Couclelis on GIS and ontologies

Helen Couclelis has a new article on ontologies of geographic information. Her position is a little different from the usual GIS “ontologies” work, and her opening paragraph is pasted below.

I see Couclelis as trying to stake out a position here which is a little more philosophically informed than other work in geotechnologies (eg the “geoinformatics” crowd). But she is still committed to a “cognitive” stance (see last sentences) and effectively tries to dodge real ontology by saying her position is neutral on whether it is veridically capturing the real world by claiming to capture “information” about the real world rather than real world entities. This still leaves a gap between “information” and “knowledge” in my opinion, ie is she really doing ontology or epistemology? Ontology is supposed to be about (the question of) being, not information. Or if you prefer a question of the conditions of possibility for knowledge, which you could say is a political question (or again, power/knowledge questions).

Her position requires an appeal to intentionality, and she couches it as “user-centric.” I think this is a good step, but there are many ways to approach this and she seems to favor the old communication model approach. This was critiqued in the 1970s by Guelke but that we all know still underlies naive representationalist GIS.

“Ontologies of geographic information.” Helen Couclelis. International Journal of GIS, 24(12), 2010. DOI: 10.1080/13658816.2010.484392.

Real-world entities are the focus of most ontologies that have been formulated to date, both generally and more specifically in the area of geographic information. Other ontologies stress cognitive representations of entities instead of the entities themselves, attempting to model the ‘world in the head’ rather than the ‘world out there.’ Distinct from but related to the latter are ontologies that model language. This article proposes a different approach whereby it is theinformation available about the world, and not the world itself (whether ‘real’ or cognized), that forms the basis of an ontological system. That system takes the form of suitably ordered and interpreted classes of observations forming a hierarchy, the levels of which are connected through a systematic generative procedure. To the extent that the observations in question may be identified with properties of specific entities of interest, the system practically reproduces the solutions proposed by several researchers of carving separable, discrete objects out of a field of properties (Kjenstad 2006, Goodchild et al2007). It is even closer to the unifying object-field formalization proposed by Voudouris (2010) in that one and the same hierarchical structure generates the equivalents of fields at the lower levels and of objects at the higher levels. The highest levels of the hierarchy are also characterized by semantics not commonly associated with geographic ontologies, comprising objects that embody the notion of intentionality. Following Searle (1983), intentionality here refers to the purposes, intentions, motivations, needs, beliefs, and so on, of an observer or a user of the system. Human intentionality seeks, selects, and sifts through information always from a particular perspective, the perspective relevant to a user. One major advantage of an ontological system based primarily if not entirely on the notion of information is that it allows such an extension into the semantics of user-centered interpretations: indeed, information is a relational concept presupposing an intelligent recipient/decoder as well as a source (Williamson 1994, Huchard et al2007). Further, the proposed system producesgeographic information constructs, not directly representations of real entities, except at the highest hierarchical level(s). As defined in this article, geographic information constructs can have richer and more flexible semantics than empirical object representations, allowing several different views of the same empirical entity to coexist and a broader range of questions in geographic information science to be explored. This also means that epistemologically, the ontology is neutral with respect to the realist/mentalist and related debates, leaving questions of the true structure of the world and of the workings of human cognition to theoretical physicists, psychologists, linguists, and philosophers. Without elevating it to the status of a metaphysical axiom, the approach is closest to the working definition given by Zeigler et al. (2000), according to whom the real world is the universe of potentially acquirable data. There is no contradiction, however, in saying that the proposed system has ‘cognition written all over it,’ as any purposeful selection and interpretation of raw data is inescapably a cognitive act.

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