As the Synaptica team prepare for Taxonomy Boot Camp London we talked with Helen Lippell, an experienced data and information professional, about her involvement with developing the event. Helen is a recognized knowledge practitioner whose expertise includes text analytics, search and metadata. She has been working in knowledge organization for over 15 years across a variety of sectors including publishing, science and entertainment. Helen has been Programme Chair for TBCL18 for three years.
HL: I never chose this career deliberately. Like many who find themselves in this kind of field you don’t necessarily think about it. I studied Latin and Economics at University. With no strong idea about what I wanted to do I found I really enjoyed the subjects, studying the linguistic element of Latin as well as the cultural element.
I like putting together the elements of language. With economics it was about modelling systems and behaviours. The maths side didn’t appeal, but the idea of trying to understand the bits of the system and how they fit together and then trying to make predictions of what might happen.
After University my first job was with the Financial Times. This was an entry level indexing job. At the time we were leading on aggregation; pulling in news sources from all over the world, in the region of 6,000 different sources. There was a system automatically adding metadata and tags – it really was way ahead of its time.
You still needed manual oversight, essentially checking examples for disambiguation and other issues. For example, Next Plc, a UK retail chain, wouldn’t always be recognized correctly. The computer system would think it was simply a different part of speech. An opposite issue could be a news report from Orange County, California. The computer would label this as Orange plc which was a UK mobile phone company.
Humans can tell the difference quickly. For a computer working with strings and characters it’s only as smart as the information that you are giving to it.
This was my starting point. I ended up managing the team that was doing more of that automation and less of the kind of looking at every single article because we wanted to scale up. By the time I left the FT we were processing about a million articles a year, a considerable volume.
What did your next roles involve?
HL: I realised how much I loved working with language. The ambiguity, and discerning meaning from textual content. My old boss always used to say this job is about teaching computers to read newspapers. For me this is a much pithier way of putting it.
Following the FT, I spent some time with the BBC which was a lot of fun. It involved working with a lot of bright creative people who were able to do really cool things with technology. I developed content management systems to create platforms which different teams would be able to use. It meant handling video images and a real focus on metadata and tagging, particularly for content reuse.
When did you decide to become Freelance?
HL: When I left the BBC, I wanted a bit more freedom to choose different projects. I also wanted to see what else was out there and explore different opportunities, move about a bit more. My first project was working on a public sector website Directgov. This was a UK government digital service. It wasn’t cutting edge in terms of style and colour. You can imagine lots of useful information the UK government provides for citizens but if you don’t know what’s there or how to find it then people can miss out on grants, benefits and finding out about government policy.
You can’t just push it on people; you need to find ways to make this major resource accessible, by search or browsing, putting together and linking related information.
Information is messy. It’s not always the case that you read one article and that’s fine, that has resolved my information need. Most of the time we find ourselves clicking through other websites. Our work is about trying to remove those barriers to make it easier so people feel their needs are met.
Tell us more about your freelance projects.
HL: My projects have been varied and always interesting: media, government, public sector including developing an intranet for the London Metropolitan Police. A frontline officer attends a serious crime, perhaps something they haven’t experienced before. There are certain policies and checklists they need to follow. You can’t expect them to remember that 10 point checklist. The intranet therefore becomes a vital tool. Not just to support detailed resources but the basic needs like the canteen menu.
It sounds straightforward but if you are using a system which has a poor search functionality and no tagging, no taxonomy, inconsistent descriptions, or information locked away in PDFs documents – these are all barriers for the person trying to find their checklist or whether fish & chips is on the menu this week. They will get annoyed and lose confidence in the intranet.
What do you think of the challenges for the sector?
HL: I am more optimistic that I have been in previous years. Organizations and companies are taking taxonomy seriously. They know they need to work with structured information and data. The realisation is there that this is a great way of doing it. Not just with taxonomies but with ontologies, linked data and semantics. It feels like that awareness has really improved in the last few years.
There is a flip side to this, there is more we can be doing within the community, more than just the technical offer. People working on these projects need to be more interested in the meaning of the data, understand where there might be bias and the linguistics as well as the user. We need that mix of styles and interests otherwise you can miss essential elements.
A few years ago, there were more providers of taxonomy management tools and they seem to have fallen by the wayside. This is similar to what has happened in the enterprise search software market. A whole middle layer of providers has evaporated. I feel this was because they weren’t interested in customers. However, it’s good to see vendors who have persisted, are doing well and well positioned to take advantage of growth.
How did you get involved with Taxonomy Boot Camp London?
