Michel Biezunski

Michel Biezunski, Founder of Infoloom

“The fact that there are people who can help at the local level is very powerful. I am alive because of people like that.”

Meet Michel Biezunski. Michel is the founder of Infoloom, a company that innovates in digital content, mixing automatic processes with human curation. It is the outgrowth of Michel’s leadership as the initiator and co-editor of the ISO Topic Maps standard, a member of the XML family of standards. Michel has spent the brunt of his professional life centering technology at the service of human endeavor.

What Does He Do?

After Michel took his degree in history of physics, he found himself toiling for six years (!!!) on a book on Einstein’s letters to correspondents in France. Organizing his research and accompanying ephemera demanded that he teach himself how to create macros and build databases, slowly transforming him into a technologist. Michel thinks of his attendance at an SGML conference in 1991 as “the day that changed my life.” There he met Charles Goldfarb, the founder of SGML, who was then working on “HyTime” — or, Hypermedia /Time-Dependent Structured Language — and was using concepts that seemed close to the space-time concepts in physics.

Since then, Michel has focused on “topic maps” – which he defines as “a graph database – without hierarchy. Everything can be connected to everything else. The architecture is open and flexible and does not require the information to be ready for it. It can graph whatever you want – including metadata, keywords, captions, and headers.” Today, Michel’s company Infoloom helps companies manage knowledge by pointing to various information sources to make them better organized and easier more useful.

How Did He Come To His Work?

Michel’s decades of activism and work on privacy are deeply rooted in his family history. Both of Michel’s parents were Holocaust survivors. His mother escaped because — as the Gestapo was about to round up her family — someone from City Hall came by bike to warn them. “The fact that there are people who can help at the local level is very powerful. I am alive because of people like that.” Michel’s father, too, avoided detection because his family realized that counterfeiting their papers might save their lives. Out of his experience he taught Michel, “never trust the authorities just because they say so.”

During 2000, Michel attended a spate of meetings and workshops in DC to help link up the CIA, FBI, and DoD. Although he was not in support of the Bush Administration, at the time he was persuaded to work on interoperability because of the 9/11 attacks. “I discovered that there were some very well-guarded silos like census data – and learned that this was good.” During the Obama presidency, Michel recalls that there was a global feeling that it was OK to trust government. “Now it’s not OK anymore. Society is not prepared for this kind of challenge; it’s going to be a huge undertaking to change people’s minds.” Perhaps thinking of Kris Kobach-led Presidential Election Commission, he now holds, “Everything you do on a computer is jeopardized. It would be interesting to process information, distinguishing between data which can be shared and destroying that which is sensitive, keeping only what’s necessary for operation.”

What Projects Is He Working On?

In the last years of her life, Michel’s mother painstakingly documented how her family’s assets were looted by the Nazi’s. “She showed how the racist laws — and the application of these laws one day after they were announced – were not done by people who were uneducated, but those who knew the laws and applied them in a very professional way.” Michel built this website (available only in French, alas) as a tribute, and to keep this knowledge alive.

Infoloom is in the midst of a three-year project on behalf of NYU Libraries, creating the infrastructure for Networked Monographs: “This project is the most recent iteration of ongoing work on topic mapping. We are now hoping to deploy the open-source software we’ve created for NYU in other environments. Our technology can be used as a cooperative way to create and share well-curated knowledge across groups, organizations, companies or governments.”

How Did He Come to Civic Hall?

Aaron Swartz brought Michel to Civic Hall. Michel recalls having first met him when he was barely a teenager and was still the smartest mind in the room – in a room that included Sir Tim Berners-Lee. This connection took him to PDF three years ago and every year since. Following this year’s conference Michel joined Civic Hall reasoning that, “in this troubled political period, it’s important to join forces with people who share a vision for the future.” Joining him is Infoloom’s Chief Technologist Matt Nishi-Broach, a full-stack web developer, artist, and multimedia designer who has worked with such varied clients as Bruno Mars and Glenn Ligon.

What is His Ask of the Community?

At a recent “What’s Your Work” Michel showed off a project leveraging data from this year’s PDF conference, in service of making speaker information more useful. It can be accessed with user=guest and password=infoloom. Michel has also placed Civic Hall’s “resistance spreadsheet” on another server, in the hopes of making the work of the group #what-do-we-do-now even more impactful.

Michel is keen on collaborating with the community and hopes to shortly propose a weekly or bi-monthly Meetup to share his topic curation toolkit. He is amenable to setting up new servers dedicated to working groups who might wish to use it for their own purpose, and is open to offering free support as long as Infoloom is in testing mode, in exchange for UI feedback.