Using Ontology Languages for Conceptual Modeling

Using Ontology Languages for Conceptual Modeling

Palash Bera, Anna Krasnoperova, Yair Wand
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-471-0.ch001
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Conceptual models are used to support understanding of and communication about application domains in information systems development. Such models are created using modeling grammars (usually employing graphic representation). To be effective, a grammar should support precise representation of domain concepts and their relationships. Ontology languages such as OWL emerged to define terminologies to support information sharing on the Web. These languages have features that enable representation of semantic relationships among domain concepts and of domain rules, not readily possible with extant conceptual modeling techniques. However, the emphasis in ontology languages has been on formalization and being computer-readable, not on how they can be used to convey domain semantics. Hence, it is unclear how they can be used as conceptual modeling grammars. We suggest using philosophically based ontological principles to guide the use of OWL as a conceptual modeling grammar. The paper presents specific guidelines for creating conceptual models in OWL and demonstrates, via example, the application of the guidelines to creating representations of domain phenomena. To test the effectiveness of the guidelines we conducted an empirical study comparing how well diagrams created with the guidelines support domain understanding in comparison to diagrams created without the guidelines. The results indicate that diagrams created with the guidelines led to better domain understanding of participants.
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2. Background

Conceptual modeling is the activity of formally describing some aspects of the physical and social world around us for purposes of understanding and communication (Mylopoulos, 1992). The more common uses of conceptual models in the IS field are to: (1) facilitate communications between users and analysts, (2) support the analysts’ understanding of the domain, (3) serve as the basis for design and implementation of IS, and (4) record design rationales (Kung & Solvberg, 1986). While conceptual models provide input for design, they do not represent the IS artefact. In particular, conceptual models are different than semantic data models. In particular, conceptual models are created for studying a business, while semantic data models are created for designing a database.

While an IS ontology defines a set of concepts, a conceptual model uses concepts to represent a specific domain. Conceptual models are created using modeling grammars comprising constructs for representing domain phenomena, and rules for combining these constructs (Shanks et al., 2003). There are at least two reasons why it might be advantageous to use an ontology language as a conceptual modeling grammar. First, using a formalized ontology language can provide for including the semantics of domain concepts as part of the conceptual model. Second, ontology language statements are intended to be processed by software applications and can be subject to automated reasoning. Hence, conceptual models represented in ontology languages can be subject to automated processing, in particular to verification beyond what graphical representation affords.

However, ontology language constructs do not have the domain semantics required from conceptual models. We propose that since philosophical theories of ontology can represent domain phenomena (Shanks et al., 2003; Wand & Weber, 2002), such theories can guide the use of ontology languages for conceptual modeling.

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