Tom Magliery, JustSystems, Inc.

The city of Prague is about 100 times older than DITA, and served as a beautiful backdrop for the CMS DITA Europe 2011 conference. The weather was a bit on the cold side, but on the other hand, that meant that the city and its amazing attractions were not as crowded as they might have been in the summertime.

While writing this report I tried hard to identify a dominant theme to talk about from the conference, but eventually I had to give up. I don’t think there was a dominant theme, but rather numerous threads, all intertwined and interrelated. I’ve given a few of these threads names of my own; you might not find these on the conference website!

One of the most satisfying threads for me was “novel uses”. DITA has been deep in the tech-docs trenches for 7 to 11 years—depending on how you count—but in Prague we saw several presentations showing how it can be used for a much wider variety of content. Chris Kravogel’s talk on Structured Product Labeling (pharmaceutical industry) served really well to show the flexibility of DITA. We also saw multiple talks about ways to bring together DITA and social media, an idea that we are probably going to be hearing even more often in the coming months.

Another common thread was “best practices”. Tom Smith and Chris Hadley talked about a “product content maturity model” and gave ideas for how to use DITA effectively in the context of such a model. Marie-Louise Flacke admonished us to be careful with our graphical admonishments. Sophie McMonagle showed lessons learned from one IBM group’s move of a massive project from conrefs to keyrefs. And Joe Gollner’s Kafkaesque presentation on Content Scenarios gave us a framework from which we can work to manage successful DITA projects.

But I’ve saved my favorite, and maybe the geekiest, thread for last: “DITA analytics”. Frank Shipley and George Bina gave separate, fascinating talks about techniques for visualizing the contents of a DITA document hierarchy. This thread is closely related to “best practices”, because these techniques are a means for obtaining information that can help you refine and redesign your content.

I think these two talks have only scratched the surface of what we can possibly learn about the way we write through clever application of analytical methods. As the use of DITA in the world grows, it will be interesting to see analyses of real-life DITA in use for diverse purposes. What similarities and differences will emerge when we compare linking statistics from the pharmaceutical industry to those from software documentation? What can documentation teams in different industries learn by taking high-level looks at each others’ content? I can imagine even the DITA standard itself evolving as a result of this kind of research. It’s cool to think about!

As usual with conferences, I wished I could have seen more of the speakers. There were a few times that I wished I could attend both of the talks that were taking place at the same time. I am sure there were other threads that I’ve completely overlooked through inevitable ignorance, but there is always the post-conference website.

I can’t sign off without thanking the folks behind the scenes for putting everything together so well. Thanks to the entire team at Comtech for your hard work. I’d also like to call out the Prague Marriott Hotel for fantastic catering during the conference. Every snack and lunch time was replete with a surprisingly wide—and always new—variety of tasty treats to keep our energy levels up for the sessions. Thanks all, and I’m looking forward to seeing you at the next show!

About the Author
Tom Magliery is a Technical Services engineer at JustSystems Canada, Inc. He has been a member of the XMetaL team since 2002, an XML junkie since before XML existed, and is the world’s leading authority on the number 37.