On Saturday, I once again board a plane from London to San Francisco; the first of two trips to the city in June, and my fourth (or possibly fifth?) time attending the Semantic Technology Conference.

The conference itself is in its seventh year, and now seems settled into its San Francisco home after a number of years further down the Bay in San Jose. As in previous years, the programme is rich, varied, and packed with so many parallel tracks that it can at first seem daunting for both newcomers and old hands alike. In a bid to make things a bit easier for people, we’re gathering the friendly team from the monthly Semantic Link podcast, and sticking them up on stage on Sunday evening to pick out their highlights for the week ahead. I’m sure they’ll also offer hints and tips for navigating the corridors and session rooms, and possibly even flag up the best of the secret roof-top parties.

I’ll be moderating the session on Sunday, which really means that you should hear as little from me as possible; I’m just there to make sure they behave themselves, and to get your questions answered. As I don’t get to have an opinion on Sunday, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some of my own thoughts here. So here goes…

The programme is not as scary as it looks. Nine parallel tracks? Are they mad? Five days, with up to nine different sessions to choose from at any given time, may seem a little much but it’s really not as bad as it seems. All of those sessions are flagged as being most appropriate to either a business or technical audience, and further sub-divided to let you know how experienced the audience is expected to be. So whether you’re a technologist who’s new to semantic technologies or a scarily experienced business leader you’ll find that the set of possibilities rapidly shrinks to become something more manageable. The programme is also divided amongst almost 30 tracks, covering themes like Linked Data and Web Applications. Use those to narrow your selection as well. But despite all the careful scheduling, and the dividing up of topics and audiences, you’ll still find that Li Ding, Jem Rayfield and John Musser are talking at the same time.

The people aren’t scary either. The biggest reason that I’ve always found SemTech so much better than most of the other Semantic Web-related conferences is the people who show up. It’s a wonderful mix of idealistic researchers and pragmatic business people (plus some pragmatic researchers and idealistic business people). A healthy community really does need them all if it’s to achieve anything of lasting value, and plenty of people who fall into each group can be found prowling the Hilton’s bars, ballrooms and corridors. Make a point of speaking to them. Now, personally, I’m one of the least gregarious people I know. I find it really hard to strike up conversation with a stranger, but if I can do it so can you. Queuing for that essential cup of coffee before a 7:30am session? Sitting in a ballroom before a session starts? Passing someone who looks a bit lost in a corridor? All of those are opportunities to reach out and talk to someone new. And one of them is the person who will single-handedly make your whole trip worthwhile, whether they offer you a job, invest in your startup, make the introduction to that other person you’ve been dying to meet… or just invite you along for a great dinner that evening.

The corridors are just as important as the rooms. There’s lots of great content on the programme, but don’t feel you need to spend your entire time sat listening. Make the most of the people you’ll find in the corridors, and the exhibitors with wares to show in the exhibition hall.

Remember to see the city. Conference hotels are the same the world over, and it’s very easy not to leave one — or see daylight — during an event like this. You’re going to be in one of the nicest cities in the world, so if you’ve not been before do make sure you leave time to get outside and experience at least a little bit of it.

Top three sessions. I’ll be asking the panel on Sunday to name their top three sessions, so should probably try to do the same myself. We’re not allowed to name our own, of course, but I struggled to decide on just three. I think mine will be John Musser’s Open APIs & the Semantic Web, Tyler Bell’s Facing the Big Data Challenge, and Eric Miller & Trevor Owens’ Recollection: A Linked Data Platform of America’s Memory. Each extends the idea of the Semantic Web in pragmatic yet interesting directions, each points to ways in which these ideas and technologies will deliver real value without getting in the way, and each is being delivered by knowledgeable, articulate, approachable and occasionally entertaining presenters. I should probably also declare up front that I know three of the four presenters, and count two of the four as good friends. I hope that this has not biased my recommendation. And finally I’m going to cheat a bit, and also note that the Lightning sessions late on Monday afternoon can be really good; eleven rapid-fire pitches in an hour, which demonstrate how to distill the essence of a project or product into a few slides… and give plenty of opportunity to discover things you’ll want to follow up later.

So those are my views. Come along to Imperial A at 5:30pm on Sunday, and see if you or the Linkers agree with me.

My fingers are crossed for an upgrade from those nice people at British Airways, and I look forward to seeing faces old and new once I reach San Francisco. Please do stop and say Hello. I am him.

Image © 2007, and shared online by Flickr user ‘planetlight’

Disclosure: WebMediaBrands is helping to meet the cost of this trip.