Thoughts on OSCOM 3

by Simon St. Laurent

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This past week, I attended the 3rd Open Source Content Management Conference (OSCOM). I was commuting between the conference and O'Reilly's Cambridge office, so I didn't see everything I would have liked, but there's definitely a lot worth exploring at OSCOM, and it helps that MP3 versions of many sessions are available!

Slides for many sessions are posted, and MP3s are available for some sessions as well, but it's hard to gauge the overall feel of the conference from individual sessions. OSCOM was a mix of very different groups of people with common interests in the very wide field of content management. There were RDF developers there and people who had no (or negative) interest in RDF. There were bloggers there and people who had no interest in blogging, and Web Services developers and developers with no interest in Web Services. Some people were managing content on a grand scale, others on a tiny scale.

That diversity held a wealth of riches. The first session I attended, Jo Walsh's Collaborative Mapping on the Semantic Web, explored a use of RDF for mapping that is very different from the traditional "map company sold me this map". In Walsh's work, individuals provide descriptions of places and the connections between them, growing a map out of many people's different perspectives and experiences. The bottom-up approach was a refreshing change from a lot of the "information must be backed by authority" approach I hear all too often. (Sam Ruby also has some commentary on this aspect.)

I missed Dave Winer's keynote the next morning, but Aaron Swartz took notes on IRC and Dave has since finished his thoughts.

Switching gears again, I heard Greg Stein's talk on WebDAV, taking a closer look at how protocol plumbing can make a huge difference in how we manage information. I have to confess that I've known about WebDAV for years, and haven't done nearly enough with it, so I'll be taking a closer look. As it was most everywhere at OSCOM, metadata was an important (and tricky) issue.

The next two sessions I saw, Justin Ross on Bebop and Brian Carroll on Managing Change in Web Services, both brought home how rapidly problems can become complex when multiple systems are connected. In Bebop's case, keeping multiple browser window interfaces separate added complexity. Web Services face the same problems of change as other projects, combined with the expectation that those services be managed.

George Dafermos emphasized the open source side of the conference, taking a hard look at the position of open source in the larger context of politics, business, and their intersections. I've been concerned for years about the requirement that open source be strictly open to all comers, and worry that my code might well end up serving purposes I vehemently oppose. While XML processing tools (my end of the programming universe) may not hurt anyone directly, I don't enjoy the prospect of them being used by governments tracking dissidents, for instance. While I'm not sure that the Greater Good Public License is the answer to this problem, it's a conversation worthy of far more discussion than it's had so far.

The next day opened with Jon Udell's keynote, Do the Simple Things (summary). Jon focused on maximizing the metadata we already provide, in things like HTML titles and URL structures. It was kind of a change from the on-the-edge work that seemed to fill much of the conference, but it makes good sense to make the things we already have convey as much information as possible.

The last session I managed to see before the seven-hour drive home came from a presenter who lives about five miles from my home, Chris Wilper of Cornell's Digital Library project. Although technical problems kept him from showing his slides, he explained how the Fedora project is dealing with the (seemingly infinite) challenge of archiving the changeable information that appears on the Web, as well as the role of Web Services in that process. Fedora's work is content management of a different sort, a good reminder that publishing information is just one aspect of content management.

I've only captured a tiny amount of the ferment at OSCOM here, and there was undoubtedly much more in the tracks and sessions I didn't get to, not to mention the conversations in the hallways and bars. Even the pieces that seemed least immediately applicable continue to echo in my head, a good sign that the conference did what I always hope for in a show: it made me think.