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July 19 2011

19:15

Wikipedia Taps College 'Ambassadors' to Broaden Editor Base

From what I can tell, most of my fellow educators spend more time criticizing Wikipedia than engaging with it.

The conversation tends to go round in a fairly tiresome circle: The first educator points to an article on the subject of his/her expertise and points to a glaring error to demonstrate that the whole enterprise is worthless. The interlocutor responds with a (highly debated) study to argue that "Wikipedia is more accurate than Encyclopedia Britannica."

wikipediachart.jpg

But neither side comes to terms with the real Wikipedia revolution: It represents a restructuring of the architecture of knowledge. In the decade since its founding, the crowdsourced platform has grown exponentially, radically improved its content, and established a firm foothold in the online environment, now ranking as the fifth most-visited site in the world. The entire enterprise is based on Wikipedia's utopian vision, as spelled out on the back of the staff business cards: "Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge."

Campus Ambassadors

That said, many observers -- starting with the Wikimedia Foundation itself -- realize that this vision is far from realized. This has led the foundation to launch a series of initiatives designed to improve the infrastructure and broaden participation. One of the most intriguing developments is the Public Policy Initiative and its corps of campus ambassadors.

The challenges are formidable. Let's leave aside, for the moment, the two-thirds of the world's population that has yet to gain access to the Internet. The creation of Wikipedia content has striking limitations, even among the 400 million users who visit the site every month. According to Wikipedia's own estimates, only 0.02-0.03 percent of visitors actively contribute to articles.

And although technically, content can be created by anyone with an online account, the pattern of participation is admittedly skewed. According to Barry Newstead, the foundation's chief global development officer, "Eighty percent of our page views are from the Global North, and 83 percent of our edits." The English language Wikipedia's content and participation far outstrip those for its 270 other languages, especially non-Western. Of the active contributors, between 80 and 85 percent are male, and half are under 22. Furthermore, participation has plateaued (and even declined) over the last few years, settling in at somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 active editors per month in all languages.

What are the obstacles to growth? First of all, "Wikipedian" culture is known for its contentious behavior, especially toward newcomers who haven't mastered the arcane style and coding. One result is that the content has become skewed toward geek topics, featuring state-of-the-art articles on technology, science fiction and military history, with more erratic offerings in the humanities and social sciences.

straightening a skewed pattern of participation

wikimediafoundationlogo.png

In early July, the Wikimedia Foundation renewed its efforts to improve the balance by holding its first Higher Education Summit as part of the Public Policy Initiative. According to the foundation leadership, the goals of the year-old project are to:

• bring in more quality content in underserved fields, starting with public policy;
• narrow the gender gap by recruiting increased female participation;

• improve diversity of contributors, and

• make the initiation process more user-friendly.

Backed by a new strategic plan and a $1.2 million grant from the Stanton Foundation, the Wikipedia Public Policy Initiative was born. The foundation decided that the natural focal point for the effort was academia. Colleges and universities were, after all, the traditional centers of learning -- and it made sense to look to students who were researching and writing papers as potential contributors of content.

Mentoring Professors and Students

The missing link was the Wikipedia knowledge. This was addressed by the creation of a cohort of Wikipedia "ambassadors" to coach and mentor professors and students through the wickets. Fifty-four campus ambassadors were selected over 2010-2011, charged with offering on-site support in classroom and personal tutorial settings.

These were often students with an extensive (and successful) record of creating and editing Wikipedia content. In other cases, they were university librarians, tech support, and other staff who took on the challenge as part of their classroom support services. (At the summit, Sue Gardner, director of the Wikimedia Foundation, proudly pointed out that almost half of the campus ambassadors are female.) The campus ambassadors were complemented by 91 online ambassadors, experienced Wikipedians who offer support to students in any school.

The United States was divided into 10 regions, each assigned a regional ambassador. Professors from 24 colleges and universities signed up as inaugural Wikipedia Teaching Fellows to participate. In return, the professors made a commitment to assigning Wikipedia content creation as part of their course requirements, and to stage the assignments over the course of the semester, to allow for an editorial learning curve.

