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Report on the International Conference on Biomedical Ontology

Graz, Austria, July 2012

ICBO 2012 header

Last week, the third International Conference on Biomedical Ontology was held at the medical university in Graz, Austria, thanks to the hospitality of local chair Stefan Schulz and his helpful team.  The scientific conference chairs for the 2012 edition were the excellent team of Robert Stevens from Manchester and Ronald Cornet from Amsterdam.  The conference kicked off with a weekend full of workshops and tutorials, including a tutorial from Barry Smith and Alan Ruttenberg on how to develop and use OBO Foundry ontologies, and a workshop on Mental Functioning Ontology (about which I will have more to say in a subsequent blog post).

During the pre-ICBO weekend, another highlight was that there was so much rain in the Austrian Alps that the Mur river flooded so strongly that the Murinsel "island" was endangered.  As a result, many of the bridges crossing the river were closed, and the wandering ontologists had to work harder to navigate between their hotels and the restaurants at which they congregated for dinners. Luckily, I believe that no lasting damage was sustained and that the flood waters receded in the end (at least for now...)

The conference sessions, spanning 2.5 days from Monday to mid-Wednesday, included a mix of scientific talks and a good number of software demonstrations.  It was great to see so many applications being presented that used ontology technology and content as a core method to solve scientific problems. The scientific topics were quite diverse, including improvements and additions to existing ontologies, methods and utilities for building and matching ontologies, and tricky challenges for foundational upper-level distinctions. There were two brilliant keynotes, firstly Alan Rector presenting a call for attention to consequences in the development of ontologies, and secondly Larry Hunter on bio-ontology successes so far and next big challenges. Larry emphasised the role of ontologies in explanations and suggested greater emphasis on abductive reasoning for upcoming applications.

During the conference, Robert Stevens and I conducted an experiment evaluating the Emotion Ontology for use in tagging emotional experiences.  Using an online tool developed by Colin Caine from Manchester computer science, we asked the participants in the conference audience to capture what they were feeling during the presentations. This was done with the explicit permission of the presenters, and all responses are totally anonymous. The experiment was well-taken, with 553 responses in total and a sustained response right to the end of the conference. As a teaser, the most common response was "I feel interested".  I'm hard at work analysing the rest of the results -- so watch this space :-).

Another highlight of the conference was the decision to allow some time during the main conference for poster presenters to give "flash presentations" of the content of their posters.  The flash presentations were strictly timed to 3 minutes, 3 slides per presentation in one long sequence, and it created a very dynamic and fun atmosphere as the poster presenters charged up at the start of their 3 minutes and then handed over at the end. Congratulations to Ronald Cornet for making that happen.

Finally, the post-conference closing afternoon was filled with a BFO tutorial, which was harnessed as the occasion to deliver the exciting news of the first release of BFO 2.0 for public comment.  A huge number of people have worked for a very long time to make this come about, and it was great to see the positive community response and the deep discussions taking place around the structure, content, and strategies moving forward for this important shared ontology.  More information about the draft release can be found at http://code.google.com/p/bfo and the tracker for recording issues is available at http://code.google.com/p/bfo/issues/list for any interested persons to get involved and contribute to the future directions.  

By the way, here I am presenting on the contentious topic of Waves and Fields in Bio-ontologies at 8:30 am on Wednesday morning. I also presented on the topic of addiction in interoperable ontologies.  Slides on SlideShare as usual. More fun pictures of the event at http://tinyurl.com/bucb8wy.







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