SMW Camp thoughts

It’s been a hectic last month; we got back from our honeymoon last week, and I’m about to go travelling again, and I don’t know when or if I’ll have time to talk about all of it (I definitely hope to); but I did want to write about the amazing weekend we had of the SMW Camp we had in Karlsruhe, Germany. The conference was sponsored by Ontoprise, and took place in and around the Ontoprise office; mostly in a beautiful, loft-like glass-walled meeting room (here’s a representative photo, and here’s one of me talking). In the introduction, Daniel Hansch from Ontoprise, who served as the main host of the event, described Karlsruhe as “the capital of the Semantic Web”, which is only somewhat of an exaggeration.

About 40 people (that’s my guess) showed up, mostly from Germany but also from the Netherlands, Belgium and the U.S. The attendees came from what I consider the four branches of the Semantic MediaWiki world: academics, business people, hackers, and the smallest branch, government people (represented here by someone from the German Air Force). And the talks represented an equally broad spectrum, covering subjects from software tutorials to use cases of SMW to business methodologies to marketing. It felt like a real conference, with two solid days of talks and in-depth discussions.

Some lessons I think could be learned from the whole thing:

  • There’s not much need for the really introductory stuff. We thought that a lot of the crowd might be newcomers to the SMW “community”, and a lot of them were, but almost everyone knew about and had used SMW to some extent. In the future, it might make sense to cut out the introductory tutorials altogether.
  • On that note - there’s no shortage of things to discuss. We had two full days of talks, from 10 AM to 6 PM (actually 7 PM on Sunday), and even then some talks were rushed; and there was still subject matter we wanted to get to but couldn’t, like discussions about interface. Two full days is easily achievable.
  • Semantic MediaWiki isn’t ready for a true “unconference” yet. The name “SMW Camp” was chosen in part because it was supposed to reflect an “unconference” type of event organization: discussion topics decided at the event itself, with multiple tracks so that people can stick to the topics they’re interested in. But it turns out that, in the Semantic MediaWiki world everyone’s pretty much interested in everything: people want to hear about academic research, ongoing development, performance issues, and corporate usage. We did have parallel tracks for one session, and even that led to some complaints from attendees that they couldn’t hear about topics that they were interested in. So it looks like for the foreseeable future we’ll stick with one track. There’s also the issue of a pre-defined schedule versus an open one decided on the same day. What seems to work for SMW is having participants put down the names of presentations they’d like to give, on the meeting’s wiki page, in the weeks beforehand; organizers can then construct a schedule from that just a day or two beforehand. It’s a semi-structured approach that somehow seems appropriate for an event that relates to semantic wikis.I still like the name “SMW Camp” for the meetings, by the way, because it seems more descriptive than any of the alternatives; and because it’s distinctive enough that it’s easy to tell which events are official components of the series, unlike with, say, the name “SMW Meeting”.
  • SMW Camp could probably become a bigger production. The “users meeting” we had in Boston last year was free; and I lobbied hard to make this one free as well - we compromised on 15 euros. Then I found out that many of the attendees were surprised that the price was so low, when conferences that they considered to be of comparable quality routinely cost anywhere from $100 to thousands of dollars (that’s the general rate; speakers sometimes attend for free, and students usually get a deep discount). It’s clear that many of the attendees, at least the non-student ones, would be willing to pay a higher amount. That by itself isn’t reason enough to raise the rate, fo course, but extra money could help in a few ways: catering of events (though going out to restaurants was nice); free swag, like stickers, t-shrits and pens, that some people talked about having; and maybe even some extra money for the hosts, the organizers, people travelling from long distances, SMW developers… there’s no shortage of people one could give extra money to if one had it. :)Tied in with that is the idea of getting corporate or university sponsorship of the event, which, now that we have a proven track record, might be easier to do.

One interesting related thought is that I was trying right after the event to recall how this whole idea of SMW users meetings came to be, when I realized that the person indirectly responsible for them is Sergey Chernyshev; which is ironic because he has yet to attend one. But during the winter of 2008, he kept pestering me to start a New York MediaWiki meetup (he finally started one himself, a few months ago, which we now co-run, in theory). I kept demurring, saying I was only interested in something directly related to SMW, so he said to try organizing something like that instead. With that encouragement, in October 2008 I sent out an email asking if anyone would be interested in a New York users meeting; to my surprise, the interested responses all came from Boston, Seattle and Germany; some of them had previously talked about having an international meeting, but it hadn’t yet coalesced. The Boston meeting, which was hosted by eMonitor (now LeveragePoint) and which we jointly put together, happened quite quickly; literally a month later. So you can thank Sergey for helping to bring about a meeting he’s never attended, with people he doesn’t know. :)

5 Responses to “SMW Camp thoughts”

  1. Sergey Chernyshev Says:

    Thanks, Yaron! It’s great to hear that something I was hoping to see taken such a good shape and is clearly a great event!

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