Towards an Emerging CS Student Community for Regreening Africa: Random Impressions of our First Workshop

April 22, 2012

Group photo of the First Web alliance for Regreening in Africa Student mini-symposium

Two years after the kick off (reported here), we are gaining a lot of momentum with the Regreening Africa initiative.

Last Friday, 20 April, we organized a first mini workshop with master students who are conducting their master thesis project in the context of a Web for Regreening Africa. The Web Alliance for Regreening Africa initiative is primarily  funded by two running EC-funded research projects W4RA and m-Voices. However, regarding the societal relevance we are convinced we can deliver a convincing bargain for  a larger community of interest to emerge. We have many communities in mind; this workshop aimed at a community at VU of master/PhD students branching their research out from the central theme, but we also have established social networks such as Diaspora and ITGlobal in mind from which we aim to source content contributions.

Our main goal, hence bargain, is to establish a Web of African content through several microprojects. A selection:

  • crowdsourcing app for converting pluvial observation data in the Sahel;
  • crowdsourcing app for gathering voice fragments in different languages that can be used for voice-based services
  • a sustainability analysis for voice-based event organizer;
  • RadioMarché: distributed market information system for non-timber tree forest products;
  • linked data mash ups for NGOs.

This workshop was a first step in bringing VU Computer Science students’ projects together from Ghana, Ethiopia, Buthan, Iran, Netherlands, Zimbabwe, Suriname, etc. For an overview of the different lines we are exploring check our CAiSE 2012 position paper and ESWC 2012 poster and paper (to be published soon, see list below). Next, some impression from the projects. From my point of view, the meeting was a succes and we agreed to organize a second installment later this year.

Master students from around the Globe: The Netherlands, Iran, Buthan, Zimbabwe / South Africa, and Ethiopia.

Historical pluvial data from regions in the Sahel captured on paper. Binyam Tesfa develops an app to source a crowd willing to convert this data into digital format.

In order to realise voice-based services for various dialects present in the Sahel, Roksareh Nakhaei builds an app that sources a crowd to produce voice fragments. The tasks here require specific language skills, so we cannot source from any general social network such as Facebook.


A mobile event organiser is one of the case studies identified in the m-Voices project. Through voice-based interfaces (using radio or phone) events can be published and consumed. The goal of this project, done by Albert Chifura is to analyse the cost of setting up such infrastructure, hence involvin a "business" sustainability model analysis.


First design of a sustainability assessment of M-event organiser identifying stakeholders and value exchange between them (courtesy of Albert Chifura).

Related publications:

  • Bon, A.; de Boer, V.; De Leenheer, P.; van Aart, C.; Gyan, N.; Akkermans, H. (2012)  The Web of Radios – Introducing African Community Radio as an Interface to the Web of Data. In Proc. of ESWC 2012: 1st Int’l Workshop on Downscaling the Semantic Web, LNCS, Springer, to appear
  • de Boer, V.; Gyan, N.; Bon, De Leenheer, P.; van Aart, C.; Gyan, N.; Akkermans, H. (2012) Voice-based Access to Linked Market Data in the Sahel. In Proc. of ESWC 2012: 1st Int’l Workshop on Downscaling the Semantic Web, LNCS, Springer, to appear
  • de Boer, V.; De Leenheer, P.; Bon, A.; van Aart, C.; Tuyp, W., Boyera, S.; Allen, M.; Akkermans, H.; Gueret, C. (2012) RadioMarché: Distributed Voice- and Web-interfaced Market Information Systems under Rural Conditions. In Proc. of CAiSE 2012, in press

Putting Collibra in Context: a Journey through the Childhood of a 4-year-old Technology Start-up

March 7, 2012

First click on “Full Screen” on the menu bar below. Then click on “More>>Autoplay”  or use the right arrow to browse through the presentation.

Or watch it directly on the Prezi website.

RadioMarche ́: Distributed Voice- and Web-interfaced Market Information Systems under Rural Conditions

February 20, 2012

The World Wide Web connects millions of people and organizations, empowering them to socialize, express opinion, and co-create at a scale and speed never seen before. It was not a carefully top-down planning, but a set of elementary internet technologies designed for de-centralized use that allowed for a Web with such a dramatic level of complexity and scale to emerge in less than two decades. Examples of such technologies are W3C-recommended open standards such as HTTP, HTML or RDF. By carefully excluding features that are not universally useful these technologies became easily adopted on a massive scale and gave the Web a generative character, that is, the capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from a broad and varied audience [Zittrain, 2009].

