29 August 2018

2018 Keynote speaker Paul Rissen talks to us ahead of this year's Taxonomy Boot Camp in London.

Tell us about your current role and what you do
I’m the Product Manager for Springer Nature’s Open Access research journal websites. Primarily, this means looking after BMC (biomedcentral.com) and SpringerOpen (springeropen.com), but increasingly we’re beginning to look at Nature’s open access portfolio - journals such as Scientific Reports and Nature Communications. These are broad-scope journals with a high volume of what’s sometimes called ‘sound science’ - research which meets good standards, but isn’t necessarily groundbreaking.

The challenge here is to help users find the research they’re most interested in, without distracting them from their main task of evaluating and reading papers. Equally, we’d like to encourage researchers to consider submitting their research to these broad-scope journals - so helping them get a sense of what the journals publish, what their scope is, helping promote research to the right audiences - is also a part of what my team is working on. 

Why are taxonomies more important than ever?
For me, the value of taxonomies lies in the structure, meaning and relationships they hold. Being able to ‘tag’ content is all well and good, but actually describing the content, representing it as structured data, and in particular the relationships between concepts held within a piece of content, has incredible creative potential.

On the other hand, with great power comes great responsibility. Classifying content, and more important, classifying things - people, places, products, laws - can, and has already, led to unfortunate consequences. We need to help everyone see that classification is an inherently political act, and that whilst taxonomies enable computers to enable us to do more, they also reflect both our biases and opinions. Ultimately we need to ensure that marginalised communities are included in the act of taxonomy creation, and represented within them - whilst putting careful thought into the systems, rules and algorithms we design on top of these structures.

What makes a good taxonomist?
Clear,  conceptual thinking. Being able to get away from the technicalities of particular tools, software and websites, and instead concentrating on how your users and stakeholders understand the subject area, domain or world you’re investigating. 

Listening and reflecting their understanding back to people, and being able to ask the right questions to tease out what makes different parts of a taxonomy distinct, as well as the relationships between things within the taxonomy.

Humility - understanding that no taxonomy is ever perfect, and that it will always reflect a subjective view on some part of the world at a particular point in time. This doesn’t mean that creating a taxonomy is a futile and thankless task - but having the awareness that it will inevitably evolve over time, and that achieving permanent, universal agreement on a single taxonomy is unlikely to happen. Indeed, being able to use the contextual and subjective nature of the taxonomy as a strength can lead to more creative opportunities.

Finally, a general understanding of the architecture of software, and what is possible, trivial and difficult with computers, is useful as it helps set expectations, as well as making conversations with more technical people easier.

How might the development of new technologies such as AI affect how we do our work as information professionals?
Primarily it should make some of the leg work easier. Being able to process a large amount of data in a shorter time than a human could, is going to be very helpful when it comes to the day-to-day work that we do. Machine learning and AI should also help us spot patterns in information that we may not otherwise notice - and it can help us simulate what the consequences of particular decisions might be.

However, machine learning and AI won’t be a silver bullet - we’ve already seen examples of algorithms being applied with unfortunate consequences, or machine learning classifying images in a way that is problematic when we consider culture, race and politics. So, we’ll need to be aware of the limits of what is possible, manage expectations, and take on new responsibilities for helping machines understand our world, our biases, and our morality.

What's the most exciting change you've seen in the industry in the last few years?
The deployment of knowledge graphs and non-visual interfaces have really brought the value of structured data to the fore. Voice and conversational interfaces are obviously very in vogue at the moment, and I think an under-appreciated aspect of these has to be the importance of structured data in powering these. I think more and more people are seeing the benefits of structured data in things like Google’s Knowledge Graph, Amazon’s ability to tell you which actors are on screen during a show you’re watching, and of course the perennial joy of doing a deep dive on Wikipedia. 

Whilst ‘big data’ and ‘machine learning’ might be hogging the limelight at the moment, I think that the work of taxonomists and those who architect and develop structured data is quietly, gradually, revolutionising the kinds of things we do with computers and the Internet.

What will you be speaking about at this year's Taxonomy Boot Camp London?
I’ll be speaking about the current state of our digital environments, particularly in terms of how they shape our culture and discourse in society, politics and journalism. I’ll be exploring a set of thirteen rules for designing better information environments, taking into account the power and responsibility that these places play in our lives.

Paul's Keynote takes place on the opening morning of Taxonomy Boot Camp London, Tuesday 16 October.

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