By coincidence, I had created an unwitting control group for this effort. Last fall I assigned my Media & Society class at Bard College to write or edit a Wikipedia entry, unaware that there was a Wikimedia program for classroom support. I had a few Wikipedia edits under my belt, but I was unprepared for my students' struggles with Wikipedia policies on issues such as notability, verifiability and sourcing. These policies are highly specific, not always intuitive, and don't necessarily mirror academic practice.

My international students writing on foreign subjects had far more trouble than my U.S. students in publishing their articles, even if they were of comparable quality (partly, I believe, because it's harder to provide approved citations for local information about countries such as Afghanistan and Burma). I was also remiss in not directing my students toward the sandbox to develop their articles before posting them -- leading to some swift and merciless deletions.

For many of us, the Higher Education Summit was a welcome opportunity to meet campus and online ambassadors and to hear how fellow professors worked with the project in the classroom. I was surprised to learn that while some of the professors were experienced Wikipedians, many of them had little editing experience with the platform. This was not regarded as a problem. The program was structured to task the ambassadors with Wikipedia skills, allowing professors to focus on shaping syllabi and course content. (The summit's invitees included professors of law, anthropology, political science, and literature.)

More User-Friendly Editing

whats hot public policy.jpg

At the same time, there are many signs that the Wikimedia Foundation is eager to make the editing process more user-friendly. It has been conducting usability studies to see where the bumps are. Wikipedia has been expanding its live help and a rich trove of learning materials for newbies. These resources are scattered across the Wikipedia terrain and not easy to locate, but the foundation is taking active steps to both build out and codify the materials. It's also sponsoring some friendly competition with a leaderboard to monitor which classes are posting the most contributions over the semester, as well as a "What's Hot" list of most edited articles by students.

The Wikimedia Foundation states that over the next five years it hopes to increase the number of readers to a billion, and the percentage of editors in the Global South to 37 percent. The international initiative is starting with Brazil, India and the Middle East/North Africa, which have already begun to receive advance guards of campus and online ambassadors. (The summit included academics from Brazil, India, Germany, the U.K. and Canada, as well as the U.S.)

The Wikimedia Foundation's Newstead told the summit attendees that the organization is still struggling with the challenge of adapting to mobile platforms, the bridgehead for online media in much of the world. "At this point you can't edit on mobile; it's read-only," he reported. "Most people who move to mobile stop surfing the web. They just surf apps."

Whatever the challenges, the Wikipedia ambassadors are recruiting a new generation of professors and students to carry the vision forward. There are all kinds of creative challenges to adapting classroom assignments to the mission. Students like publishing their classwork online, but express frustration at team members who don't pull their weight. Professors enjoy the classroom enthusiasm, but struggle with the mechanics of grading collaborative writing projects and articles that are edited by a broader community. Nonetheless, there's every indication that the Wikimedia Foundation's experiment in higher education will take Wikipedia to another stage of its wildly unpredictable ride.

Anne Nelson is an educator, consultant and author in the field of international media strategy. She created and teaches New Media and Development Communications at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). She consults on media, education and philanthropy for Anthony Knerr & Associates. Her most recent book is Red Orchestra. She tweets as @anelsona, was a 2005 Guggenheim Fellow, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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April 04 2011

13:30

LocalWiki Codes, Talks, Searches for Pilot Community

Here's a summary of what we've been up to for the past month or so at LocalWiki: coding, coding, coding, coding, talking, coding, talking, talking, coding, coding, coding. Occasionally we take breaks for sleep and nutritional intake purposes. Want more detail? Read on!


Code, code, code, code & milestone


We've been hard at work on the software side of the project. In the past month, we've:

  • begun serious work on our collaborative mapping system;
  • made the basic functions of our page editor work better;
  • and come up with a way to allow for plug-ins and dynamic content inside pages.

We're aiming to have something that our first pilot community can use to begin building content by May 1. It won't be pretty or complete. Our goal is to allow our first pilot to start experimenting and providing feedback while using the software to start building something great in their community. This milestone will also be a good point for interested developers to jump in, as we'll have something a little more polished and cohesive than we do now.


