Evaluations offer a chance for reflection, as well as an opportunity for improvement. They unravel the big picture of a program’s journey, the outcomes encountered towards realizing its vision, and uncover hidden gems and “aha” moments. The recent evaluation of the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture delved into the communities of practice (CoPs), like CGIAR’s ontologies CoP work. The evaluation found the CoP to be laden with knowledge and value that should be taken forward to sustain the wheel of learning related to ontologies in One CGIAR. This blog zooms in to this CoP and the emerging outcomes assessed during the Big Data Platform evaluation.

Promoting Data Annotation for Semantic Interoperability – CGIAR Big Data Platform’s Ontologies Community of Practice (CoP)

The CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture (the Platform) sought to convene the scientific data resources across CGIAR’s partners to generate new collaborative opportunities. Among strategies to enable interactions and collaborations for scientists within and outside CGIAR, the Platform worked with new or existing Communities of Practice (CoPs) and their working groups. Communities of practice are groups of practitioners organized around specific themes to facilitate collaboration, learning and mutual support.

The Ontologies CoP was an instance of this. Ontology is the formal description of what exists in a given field, showing the relationships and hierarchy of concepts in the field. The Ontologies CoP aimed at setting guidelines and best practices for selecting and using semantic data descriptions and metadata harmonization. It also sought to stimulate knowledge sharing on ontology development for agriculture.

The independent evaluation of the Platform, carried out between July and December 2021 includes a case study of the Ontologies CoP (see annex 8), developed by members of the evaluation team. This blog highlights some of the approaches by the CoP to promote data annotation for semantic interoperability – the ability of computer systems to exchange data with unambiguous shared meaning.

Growing Relevance and Diversity

Led by the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), the Ontologies CoP has four thematic working groups. These are: (a) Plant Phenotypes - which adopted and enhanced the pre-existing Crop Ontology Community Project, (b) Fish, (c) Agronomy, and (d) Socio-economy.  The Ontologies CoP registered steady membership growth to its LinkedIn group and subscriptions to its newsletter throughout the Platform's life (2017-2021). The CoP’s organizational partnerships increased from 10 in 2018 to 18 in 2020. Majority of these partnerships were external to CGIAR. Many key informants interviewed and respondents of an online survey- conducted as part of the Platform evaluation - appreciated the richness, diversity, and value of membership and partnerships in the CoP. While the CoP has been exploring governance frameworks for its individual ontology products, interviewees suggested that formally defining the actual CoP’s governance mechanisms could strengthen its partnership framework.

Efficient Dissemination Activities

The CoP used webinars as a tool for capacity development among its constituents. It organized webinars featuring 39 speakers, primarily external partners, from diverse backgrounds, and published the recordings on its YouTube Channel, which had accumulated 10,172 views[1]. The webinars motivated interactions with universities and corporations such as the BASF Group, Bayer, and the KWS Group. The attendance and viewership, diversity of speakers, the novelty of the content, and interactivity of sessions indicate efficient use of resources given the low costs associated with organizing webinars. The CoP’s ability to tap into knowledge and expertise from external speakers of diverse backgrounds demonstrates building on the mutual interests and benefits among stakeholders to deliver on its mandate efficiently.

Advancement of Crucial Ontologies

The CoP was deemed instrumental in drawing CGIAR colleagues’ attention to ontologies, not as mere academic standards but as mechanisms for unlocking the potential of big data through semantic interoperability. Thanks to the Platform’s support, the Crop Ontology (CO) grew to have over 10,000 harmonized and validated variables covering 33 crops. This indicates increasing comprehensiveness and diversity of coverage by this crops-focused ontology. The CoP also advanced new ontologies such as Agronomy Ontology (AgrO), Socio-economic Ontology (SEONT), and Fish Ontology (FishO). Nevertheless, the Platform evaluation found no evidence of substantive usage of the ontologies developed by the CoP. A few key informants interviewed as part of the Platform evaluation also expressed frustration about the slow uptake of ontologies despite the visible investments in their development.

A Strong Foundation for Continued Success

The CoP published a descriptor article on its workings and results in the Patterns journal in 2020. This creates more visibility for CGIAR on the global science of data landscape and attracts new expertise and partnerships for the CoP.

Compliance with the 2021 Open and FAIR data assets (OFDA) policy, as part of the One CGIAR strategy, calls for best practices in annotating data with widely adopted ontologies. Although this suggests ongoing relevance for the Ontologies CoP, its sustainability in One CGIAR is yet to be asserted through funding. The Platform broadly promoted ontology usefulness in data discovery and knowledge modeling. Understanding this usefulness of ontology has been one of the Platform's successes as asserted by key informants. However, the value-added work of the Ontologies CoP is not yet fully acknowledged in CGIAR governance. A remaining unanswered question is whether COP will be adequately supported and promoted by One CGIAR.

An Essential Mechanism for Semantic Interoperability

The Ontologies CoP has been a critical mechanism for advancing semantic interoperability through data annotation, thanks to the Platform’s support. The CoP efficiently harnessed and shared expertise on ontologies among stakeholders within and outside CGIAR. The CoP has advanced the development and maintenance of crucial ontologies. However, its inability to demonstrate the uptake of these ontologies and their related products is a concern that may relate to their relevance and awareness levels. During the conduct of the Platform  evaluation, there was no clear indication in One CGIAR structure on where the vital role served by this CoP will be housed.

Proper Support and Governance are Needed

The capacity to develop and maintain ontologies for agricultural subdomains is essential for One CGIAR. The evaluation case study concluded that the Ontologies CoP is instrumental for advancing semantic interoperability across the CGIAR’s diverse and ever-growing agricultural research datasets. As such, the CoP needs proper support and strengthening of its governance mechanisms. Encouraging the use of the CoP’s products is paramount for CGIAR’s dataset promotion. Monitoring ontologies usage and finding refinement opportunities for the CoP’s products, hence sustained relevance in a rapidly evolving digital technology space, will be vital in unlocking impact and benefits for CGIAR and its funders.

Many key informants appreciated the work of the CoP, wishing for its continuation in 2022, in the renewed One CGIAR.

[1] Access date: 22 October 2021