SemanticAfrica© — Africa and the Semantic Web
Pullo (Fulani) woman spinning cotton. Labe (Guinea).
Photo: IFAN 1950
Semantic Web and Africa
Africa and the Semantic Web (aka Web 3.0, Web of Data) or SemanticAfrica© deals with the cultural heritage of the continent known as the Cradle of Humankind. Cultural Heritage (CH) is “the legacy of physical objects, environment, traditions, and knowledge of a society…” (Hyvönen, 2012). The publishing of “Cultural Heritage collections and other content on the Web has become one of the most successful application domains of Semantic Web and Linked Data technologies. After a period of technical research and prototype development, boosted by the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) Semantic Web Activity kickoff in 2001 and the Linked (Open) Data movement later on, major national and international CH institutions and collaboration networks have now started to publish their data using Linked Data principles and Semantic Web technologies.” (id. ibid.) Hyvönen adequately delineates three fields of CH study:
- Tangible cultural heritage [i.e.] concrete cultural objects, such as artifacts, works of art, buildings, and books
- Intangible cultural heritage [or] phenomena such as traditions, language, handicraft skills, folklore, and knowledge
- Natural cultural heritage [namely] culturally significant landscapes, biodiversity, and geo-diversity
The purpose of the SemanticAfrica© website is the development of a prototype for the implementation of the Ontology Layer of the Semantic Web on Africa's Cultural Heritage. Initially the focus will be on:
- The ethnolinguistic study of African societies, by and large
- The Cultural Heritage of the Fulɓe, sing. Pullo (aka Fulani, Peul, Foulah, Takruri, Foulbe, Ful, Fulè, Silmiga, Fellatah, etc.)
Gradually, the efforts will be geared toward crafting a blueprint for the creation of an African Knowledge Infrastructure, in compliance with the Semantic Web standards.
In so doing, SemanticAfrica© hopes —and expects— to carry on, embody and breathe a new and lasting life in the dreams and plans of pioneering intellectuals, writers, artists, (W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, Amadou Hampâté Bâ, Zora Neale Hurston, Nicolás Guillén, etc.). Also, it will lift and merge works from the Analog era into the challenging, exciting and heuristic Web 3.0. Those sources are, among others:
- Africa. Its Peoples and Their Culture History
- The General History of Africa
- The Cambridge History of Africa
- Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience
Compared to the Current Web (Web 2.0, Web of Documents), the Semantic Web (Web 3.0, Web of Data) has a more complex and expensive architecture. That means a steeper learning curve, a higher entry barrier and an increased total cost of ownership. Typically, Semantic Web projects present the following challenges:
- Abundant data collection steered by subject matter expertise
- Computer programming and ontology modeling competence
- Hardware, software and network connectivity expenditures
The African situation
It is well-documented that the Internet is still, comparatively, an enclave in Africa. Some even argue that the continent itself is relatively isolated. Indeed, its has the thinnest digital communication network infrastructure worldwide. Not suprisingly, the research-oriented Web is embryonic. Lacking adequate funding, academic and research institutions whither, and libraries decline into obsolescence. In such an environment Semantic Web services are either scantily developed or altogether missing. Initiatives like SemanticAfrica depend on broadband access. They emphasize Open Source software and compliance with public standards in Web development projects and programs.…
The webAfriqa Portal
The webAfriqa portal celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. It includes: webAfriqa, webFuuta, webPulaaku, webMande, webCôte, webForêt, webGuinée, Camp Boiro Memorial, webAmeriqa, Afrixml/Semantic Africa, BlogGuinée.
Based on feedback and testimonials, mine is a modest but cohesive, cogent and relevant group of websites. Their collections offer full text of books and periodicals, as well as photos, audio, video and blog articles. As the sites' owner, researcher and publisher, I strive to cover Guinea (Conakry), —a country bereft of a library, archives and museum network infrastructure—, Africa and the Diaspora. Likewise, my Camp Boiro Memorial uniquely documents over half a century (from 1958 to today) of dictatorship and endemic human rights violations and political crimes committed in total impunity. Last, webAfriqa includes baaben.afrixml.net, which is the Fully Qualified Domain Name (FQDN) and Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) of SemanticAfrica©. The plan calls for gradually converting webAfriqa.net into the Semantic Web.
- Build Taxonomies, Vocabularies, Content types, Metadata corpuses
- Create the Classes, Objects and Properties
- Write Web Ontology Language (OWL) Triples syntax (subject —> object —> predicate)
- Generate Resources and Links (URIs, Linked Data SPARQL Endpoints) on the Linux Virtual Private Server (VPS)
- Render Resource Description Framework (RDF/S, RDFa) Graph databases
The initial phase will consist in modeling two Cultural Heritage areas:
- History and ethnology of Africa. The “Peoples” Vocabulary brings Murdock's 1959 anthropological compendium (Africa. Its Peoples and Their Culture History) to the Semantic Web, using the TemaTres vocabulary server. TemaTres is “a web-based thesaurus management package.” It supports SKOS and related technologies: Dublin Core, SPARQL Endpoint, etc. The W3C defines SKOS as “an RDF vocabulary for representing semi-formal knowledge organization systems, such as thesauri, taxonomies, classification schemes…” The goal here is to iteratively turn Murdock's Analog ethnographic database into “machine-readable representations that can be exchanged between software applications and published on the World Wide Web,” for the purpose of expanding and improving our knowledge of Africa.
Diagrams of the vocabulary are also available. They display mind-mapping nodes and they are downloadable as PDF files.