Talk, talk, talk


This month, we had a panel at the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, titled "Too Small, Too Open: Correcting Wikipedia's Local Failure." It went really well, despite being at 9:30 am on a Saturday! I was joined by Phoebe Ayers of the Wikimedia Foundation and Michael Trice of the University of Leeds Centre for Digital Citizenship.

In February, we were part of a roundtable at the Aspen Institute in Washington, DC, to discuss the unveiling of a paper they wrote with the Knight Foundation about local community information hubs. Their report praises the model we are developing. "Davis Wiki site offers almost everything the authors of the Informing Communities report hoped for when they drew up the seven key ingredients for any local online hub," the authors wrote.

A few weeks before that, we gave a talk at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism's Knight Digital Media Center on the Davis Wiki and a bit about our work on the LocalWiki project.


Choosing our first pilot community


Assuming all goes according to plan, we'll choose our first pilot community to work with in six weeks. But we need your help. We're looking for some particular characteristics for our first pilot community:

  • willingness to work with incomplete software;
  • ability to work fairly autonomously, at least at first;
  • preferably, a community where the media landscape is not already crowded;
  • patience and commitment -- it will take time and effort;
  • and enthusiasm, curiosity and wonder!

Know of some great people in a place that fits what we're looking for? If so, please recommend a pilot community. We'll be in contact with potential candidates for our first pilot in five weeks or so. Expect an Idea Lab update around that time.

March 16 2010

11:56

ReadWriteWeb: Wikipedia as a breaking news source

From the ‘process journalism’ session at the SXSW Interactive event in Texas comes a discussion about Wikipedia as a news source. ReadWriteWeb reports:

Just like other news aggregation services, Wikipedia takes many sources and puts them in to a central location, but with the added benefit of human curation instead of algorithmic collection.

“There’s no real-time reporting going on in Wikipedia, it’s real-time aggregation,” Pantages [Moka Pantages, WikiMedia communications officer] said.

So the very first level of information vetting, which happens at the reporting level, has already taken place by the time it reaches the site. Then the hundreds or thousands of editors continue to scrutinize the information, discussing edits and potential changes in the back channels. The news we read in our daily newspapers, on the other hand, is curated by only a small number of people. Surely, there is the question of qualification, but many of Wikipedia’s contributors and editors are, themselves, professionals.

Full post at this link…

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February 05 2010

12:00

Moving on After the Knight News Challenge

In 2008, the Open Media Foundation (then Deproduction) received a $380,000 Knight News Challenge award, and it was a major turning-point for our organization. We added staff, formed new partnerships, and maintained a level of growth that had us approximately double in size each year over our first five years after forming in 2004.

The Open Media Project grant is for a four-part effort that began with a re-building of the software we developed to automate an unprecedented approach to user-generated and community-powered TV. The second phase saw our team implement this re-built Drupal software and business model in six additional public access stations across the country. Third, we took the lessons learned from the beta-test implementations and released an installation profile that incorporates the contributions and lessons learned in the seven beta-test sites.

The fourth and final phase has our team focused on content-sharing among these stations, enabling us to cooperate as a true network by sharing the top-voted content from each station, and building a collection of truly engaging content unlike anything else you can find on TV. As we tackle this fourth phase, we are also facing the challenge of sustaining this project (and our team) without ongoing support from the Knight Foundation.

Earned Income

From the beginning, we anticipated that the long-term sustainability of the Open Media Foundation would be based primarily on earned income. We hoped the success of the Open Media Project would generate a strong demand from public access TV stations and other organizations looking for support in implementing a similar model. This approach enabled Denver Open Media to thrive even without the general operating support most public access TV stations enjoy from their local government or cable operators.

Our first such client arose in San Francisco after the city drastically cut operating support for public access and then selected the Bay Area Video Coalition to launch their new public access TV stations, SF Commons. We have found a great partner in BAVC. They are now poised to set a new standard for participatory, community media, and are committed to be a part of an open source movement that has each of us benefiting from the investments of the others. The earned income from this project (and others to follow) will hopefully help our team sustain its success and continue to build upon the expertise we've gained over the past five years.

