Christopher Wellen

Department of Geography, McGill University


My research is on the topic of geographical categories and Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

The GIScience research community has for some time taken a considerable amount of interest in the subject of ontology. Ontology originally came from philosophy, where it refers to the study of being. In philosophy, ontology is an effort to construct a theory of the most basic elements of existence using concepts, relations, and rules. Philosophical ontologists concern themselves, on the most broad level, with questions such as "is chance real, or merely lack of information?", and ontologists of the geographic domain concern themselves with questions such as "do mountains exist, or are they an arbitrary delineation of a continuous landscape?"

Information science has in recent years adopted the topic of ontology, though in a rather different way. An information science ontologist is not concerned with reality at all, merely with databases and data models. In information science, an ontology is a logically formalized representation of a domain of knowledge. Ontologies are constructed using classes, or categories; relations between classes; rules that allow the inference of additional knowledge; and instances, individual things which inherit all the properties of the classes they belong to. In an ontology of people, for instance, you the reader would be an instance of the class person. A rule in this ontology would be that every mother is a female person who has given birth to another person, and a relation like 'isParentOf' would link the mother class to the child class.

Information scientists hope to use ontologies to solve the 'tower of babel' problem that has occured as information systems proliferate and multiple databases with somewhat different conceptualizations attempt to share data, or interoperate. If an authoritative ontology can be constructed to describe even a single domain, such as human resources, any database about that domain could describe its contents in terms of the concepts in the ontology, and the data could be automatically 'translated' into the format of any other database also 'linked' to the ontology. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the main standards body for the World Wide Web, intends to use ontologies in addition to other technologies to implement their vision of the Semantic Web, which essentially makes the meaning of information stored on the Web in HTML pages, databases, and other sources machine readable and processable.

One of the main research areas in GIScience is the creation of an ontology for geography. It has been recognized that such an effort would require both a philosophical approach to define what geography is truly about, as well as an information systems approach to formalize it. There have been philosophical candidates advanced. However, there has been less inquiry into cultural differences in conceptualizing geography and how these would influence how ontologies would be formalized. While there has been some inquiry into the differences between Western and Indigenous geographical conceptualizations, there has been little research into how these differences would affect formal ontologies of geography created from these conceptualizations. This is where I am specializing.

I am working with the Cree of Wemindji, Quebec. I am creating an online map of Cree placenames and audio recordings of stories. One component of this GIS is a formal ontology of Cree hydrographic features. My efforts will shed some light on how the ontology formalization process would be different for indigenous cultures, how the actual ontologies would be different, and what the place of the ontology would be in the GIS, an open question in general and for indigenous cultures.

I plan on finishing in November and obtaining an M.Sc. degree.


2007 Christopher Wellen