Chicago ’05 ended a couple of weeks ago. This was the sixth Machine Learning Summer School, and the second one that used a wiki. (The first was Berder ’04, thanks to Gunnar Raetsch.) Wikis are relatively easy to set up, greatly aid social interaction, and should be used a lot more at summer schools and workshops. They can even be used as the meeting’s webpage, as a permanent record of its participants’ collaborations — see for example the wiki/website for last year’s NVO Summer School.
A basic wiki is a collection of editable webpages, maintained by software called a wiki engine. The engine used at both Berder and Chicago was TikiWiki — it is well documented and gets you something running fast. It uses PHP and MySQL, but doesn’t require you to know either. Tikiwiki has far more features than most wikis, as it is really a full Content Management System. (My thanks to Sebastian Stark for pointing this out.) Here are the features we found most useful:
- Bulletin boards, or forums. The most-used one was the one for social events, which allowed participants to find company for doing stuff without requiring organizer assistance. While conferences, by their inherently less interactive nature, don’t usually benefit from all aspects of wikis, this is one feature worth adding to every one. [Example]
Other useful forums to set up are “Lost and Found”, and discussion lists for lectures — although the latter only work if the lecturer is willing to actively answer questions arising on the forum. You can set forums up so that all posts to them are immediately emailed to someone.
- Editable pages. For example, we set up pages for each lecture that we were able to edit easily later as more information (e.g. slides) became available. Lecturers who wanted to modify their pages could do so without requiring organizer help or permission. (Not that most of them actually took advantage of this in practice… but this will happen in time, as the wiki meme infects academia.) [Example]
- Sign-up sheets. Some tutorials or events were only open to a limited number of people. Having editable pages means that people can sign up themselves. [Example]
- FAQs. You can set up general categories, and add questions, and place the same question in different categories. We set most of this up before the summer school, with directions of how to get there from the airport, what to bring, etc. We also had volunteers post answers to anticipated FAQs like the location of local restaurants and blues clubs. [Example]
- Menus. You can set up the overall layout of the webpage, by specifying the locations and contents menus on the left and right of a central `front page’. This is done via the use of `modules’, and makes it possible for your wiki pages to completely replace the webpages — if you are willing to make some aesthetic sacrifices.
- Different levels of users: The utopian wiki model of having ‘all pages editable by everyone’ is … well, utopian. You can set up different groups of users with different permissions.
- Calendars. Useful for scheduling, and for changes to schedules. (With the number of changes we had, we really needed this.) You can have multiple calendars e.g. one for lectures, another for practical sessions, and another for social events — and users can overlay them on each other. [Example]
A couple of other TikiWiki features that we didn’t get working at Chicago, but would have been nice to have, are these:
- Image Galleries. Gunnar got this working at Berder, where it was a huge success. Photographs are great icebreakers, even the ones that don’t involve dancing on tables.
- Surveys. These are easy to set up, and have option for participants to see, or not to see, the results of surveys — useful when asking people to rate lectures.
TikiWiki also has several features that we didn’t use, such as blogs and RSS feeds. It also has a couple of bugs (and features that are bad enough to be called bugs), such as permission issues and the inability to print calendars neatly. These will doubtless get cleaned up in due course.
Finally, owing to much prodding from John and some other MLSS participants, I’ve written up my experiences in using TikiWiki @ Chicago ’05 on my website, including installation instructions and a list of “Good Things to Do”. This documentation is meant to be a survival guide complementary to the existing TikiWiki documentation, which can sometimes be overwhelming.