UTDSIDSINewsThe World of Ontology

The World of Ontology In conversation with Giancarlo Guizzardi

Organisations, governments or scientists often have questions that can only be answered by combining data from different sources, produced by different people at different moments in time. A key tool to tackle this challenge is rooted in an ancient philosophical concept known as Ontology. Originating with Aristotle in the 4th century BC, Ontology involves developing a system of categories to analyse and understand the essence of things across different domains. Some ontological questions include: What defines an object, event, or process? How do parts of objects compare to parts of events? What does it mean for something to cause another? Can events change? Do future events exist? What changes can something undergo and remain the same?

A modern ontological system

In Twente, we have pioneered a modern ontological system, originating from the 2005 PhD thesis by Giancarlo Guizzardi. Guizzardi, now a full professor of Computer Science at the University of Twente, initiated this system, drawing inspiration from Aristotle and integrating insights from cognitive science, linguistics, mathematical logic, and computer science. “This system helps to uncover and explicitly represent the meaning of data by analysing and revealing the nature of entities in the world represented therein” Giancarlo stated.

Giancarlo Guizzardi

“With this ontological system in place, we have developed a modelling language and various computational tools. These tools ensure ‘semantic transparency’ by explicitly revealing the meaning of data and identifying the entities it represents in the world. This significantly enhances data interpretation, integration, and the formal verification of data consistency. Moreover, it helps understand and explain decisions made by complex computational systems.”

Giancarlo Guizzardi
The backbone of this ontological system, called the Unified Foundational Ontology (UFO).
An example of a modelling language (OntoUML) based on this ontological system that is being adopted more and more in different institutions worldwide.

Over time, numerous national and international organisations, such as the U.S. Department of Defense, National Health Care Institute, and various other organisations have used this language and its associated tool ecosystem. Additionally, it is taught and applied by research groups in universities across different countries. Now, it has captured the attention of NASA.


NASA is currently investing in a major systems integration initiative known as OpenCAESAR, which is centred around ontological models. The primary objective is to guarantee that the large set of very complex software and hardware systems they develop are understandable and form a coherent whole. The technology emerging from OpenCEASAR has already played an important role in several space missions.

Visit to NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL)

During the first week of February, Giancarlo Guizzardi was invited to present on OntoUML and its ontological foundations and associated tools at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL). Following the presentation, Guizzardi spent his time with the OpenCAESAR team in technological meetings, aiming to collaborate closely. Guizzardi: “There was a strong mutual understanding that the work that we have been maturing for over twenty years can complement their initiative in significant ways.“

Thinking back on his experience, Guizzardi said, “NASA stands as a symbol of scientific research and development. As scientists, we were taught to always remain objective and think critically. So, it is unusual for scientific meetings to leave a strong emotional impact. Spending these two days at JPL affected me in many ways. Visiting NASA’s mission control room brought out the excited child in me, as I've always been fascinated by space exploration. It also made me wish I could travel back in time to tell my younger self, a PhD student in his 20s, that he was right to invest in interdisciplinary research and his belief that ancient philosophical ideas could be transformed into powerful engineering tools in computer science. Finally, it confirmed the importance of sticking to long-term research goals and avoiding being distracted by trends, which can distract scientists all too easily.”

14th International Conference on Formal Ontology in Information Systems (FOIS 2024) 

The Semantics, Cybersecurity & Services group of the University of Twente is proud to host the 14th edition of the International Conference on Formal Ontology in Information Systems (FOIS), the flagship conference of the International Association of Ontology and its Applications (IAOA).

By hosting this conference the University of Twente will become the Ontology Capital of the world on 8 and 9 July 2024 (online) and from 15 till 19 July 2024 live in Enschede.