Conferences can be useful for bringing a group of 'interesting' individuals together in one place for a few days, and giving them time and space to focus on a particular set of issues without the usual distractions of the working day. Blackberries, iPhones, and free venue wi-fi make the distractions a lot less removed than previously, but the conference remains a useful forum nevertheless.
However, many of the most useful elements - the people, the papers, the discussion - remain rigidly fixed in their silos and difficult to carry forward into our lives post-event. The pile of business cards wait, dustily, to be entered into address books or looked up on LinkedIn. The published papers languish on a CD in the bottom of a drawer, accumulate yet more dust as the printed tome that you misguidedly ditched child-appeasing schwag in order to create suitcase room to bring home, or hide away on some conference web site with yet another forgettable username and password. The most interesting sessions were circled on the paper programme, which you left in your hotel room to make room for those Google ice cubes you just know will go down well at home, and the chance encounters, bar room meetings of minds, and random eureka moments compete with jet lag and a groaning inbox upon your return home, doubtless consigned to be forgotten all too soon.
And with washing washed, ironing ironed, and children tested to see if they remember you, you head for the airport to repeat the exercise once more... doubtless having failed to spot or act upon any relationships between one event and the next.
In our recorded conversation, we were talking about some work that Zepheira have been involved with to enhance the conference experience of delegates at one event in May. Demonstrating Sir Tim Berners-Lee's assertion that the main building blocks for the Semantic Web really are in place, the Zepheira project uses a range of Open Source components and Semantic Web specifications to assemble a conference experience intended to be more personal, more interactive, and more lasting. By exposing information from the conference systems, opportunities are also created to share with vertical applications such as Dopplr and LinkedIn, or even with other (competing?) events. None of these have to buy a proprietary system, or implement odd proprietary formats. All they have to do is conform to widely recognised Semantic Web specifications, and some already do this to a degree.
Despite the hype, not everything about the Semantic Web has to be paradigm shifting and revolutionary. Many of the benefits will simply come as existing systems become a little more open, and as existing data moves a little more freely and a little more purposefully. The vision Eric paints in our conversation is a perfect example.
As for whether it works or not... well, I'll tell you in May. After the conference. If I don't leave my notes in the hotel in order to squeeze some great piece of conference schwag into my bag.