SMWCon Spring 2014 in Review


A few weeks ago my colleague Nancy and I went to Montreal Canada for the Semantic MediaWiki Conference. We both attended and presented. It was three days of insightful conversation, interesting perspectives, and amazing uses cases for leveraging semantic data. I wanted to write down a few of my thoughts before they escape me. The short version is thus, “Montreal is beautiful and unique, the conference was well worth the time, and I feel ever more encouraged that Semantic MediaWiki and related technologies are necessary as we develop new ways of creating and sharing information”.



This trip was my first time out of the US and I have to say I couldn’t have picked a better city as my first experience. It was an amazing comparison to my home town of St. Louis – which since most people moved to the suburbs 60 years ago often feels empty and beleaguered in the evenings. Montreal is a lively city with people of all walks coming and going. I felt safe at all times I was out and was in love with the amount of diversity. Languages, culture, fashion – and food!

Speaking of food, we ate at a few places similar to what we’d have back home (Mexican, Thai, Pub) but everything tasted better. Better spices, ingredients, or something in the water made everything more enjoyable. Perhaps this is some sort of travel placebo, but I’m already wanting to go back just for the food.

Montreal also was more colorful than I expected. Clothing, architecture, and graffiti were all vibrant indicators of a living, functional city.

The only downside, and this is not specific to Montreal, is the number of people smoking. None of the places we visited allowed for indoor smoking, but as soon as you stepped onto the sidewalk you’d be guaranteed to smell someone smoking. There was an amazing number of young people smoking as well, which struck me as both unfortunate and baffling.



From Pierre Deschênes

The conference was well-organized with a great group of diverse speakers. The schedule had ample wiggle room for speakers that went long or short and at every frequent break there were refreshment to keep us going. Concordia University played host to our merriment and their facilities were astounding. We spent most of the week in their business school, just a few short blocks from the hotel.


People & Presentations

Before I mention any individual I want to say that everyone was very pleasant and helpful. I know I’m going to miss names, as is the risk of lists like this, but I’m going to try to include a few highlights.

Yolanda Gil’s presentation kicked off what ended up being an underlying current through the entire week. The adoption and use of semantic information is less technical and more cultural. It’s important to be able to easily and succinctly explain the value of ontologies and semantic data. We also must be good stewards (to steal a phrase from my employer) of the communities we create. Make things easy, make them show value and deliver on the promise quickly and as iteratively as possible.

Rene Witte & Bahar Sateli played host to the conference. As a professor and research respectively they followed Yolanda’s presentation with a great overview of their work in adapting Natural Language Processing to Semantic MediaWiki. The idea of using NLP to summarize and extract information and infuse the knowledge within wiki was very interesting. As I watched their presentation I was waiting for them to say that their work was some how limited by licensing or technology – nope! It’s all built upon open-source libraries and can be used and extended by anyone!

David Mason was not only another member of our hosting party, but provided a great beginner’s guide to Semantic MediaWiki. Something I felt as being very useful even having used the software for many years now. I learned in later conversations that it was also much appreciated by newcomers to SMW who came to the conference to learn more.

Guillaume Coulombe is not only a fine fiddle player but along with Pierre Deschênes are trying their hardest to leverage SMW in numerous business settings – including healthcare! It was both endearing and frustrating to learn they too butt up against some of the same issues when trying to convince subject matter experts to contribute their knowledge.

Ali King and her mentor Joel Sachs introduced many of us to the concept of semantic triples. Something I was aware of tangentially when using SMW, but never had a formal introduction. Their presentation (both planned and ad-hoc) where useful to bringing further understanding to RDF and the concepts of semantic data.

Marcus Krötzsch is the first person from SMW I had the chance to meet in person. His very knowledgeable and level-headed presentation on Wikidata left me thinking that the future of both SMW and Wikidata are in good hands. I think he’s a good person to be championing for the semantic web (whether he is intentionally or not).

Yaron Koren literally wrote the book on MediaWiki and Semantic MediaWiki in particular. Always helpful, his presentation on the future of Semantic Forms was an interesting insight into the future of the extension and a lot of the underlying thoughts behind its intention. I encourage him to take a look at VisualEditor support in future releases. My only thought is that I wish I had the smarts or means to make it happen myself.

I was happy to meet Mark Hershberger. He’s someone who has worked closely with Wikimedia and sees the need for growing the community around 3rd party wiki. As someone who works almost exclusively with a third-party wikis, I found his work to be encouraging and I hope I can personally help move things forward when it comes to helping to better articulate the impact WikiMedia has on MediaWiki, and by exchange the thousands of wiki that aren’t Wikipedia.

Small side note – his brother works at Express Scripts, a local company here in St. Louis. Stranger still, quite a few of my current co-workers at Mercy came from Express Scripts. It is very likely Mark and I were twice or thrice removed before we met at SMWCon. The world is small.

Matt Hall is a disgustingly handsome Brit who works in geosciences. He was a great presenter and humorously presented the first end-of-presentation “Questions?” slide that asked the audience questions he had. Luckily I think we were able to answer a number of them.

Did I mention Peter Woudsma who works at NATO and uses a wiki to track their work around enterprise architecture? Or Frank Taylor who is seeking to develop tools for those in need to help translate legal information? How about Jimmy St-Germain, and his astounding collection of musical knowledge for Cirque du Soleil? The conference was filled with wonderful people who are all doing good stuff.

At last I’d like to thank Nancy Krautmann, my colleague who I traveled with for this conference. Thanks for putting up with me for the entire week, even after I got sick on our last day and turned into a pile of useless goo. I had a great time in your company and was once again reminded why I like working with you so much.

Final Thoughts

The conference covered many technical aspects (triples, NLP integration, even a few new extensions I never heard of), but the biggest value was spending some time with people who are working toward the same goals, documenting and sharing information in one of the most collaborative environments possible. I’m grateful that I was able to attend and take back the collective experience of everyone who shared. I have a plan to put that knowledge to good use and make my own work better. I am filled with confidence that collaborative workspaces and culture are ever more important than bits and bytes. People make the difference in our endeavors and technology – even technology as good as SMW – only help to enable the further enlightenment we can provide one another.

A stream of the conference can be found on YouTube. I believe a higher quality version is being worked on as we speak. Here’s the part with our presentation.

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