As Those Who Make

It’s not, of course, that there’s anything wrong with making (although it’s not all that clear that the world needs more stuff). The problem is the idea that the alternative to making is usually not doing nothing—it’s almost always doing things for and with other people, from the barista to the Facebook community moderator to the social worker to the surgeon. Describing oneself as a maker—regardless of what one actually or mostly does—is a way of accruing to oneself the gendered, capitalist benefits of being a person who makes products.

– Why I am Not a Maker – Debbie Chachra

I make communities. I do it with other people. It is just as valuable as those who make the architecture, content, documentation, and software that these communities use and support.

Notes from the first Enterprise MediaWiki Conference

On May 22 – 25 I attended the first Enterprise MediaWiki Conference (EMWCon) in New York City. It’s a continuation of the similarly named SMWCon, but with a strong emphasis on all flavors of MediaWiki and how it is used in organizations large and small. I was able attend in my capacity as a staff member of the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), but have had a personal interest in the MediaWiki community for a few years now. I thought it would be helpful to write down a few notes on my experiences and share those with folks within the Wikimedia movement.

At the conference I learned how folks are using MediaWiki, what difficulties they face in their use, and their concerns for the future of the platform. 1

Quick Take Aways

A few large points that struck me as worth mentioning.

  • There are many people using MediaWiki in interesting and unique ways. This is the 4th MediaWiki-focused event I’ve attended in the last two years and at each one I’ve discovered new uses in new industries. This time around? Johnson & Johnson, General Electric, a large banking company, and a large oil company all use MediaWiki in some capacity to help document and share knowledge within their organizations. This is on top of groups like Circ du Soleil, MITRE, NATO, and NASA that I was already aware of. I was also impressed by the half a dozen independent developers who support organizations in using MediaWiki. Some folks have smaller organizations with smaller wikis – which is impressive. It’s even crazier to think that this bit of open-source software can be used inside so many large, well-known, organizations – often to great success.
  • Users of MediaWiki – specifically those that write their own code – want acknowledgment. They want to know that the folks who are pointing MediaWiki toward its future are aware of these diverse use cases and keep that in mind when making decisions that would impact non-WMF-supported use.
  • They also want to know what the WMF’s plans are. They want to be reassured – and to be able to reassure others within their organizations, that MediaWiki will be around. A simple, high-level roadmap would do wonders here. There is a large ask of the foundation to make a decision on what sort of support will be offered – even if the answer is an uncomfortable “nothing” it would be better than the current strain of “Eh, we really don’t know.” At one point during the conference I made the joke that the WMF had ‘cookie licked’ MediaWiki. :p
  • I had one attendee, a long-time MediaWiki admin and community member, ask me, “Am I a volunteer? A contributor?” This is from someone whose organization has no less than 14 extensions on and who has contributed code to the core development of MediaWiki. They were not certain if their contributions were as valued given that what they work on has a much larger impact on third-party users than Wikimedia projects. People within the MediaWiki community want equal treatment and respect as developer contributors.
  • Lastly, the WMF should consider the impact this community has had in the development of MediaWiki as a popular and healthy open-source software. There is an incredible financial worth in the patches and extensions contributed by third parties. I mean, to be frank, we have people working at NASA and MITRE (among others) sharing their work with the MediaWiki community. The time and talent alone is something that should be considered a strength within our community.


Another topic that has been gaining steam recently in the MediaWiki community is the idea of a “MediaWiki Foundation”. A non-profit organization that focuses on the core development of MediaWiki as an open-source software project – influenced by all parties equally. I think it’s going to happen in some capacity.

Generally speaking the MediaWiki community agrees it won’t be the big, giant, dramatic change like moving all of MediaWiki ownership out of the WMF.

Instead the focus will be on small deliverables. Right now the MediaWiki Stakeholder’s user group is looking for a small task on the wishlist, funding (passing a hat around!) and working to show that something was accomplished. Then, after being able to show their work, approach the WMF with a request for some of their time to discuss how they could work together. If you’re interested in following along, check out the MediaWiki Stakeholders’ wiki and the #mwstake room in the Wikimedia Phabricator.

A Real Community

While some wikis are internal and not public, the folks at the conference freely shared their experiences and knowledge for others to benefit from. One attendee described the community and our relationship with one another in an interesting way. We’re not competing with each other to ‘build the best wiki’ but we are competing together against closed, propriatrty systems of knowledge management that permeate organizations across industries. These systems have an antiquated model of documenting and sharing knowledge that is antithesis to truly sharing information to empower members of the org. For example, SharePoint sets permissions to be closed by default. You have to know the information exists, somewhere in the laybranith of SharePoint sites, before you can request access to it!