Cooperation and Partnerships

No successful open source project can be carried by a single organization. The Drupal modules we've developed have been downloaded by over 100 organizations, ranging from public access TV to community colleges. Several of these partners have contributed back to the software in ways that are benefiting the entire community. But this hasn't come about easily.

Over the past decade, many public access TV stations have developed open source software, but few projects are built in a way that enables the software to be truly useful in other environments. Our initial foray into Open Media Project tools included myopic code and assumptions that made the software more difficult to leverage in than if we'd started from scratch.

Developing the code in a manner that makes it useful in diverse environments involves a sacrifice that few organizations have been willing or able to make. It requires investing resources in development that we hope will pay off in the future when partners use and contribute back to the code.

Early partners made the same mistake as us, investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into code that is practically useless in any setting other than their own. The Knight News Challenge award enabled us to take the time to better collaborate with the Drupal
community, host code sprints, attend conferences, and, ultimately, back-track and re-design a more extensible code base.

With our grant period soon coming to an end, we have a number of partners poised to take the reigns and collectively help ensure the continued growth of the project. Davis Media Access in California has devoted significant time to improving the code and is a clear success story. Their work has, among other things, extended the OMP code to integrate with a new broadcast server.

Our growing relationship with Tightrope Media Systems, and their recent commitment

to open source software
, can largely be credited to the efforts of Darrick Servis and Davis Media Access. Other successes and failures of the beta test process are equally valuable. Ongoing cooperation with Boston Neighborhood Network, Channel Austin and others will continue to yield benefits to the project.

We're most excited about our newest partner: the Bay Area Video Coalition. They bring a commitment to open source collaboration that we've not yet seen in previous partners. Everything about their SF Commons effort gives us confidence that they will set a new example for the next generation of networked, user-driven public access TV. Though their operating support is meager, they have strong, visionary leadership in Ken Ikeda and Jen Gilomen. They also stand to benefit from their close proximity to organizations like Archive.org, Creative Commons, and the Wikimedia Foundation, all of whom inspired our software and business model from the beginning.

Even if the Open Media Foundation were to shut our doors, I'm confident that organizations like BAVC would keep the project alive and growing... of course, we're working on making sure that isn't the case.

Expanding the Open Media Project

While earned income has the potential to maintain the level of activity we've enjoyed here for the past two years, our true vision of building an entirely new kind of participatory media network is going to require a significant ramp-up of the project. The Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program funding available through the stimulus plan represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do just that.

We partnered with Free Speech TV, the Alliance for Community Media, and 20 other public access TV stations across the country to apply for $2.2 million to expand the Open Media Project. The proposal addresses the many lessons learned from our Knight-funded beta test, and proposes a more self-contained and supported solution that can transform a wide range of public access TV stations into gateways for broadband adoption for disconnected communities.

Statistics show that the primary factor preventing individuals from using broadband is not a lack of infrastructure, but the perception that the Internet is not relevant to their life. Our partner stations will encourage and support these communities by conveying the relevance of broadband access from the perspective of those communities. Together with Free Speech TV, we will collect the best of this content and provide national exposure to perspectives on broadband's relevance that simply haven't been seen before.

In case our first round application doesn't receive funding, we've invested heavily in planning an application in response to the second BTOP opportunity for funding. I encourage other Knight News Challenge grant recipients (and rejectees) to read the Notice of Funds Availability and investigate if their Knight News Challenge project would be a candidate for BTOP funding.

Regardless of future grants and funding, we are optimistic about the future of the project. We've had our share of pitfalls, but that's to be expected when you're pioneering new territory. The Knight News Challenge experience has opened doors and helped our organization grow in a way that will forever alter our work. If we can sustain the project beyond our KNC award, we'll be part of an entirely new kind of non-commercial media system, serving interests and engaging communities that are left out of the commercial media conversation.

Every change begins with a new conversation.

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