Implementation of the RadioMarché system in Tominian, Mali. This figure shows part of the hardware setup, including the OfficeRoute GSM gateway.

An upcoming trend is to publish structured data from different sources such as governments (e.g., and and organizations (such as public transport schemas, scientific results, etc.) using the same internet technologies such as HTTP and URI. The Web of Data emerging from this is an extension of the Web: it serves the data using Linked Data approaches so that machines can process them, rather than merely publishing them for human consumption. By treating data as an asset, by sharing and trading it, an open innovation platform for all kinds of services will flourish, linking and augmenting data across domains.

Despite its success so far, the Web implicitly assumes a wide availability of high- bandwidth Internet infrastructure and reliable power supply. Interfacing the Web requires Personal Computers and various skills of which the most pertinent are reading and writing abilities. According to the Web Foundation, there is an estimated 4.5 billion people, mostly living in developing countries, that cannot benefit from the Web for one or more of these reasons. This limits the Web’s generative character per se. For our case study in Mali, only 1.8% of the population has Internet access, only 10% has access to the electricity network, and only 26.2% is literate (source: Internet World StatisticsDeveloping RenewablesIndex Mundi).

For a truly worldwide diffusion of innovations brought forward by the Web, we must devise new types of technologies immune to these infrastructure and interface problems. Hence, complementary or even alternative technologies to the ones we know are needed. Moreover, to guarantee these technologies will be applied and content will be contributed on a large scale, we have to identify value propositions that are interesting enough for a wider audience.

The proposition we consider in this paper is targeted at reducing poverty and hunger in Sub-Saharian Africa through better agricultural and rural development. According to the International Food Policy Institute, small subsistence farmers account for more than 90% of Africa’s agricultural production and are usually at the very bottom of the pyramid. In Africa, agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for about 65% of the population, it represents 40% of Africa’s GDP and 60% of Africa’s total export. Farmers who can count on different sources of income are less vulnerable in periods of drought. Trading is the best way to increase their income; to this end, better communication and access to customers and market information are key challenges. Our focus now lies on non-timber forest products (NTFPs) because they have a very long tradition and their production involves leadership by men as well as women.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, market information systems (MISs) play an important role in rural agricultural supply chains and are the key to lower food cost and to raising producer and trader incomes (see FAO). MISs are information systems that gather, analyze and publish information about prices and other augmented information relevant to stakeholders involved in handling agricultural products and services. Indeed, farmers have to know the trends in demand to adapt production, find out where to find customers, and be able to determine a reasonable price by comparing with prices from other markets. Hence, there is an urgent need for effective and fair marketing delivered by transparent information. Moreover, costs related to logistics are usually ignored. However, farmers at remote locations have to focus on products that can weigh up for such high prices implied by production as well as transportation costs. Opportunities for innovation through new cultivation techniques, new types of seeds, or by-products remain under-exploited due to a lack of market information needed to deal with the higher production costs.

RadioMarché is being developed within the context of the VOICES (VOIce-based Comunity cEntric mobile Services) project. The conceptual design of the RadioMarché system is shown below.

The RadioMarché system provides alternative interfaces based on voice or SMS via phone or radio, enabling a wider audience to consume and contribute content. The data design is optimized for (i) effective aggregation with other RM instances and data sources from other domains in the Cloud; and (ii) reuse by other services.

The contributions of this paper are :

  • The introduction of RadioMarché (RM), a MIS concept adapted for rural conditions in the African Sahel. Regarding the above-mentioned challenges, RM is not dependent on Internet infrastructure, and has voice-based and sms-based interfaces. By exploiting the upward trend in (first-generation) mobile phone usage and the traditionally central role of radio in these areas, we believe in the generativity; hence a wide adoption of the RM concept in many regions of the Sahel.
  • The proposition of a Linked Data model to address data integration issues across different regions. On a large scale, we deal with the issue of aggregation and management of distributed market data by adopting Linked Data approaches. We show how our design choices offers opportunities to link aggregated market information to datasets from other domains. The resulting “Web of Data” provides an open innovation platform to develop services with augmented reasoning capabilities for e.g. NGOs, governments, policy makers, traders and scientists.
  • A report on a first deployement of RadioMarché conducted in Mali, along with the explanation of the Living Lab approach applied to drive this activity. 

