Taxonomy Boot Camp 2022 Themes & Takeaways
Last week I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at Taxonomy Boot Camp in Washington DC. This was the boot camp’s 18th year, and the third time I’ve attended since 2016. This conference is historically framed as a life ring for those throw into the deep waters of taxonomy design, implementation, and management, but in the few years that I’ve been going, I’ve seen it also evolve into a forum for working professionals to share case studies, best practices, and innovations in the field.
This year’s boot camp carried on that tradition of ideas, talks, and workshops for neophytes and experts alike. Here is a roundup of the top themes and insights I took away from the sessions I attended. Most speakers have shared their slides and Taxonomy Boot Camp (TBC) has graciously made these available for anyone to download, so I’ve included links to decks where available. You can access the whole list here.
Top Themes & Takeaways
1. Taxonomy is about people
In my experience, prior year TBC talks often focused on more technical aspects of getting taxonomy projects off the ground and implemented. Standards, automation, and systems integration were common themes. There were certainly some of these topics this year, but the thread I saw running through most talks was how taxonomies affect and are affected by the people who use and create them.
This theme was framed beautifully by the opening keynote speaker, David Dylan Thomas, who opened the conference with “Design for Cognitive Bias: Using Mental Shortcuts for Good Instead of Evil.” Thomas is an active, engaged advocate for understanding the power of human bias in design and his talk emphasized the impact of the “cognitive shortcuts” we use to navigate the tens of thousands of decisions we make each day. As taxonomy is frequently used to constrain what can and cannot be said within a system, this early focus on biases—especially hidden biases—opened the conference with an important reminder of the power and responsibility implicit in taxonomy work.
- Design for Cognitive Bias: Using Mental Shortcuts for Good Instead of Evil, David Dylan Thomas, David Dylan Thomas, LLC.
2. Hierarchies and Graphs are Complementary
A respectable proportion of this year’s talks focused or at least touched on the role of taxonomy in knowledge graphs and ontologies. Likewise, more than a few audience questions demonstrated that many folks are still trying to untangle and define the differences between ontologies and taxonomies, knowledge graphs, and what all of this means for existing data management strategies.
Ahren Lehnert of Synaptica, a taxonomy and ontology software vendor, gave a pithy, practical gloss on how taxonomies and ontologies relate (parentheticals mine):
- Hierarchies (which are often expressed as taxonomies) are for classification
- Graphs (which are often expressed as ontologies) are for exploration
From Lehnert’s perspective, taxonomies encode hierarchical relationships and impose a singular, often immutable viewpoint. Ontologies decentralize hierarchical relationships and provide alternate (sometimes surprising) views on the data hierarchical taxonomies encode. According to Lehnert, these two concepts combined create a “concept cartography”: a taxonomy is a “map of a concept”; an ontology operates as “the legend of the map.”
One ongoing challenge in helping folks make sense of knowledge graphs (and ontologies and the role taxonomies play in both) is the fact that the way these elements come together can vary wildly between organizations, applications, and levels of maturity. For example, Jenni Doughty and Tatiana Cakici from Enterprise Knowledge presented a knowledge graph method and case study that moved through a linear vision, analysis, design, validation, implementation process, while Donna Popkey from the Harvard Business School presented a knowledge graph case study that was built around connecting silos with a hub and spoke model—without, as she put it, “creating a big hairball.”
A team from Etsy, on the other hand, presented a case study on incorporating semantic data (their ontology) into a traditional taxonomic hierarchy. Whether or not one chooses to classify Etsy’s work as “a knowledge graph,” they’re doing the hard work of incorporating nuanced semantics into the way they manage and understand their incredibly diverse body of content. Different contexts and needs in each case called for quite different solutions.