I think that this event acknowledges that we come together freely to share across industries and uses. It is endemic of having a natural community – not one forced out of branding, marketing, or sales departments within a for-profit organization.

Wikipedians in our midst

While the conference was focused on MediaWiki use outside of Wikimedia projects, attendees did have an opportunity to get to know more about the Wikimedia world and meet folks who are involved in related projects. One of our hosts, Pharos, is a long-time editor on English Wikipedia, president of the NYC chapter, and was a Wikipedian-in-residence at the Guggenheim Museum.

At the end of the first day the NYC chapter brought pizza and people together to talk about what they had been working on. I met no less than 3 individuals involved in, a Wikipedia project I had never heard of until this event!

I also met a long-time MediaWikian, Frank Taylor, who was interested in the work the WMF was doing around emerging communities. He even offered to put the folks at the foundation working on this outreach in contact with folks he has worked with in Central and South America. Which is a kind and unexpected example of the communities sharing interests!


I encourage folks to attend future EMWCons (and SMWCons). They are a great opportunity to learn and share with one another, to create relationships beyond Talk pages, and to grow an already impressive community. In particular I would like to invite the following groups.

  • WMF staff who work on MediaWiki core development, planning, and developer relations.
  • People who use MediaWiki – or are interested in using a wiki!
  • People who want to encourage open-source software and free knowledge – even when the knowledge is shared not among the entirety of humanity. There is a very real halo effect in people using MediaWiki. The philosophy of the wiki changes organizations approach to sharing and working together. It breeds familiarity with many aspects of the wider Wikimedia movement. I know I’m only a factor of one, but my Wikimedia contributions are born out of the use of MediaWiki within a ‘closed’ organization. 2

See also

  1. Some may object to the word “platform”, but for many people using MediaWiki inside organizations, it truly is the foundation on which all of their process and strategy sit.

  2. Heck, my professional career as the ‘wiki guy’ has lead to my current role at the WMF!

SMWCon Spring 2015 in Review

In early May I helped to organize the Spring Semantic MediaWiki Conference or SMWCon. We had 25 people from around the world come together for three days to learn and share about Semantic MediaWiki and it’s use in various industries. It was an honor to host such an event here in my hometown of St. Louis. I wanted to take a few minutes to share my experiences as an amateur event organizer and reflect on one of my personal accomplishments for 2015.


When planning an event my mind always goes to the worst possible scenarios. What if people don’t come? What if they can’t find the event location? What if the food is terrible? What if the presentations are off-target?

For the most part, if you worry about these things and do something to address them, you’ll be fine. Don’t be overly anxious. Writing things down and keeping “To-Do” lists really helped keep things organized. Remembering to follow-up with people (venue folks, caterers, etc.) will prevent miscommunication and last-minute dashes to fix things.

Another tip? Make sure you have coffee and snacks around. Nothing fancy is needed. We made a trip to Costco the day before the event and grabbed some mixed nuts, granola bars, chips and soda.

I’m glad to say that everyone appeared to have a good time and everything 1 generally went off without a hitch.

I was an attendee at the last Spring SMWCon. Since that was also my only SMWCon experience, I based a lot of my work off of the great organizers that hosted us in Montreal. One thing I didn’t go a good enough job on was encouraging diversity in the audience and in speakers. What we had wasn’t bad, but man I would have like to have more unique voices present.

That said, we did have one of the most diverse group of industries represented. eSport statisticians, geneticists, geophysicists, independent developers, Tibetan Buddhist philosophers, MITRE, NASA, NATO, SNPedia, and more represented the diverse use of Semantic MediaWiki. We actually remarked during one of our sessions that this SMWCon had a much more ‘enterprise’ vibe than past conferences. It’s remarkable how many wikis exist behind firewalls that the public never know about and what amazing things people are doing with the software.

This lead into an interesting discussion around future of SMW and SMWCons. The discussion is ongoing, but the consensus is that there should be more events around enterprise 2 MediaWiki usage.
All of the presentations were interesting and chatting with some of the attendees opened my eyes to new uses and interests I never knew existed.

Some of my favorite sessions are listed below. We recorded the presentations and they should be up online soon.


Wolfgang Fahl presented on an idea he has called smartMediaWiki. His tutorial was in-depth and allowed for all attendees to participate. While some of his concepts are beyond my meager understanding, the amount of effort he put into his presentation is commendable upon itself.


Cargo and the future of SMW

Yaron talked about his new extension, Cargo. It’s an alternative to SMW, which is interesting as it’s a much smaller code base, but nearly just as powerful. His approach to semantic data is different (standard database schema instead of triples) and the history of his involvement with SMW made for an interesting talk. Where Cargo (and SMW) go in the future is still very much unknown, but Yaron brings forth the idea that both can live in harmony.


