A Mastermind of taxonomy

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Helen Lippell

Helen Lippell explains why organisations should learn more about taxonomies, ontologies and metadata - and describes her love of a good quiz

Tell us a little about your background and qualifications…

Like many taxonomists, or indeed digital professionals in general, I didn't train in or plan to move into this field. I was always interested in information. Even as a kid I loved encyclopaedias, dictionaries and lists, so now I joke that I was born to do this! My academic background was in Latin and Economics; two subjects that in my opinion reward methodical thinking, wide reading and understanding how things fit together, whether that is a Roman political system or a national economy.

My first job after university was as a manual indexer of news information from all over the world. I was part of a big team applying tags to anything from Malaysian steel industry reports to French political news. I loved that these little bits of words and phrases could be so powerful that all this unstructured text from across the globe could be turned into highly-tailored feeds for customers interested in particular companies, countries, subjects or industries (or combinations of these).

I moved on from that work to the automatic indexing side of the operation, where I really got stuck into writing and managing rules for tagging the content. I liked the speed and scale of what could be done once you’d refined the rules so that the technology didn’t get confused by ambiguous or vague words. Since then, I've never looked back really. I’ve been independent for over a decade, meaning that I can work on a wider range of projects in different types of organisations (sometimes simultaneously!) and apply my skills to various digital systems challenges.

You recently edited a book entitled Taxonomies – can you tell us a little bit about that, and how you became involved in it?

When someone from Facet Publishing first suggested the idea of me doing a book about taxonomies, my initial impulse was to head for the hills because it sounded like such a big commitment. But I felt that there was a gap in the ‘canon’ of information management books for a practical guide to doing taxonomy projects from start to end, without trying to replicate the detailed or academic literature that already existed.

I wanted to do something that would be a useful reference for full-time taxonomists but also for people in other digital jobs who might encounter taxonomies. This could mean a product manager who wants to use vocabularies to improve the search function on their product, or an internal comms manager who gets told by their boss to ‘go and build a taxonomy for the intranet’, or a developer who’s interested in semantic technologies and has had limited exposure to taxonomic thinking (eg how to decide what label a concept will have, or how to do user research on a proposed information architecture).

I decided very quickly that I would prefer to do an edited collection than write the whole thing myself. This not only saved my time and sanity but meant, more importantly, that a range of expertise and voices could be curated into one book. I came up with my “Fantasy Taxonomists” squad, based on who I knew from my network, and asked them all nicely if they’d like to contribute a chapter.

It was my goal from the outset to produce a ‘toolkit’ of insights for all aspects of taxonomy projects. Every project is unique of course, but this book can arm you with tips, best practices and advice at every stage. I’ve been doing taxonomy work for years and I learned loads from developing the chapters with the authors. The contributors includes practitioners working in government, charities, video games, the media, etc, as well as consultants like me who will go wherever there is an interesting problem to tackle!

Tell us about your wider work related to taxonomies?

I’ve been a taxonomy consultant for over a decade, which means I work with organisations of all sorts who are interested in using taxonomies. There a vast number of applications for taxonomies these days. They’ve moved way beyond their roots in cataloguing and libraries to become an essential part of managing digital information. I work on projects to improve search engines, digital asset management, multi-channel content publishing, semantic tagging, data interoperability, and more!

I’ve worked in lots of different sectors; you don’t need to be an expert in a subject to develop strong vocabularies for it. I love applying my skills and professional curiosity to new projects. Every domain has its special terminology, linguistic ambiguities, or contested names for things. Everything is interesting to me; it makes no difference if the project is a government department trying to classify its documents or a cutting-edge app trying to offer customers ontology-driven restaurant recommendations.

What are your wider hopes for the industry for the next 10 years?

I hope that organisations continue to learn more about the power of taxonomies, ontologies and metadata to improve their products and services, and improve their internal processes. It is an area of technology that has its share of hype and buzzwords, but I like to cut through that to really understand what people need. Organisations generate so much content, data and information, and yet continue to waste this investment because of poor findability, poor business processes and poor understanding of the value of their stuff.

The e-commerce sector is more aware than ever that if they don't describe their products accurately, fully, and in line with their customers’ mental models, then those customers will either find an alternative site, or not buy at all. Public sector organisations deal with lots of information coming in from and going out to other agencies, as well as circulating inside the organisation. With good tagging, this information can be found, used and reused more easily. Media companies use taxonomies to manage their text, images and videos so that it can be distributed across any number of channels. I am seeing more and more job postings for taxonomy and semantic skillsets; I hope this trend continues.

Lastly, do you have any fascinating hobbies or pastimes you want to tell us about?

When I'm not taxonomising, my main hobby is quizzing. I have always enjoyed a good pub quiz, but I have taken it to another level in recent years by getting into competitive league quizzing. The basic format is that you answer individual questions, with no conferring allowed, as part of a team of four, so it’s a different challenge from the pub quiz world. Like any good sports team, we have been through our share of promotions, relegations, cup runs, heroic last minute wins and heartbreaking defeats. League quizzing was a natural ‘gateway’ to going onto TV quiz shows. I have been on Mastermind twice, Only Connect, Eggheads, and have won an episode of the word game Lingo.