During our last venue to the University of Birmingham, we had the chance to interview John Easton, Lecturer working in the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education.
He is telling us about ontologies, how they use it for their Railways’ projects and why is Odase platform a essential key for their success.
Please watch his testimonial:
Read the full interview below:
ERTMS Solutions (ESOL):Hello John, what is an ontology?
John: An ontology is a data model that is based on a shared view of the world from two different sources.
Any two computers that are exchanging information using the same ontology understand the concepts that underpin the data, and because of that they can infer new information based on the data they are receiving.
ESOL: Do you think ontologies are an interesting solution to solve complex information system integration, and if so why?
John: Ontologies are a great way to solve information integration between complex systems, because they use a semantic model of the data; the explanation of what the data is carried within the model.
That means you can bring together data from very diverse resources, so from very different contexts, like automotive and rail, without needing to explicitly encode that information in your software. It means that your software is decoupled from the world around it, and you can change things in the physical world, without needed to change things in your software.
It also means that you’re resilient to the loss of information, so your ontologies model can include information that says how to make conversion from different data sources, without you having to encode that in the software. That way, you can have a single model that encodes all of the rules, and only have to make a change in that model rather than in multiples different applications.
ESOL: Why ontologies can help the digitalization of the railway industry?
John: The railways, like any other big infrastructure based system, tend to suffer having siloed IT; that is the IT systems have been bought in a package, they have their own hardware, their own software backends, and their own user interfaces. The problem with that is that to exchange information between those systems, traditionally you develop point to point interfaces, so for any two packages, you develop a specific interface between those two things. With an ontology, you have a very flexible interface that means you can have a single link between all of your systems, and the context is maintained so there is no ambiguity, no risk of confusion in the information you’re exchanging.
An NIST report in 2004 suggested that in the US capital facilities industry, such confusion could cost you as much as 1 to 2% of revenue each year. So in the railway industry, in the UK for example, that would cost you tens of millions of pounds annually.
ESOL: What are your main projects in the railway field, using ontologies?
John: Our main projects in the railway industry using ontologies at the moment tend to be around operations, and how you can help control room staff in situations when you have a degraded mode in your railway. Say for example you’ve lost an information source that you normally can rely on, maybe the signaling systems is failed or an operational situation of that type. Ontologies really help in this type of incident because you can draw together information from different resources that the ones you’d normally use and by having different sets of rules in your ontology; the applications that are being used by the control room staff then don’t have to change, despite the fact that the information is unavailable.
ESOL: Why Odase can help your current projects in the railway field?
John: The issue of integration of data, and the use of ontologies in big systems like the railways is one of ease of adoption of a technology. IT practitioners in the railways are never going to be semantic web specialists, there just are not enough of them about, and the railway really isn’t a particularly attractive environment for those people to go and work in. So, what you need if you are going to adopt ontologies in some of these big industries, is very-easy-to-use-tools that let the people who already understand the software in those areas use the semantic web technology without needing to be specialist, and that’s what the Odase tool let you do.
ESOL: If you would leave a message to companies who don’t work yet with ERTMS Solutions, what would you say?
John: I guess if I had to pick one message for companies that are not working yet with ESOL is that the railways around Europe, around the world, are already thinking about using ontologies. It’s taken them 10 years to get there, but they now started to think that way round. Now, there a lot of companies out there who are trying to adapt ontologies into a technology that’s useful in industrial contexts. Most of them don’t have solutions there yet, most them don’t have products developed by people who understand railways. ERTMS Solutions have both of those things, they understand the context, they understand the technology, so why reinvent the wheel, why not work with the people who already have the tool.
ESOL: Thank very much John for your answers.