The Why and How of Wiki Farms

Cindy’s presentation on the interworking of MITRE’s Gestalt framework was eye-opening. I manage two independent wikis and have never though much about the complexities of running dozens – or hundreds – of wikis. Her talk covered how one might manage multiple wikis without going insane – and still leaving plenty of room for customization and uniqueness.


SMW Grammars & Variables

John McClure is not a man to shy away from big challenges. His presentation tackled the promise of a semantic web – multiple independent sites interconnected among one another with a common ontology. His passion was present and his goals noble. The conundrum is who is willing to do the work? So many wiki folk – yes even those within the Wikimedia movement – are rather ‘heads down’ on what they’re working on. John’s vision is of a standard grammar we can all leverage to systematically interconnect the various repositories of information we all maintain.


Quantifying Accountability

James and Daren gave a great ad-lib presentation 3 on how they use MediaWiki to help document information around the training of astronauts for their EVAs. Their presentation was a great example (among many) of folks who are not ‘wiki people’ leveraging the software as part of their jobs. Both are engineers and training astronauts is their primary career. Even with that full-time gig they find time to develop their own extensions and adapt the SMW platform to fit their needs – all while releasing their code to the public.


How to get your bug fixed in MediaWiki

Mark gave a great overview on how to take a PITA bug and get it fixed. His introduction to the MediaWiki bug ecosystem was really helpful. I now feel more confident in submitting bug reports and improving the software.


We had a panel on the third day around the topic of “The Future of the Semantic Web, SMW and MediaWiki”. The three panel members 4 did a great job discussing the changes yet to come that will impact us all.

I love the SMW and larger MediaWiki community. There are a lot of good people involved. Each working hard in their respective industries trying to not only accomplish the work before them, but giving back to the community as well. If you have an inkling of interest in attending (or organizing!) a SMWCon I can’t recommend it highly enough.

  1. Except for A/V hiccups. Like their printer brethren, A/V equipment conspires against humanity.

  2. Not necessarily inside corporations, but non-profits, community groups, research groups, etc.

  3. Their original slide deck was not approved in time by NASA

  4. Cindy CicaleseYaron Koren, and Mark Hershberger

Tagging Semantic Articles Outside of the Factbox

One of my favorite Semantic MediaWiki features is the factbox. It’s a quick way to browse wiki content by property values.

What if you want a similar browsing interface within a wiki page? For example, let’s say you want a value for a property you use to ‘tag’ an article to provide a link to a list of all pages with that property/value pair. Here’s one way how. 1

For the past year one of the ways we’ve been using our wiki is to publish an internal monthly newsletter. Each newsletter article is a wiki page, with a template providing consistent navigation.

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 1.19.10 PM


Along the right hand column of every article are the tags for the audience and topic areas related to the article.


Recently I made an addition to the list of Audience and Topic Area tags to provide dynamic links to all pages with that property value. I’m leveraging the SMW Special:SearchByPropertySpace special page.

In the article template, with the property “Facets Article Topic Areas” you’ll want to use an arraymaptemplate 2 to format the comma separated list of values. 3

'''Topic Areas''': {{#arraymaptemplate:{{{Facets Article Topic Areas|}}}|SearchByPropertySpace-FacetsArticleTopicAreas|,|, }}

What this will do is take every value for the property Facets Article Topic Areas and use the SearchByPropertySpace-FacetsArticleTopicAreas 4 template to format each value. Each value is separated by comma, and our final output will be separated by a comma and a space.

In the template “SearchByPropertySpace-FacetsTopicAreas” we have the following.

[[Special:SearchByProperty/Facets-20Article-20Topic-20Areas/{{#replace:{{{1}}}| |-20}}|{{{1}}}]]

This creates a link to Special:SearchByProperty where the property name is Facets Article Topic Areas and the value is each comma separated value from our arraymaptemplate.

The replace parser function converts values with spaces to URL encoded characters.


The result is that every topic area listed on the page becomes a link to Special:SearchByProperty that shows all pages with that value.

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 5.02.52 PM

When editors add a new article they only have to add a list of topic areas. 5 This makes in-article links to all other articles a click away without having to scroll to the bottom of the page to view the factbox.

  1. I’m sharing this not only in hope of helping others, but to learn how to improve my own use of SMW. Leave a comment if you have a better way.

  2. Provided by the indispensable Semantic Forms extension.

  3. You’ll also want to have an arraymap to store the property/value pair somewhere in your template. I keep mine hidden at the bottom of the template with a div set to display:none; and something like {{#arraymap:{{{Facets Article Topic Areas|}}}|,|@@|[[Facets Article Topic Areas::@@]]}}

  4. Yes, I need to use better template names!

  5. Made incredibly easy with the new ‘token’ input in Semantic Forms.

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.