Helen Lippell previews Taxonomy Bootcamp London, which will be held at Olympia in October
Could you tell us a little about your education and background?
Like many people who work with taxonomies, I came to it through a circuitous route. I always thought I would end up working with ‘information’ in some shape or form, but I wasn’t sure how, or in what field. My degree was in the peculiar combination of Latin and Economics, and it was through the Latin study that I fell in love with studying the structures and nuances of language.
My first job was with the Financial Times, where I was part of a team indexing text content from news sources from all over the world. We used a mix of industry standard taxonomies and schemes that we curated in response to the companies, places and themes emerging in the news. Since then I have worked in a variety of sectors and organisations - no two projects are ever the same, and neither are the job titles! Last year I had the opportunity to chair the inaugural Taxonomy Bootcamp London conference. I have relished the chance to bring together the finest practitioners, researchers consultants and vendors in an event by the community, for the community.
In your own words, how would you describe taxonomy?
Taxonomy in its broadest sense is a branch of science focussed on the classification and labelling of things in a system. Many people are aware of zoological classification: species, orders, classes such as mammals, invertebrates and so on. But the principles of building a taxonomy to classify and organise something can be applied to almost anything. The Dewey Decimal Classification is a taxonomy and is used in the vast majority of libraries worldwide. There is even a Grand Taxonomy of Rap Names, which is a beautifully intricate visualisation of the semantic connections between rappers (my favourite category is “Audacious misspelling”).
Librarians have been using taxonomies for decades. As the digital landscape has grown, so the interest in and use of taxonomies for online resources has burgeoned. Taxonomies, thesauri, ontologies and content models enable organisations to truly understand and exploit their content and data. Here are a few examples of the risks of not using a taxonomy: What’s the point of teams carefully crafting content for their intranet if no-one can find it? Why would a website offer a huge range of clothing if it has been labelled so badly that users never see it while browsing the collections? If people can’t find the information they need on a public sector website, then will that create more costs for the citizen and the agency in helpline enquiries to resolve the issue?
What is the conference’s importance in terms of the wider taxonomy community? What will information professionals be able to learn?
Taxonomy Bootcamp London is a sister event to the established Taxonomy Bootcamp in the US, and is the only dedicated annual taxonomy conference of its kind in Europe. Last year we had people from over 20 countries attend, so it is definitely not just a UK, or London-centric event. We are working with a range of different associations and partners who between them represent a wide range of information professionals, working in all aspects of knowledge and information management.
Taxonomists usually work as part of wider teams, whether the project is focussed on research, technology, editorial or commercial objectives. However, we are often the only person with responsibility for taxonomy (or if you’re lucky, one of a small team of taxonomy champions). This means that it can be a battle to get stakeholders to understand the importance of it, and to ensure it has visibility where needed. Also, as mentioned above, there is no clear-cut education path for becoming a taxonomist; many of us learn on the job.
For these reasons, it is great that the conference offers people training, learning and networking opportunities, whatever their level of experience. We have workshops for people who are absolute beginners, as well as for those who want to dive deeper into the areas of taxonomy project business cases, and managing enterprise search. My personal highlight from last year’s conference was being part of all the informal chats over coffee and lunch; this is a friendly, welcoming community who enjoy helping each other out. If you’re toiling away alone in an organisation, you will find peers who know what it’s like, and can support and suggest different strategies for success!
What are your hopes for this year’s Taxonomy Bootcamp London?
Firstly, I hope we will be even bigger than last year, now that people have seen how good a dedicated UK taxonomy conference can be. Taxonomies have become a hot topic in conjunction with the rise in machine learning and artificial intelligence as viable technologies for organisations to leverage. Spotting fake news, social media text analysis, semantic classification - these are just three of the cutting-edge fields that taxonomies are being widely used in. For those of us who have seen a lot of digital trends come and go, this is an exciting time to be a taxonomist.
Secondly, I hope that we will again be an accessible gateway for those just starting out. I mentioned the workshops, and we also have many sessions which are highlighted in the programme as “Best for beginners”. The many case studies throughout the two days will be a fascinating showcase for all the great work taxonomy practitioners are doing right now.
Who are the keynote speakers, and what sessions should people particularly look out for?
I am lucky to have two superb speakers to keynote each day. Tuesday will be opened by Madi Solomon, who has extensive experience of pushing the envelope of what is possible when building taxonomies. On Wednesday, Joseph Busch will cut through the hype around automatic tagging and offer inspiration and common sense.
The rest of the sessions cover all the areas you need as someone who manages or uses taxonomies. These include governance and maintenance, collaborative working, semantics, text analysis, content tagging, career development, ontologies. I am particularly looking forward to our panel session on the ethical dimension of taxonomies - language and classification are never neutral, and this is a fascinating topic for our very diverse panel.
Taxonomy Bootcamp London will be held on 17 and 18 October 2017 (preconference workshops 16th October) at Olympia London