Data Semantics, Modeling and Ontologies: New Frontiers in Databases

Robert Meersman,
STARLab, Vrije Universiteit Brussel


The semantics, or meaning, of data and information have been a core issue in databases and information systems for decades, but poses very tough problems, only partially solved by techniques such as constraints, rules, etc.. All forms of usable semantics are necessarily based on agreement among all the system's users, designers and domain experts present --and future. Such a challenge requires new tools that we claim are becoming available under the form of computerized lexicons, thesauri, or more generally ontologies. In the DOGMA Project at STARLab we study the implications of this. We shall survey and compare some of the formal definitions of ontologies in the literature and discuss their crucial importance to systems design, implementation, interoperability and maintenance. We claim such ontologies must be made simple, in order to become standardized, and derive some architectural requirements from this. This leads to possibly "new old" approaches for information system methodologies, based on roles and contexts as first-class citizens. We try to illustrate some of this e.g. in terms of -as well as at the expense of- the recently released Open Information Model by the Metadata Coalition.


Professor Robert Meersman holds the Chair of Applied Informatics in the Department of Computer Science of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium, since 1995 and heads there the laboratory for Systems Technology and Applications Research (STARLab). Previously he was professor at Tilburg University in Holland. He is member and past Chair of IFIP working group WG2.6 on Database and of IFIP's Technical Committee (TC-12) on AI. Robert was one of the original developers of the NIAM (now ORM) methodology and CASE tools, and has organized a number of conferences on Data Semantics since 1985. He has a number recent publications on formal and methodological aspects of data(base) semantics, as well as on more or less related topics such as data mining, Web-based information systems and digital libraries. Prof. Meersman's interests also include the use of "hard" IT in culturally inspired applications such as education and museum information systems.