Interview with John McGrath of Wordnik

Today we have Wordnik’s director of product development John McGrath with with us. Wordnik is “a place for all the words, and everything known about them,” an online dictionary designed to give you both traditional and contextual definitions of words (i.e. statistics of how rare a word is, images, etc.) John is here with us today to talk more about education and technology.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to work with Wordnik.

I’ve been developing web apps since the mid-nineties and have been a software engineer at the New York Times, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and a handful of startups. In 2006 I launched Wordie.org, a niche and kind of silly social network for word lovers, and to my delight it gained a modest but devoted audience. In 2009 Wordie merged with Wordnik, and I joined Wordnik to run the combined site. It’s been a great match: Wordie was all community, with little reference material. Wordnik is an incredible reference resource, but it originally had few social features. The two fit together very well.

2. What separates Wordnik from other online dictionaries/thesauruses?

Our most unique feature is probably our corpus of real-world example sentences. We’ve collected a truly enormous database of English language text, which is updated constantly from many sources. For just about any word you can imagine we’re likely to have many real-world examples of how it’s used. In addition to that we offer traditional dictionary definitions from 5 sources, real-time examples from Twitter and Flickr, and an active community of people creating lists of words and adding their own comments and citations.

3. Can you elaborate more on why certain contextual sources were chosen over others (i.e. why Flickr instead of instead of a Google images search)?

Flickr was chosen because they have a great API that supports Creative Commons licensing–it’s important to us to respect the rights of content creators. For lexical data, we license some material, use open sources like Wiktionary and WordNet, and have on our own digitized scholarly works such as the Century Dictionary (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Century_Dictionary) and Allen’s Thesaurus (http://j.mp/dxULi0). We’re always looking for new sources of data, and decide what to include based on the quality, availability, and cost of the material.

4. What can we expect from Wordnik in the future?

We have a lot of stuff in the pipeline, including new site features, improvements to our public API (http://www.wordnik.com/developers), and SDKs for various platforms to make the API more accessible to developers. Following our blog or Twitter feeds (http://blog.wordnik.com/ and http://twitter.com/wordnik) is the best way to hear about what we’re working on.

5. Finally, outside of Wordnik, what other innovations in the educational space personally excite you?

The availability of free high-quality educational content–if you’re motivated, you can find educational material for almost anything online. Khan Academy blows me away and is perhaps the best-known example of that. As more great content becomes available, so will more tools to organize and manage it, and that excites me as much as the content itself — people need ways to find and contextualize all this raw material, to sort the wheat from the chaff. Right now a highly-motivate self-starter can learn almost anything. The next challenge is to package and sort what’s available so that it’s accessible and appealing to a larger audience.

Thanks for talking to us John! You can check out Wordnik here. For more information about changing education, see Udemy.com.