- Hierarchies, Meet Graphs, Ahren E Lehnert, Synaptica
- Climbing the Ontology Mountain to Achieve a Successful Knowledge Graph, Jenni Doughty and Tatiana Cakici, Enterprise Knowledge
- Harvard Business School Knowledge Hub and Spoke Model, Donna Popkey, Harvard Business School
- When Taxonomy Met Ontology at Etsy, Marc Shimpeno, Susannah Woodbury, Jenn Borrell, and Ren Pope, Etsy
👉 For more themes on what’s going on in the world of knowledge graphs, check out my Knowledge Graph Conference 2022 Themes & Top Takeaways post.
3. Taxonomy Work is Teamwork
This theme was certainly not new this year, but it does seem to be taking on increased significance. While in the past thesauri and taxonomies in the library sciences vein were primarily focused on indexing and retrieval, today taxonomy work (in which I include thesauri and ontologies) is more and more the connective tissue between information systems, organizations, industries, and entire theories of knowing and knowledge.
This is definitely a team sport.
And the players aren’t just taxonomists. In her talk on “shoestring taxonomies,” Emily Winks of WeWork highlighted the importance of “gathering friends” in the development of taxonomies: brand copywriters, content strategists, data, ML, and software engineers, librarians, UX researchers, and self-professed grammar sticklers are all among the folks she suggests. Winks also highlighted the importance of teamwork in making sure that the taxonomies one creates have the greatest impact. In her WeWork case study, the different taxonomies she designed found homes in WeWork’s Skills & Interests graph database, its Amenities API, and its Spaces Digital Asset Management System.
Crucially, taxonomy creation and placement isn’t the end of the work. Far from it. Taxonomy expert Bob Kasenchak of Factor Firm noted in the “Stump the Taxonomist” panel session that “a taxonomy is a living document. If you don’t keep updating it, it becomes ossified, a snapshot of the moment in time at which it was built.”
Taxonomist Valerie Miller, who presented a rich and detailed case study of work she did at Politico, likewise shared an anecdote on the importance of keeping humans in the loop. In a news article in which one politician goaded another to show up to an upcoming event in a chicken suit, Politico’s auto-tagging system included the article in a “chicken-as-food” category. Had there not been a team to check those recommendations, that “related content” result would have been embarrassingly awkward. (Though likely not as embarrassing as the recent incident KFC very publicly failed to avoid in promoting crispy chicken for the observance of Kristallnacht)
Taxonomy consultant Helen Lippell shared another common peril of not engaging broadly and thoroughly with stakeholders and subject matter experts. When asked during the “Stump the Taxonomist” panel session how to avoid the "miscellaneous" category, she responded “If you have a lot of ‘miscellaneous,’ your domain model is probably wrong.” Getting the domain model right is another crucial task for which iteration and collaboration are essential.
- Shoestring Taxonomy: Limited Resources but Limitless Enthusiasm, Emily Winks, WeWork
- Tags to Topics: Politico’s Automated Classification System, Valerie Miller
Andy’s 2¢: Taxonomy and the Headless CMS
My own talk, “Taxonomy and the Headless CMS,” fits into the “Taxonomy is about people” and “Taxonomy work is teamwork” themes a bit differently. By removing the page display focused “head” from content management systems, headless CMSes also remove an important set of heuristics that content creators use to structure information. When those of us who design content creation environments don’t fill that empty space with a set of tools consistent with the benefits of headless content creation, content producers and client organizations tend to fill it with what they know: page builders—which, ironically, work against the very decoupling for which headless CMSes exist.
To illustrate where taxonomists can help to remedy this self-defeating workaround, I provided a set of examples from my recent client work where taxonomy practices were used to displace the language of layout based on pages and help producers create well formed structured content better suited for reuse, repurposing, and customization. This “structured content design” theme is one that I’ve yet to see gain broader traction in taxonomy, IA, and knowledge graph conferences, but I’m convinced it’s essential to making content last longer and work harder, so I’m happy to spread the word from any soapbox I can find. If your curiosity is piqued, please do have a look at my collection of articles on structured content design and my 2022 Structured Content Conference Themes & Top Takeaways post—and please do get in touch if you’d like to see a talk on structured content design at a future conference or event you’re organizing.