Ontologies

As the combined result of our desk research, fieldwork interviews and other data gathering efforts, Etic Lab has accrued a great quantity of information regarding the various entities that make up the affordable justice sector – not only service providers, but also governance organisations, funders and the users for whom the system is ostensibly designed. In order to make sense of all this, we have attempted to organise everything we’ve learned into a general ontology of the affordable legal advice system as we now understand it.

In the simplest terms, the word “ontology” describes a diagrammatic representation of a particular domain (in this case, the affordable justice system) which aims to identify and categorize all of the entities which exist within it as well as to map the various relationships between them. We began the process of building our ontology by attempting to describe a series of Classes which would encompass every entity belonging to the legal advice domain. A Class is the most general level of categorisation and is defined by a list of attributes covering the basic activities carried out by that type of entity, its organisational structure, available resources and other relevant criteria. For instance, for the Class “Service Provider”, defining attributes included Initial Point of Contact (Volunteer/Student/Professional/AI) and Service Offered (Advice/Referral/Representation). Importantly, each attribute must be concretely measurable, either as a quantifiable value or as a selection from a pre-determined list of options. This ensures not only that the ontology will be defensible on the basis of demonstrable evidence, but also that it will be computable, allowing it to form a potential element of a future technological intervention.

Within each class there is a range of sub-classes or Objects, which are defined by the values they hold for the attributes of their overall Class. So, within the Class “Service Provider” are the Objects “University Law Clinic” and “Local Legal Advice Charity”, which share the general attribute of offering legal services free at the point of use but which are distinguished by their different values for Initial Point of Contact (Student/Volunteer) and their Funding Source (University/Grants and Donations) and several other variables besides. Finally, at the lowest level of the ontology are Instances, which are quite simply the various actually-existing organisations that constitute the affordable justice system. By locating each Instance within an Object and a Class, we can gain some insight into the function that a given body is supposed to perform from the perspective of the system as a whole, allowing us to observe potential disjunctions. Is this Instance properly manifesting the defining attributes of its Object or Class? If not, why not?

Building an ontology is a collaborative process, involving constant negotiation, disagreement and compromise. Sometimes Instances move between Classes, or in especially problematic cases, force an entirely new Class to be devised. These are all learning moments, and a source of new questions to pose the system, questions which in turn send us back to our initial research and force us to readdress our guiding assumptions by revealing gaps in our knowledge. The purpose of an ontology is not to provide a perfectly accurate representation of the target domain, but as a tool for thinking – surfacing problems, uncovering contradictions and raising fruitful lines of future enquiry. We’re searching for significant absences, Instances that don’t fit, and parts of the system that don’t flow together. Such anomalies frequently provide key insights, either because they suggest a flaw in our modelling of the system, or they highlight a point where the system itself is not working as envisioned by its stakeholders.

The other invaluable function of an ontology is that it allows for the mapping of relationships between different entities. Flows of finance, expertise, information, decision-making power – an ontology can make each of these visible at both the micro and the macro scale. Tracing the circulation of, let’s say, decision-making authority between organisations does not only give us a richer understanding of the dynamics that shape the sector, it also allows us to highlight potential inefficiencies or contradictions in the system. Can we identify information bottlenecks, or places where data or expertise could be shared more usefully? Are there sites where potentially productive relationships are not currently accommodated? This kind of analysis will allow us to identify optimal sites for a potential technological intervention. Perhaps more importantly, however, it will also enable us to the think about what systemic changes in the way that entities operate or relate to one another within the legal advice sector might be necessary in order for such an intervention to create improved outcomes for users.

Building an ontology of such a broad and intricate domain is, as should be clear by now, an extremely demanding task. As outsiders to this system, we feel that the challenge of this work has granted us some degree of insight into the complexity of the problems our partners clients face day-today. Our goal, to reiterate, is not to provide a complete picture of the affordable justice sector “as it is”, but rather to become progressively less and less wrong in our understanding of its dynamics. Having spent some time working through the processes described in this and previous blogs, we now feel that we are in a position to assess the kind of systemic impacts which could potentially be achieved through technological intervention. Our next step is to return to our partners within the sector with the findings of our research, as well as a suite of possible technical projects, in order to work together towards a plan which will enable the system as a whole to better serve the interests of its users and stakeholders.

Etic Lab