HL: Taxonomy Boot Camp has been co-located with KMWorld in the USA for a number of years. They are well established with audiences drawn from the US and Canada. The combined event format enables variety, as well as energy in the room and random conversations over coffee. That’s what makes these events really good.
Information Today who organize KMWorld felt there should be a similar option for UK and Europe. They wanted to make sure there was a strong enough need and the market could sustain it. They spoke to a number of different people and as I had spoken at a previous event they approached me to get ideas for developing the Conference. There isn’t enough of this type of event for people working in the sector. Having time to connect as a community, think about and discuss what you are doing, why it’s important. At the time there simply wasn’t anything like that in Europe. That’s why I was enthusiastic.
The Information Today team take care of the logistics but they needed help shaping the programme, selecting speakers, identifying the areas of interest to the community as well as be a champion for the event. The first event was in 2016 and was very successful. We had a great atmosphere and a strong programme covering different areas. One of our main aims is to create an event that appeals to both novices and the experienced.
Our audience is drawn from the UK, Europe but we also welcome a few US and Canadians. During 2017 we had attendees from over 20 countries.
HL: For me the main reason is providing something for the information community. When we first discussed the event and whether it was a good idea I wanted to make sure that we brought people together clients, colleagues, practitioners, ensuring there was a fixed date in the calendar for the whole sector. We want it to be seen as a must-go to event no matter what their role, their experience, or project.
We get great support from all our sponsors and the Synaptica team came on board right at the beginning: good people who know what they are talking about and are an intimate part of the community. It’s great to have this level of support from vendors and suppliers.
What are you looking forward to about this year’s event?
HL: The workshops are great. We have four different workshops for this year with some amazing people on a diverse selection of topics. These help participants get a real in-depth exposure on a subject.
It also shows that the conference is growing and participants are developing their interests in all aspects of knowledge whether it’s about findability or how you can use your content.
We also have two major keynotes: Paul Rissen and Tom Reamy. Paul is a really fantastic conceptual thinker. He has a knack for making quite complex ideas seem really logical, he uses simple metaphors and analogies a lot. On Day 2 we follow with Tom Reamy on Text Analytics, applying metadata and controlled tags. We also have programme sessions on search and information architecture. We are trying to expand our scope. Taxonomy is intimately part of information architecture. If it’s done right it’s a big part of making search work better for people so we decided to have these specialist sessions to show people the wider implications.
Finally we have introduced the Awards, the final bit of the jigsaw. For me this is part of our ethos, recognizing the community and acknowledging the people who do this at a high level day after day. I know and have worked with some great colleagues. Networks of taxonomists working in different systems. The Awards are a tangible element we want people to have. We want to recognize projects and individuals who are hacking away in the trenches, making a lot of impact in their business and their sector and advancing the cause of taxonomy. The Award winners will be announced on Day 2 of the Conference.
Are there any future plans for the Conference?
HL: We will see how this event goes. We capture feedback and use this for planning future events. For example, I would like to see if we can draw in more from the enterprise search world. We are all trying to help users get to something quickly and effectively. Building on this synergy would keep building those links. Developing more sessions and workshops about search, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence would be good. We need people from this community to build the models, run the vocabularies, look at the ethical and data bias side of things. This often gets missed. I think we are well placed to do resolve challenges. The more we can do to build communities of practice helps with visibility and value.What is your advice to others who might be considering a taxonomy project?
HL: For me it’s about taxonomists being assertive about what is it you are trying to do. Always make sure you ask the right questions from those supporting the project. It’s too easy to go off in different directions, over-engineer approaches and waste funds. The more you try to get people to articulate the end point you want, the better placed you are to serve that.
The role of the taxonomist is about dealing with people, personalities and processes. It is isn’t all about playing with the words. You can’t do this in isolation. The more that you understand different people’s motivations the better placed you are to advise even if you are dealing with internal conflicting viewpoints.
Sometimes I run into a situation where different stakeholders want to use different terminology for the same thing. A good taxonomist mediates these discussions and represents the voice of the end-user, to try and find a workable solution. The more the taxonomist understands where you are coming from the better placed you are to be objective. I think it should be this because 90% of users are calling it that and that’s what the search logs are telling us. Advocate for the users.
The community is important and needs supporting. That’s why events like Taxonomy Boot Camp are fundamental.
Synaptica Insights is our regular series of case studies sharing stories, news and learning from our customers, partners, influencers and colleagues. Synaptica LLC are Diamond Sponsors of Taxonomy Boot Camp 2018 London and the team will be speaking at this year’s event. The conferences takes place at Olympia, London on October 16 and 17.