The full position paper will be published  in the proceedings of CAiSE 2012.

de Boer, V.; De Leenheer, P.; Bon, A.; van Aart, C.; Tuyp, W., Boyera, S.; Allen, M.; Akkermans, H.; Gueret, C. (2012) RadioMarché: Distributed Voice- and Web-interfaced Market Information Systems under Rural Conditions. In Proc. of CAiSE 2012

2011 in review

January 2, 2012

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Syndey Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 8,300 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Amsterdam Universities are Ready to Business Semantics Glossify

September 15, 2011

The Business Semantics Glossary is set up and empty. 35 students from both VU University as the University of Amsterdam are teamed up to compete for building the best glossary and make use of it for the most original semantic application.

Applying the Business Semantics Management methodology, they have to assign roles (stewards, admins, stakeholders) and tasks in the brand new workflow system (see the resp. menu in the screenshot).

Innovation Workflows

September 14, 2011

Face - Innovation workflow

Hey business man, are you taking charge of your data?

August 16, 2011

Industrial analysts like Gartner and thought leaders all around agree that information should be treated as a reliable asset that drives many operational and strategic decisions. Along this line, information governance is an emerging business strategy attempting to regain competitive advantage from earlier investments in data management technologies.  In a recent survey, IBM found that 65% of companies from various sectors across the USA – are eager to roll out information governance even before the next business year ends. The question however remains.

What is information governance about and how exactly should we implement it?

Is there a one-size-fits-all approach as claimed by many software vendors, or does every organization require a unique plan?

At the VU University in Amsterdam, Ramon sistermans and me are looking to find an empirical answer to these questions. Through a survey we can identify information governance needs at different layers of the company and find out how technology vendors can gear their products towards meeting these needs.

To all data professionals worldwide, please help us enlighten the dark concept of Information Governance by filling out our survey:

Boosting Open Innovation with Semantic Technology: the Flanders Research Information Space

August 9, 2011

The full article is now published in the professional monthly magazine Informatie. See my earlier blog post for a translation of the summary in English. The work is not done though: we are further crowd sourcing the information space using Linked Data approaches based on semantic standards managed in Collibra’s Business Semantics Glossary. Hence, to be continued, again :-)

Moulding USDL in SBVR using Business Semantics Glossary: Part 1

July 2, 2011

I truly believe in co-creation. For example, we have our Collibra software and methods regularly scrutinized by numerous master students from both technical as well as more business-oriented computer science programmes in universities across Europe.

At VU University, for example, in the context of my Business Semantics Management master class, 21 MSc students playing the role of steward formed the Amsterdam Service Modelling Community with one common purpose: building an SBVR version of the USDL service description language. There were two additional members invited playing the role of observer: Carlos Pedrinaci (representing the USDL W3C incubator group) and Ivan Razo-Zapata (our PhD student at VU working on dynamic service market place composition). Finally there was me playing the role of administrator, making a total of 24 members.

The Amsterdam Service Modelling community has 24 members (21 playing the role of "steward"; 2 as "observer"; 1 as "administrator") and is subdivided in 5 speech communities. (Note: this is an older release of the Business Semantics Glossary software)

The figure below depicts the Business Semantics Management (BSM) methodology that is established by two operational cycles (reconciliation and application) each grouping a number of modeling activities. For a summary go here and for more details see my dissertation.

Business semantics management is established by two operational cycles each grouping a number of modeling activities.

The experiment extended over a total period of 4 weeks; hence we limited ourselves to the first 4 steps of semantic reconciliation only: scope, create, refine, articulate. In September we plan to repeat this experiment  over a period of 8 weeks where we will have time to do one full cycle of BSM. Later I will also blog about similar experiments we conduct at VUB University of Brussels.

Community-driven Approach

The Amsterdam Service Modelling Community (ASMC) is modelled (in SBVR) as a semantic community. SBVR takes into account the existence of multiple perspectives on how to represent concepts (by means of vocabularies).

