and Bible Place Names has posted a set of 1275 Bible place names (based on a list provided by the ESV folks) along with geocoding data and passages that refer to them. There’s also a nice thumbnail atlas page, and easy instructions for how to load the data into the free and visually gorgeous Google Earth application.

This is a fantastic contribution to the world of Bible reference data. The opening post, Why This Site?, has a telling comment:

It’s weird that no one’s ever collected basic biblical data—such as the locations of all the places in the Bible—into an accessible format.

It is a bit weird: but it’s only fairly recently that the vision for self-published, re-usable data has started to catch fire, and people naturally tend to think first about applications for humans rather than data for machines (i grumbled a little about Bible mapping applications and information stovepipes in this previous post: this data answers my grumbling). It’s like the difference between an artifact and a tool: if i build a birdhouse, people can immediately understand what it’s for and put it to use. But given a hammer, nails, and lumber, they can also build more birdhouses for themselves, as well as doghouses, and even new things i never imagined that aren’t like birdhouses at all. In the long term, it’s data that makes new applications and capabilities possible (a familiar Blogos refrain). This is just the kind of information that will form the foundation of the Bible Knowledgebase (in fact, placenames are next on my development roadmap), and i’m thrilled this data has been made available.

I incorporated an earlier, much more limited version of this kind of data, done by the Google Earth community, in my SBL talk last November: that covered about 80 New Testament place names (there were about 200 from the whole Bible), and the geocoding data were subsequently included in the last release of the New Testament Names database (unfortunately, OWL data is not very user-friendly). In fact, mapping applications were my key example of why we need semantically-organized data: how else can you distinguish Antioch (in Syria) from Antioch (in Pisidia), or know that seas of Chinnereth/Chinneroth, Tiberias, Gennesaret, and Galilee are all referring to the same body of water?

A further step toward making this data both explicit and useful would be a slightly clearer notion of which areas include, or are included in, others. The technical terms here are holonym (from the whole to the parts) and meronym (from the parts to the whole): so the Aeropagus is part of (that is, a meronym of) Athens, and Athens is part of Greece or Achaia. You can see that in the small subset of the data below, where Athens is the root form, and the holonyms are designated by the same latitude and longitude, prefixed with a greater than sign:

Achaia Athens >37.98333333333333 >23.73333333333333
Areopagus Athens <37.98333333333333 <23.73333333333333
Athens   37.98333333333333 23.73333333333333
Greece Athens >37.98333333333333 >23.73333333333333

Part of this funniness is that we don’t really know either the “center” (which is represented in the data) or the exact boundaries (which is not represented) of the region formerly known as Achaia. But we do know that Athens was a city, not a region, and that cities in general are meronyms of regions: likewise, the Areopagus was a building or site within the city. Providing explicit semantic types for the places (Athens ISA City), and part/whole relationships (Athens subRegionOf Achaia) would advance this data even further. But this is already a great beginning, and hopefully a sign of more to come in the general endeavor of capturing Bible reference information in reusable ways.

New Series: Building the Bible Knowledgebase

Since coming to Logos Bible Software, i’ve had the wonderful opportunity to take what was previously a spare-time labor of love (mostly published at SemanticBible and discussed in this blog) and turn it into a full-time effort. Consequently, i’ve spent most of the last two months starting to build the infrastructure and foundations of a major new semantic web effort at Logos that i’m currently calling simply the Bible Knowledgebase (BK for short).

I first got excited about these ideas more than 3 years ago, when i envisioned a semantic annotation layer on top of Scripture to provide meaning-based automated processing and integration with other resources. I started building this knowledgebase from the bottom up with New Testament Names (overview, 2006 SBL presentation), an OWL ontology and set of instance data describing each named thing in the New Testament. Logos has been working on similar kinds of resources for some time: their Biblical People feature is a rich set of information about named people in the entire Bible (both Old and New Testaments) that disambiguates other people with the same name, describes their family relations, and provides all the Scripture references where they are mentioned.

Starting from these key digital resources (which, by the way, are virtually unique in the world of Biblical studies, and still rare in general), my goal is to build a machine-readable general knowledgebase of semantic reference information about the Bible. I’ll provide more details about what this means and why it matters in a follow-on post: but i’m finding this to be a tremendously exciting opportunity. It’s also a tremendous engineering challenge that will take significant infrastructure and long-term, incremental development.

I didn’t come to this task empty-handed: i’ve worked with concepts, standards, and tools from the Semantic Web for several years now. I also had the privilege of working with several former colleagues at BBN Technologies who were part of the development of OWL, the Web Ontology language, and expert in Semantic Web development. But there’s a big difference between a personal hobby project and a full-blown effort that will scale up by 100-1000 times and support future development of new Logos products and capabilities (and oh, by the way, it had better be industrial strength, maintainable, and extensible). While i’m learning a lot along the way, much of it comes from hands-on experience and trial-and-error learning: there isn’t a wealth of practical information out there about how to build large Semantic Web knowledgebases. So i wanted to share my experiences, to leave a trail for others who may come this way in the future. I also hope to hear from those whose experience may keep me from falling into the numerous traps that line the path: so please send me (that’s Sean) your email feedback, [myfirstname] at logos [the dot goes here] com with relevant comments and pointers.
You should expect a lot of technical detail, but i plan to focus on practical implementation over theory. If you want to follow this series only, here’s the RSS feed for the Bible Knowledgebase category.