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New ways of looking at computer data: H-Maps

Databases are classical tools for the collection, administration and presentation of computer data in table form. Tübingen-based Hölle & Hüttner AG has developed a completely new solution – H-Maps: a semantic knowledge matrix that associates and represents information as clearly arranged networks. This gives users a rapid overview and enables them to recognise new relationships.

Blessing or curse, or both? Life scientists are often confronted with huge quantities of data. These data can only be used effectively through the use of data management options that are adapted as closely as possible to users’ individual requirements. Databases were previously the method of choice for managing data. These databases were adapted and expanded to individual requirements either by the users themselves or by service providers. The Tübingen-based bioinformatics company Hölle & Hüttner AG has now taken database management one step further. H-Maps is a knowledge management solution that not only collects and administers data, but also establishes relationships between these data by way of associative connections. The relationships between the data are then presented in a clear way, according to the specific requirements of the users.

Complex relationships and how to deal with them

“There is not only a lot of information, the information also requires explanations, so we wanted to use a semantic technology. Developments in this area are still in their infancy and many approaches have been put forward. We have selected the ISO standard of Topic Maps because we believe that it will stand the test of time,” explained Dr. Steffen Hüttner, one of the two managing directors and member of Hölle & Hüttner AG’s board of directors.

Dr. Steffen Hüttner © Hölle&Hüttner

In the context of databases, semantics is understood as being the theory of the importance of linguistic units. These might be groups of words, individual words or parts of words, for example the word ending "s" as in "breads", which denotes the plural of the word bread. What stands out about semantic information systems is that they recognise from the programmed context whether the word "base", for example, refers to a relative (the German word "Base" means "female cousin" in English) or to a component of a nucleic acid.

Hüttner's team developed the H-Maps on the basis of Topic Maps. The topics are the basic elements of any map: objects (products, research objects, etc.) from the real world or abstract terms. An occurrence is any information that is specified as being relevant to a given subject. An occurance can be the chemical composition of a product, for example, but also business data such as order numbers or warehouse stock. This in itself is nothing particularly spectacular and is achieved by many databases. However, H-Maps stands out for its ability to associate the information.

The TAO of information technology

The H-Maps Navigator is the visual core of the software application and implements the previous steps graphically. It enables the visual presentation of the individual dependences and associations within the topic map. © Hölle & Hüttner AG
Topics, associations, occurrences, TAO for short – these three terms are the backbone of the new technology. Simple associations are already known from software used by online merchants which, for example, provides information on other products that are often bought together with a particular product. H-Maps use associations on a much higher level. “The data themselves “know” what they mean; H-Maps resemble a matrix more than a normal database. We not only visualise individual information, but also the links between individual topics and occurrences of information about those topics,” said Hüttner. And the most sophisticated thing about the technology is the fact that a certain object or topic can take on a specific role depending on the association, together with attributes or associations that the object either does not have in other circumstances or has to a lesser extent. One example from the biotech area is the enzyme XY, which can be presented either as a company product (potentially with separate product name, product number, etc.), as a metabolic product of a microorganism or as a biocatalyst of reaction AB – and there is always specific additional information. This role-based modelling is one of the new technology’s strengths. “The other advantage is that economic and scientific data can be jointly presented,” added Hüttner.

Collecting, processing and presenting data

The H-Map software consists of three components. Initially, the data have to be entered into the system, for which the “Mapping Framework” is used. This component imports and processes source data (.xml, .csv or .rdf files), which will then be available to the “Engine & Server” component. This engine is normally installed on a server that administers the data and presents them in an internal network or an external one, for example the Internet. By using the server, the software can be adapted to clients’ individual requirements.

Hölle & Hüttner attached great importance to designing a user-friendly graphical interface that can be used intuitively. The “H-Maps Navigator” is used for the graphical representation of the data, i.e. it is a graphical user interface. A huge amount of development work was required to develop the graphical representation of the data. It is one thing to be able to generate associated knowledge structures, but another, equally important one to be able to visualise these structures in a way that enables them to be easily used and processed. This is made even more difficult by the fact that the data pool is often very heterogeneous, but that a uniform representation is required. “It was a huge challenge for our developers to not only represent greater quantities of information as in other systems, but also to make it possible to quickly visualise the associations between the data. This brings us close to the idea of navigation, which is why we have chosen the name “H-Maps Navigator”,” explained Hüttner.

The vision: real-time connections

Hüttner and his team are already focusing on the further development of the software: “A German study identified Topic Maps as one of seven emerging IT technologies of the next 20 years. One of our visions is to develop the technology so that it will enable us to transfer information into the knowledge matrix in real time, for example during a meeting, and new connections between topics are created.” One of Hüttner’s short-term goals is to develop and implement applications in cooperation with his clients. In order to do so, the company is looking for partners with suitable needs. It is possible to achieve a great deal in areas ranging from scientific research and literature research to archiving and indexing, and the connection and representation of medical-technical image data. H-Maps includes a “merge” function: the software can merge existing and new data as well as entire maps.

Several pilot projects have already been completed successfully. “On behalf of the German Federal Environment Agency, we have used our Navigator concept to bring together the results of a European-wide round robin test on the ecotoxicity of waste in an ontology-based database,” said Hüttner. Another pilot project dealt with the visualisation of a technology platform for gene expression analysis (Fraunhofer IGB in Stuttgart) and models for the evaluation and documentation of research into heat shock proteins in wound treatment (University of Tübingen).

Further information:

Hölle & Hüttner AG
Dr. Steffen Hüttner
Derendinger Straße 40
72072 Tübingen
Tel.: +49 (0)7071 9761-1

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/news/new-ways-of-looking-at-computer-data-h-maps