Faculdade de Letras da Universidade do Porto - OCS, 15th INTERNATIONAL ISKO CONFERENCE

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Quoc-Tan Tran

Last modified: 2018-02-02


Objectives: Knowledge organization systems (KOS) have long been used as a means of information exchange and have functioned as standard in knowledge organization and resource discovery. The effective utilization of KOSs in digital environments would facilitate integration of the large corpora of recorded knowledge and digitally born resources on the Web. In the domain of humanitarian needs and action, especially in the emerging field of digital humanitarian, KOSs are enabling humanitarian organizations to improve the collection, communication, and analysis of data, in order to more effectively coordinate the international response to crises (Meier, 2015; Di Maio, 2007; Jian & Segev, 2013). However, prior attempts that focused on building centralised knowledge representation systems or standardised forms for the rapid response have had limited success (Keßler & Hendrix, 2015). What often happens in the case of humanitarian data is that an “ontology of dynamic data requires several domain ontologies for reference from which to obtain the exact definitions of data in certain application domains” (Fan & Zlatanova, 2011).

This paper discusses the challenges of creating a theoretic framework within the context of an intercultural and ethically responsible KOS in emergencies and conflict settings. The first objective is to explore cultural and societal concerns linked to the development of KOSs in the humanitarian domain. Next it is aimed to develop a mode of access and organization of knowledge which respects cultural diversity on a global scale. This kind of approach should be attentive to intersectionality and cultural interoperability.

Methods: A great deal efforts in finding solutions to linguistic and cultural barriers in knowledge organization are being put on the development of multilingual/multicultural systems and local adaptations to feed those systems. Language, however, is only one of the many aspects. This paper applies the concept of cultural interoperability in knowledge organization, which can be briefly defined as “the degree to which knowledge and information is anchored to a unified model of meaning across cultures” (Vossen et al., 2011). It examines the potential for creating and monitoring ethically and globally accessible, and culturally acceptable KOSs for humanitarian assistance in emergencies and conflict settings.

Using a large collection of datasets from the Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX) platform [https://data.humdata.org/dataset], an international open data repository for crisis and humanitarian needs, we examine the knowledge maps of the communities of practice (CoP) in the field. These data are selected because they can represent various actual humanitarian impacts and humanitarian needs from multiple and interdisciplinary perspectives. The notion of CoP, according to Wenger (1998), refers to all the social, information and communication practices put in place by groups or communities. Focusing on the processes of creating and sharing knowledge, Wenger distinguished three dimensions of CoP: the symbolic dimension that generates the feeling of belonging to a group and provokes mutual commitment, the cognitive dimension based on the sharing of available tools and resources by the whole community and the social dimension that is responsible for the common work around a shared vision.

These three dimensions relate to the concept of interoperability which, particularly in the field of information sciences, relies on the openness, sharing, adaptation, reconciliation of components, policies and practices. From this perspective, the tools and resources built in a CoP, which could be remobilized in various situations, allow the continuity and sustainability of the work activities for the actors within the domain. Using this approach, we emphasize the importance of opening up the notion of cultural inclusiveness, to weigh not only linguistic diversity, but also other intangibles aspects such as historical elements, racial mix, political system, gender, etc.

Main results: We learn about Humanitarian Data objects and concepts by grouping HDX datasets into three categories: (1) macro-level concepts implying global datasets on humanitarian action (interpretations, principles, actors and trends), (2) meso-leve data gathered at the organizational level, and (3) micro-level population-based datasets. The mixed and multi-level methods used to define boundaries, enrich and reconciliate existing data, and assemble new data in HDX platform are discussed. This multi-level perspective permits the use of innovative evaluations methods, and representations of humanitarian needs and recommendations for humanitarian assistance in emergencies and conflict settings. The limit of our research, however, is that we have not integrated all possible open resources that can yield rich insight into emerging digital humanitarian practices. Our research did not include other sources of community and public datasets (such as Data.World or Datahub.io) on which we plan to perform future work.

Conclusions: Cultural interoperability is a significant issue for any emerging community of practice. The goal of open humanitarian data initiative is to improve information exchange during extreme situations and the effectiveness of humanitarian response (Di Maio, 2007). Although significant efforts has been made regarding the systemic and semantic heterogeneity of data, culture heterogeneity in this domain remains largely unaddressed. In this work, we take into consideration the cultural diversity in designing KOSs and access modes to humanitarian knowledge. Our underlying objective to identify the landscape of knowledge organization and representation applications developed in the open humanitarian data movement and to consider how the high level of cultural interoperability can improve information exchange, the evaluation of humanitarian needs and the prioritization of humanitarian responses.

Keywords: digital humanitarian, culture interoperability, knowledge organization systems


Di Maio, P. (2007). An open ontology for open source emergency response system. Opensource. Mit. Edu, (May), 1–12.

Fan, Z., & Zlatanova, S. (2011). Exploring ontologies for semantic interoperability of data in emergency response. Applied Geomatics, 3(2), 109–122.

Jihan, S. H., & Segev, A. (2013). Context Ontology for Humanitarian Assistance in Crisis Response. International Conference on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management (ISCRAM-13).

Keßler, C., & Hendrix, C. (2015). The Humanitarian eXchange Language: Coordinating disaster response with semantic web technologies. Semantic Web, 6(1), 5–21.

Meier, P. (2015). Digital Humanitarians: How Big Data Is Changing the Face of Humanitarian Response. Routledge.

Vossen, P., et al. (2011). KYOTO: A wiki for establishing semantic interoperability for knowledge sharing across languages and cultures. In Handbook of Research on Culturally-Aware Information Technology: Perspectives and Models (pp. 265–293). Hershey, New York: Information Science Reference.

Wenger, E. (1999). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge University Press.