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Findings from using the alternative approach
The alternative approach of using open standards taxonomies and a web interface for developing decision support models for design and costing solved the problems of the spreadsheet approach as indicated below -
The use of a centralised information source makes these models more reliable than the standalone spreadsheet. It is much harder to update multiple instances of the spreadsheets used by different people and ensure they all contain the same information. As a piece of information can only belong to a unique location, the problems arising from duplicate pieces of information are eliminated. The models have only the functionality that is added by the model builder so there are no other side effects to keep track of, as there are with generic functionality within spreadsheets.
Creating the infrastructure took much more time than it did for the spreadsheet system, but having done so it is quicker and easier to create further models. This indicates that the extra research and development time taken was worth it in the long term, most of this time was in research and this can be used in future projects. The use of open standards for information and models ensures there should be a development path, whatever changes there may be in the software market.
Ease of Use
Most people now are familiar with web pages and at least the basics of how to navigate them, and by keeping the navigation simple and standardised it is possible to make this easy. The models contain only the functionality that is added by the model builder unlike the spreadsheets which had generic functionality that was not required and led to users' confusion.
Sharing of Information
The use of open standards languages for representing information makes it much easier to represent information in a way that makes it accessible both to people and software. Web browsers make it possible to share information with many users at once
A future task to be undertaken would be the inclusion of uncertainty in the automatically produced models, for situations where accurate information can not be provided for the model. This would require provision of a way of handling uncertainty for parameters within the ontology, e.g. as 3 values describing a triangular distribution rather than a unique absolute value. The decision support meta-program could be expanded to write out the code to run Monte-Carlo sampling, hence making use of the statistical uncertainty capability.
It would be interesting and useful to create an environment where people could use example models and evaluate their usability and usefulness. This could follow a similar model to that used for the development of open source software or collaborations such as [Wikipedia], and the Semantic Web Environmental directory [SWED]. This could bring together people with diverse backgrounds, interests and expertise.
Future research could involve creating an ontology to enable users to specify parameters in diagrammatic form. It could be possible to extend the semantics used in the specification of models to allow the creation of a framework for simulations. Because the ontology would use open standards, these simulations could be made broadly available on the web. It is important that the necessary infrastructure is created to allow this facility to be added. The approaches of others to this problem have been examined. [Page et al.] examine the nature of web-based simulations. [Miller et al.] explain the technology behind web-based simulations, and argues the need for demonstrating the application of web-based simulations for major projects. The authors were involved in the RUBE project that developed a system for battle simulations illustrated in [Fisher and Miller] that uses open standards and Protégé for the ontology, and outputs some code automatically. [Kuljis and Paul] evaluates progress in this field of web simulation. [Kim et al. 1] explain how techniques of generating executable code from documents specified in standardised XML can be used to create simulations. [Reed et al.] examine possibilities for improving the aircraft design process with web-based modelling and simulation. Simulations could also be used for optimization and [Chen and Yücesan] investigate this.
The Grid and Semantic Web areas of research are converging, so it will be important to watch their developments for potential use. UK Universities are involved in semantic grid-computing research including Southampton and Portsmouth Universities [De Roure et al.1], [De Roure et al.2].
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