Published March 3, 2016
Mark Jensen, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Biomedical Informatics, is working on a United Nations project involving information infrastructure.
Jensen uses ontologies to create structured representations of knowledge and information across and within specific disciplines.
Originally, “ontology” was another name for metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of being. Outside of philosophy, however, it is now used to describe ways of linking data within the fields of computer science and information technology — and the Department of Biomedical Informatics is the first academic unit in the world with a division devoted to ontology, says Barry Smith, a SUNY Distinguished Professor of philosophy and director of the National Center for Ontological Research at UB.
“It’s engaging material at a fundamental level and thinking about how the information that’s being generated in a particular course of study can be clearly and precisely defined, organized and accessed,” says Jensen, who is pursuing his PhD under Smith’s supervision.
Jensen’s training is in cognitive science and philosophy and his research focuses on the development of ontologies in the domain of mental disorders, cognitive impairment and neurological diseases.
For five years, he has developed biomedical ontologies for UB researchers, including Alexander Diehl, PhD, Kinga Szigeti, MD, PhD, and Bianca Weinstock-Guttman, MD, in the Department of Neurology. Now he is working with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to provide the information infrastructure needed to monitor the UN’s recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of goals created to help frame policy for the next 15 years on the issues of poverty, inequality and injustice, and climate change.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals replace and expand upon eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Each of the 17 goals has a subset of targets, 179 in all, but the terms used are often broad, imprecise and contextual.
Jensen is part of a team assembled to develop an ontology for the SDGs in order to resolve the resulting language problems.
Jensen has worked for some years with Smith who, along with Werner Ceusters, MD, chief of the division of biomedical ontology in the Department of Biomedical Informatics, leads most of the ontology work being conducted at UB.
“The approach to ontologies used by Mark and the UNEP team draws on work that has been taking place in Buffalo for over 10 years, including large-scale ontology building for U.S. Army intelligence, the Air Force and Army Research Labs, the Federal Highways Administration and also UB’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute,” says Smith.
There are 193 UN member states and hundreds of interest groups concerned with specific SDGs and representing different cultures and many languages.
Collaboration and integration are among the characteristics separating the SDGs from their MDG predecessors, so a shared understanding of objectives and the accompanying necessity to uniformly monitor progress are critical.
“We have to investigate the use of each term within the goals and targets. Many terms appear multiple times and we have to determine how their meaning varies relative to particular contexts,” Jensen says. “Even the word ‘sustainable’ occurs dozens of times. What does each instance of the term mean for a particular domain?”
The UNEP ontologists must be globally comprehensive in their task to create one source for structuring and linking information that is accessible and understandable to all of the SDG stakeholders.
“With the SDGs, the language used doesn’t always match from one goal to the next,” Jensen says. “So we create needed consensus definitions that link together in a hierarchy as a way of building a common SDG ontology.”