- Fulɓe history, identity and heritage. Dubbed West Africa’s “Master Cattle Herders,” Fulɓe are one of the continent’s most ancient indigenes. Their pastoral nomadism and sedentary habitat span thousands of years and four of Africa’s five regions: northern, western, eastern and central. Fulɓe speak Pular/Fulfulde. The language's split-name reflects its broad geographic distribution, ranging from the Atlantic Coast (Senegal) to the Nile River (Sudan). Like all natural languages, Pular/Fulfulde lends itself to Semantic Web study. That status is heightened in Pular/Fulfulde with an expansive noun-class system of up to 25 highly semantic sub-systems. In comparison English and French have each only a pair of such grammatical determiners. Pular/Fulfulde noun classes regulate and shape the lexicon, the morphology, the syntax, the semantics, linguistic behavior, and the oral tradition. For instance, performing in their respective genres and repertoires, the griots (Awluɓe) and the popular bards or troubadours (Nyamakala) make optimal use of the noun-class system in their esthetic speech and verbal art shows. The Fulɓe ontology modeling will explore:
- The cosmogony, which is based on the creed that Geno, the Eternal, made the world from a drop of milk. He then created the first man (Kiikala) and the first woman (Naagara). He adjoined them Ndurbeele, the master bovine, a hermaphrodite. It, in turn, procreated the original herd of eleven pairs of cows and bulls, who thus became the ancestors of cattle. Kumen, the allegoric and esoteric pastoral initiation narrative, hints at various aspects of the cosmogony. A critic has compared its poetry to the most beautiful pages of the Bible.
- Cattle domestication and husbandry, which are polycentric inventions and distributed practices that spurred humans’ march into civilization. Marshall and Hildebrand write: « Genetic distance between African cattle and Asian Bos taurus is sufficient to define the two as discrete genetic populations.… Bradley and colleagues argue that wild cattle in Eurasia, Bos primigenius primigenius, and in Africa, Bos primigenius opisthonomus, diverged by 22,000 years ago, and propose that African populations of wild cattle were domesticated in Africa. » Prehistoric Fulɓe most likely took part in that process. Ever since, their descendants have carried on with the husbandry of the bovine. Hence, today, they display a broad and dynamic pastoral economy and folklore. Cattle-related activities and genres include ethnomedicine, anatomy, astrology, beliefs, rituals, superstitions, tales, proverbs, riddles, poetry, singing, music, etc. Elsewhere, the Domestic Animal Genetic Resources Information System (Dagris) compiles a database of some 120 groups, subgroups and breeds of the Cattle species in Africa. One-fifth of that repository points, directly or indirectly, to the Fulɓe record, with identifiers like N'dama, Fulani, Gambian Longhorn, Red Fulani, White Fulani, Fellata, Sokoto, Yola, Gudali, M'Bororo, Adamawa, Red Bororo, Fulani Sudanese, etc.
- The kinship system. Structural anthropologist Lévi-Strauss once quipped that the web of family ties, tribal relations and ethnic connections found in “primitive,” non-industrial societies, may be no less puzzling than Einstein's cryptic E=mc2 equation. Unveiling the complexity of the Fulɓe kinship system is likely to validate that metaphore.
- Kaydara, an epic tall tale and verbal art chef-d'oeuvre. Whitman finds Kaydara “hauntingly beautiful.” Arnott deems it “outstanding.” And a philologist analogizes the pre-Christian and Arthurian Quest for the Holy Grail to the Journey of Hammadi Pullo, Kaydara's Hero. The mentor of Amadou Hampâté Bâ, the composer of Kaydara, was Tierno Bokar Salif Taal. In 2005-2006, a partnership of the Columbia University Arts Initiative, Barnard College and the Harlem Arts Alliance staged an eponymous piece. The year-long performances drew audiences who watched an international cast explore Tierno Bokar's spiritual humanism and message of religious tolerance.
- Gimɗi, the Islamic Ajamiyya literary tradition. The brainchild of the “Aristocracy of the Book and the Inkpot” (Be Deftere e Tindoore Ndaha), Ajamiyya retooled the Arabic alphabet and adapted it to Pular/Fulfulde phonology and grammar. It flourished from Mauritania to Adamawa (Cameroon). Dating back from the 17th century, it has embodied and heightened the vocation of Pular-Fulfulde as a written language. The Ajamiyya literary corpus demonstrates a masterful and elegant versification, an erudite and subtle style, and a national will of cultural assertion, as Alfâ Ibrâhîm Sow put it. Famous Pular/Fulfulde Ajamiyya authors include Tierno Muhammadu Samba Mombeya (from my native Fuuta-Jalon), Usmani ɓii Foduyee (aka Usman dan Fodio), the founder of the Sokoto Empire, his sister Neene Asmau, etc. Ajamiyya also applies to sufi mysticism, healing, divination, numerology, talismanic writing, etc.
Subsequently, the lessons drawn from Fulɓe ontologies modeling will be gradually applied, mutatis mutandis, to all Africa; from Amazigh and Bantu to Yoruba and Zulu, and possibly every people in between.
Development and modeling environments
In closing, the rationale for SemanticAfrica© lies in the incontrovertible truth that diversity —natural, biological, sociocultural— is essential to Earth and to humanity. Accordingly, by (a) uncovering further the continent’s extraordinary heterogeneity and (b) heightening it’s underlying unity and universal features, SemanticAfrica© seeks to contribute back to the Semantic Web and to participate in advancing the networked digital exploration of Cultural Heritage.
Tierno S. Bah
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