Helen Lippell is a highly experienced UK-based taxonomist and took on the role of Programme Chair for the inaugural event in 2016. There has been a Taxonomy Bootcamp event in the USA for some years but launching the event in the UK (especially with the ‘bootcamp’ label) was a significant commitment for Information Today Inc. but the conference is now well established. I asked Helen to give me her perspective on the event.
This year’s Taxonomy Boot Camp London conference was the fourth since our inception in 2016. My aim, as Programme Chair, has always been to bring together a community of people who care about taxonomies.
This usually means practitioners who directly manage taxonomies, but also refers to users, who might be product managers, developers, product managers and so on. The conference has been held each time at Olympia Conference Centre and is co-located with Internet Librarian International. The two events seem to have their own particular audience base which don’t overlap that much. (Though I have to say I always enjoy the post-day one drinks reception when all attendees get to mix at the end of an intense day!)
For the opening keynote, I chose Emma Chittenden. She is an information architect who designs navigation structures, and therefore exactly the right person to give an overview of why label choice matters so much. Labels should be clear, descriptive, free of biased language and understandable by target audiences. This seems so obvious to information professionals, yet Emma’s talk showed examples of where things can go wildly wrong. It’s not just about linguistic pedantry – the impact of poor labelling can affect an organisation’s productivity, sales and even their reputation.
The remainder of day one was split into beginner-to-intermediate level, and intermediate-to-advanced level, tracks. The beginner level sessions were intended to ease newcomers into the complex world of managing taxonomies. Over in the other track, I enjoyed the dedicated search session. Charlie Hull makes search quality seem attainable for all of us who have struggled to make headway with search management in an enterprise environment. Of course, it’s never just a technology problem, but rather a confluence of relevant results, engine performance, and design experience, that make search a usable tool. Karen Renshaw works at the coalface day after day managing search for an industrial products ecommerce site, and reinforced the message that search is a continuous process of measuring, evaluating and improving all aspects of the search experience.
In the afternoon I went to the automatic tagging session. Due to changes in the speaker line-up before the event, this ended up being a four presentation monster. Luckily, the timekeeping was impeccable all round, and I heard many positive audience comments about the quality of information each speaker offered. After a few years of hearing too much hype around machine learning and AI, it was refreshing that all the speakers are trying to harness the best of both automated and human worlds in developing systems that do what they are supposed to. I think information professionals tend to be a pragmatic lot, and I was excited to hear the perspectives of the in-house experts and consultants alike in this session.
As alluded to earlier, the drinks reception is a nice time to have a drink, a chat and to start processing a very full day. After that, we headed to the Hand and Flower pub which is a short walk away from the venue. ISKO UK, SLA Europe and the SLA Taxonomy Division kindly co-ordinated to make this year’s “taxonomy chill-out” happen. Maybe ‘chill-out’ doesn’t quite do justice to it – this was a lively coming together of the taxonomy community, not just from the UK, but Europe, North America and beyond too. I stayed out as late as I thought I could get away with, that wouldn’t damage my ability to get up the next morning and kick off day two.
Day two’s keynote, by Nick Poole of CILIP, had a different vibe to Emma on day one. I like to balance the keynotes in terms of the practical and the strategic, and Emma and Nick did us proud. Nick is a prominent advocate of information skills and the profession generally, but his talk at Boot Camp was tailored around the strategic issues around information classification, usage and bias – areas of keen interest to many of us.
Next I presented the two Awards, for Taxonomy Practitioner and Taxonomy Success of the Year respectively. Unlike the Oscars, we keep this lowkey; it’s about recognising great work by individuals and teams – and giving them a nice logo for their email or LinkedIn profile! Ed Vald of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development won the Practitioner award for streamlining a sprawling taxonomy into shape, and making it sustainable through documentation, embedding it in search and implementing proper governance (the latter being the piece that so many projects like to skimp on, a false economy in the long run). Taxonomy Success went to RS Components (an electronic components e-commerce brand) for pivoting their taxonomies to represent customer language not only supplier jargon. They did some great work on Google SEO using these new terms, to produce measurable improvements in their rankings.
Day two, like day one, was also split into two tracks. Even though I’ve been in this industry for over a decade, I found much to ponder in Maura Moran’s talk on bringing colleagues with you even if they think your job is stuffing animals. (That feels like a cliche but I still hear it often and have to politely chuckle along!) Her tips boil down to listening, educating and advocating as much as possible within the organisation, and especially accepting that not everyone understands at first the benefit of taxonomies as well as practitioners do.
Into the final afternoon, and I had a front row seat for Aaron Bradley and Frank Branch of Electronic Arts (full disclosure, I’ve done some work with them on the project they were presenting). They covered the knowledge graph and ontology initiatives that are supporting personalised, intelligent content systems and platforms. Far from diminishing the role of taxonomies, these semantic projects are in fact expanding the scope of what taxonomists do. Alongside the core tasks of stakeholder engagement and vocabulary construction is now added a layer of extra work. This ensures that the taxonomies can serve a wide range of use cases in a distributed, networked world of models.This throws up interesting challenges (which I have experienced) of making governance and style processes work when a taxonomy has multiple uses and audiences.
The final speakers I saw were Pedro Balage and George Cushen of Farfetch, a fashion e-commerce site. Their domain-specific knowledge graph knits together prosaic business considerations like products, brands and categories with fashion ones like materials, styles, occasions and so on. In other words, all the things that a user might care about when they go hunting for that perfect item. Fashion is so subjective in terms of how different users interpret a garment’s colour, patterns, suitability, how it’s worn, when it’s worn etc. There might be 12 synonyms for a puffer jacket – search needs to include the domain terminology to give the user the best chance of finding a product. As with Electronic Arts, Farfetch’s taxonomies sit in a wider network of models and platforms.
So I hope we succeeded in putting together a programme of some of the best doers and thinkers in the business. I’ve always loved the fact that taxonomies are so versatile once you decide what you might want to do with them, and I think Boot Camp (along with the sister event in Washington DC) showcases this range of uses pretty well.