domain knowledge queries. This again reinforces the context of my research in developing ontological descriptions around distributed and collaborative systems of the design process built on top of the wide-scale systems of the semantic web.


Brocke, J., Hekkala, R., Ram, S. and Rossi, M. (2013) Design Science at the Intersection of Physical and Virtual Design: 8th International Conference, DESRIST 2013, Helsinki, Finland, June 11-12,2013, Proceedings. Springer Berlin Heidelberg (Lecture Notes in Computer Science).
Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=NtK6BQAAQBAJ.

Shirky: Ontology is Overrated — Categories, Links, and Tags (no date). Available at: http://www.shirky.com/writings/ontology_overrated.html