  • A semantic community is a group of stakeholders having a body of shared meanings. Stakeholders are people representing an organisation or a business unit.
  • A body of shared meanings is a unifying and shared understanding (perception) of the business concepts in a particular domain.  Concepts are identified by a URI.
  • A speech community is a sub-community of a semantic community having a shared set of vocabularies to refer to the body of shared meanings. A speech community groups stakeholders and vocabularies from a particular natural language in a multi-lingual community, or from a certain technical jargon.
  • A vocabulary is a set of terms and fact types (called vocabulary entries) primarily drawn from a single language to express concepts within a body of shared meanings.

Within the ASMC community, the 21 students grouped in 5 speech communities each focusing on a specific part of the USDL framework. In SBVR, speech communities are part of one semantic community and each manage their own set of vocabularies to refer to this body of shared meanings. This allows for different representations of the same business concepts.

The navigator shows (from left to right) the structure of communities and their vocabularies.

Scoping the Semantic Reconciliation Cycle

The module-based decomposition of USDL depicted below makes it easy for teams to scope. However, they all had to start from the Service and Pricing module so we could observe divergence in definitions as well, an important step in the ontology evolution process (see the Perspective Rendering principle of my PhD on BSM).

The module-based USDL framework allows for clear scoping among speech communities (by courtesy of

Create, Refine, Articulate

Below is a screenshot of the term “Service” in the Pricing and Participant vocabulary in development by the “VAAF” speech community team. The steward (indicated on the top-right) “Vlant” is responsible for selecting the right stakeholders (bottom-right) among his fellow members and engage them into the reconciliation of the term.

A term can be defined using different kinds of attributes, going from (business-oriented) descriptions and definitions to more (formal) fact types and business rules.  Currently the level of articulation is below threshold (37.5%) incentivizing the steward and stakeholders to elaborate more.

Term "Service" in the Pricing and Participant vocabulary in development by the "VAAF" speech community team.

Next time we will talk about vocabulary statistics and workflows in the software. Workflows practically implement the orchestration of reconciliation tasks to members according to their roles and responsibilities.

Dynamically Serving Long Tail Needs in the Global Digital (Education) Market

June 21, 2011

Mass connectivity between customers and suppliers on the Web transforms business from a transaction-based (or product-oriented) practice to a long-term relationship-based (or service-oriented) practice.

An example. Before we bought a car as a product: once the transaction (Car for money) was made, the car becomes your possession and you are responsible to take care of all services (like tax and insurance) you need to get the car on the road. Value was created at the point of transaction. Today, like with leasing, a car becomes never really you property: you rather consider it as a service that enables you to “move around freely”. Value is created of a much longer time: as long as you use the “car service” you evaluate the added value and feed back to the supplier so it can be improved.

When implementing technologies to support service-based market places, we must take into account economic relationships rather than work flow properties; and rethink the whole concept of value to start with. Indeed the business model of these new market places are centered around the notion of value; hence it is relevant to semantically codify “who is offering what of value to whom” and what is expected of value in return. Where before value was a simple “price”, it now includes a lot of dimensions (fed by social Web data like reputation, ratings, etc.) along the life cycle of a service. Another problem is that most interesting needs, those along the long tail, can usually not be immediately served because (i) no single supplier offers it by default; and (ii) as it is too niche, multiple suppliers have to assess ROI first and co-create accordingly.

Needs in the head (red part) of the tail are usually offered by vertically integrated service providers. Needs in the long tail are typically more complex requiring niche offerings offered by a combination of suppliers (picture by Bart Van De Casteel) .

Determining needs and offerings is not a one-pass exercise. To match them up they have to grow towards each other through compromise and sacrifice of all parties.  Therefore, we propose an interactive dialogue system to express customer needs based on marketing theory (see e.g. Philip Kotler and Kevin Keller. Marketing Management. Prentice Hall, 2006). In addition, we also provide capabilities to publish service offerings by means of an ontology-based catalog. Moreover, since mass configuration of products is playing an important role, dynamic composition of SVNs has been also supported. Finally, our long-term ultimate goal is to automatically compose a SVN, including the required business processes and Information Technology (IT) support in the form of web services. Such IT is then aligned with the business, since both are designed in an integrated way.

Razo-Zapata, I.; De Leenheer, P.; Gordijn, J.; Akkermans, H. (2011) Service Value Networks for Competency-driven Educational Services: a Case Study. In Proceedings of the 6th international Workshop on Business / IT alignment and Interoperability (CAiSE 2011), Springer LNBIP