Graphie Winner Community MVP – Knowledge Graphs: 5-Minute Interview with Ashleigh Faith

Ashleigh Faith is a stalwart in the graph community. She has been a tireless advocate and champion of knowledge graphs, most recently applying that expertise to her role as Director of Knowledge Graph, Semantic Search, and MLAI at EBSCO Information Services. We were thrilled to publicly honor her outstanding work with a Graphie Award for MVP in the Graph Community: Knowledge Graphs.

Check out all the smart and insightful things Ashleigh has to say below – and don’t miss the “Tiger King” reference 😉

Tell me about your work with Neo4j and knowledge graphs.

Ashleigh Faith: I use Neo4j for a knowledge graph that is used in search for query expansion, recommendation engines. And also – and this is the main thing that we use Neo4j for, and I’ve done presentations at the NODES Conference on this as well – is actually visualizing the hypergraph of all the different subjects that you can do research on. Because that is what the company I work for does – we offer up research to students and faculty and lots of people that want to find out more about different topics. So having this cool graph with the power of a graph engine underneath is really helpful.

When were you first introduced to Neo4j?

Ashleigh Faith: Oh, this is going to make David’s day. So David Meza [Chief Knowledge Architect, NASA], was at a conference and I was talking to him because we were in similar fields at that point – he was doing his NASA stuff and I was doing stuff in aerospace and automotive. And so we got to chatting and I was telling him about the efforts I was doing to map all these different vocabularies together, and then show how they interact with an actual vehicle in the supply chain and that sort of thing.

And he said, “Oh, have you worked with knowledge graph before?” And I was like, “What’s a knowledge graph?” And then he said, “Oh, I use something called Neo4j.”

And I said, “Can you spell that?” Because I’d never heard of it before. This was years ago. And yeah, that was the first time. And then I started doing a lot of research. It inspired me to go back and get my PhD. I mean, the story is here now.

How would you describe the Neo4j community?

Ashleigh Faith: Welcoming. I mean, I think it’s because Neo4j has been around for so long and people have a lot of blood, sweat, and tears – and trials and tribulations through graph – that they share. But I recently joined Discord, which is a weird name for a tool that’s supposed to bring you all together, but I know Neo4j is on there. And just seeing the interactions between people – there is no such thing as a stupid question in the community. And it is so needed in this space. That no matter where you are at, you can still come and ask questions and people are willing to help you.

What is your favorite part of working with knowledge graphs?

Ashleigh Faith: So first, my favorite thing about working with knowledge graph is it replicates life and the way that we think so much better than a relational database can sometimes. Where I was thinking of it from the semantic layer of how can I teach a machine the difference between a cat and a tiger. As humans, we can figure that out pretty easily. Well, one is larger. One can roar. One cannot. One is a pet. One is not. (Well, I guess “Tiger King” proves that they can be pets, but that’s not probably a good thing.)

But this is something that we can all kind of figure out as humans intrinsically, whether you’re in computer science or graph or not. But graph – and knowledge graph specifically – was the moment that finally came together, where I could say, “Wow, now I can get the machine to get closer to how humans understand things.”

It takes some effort, but it was the first time that came together in that way for me. And that got me so excited because it just opened up so many more possibilities. People have mental models, how they think about things. And in the old way of doing things, there was one word to represent them all. And that’s not how people are. You grow up talking about things. And this thing that I drink, it could be called java instead of coffee in my household. So I think it also levels the playing field for a lot of people to be able to access information like they never could before. And that is the reason I love knowledge graph.

What do you think the future holds for graph technology?

Ashleigh Faith: There is so much promise. There’s a lot of hype too. So you have to read between the lines and see what actually makes sense. But there’s a lot of scary things in the world. And I think knowledge graph is one of the tools that can actually help the people who are fighting that good fight against cyber things that are bad – fraud and all of that. And I think knowledge graph is already being used for that and will continue to grow and expand in its application there. But I think another thing in a similar vein is personal knowledge graphs.

So Tim Berners-Lee has talked about this a lot. However, I have a slightly different take on it, and that is if I needed to figure out where all of my data is, I need to know where all of my passwords are, every place that has this kind of information and that kind of information. If I can model it as a graph, I don’t necessarily need to put it into a graph database, but if I can model it as a graph, I can actually, as an individual, track where the threats might be for me and my information.

