Towards a common vocabulary for climate change – reflections and next steps

Tree view of SPREP’s vocabulary using SKOS Play.


By Alan Stanley (IDS) with contributions from Denise Recheis (REEEP), Michelle Lopez (CCCCC), Timo Baur (CCCCC) and Makelesi Gonelevu (SPREP)

As the Open Knowledge Hub project has evolved we’ve seen a number of exciting new ideas and collaborations emerge from among the project partners that really push forward the Open Knowledge agenda.

A good example of this came from a subset of partners with a shared interest in climate knowledge sharing. The project partners – Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC), the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) and Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP) had identified an opportunity to learn from each other to improve how the climate change information they held was being structured and described.  They also recognised that working together to address this issue should not only improve their ability to share their own information effectively but could also make a wider contribution of value to other knowledge brokers in the sector.

Makelesi Gonelevu from SPREP explains how the project came about.

The initial idea of linking our content dates back to when we signed an MoU with CCCCC in 2011, with the aim of sharing content that would be of relevance to the Pacific region in addressing climate change issues. Furthermore, we were interested in testing our newly developed PCCP vocabulary and synergise it to that of the CCCCC. It was an added bonus that REEEP joined the project with their renowned vocabulary and their work on the climate tagger which we have been interested in for awhile”.


Climate change vocabularies

Their idea was to map how each organisation described key climate change terms and to use this mapping, along with expert input from a pool of climate change specialists, to identify gaps and improve the vocabularies used by each individual organisation to describe and categorise climate change information. Beyond that the three improved thesauri would be linked to create a common vocabulary (available as Linked Open Data) for describing climate change that would be available to others (for example in the Open Knowledge Hub) to create a better search mechanism for the wider sector to find appropriate information across geographic, sectoral and language barriers.

Denise Recheis from REEEP explains their motivation for getting involved.

Extending our vocabulary/thesaurus is high on our agenda, so this was a good opportunity. To bring into our vocabulary the language and focus of Pacific and Caribbean perspective [from the other partners] was interesting. Also, creating and linking Linked Open Data thesauri is highly relevant to our work and our vision”.


Learning from doing

Implementing the project wasn’t without challenges however. All partners found the mapping process – working out the extent to which the large number of different terms used by the different partners described the same, or similar, concepts – to be complex and time consuming.

Michelle Lopez from CCCCC explains.

“I found that the two other taxonomies had similar terms to us but mostly worded in a different way. So a challenge for me personally while conducting the mappings was trying to find a direct link for terms. Some terms could be linked to more than one terms within our taxonomy”.

The largest vocabulary, the REEEP thesaurus, has over 3,500 terms with associated synonyms so with such a large number of terms to map the partners had hoped to make use of automated comparison tools to establish some of the relationships. However, Denise soon found that she would have to adapt her approach.

“Comparing our large vocabulary to two other vocabularies was difficult manually but purely auto-comparison wasn’t doing the job well enough. I came up with a solution where I used both approaches (manual and automated) and also used a reduced version of our vocabulary for manual mapping between concepts initially”.

Overall though the partners seem pleased with the outcomes and feel they have learned from the process. Michelle saw immediate, as well as some longer term, benefits for her organisation’s ability to respond to demand for climate information.

“The Clearinghouse’s taxonomy has been enhanced and improved. Thanks to this project, I had the opportunity to take a closer look at two other taxonomies. I learned that they had similar terms to us but mostly worded in a different way. I had the opportunity to enhance my mapping skills”.

Makelesi similarly is enthusiastic about the benefits.

“Aside from learning from organisations outside the Pacific region, such as the CCCCC and REEEP, who are advanced in this area of work, this project will help expose our content to a wider audience and, vice versa, allow us to have access to a wider range of content in relation to climate change. The mapping exercise also highlighted terms and concepts missing from our vocabulary and areas where the structure of our vocabulary could be improved. The fact that our vocabulary is now available as Linked Open Data may lead to further developments and opportunities for information sharing in the future”.


Where next?

So, now the project has completed what happens next? Well one immediate piece of good news is that the work has already attracted some additional funding to extend the value of the project for different audiences. The Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), which aims to help decision-makers in developing countries design and deliver climate compatible development, has provided some additional funding to see the new taxonomies, which are all in English, translated into French and Spanish. This will enable potentially much greater opportunities for the work to be applied across current geographic and language barriers.

Both REEEP and CCCCC also have specific ideas for how they would continue to develop this area of work. For Denise there is an opportunity to further enhance the methodological approach and tools for this kind of work.

I would like to look deeper into different ways of structuring similar topics as controlled vocabularies, how to best bring them together, look again into the mappings and how I have translated intuitive “are somehow related” “are kind of the same” mappings into standardized SKOS links (“also see” “exact matching concept” “same as” ….). Also, testing of advantages that the linked vocabularies might bring to individual use cases would be interesting to explore in more depth”.

For Michelle and CCCCC the future applications are more practical.

We may use the new digital version of the vocabulary for our Clearinghouse searches such that our users can also search in the SPREP climate platform or in the Open Knowledge Hub. We will also share the digital version of the vocabulary with other initiatives. For example there is a scientific project at UWI in Jamaica that is looking at vocabularies for disaster management”.


Project details

You can find a detailed explanation and analysis of the methodology used by the partners in their project report. The enhanced thesauri are published and available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license. All three thesauri have also been made openly accessible as machine readable shared Linked Open Data (LOD) through RDF SPARQL endpoints. A brief manual guides practical use of the endpoints for own software developments, and provides details on how to access the data – A Guide to Practical Use of the Electronic “Linked-Open-Data” Climate Change Thesauri.

[For any further information please contact Alan Stanley].