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Notes from Wikimania 2011

My wife and I got back a week ago from our trip to Israel, which included the Wikimania conference in Haifa – Wikimania is an annual conference mostly about Wikipedia, that, like the Olympics, moves around the globe every time. Wikimania, in this case, was half the goal and half an excuse to visit Israel – which is where I grew up, and where my extended family lives, but which I hadn’t visited in six years.

First, I’ll say that visiting Israel was an absolutely amazing experience. We managed to see a huge amount of the country – Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Jerusalem, the West Bank, etc. We met secular Jews, orthodox Jews, Arabs, Russians, Americans (plus all the really diverse attendees of Wikimania, but that’s a separate story). We visited ancient ruins, high-tech parks, leafy neighborhoods, government offices, and settlements on the edge of a desert. And my extended family could not have been nicer – and the same actualy holds true for almost everyone I met, which really defies the stereotype of rude Israelis. (I was 90% enthused about it and 10% – dare I say? – disappointed.)

With that said, on to the conference. Here are some general observations of mine:

  • I think there was a general view that this was might have been the best-organized, best-run Wikimania ever. The venue was great, the food was amazing, the parties were on-point, the keynote speakers (Yochai Benkler and Joseph Reagle) were well-chosen, and there were lots of nice little touches, like awesome videos at the opening and closing (the closing one must have been prepared in less than a day). The one technical glitch was the lack of enough power outlets – but people managed. I’ve been to four of the seven Wikimanias, and they’ve all been enjoyable and well-run, but this one just seemed to have that something extra. I’m biased, though, because I grew up in Haifa, so maybe I’m the wrong person to ask.
  • I have to admit that I had soured a little on Wikimania beforehand – it’s a great experience for anyone who hasn’t been before, but at some point one can get a little Wikipedia’d out. There are always technical discussions about Mediawiki, but never enough, in my opinion. This one had more than usual, though, and a lot of interest among the attendees, so that was a very positive step. As always, I got to talk to other developers, and as always I got to meet some of them for the first time – like Niklas, two ahead of me on the contributors list.
  • The next Wikimania will be in Washington, D.C. At the end of the conference, the D.C. organizers gave a shambolic presentation that I think had everyone worried. Still, the conference will be in the U.S., which gives them a huge natural advantage in terms of getting both attendees and speakers. I plan to be there, in any case.

And, since we’re a Semantic MediaWiki-related company, some Semantic MediaWiki-related comments:

  • There was one directly SMW-related talk, given by Denny Vrandecic, Daniel Kinzler and me. The talk was mostly about adding SMW to Wikipedia, and not about the software per se. Denny talked about the basic premise of SMW, I went into the details and showed some demos, and then Denny and Daniel talked about the planned upcoming “Wikidata” project, which is meant to supply infobox data to all the different language Wikipedias (and, via RDF, to the world), using SMW as the backend. We had 40 minutes to talk, but we could have easily talked for twice that long – we barely talked about the Semantic Web, didn’t mention projects like DBpedia and Freebase, and the SMW demos were quite minimal. Also, there was a packed room, with about 60 people, and lots of questions and comments at the end. Anyway, you can find more information about the Wikidata proposal here.
  • Wikimedia operations guy Ryan Lane gave a talk about the WMF’s server management, where he mentioned that Semantic MediaWiki was used to store details about their setup. (You can see an explanation of that here.) That was pretty cool.
  • There was a session called “Ask the developers“, where I found out about the MediaWiki style guide, which I hadn’t seen before. It’s awesome, and I’ve actually already modified the error-messages display in Semantic Forms to match what’s in the guide.
  • As at previous Wikimanias, there was a good amount of discussion about making editing easier, both of template calls and of wiki syntax in general. Brion Vibber, the head MediaWiki programmer, talked about it a few times, as did Sue Gardner, the WMF executive director. And Jimmy Wales focused a lot of his talk, which was the final talk of Wikimania, on improving the interface on Wikipedia to make things like requesting page moves easier. That last one is not directly editing-related, but it does tie in to making smarter, more user-friendly interfaces. If anything comes out of either initiative, it will undoubtedly be interesting to the Semantic MediaWiki community.

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