And then I can take it upon myself to try to do better and to maybe work with the companies that have that information, to make sure that it is used properly and ethically. So I actually think that that’s another huge promise of knowledge graph that is just now starting to get a toehold.

What OTHER industries do you think graph technology will impact in the coming years?

Ashleigh Faith: I think that discoverability is one where it’s being used, but the main knowledge graphs in that space are like the Google knowledge graph. But a lot of enterprises have search that they need to perform. So a huge promise – and it’s probably because I came from this background – is in supply chain management, understanding third tier manufacturing. If I don’t know where my stuff came from, do I know it’s meeting compliance?

That computer chip – do I know where it came from, so I can trust it? Understanding if one of the major roadways in Canada gets washed out, which happened in 2021, what is the impact on our supply chain? And how can we make sure that people still have food and water? And for some folks, that is not the norm, right? They have to think about that.

I was just talking to a gentleman in Jordan recently where he was saying that knowledge graph is being used to make sure that the water supply is always in a safe and constant flow. So when you’re looking at the supply chain, there’s obviously a lot of physical pieces to it and there’s a lot of software components to it. But bringing those all together in a way like a graph can actually help you predictively find out if something’s going to happen and what the threats might be. So that you can make sure that people have eggs on their table the next day or clean water for a hospital.

So it’s already being used there to a certain extent. But I think because those areas of the market are sometimes – it’s harder to turn the boat, as some would say – they haven’t adopted it as much as I think they are going to in the coming years.

How did you feel when you found out you were being honored with a Graphie Award?

Ashleigh Faith: I was shocked. I was excited. I was honored. So yeah, I just have a passion for this space and I think it can help a lot of people. And I think unfortunately there are a lot of barriers to entry. And so to see that my work in demystifying graph has had such an impact is just, I’m getting emotional talking about it, but it’s a great feeling. So thank you very much.

What are the first three words that come to mind when thinking about Neo4j?

Ashleigh Faith: Friendly, easy to pick up (relatively speaking), and fun. Yeah, fun. I think that even the interface, the way that when you create a node, I know this is going to sound super geeky, but just the way that it shows up, it’s like, oh, surprise. I made something. And as somebody who might be learning this and to be able to go and learn that you can type in like, a command and something appears – I know it sounds kind of silly for the rest of us that maybe have been doing this for a while, but it’s exciting.

It may make you feel like, oh, wait, I might’ve actually figured it out. And I think that Neo4j really helps with that. So I would say it’s fun. It’s exciting. Always friendly. Anytime I reach out to anybody at Neo4j or people using Neo4j, they always seem to be those of a flock. Right. Very friendly people.

What is one main takeaway you have from being a knowledge graph advocate?

Ashleigh Faith: So I won’t repeat what a lot of people probably say, which is don’t boil the ocean – make sure you have a good use case. Those I hope everyone understands. One thing that I have only recently really started to come to grips with is that I have a passion for this. And my job is to help inspire others to get passionate about it. But when it comes to adoption in the actual enterprise, in your actual company, my job is not to get my CEO to be as passionate about this as I am. That’s my job. My job and my team is to be passionate about it.

My job is to make sure that I can show that CEO that there is promise and there is real application for knowledge graph. It’s not just a fad and it’s not just the newest thing in the Gartner Report. Because I think a lot of CEOs and a lot of senior stakeholders have that thought and have patience because they probably know and have either done or come from a more traditional relational database background.

So they probably have certain pathways in their mind for solutions and knowledge graph is not one of them. So be patient – make sure you’re not trying to convince someone to be passionate about something. Make sure you’re actually convincing them about the need and the real application of something. And always look at it from the state of show me. Oftentimes, graph needs to be shown. Show me why this is better than X, Y, Z, other solutions that I could do.

And yeah, I mean, it’s so funny. I’m literally following my own advice at a certain point right now where I’m trying to convince someone that knowledge graph is a solution they could consider. And I found myself saying a lot of things and I backed up and I said, “I need to follow my own advice for my own videos. I’m going to show you.” And then you do that.

What is one graph trend you are following in 2022?

Ashleigh Faith: So I would say personal graphs, but not in the way most people talk about personal graphs. If me as an individual, as a citizen scientist – can I model either with paper or something online that doesn’t get shared with other people, my personal graph? And that’s the trick – to make sure that others can’t access the graph that you’re modeling for yourself, because that would be a security problem.

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