Clinical data wrangling using Ontological Realism and Referent Tracking

In Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Biomedical Ontology (ICBO), Houston, 2014, (CEUR, 1327). pp. 27-32 (2014)
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Ontological realism aims at the development of high quality ontologies that faithfully represent what is general in reality and to use these ontologies to render heterogeneous data collections comparable. To achieve this second goal for clinical research datasets presupposes not merely (1) that the requisite ontologies already exist, but also (2) that the datasets in question are faithful to reality in the dual sense that (a) they denote only particulars and relationships between particulars that do in fact exist and (b) they do this in terms of the types and type-level relationships described in these ontologies. While much attention has been devoted to (1), work on (2), which is the topic of this paper, is comparatively rare. Using Referent Tracking as basis, we describe a technical data wrangling strategy which consists in creating for each dataset a template that, when applied to each particular record in the dataset, leads to the generation of a collection of Referent Tracking Tuples (RTT) built out of unique identifiers for the entities described by means of the data items in the record. The proposed strategy is based on (i) the distinction between data and what data are about, and (ii) the explicit descriptions of portions of reality which RTTs provide and which range not only over the particulars described by data items in a dataset, but also over these data items themselves. This last feature allows us to describe particulars that are only implicitly referred to by the dataset; to provide information about correspondences between data items in a dataset; and to assert which data items are unjustifiably or redundantly present in or absent from the dataset. The approach has been tested on a dataset collected from patients seeking treatment for orofacial pain at two German universities and made available for the NIDCR-funded OPMQoL project.
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