Editor’s note: Story has been updated to correct the measurement of terabytes to kilobytes.
In 2011, Washington, D.C., was awarded a bid to host Wikimania, a gathering of thousands of Wikipedia enthusiasts from upward of 80 countries. Hosting the conference was an honor and a launching pad to form an organization around the effort, according to James Hare.
The organization became Wikimedia D.C., and Hare now serves as president of the board of directors. Wikipedia serves as a crowdsourced digital encyclopedia seeking to improve access to the world’s knowledge. And Wikimedia chapters, scattered around the globe, support this mission by holding events that fill in gaps in Wikipedia entries and foster greater involvement in the Wikipedia community overall.
“There’s a worldwide network of chapters that are based on geographic regions,” Hare said. “The first one was in Germany and then many others have followed. We’re part of this.”
D.C. has long had informal Wikipedia meet-up groups that took on some of this activity. Over the past few years, though, Wikimedia D.C. has become more structured and focused. Being in the nation’s capital also puts the group in a unique position. Its size and budget aren’t any more substantial than other chapters, but because so many federal institutions, educational bodies and government-centered buildings are based here, there’s an opportunity to work with them.
“The logic is, ‘If you’re an institution, you have records of importance sitting there. You can make it available to a whole new audience by working with Wikimedia,’” he said.
Specifically, Wikimedia D.C. has collaborated with a number of Smithsonian museums to bolster their Wikipedia presences, with the National Archives to upload 125,000 digital files and with the Cato Institute to improve the quality and coverage of information about congressional bills on Wikipedia.
The scanning drives — in conjunction with the National Archives and its digital content specialist — involved getting access to records and other rare materials that had not previously been online. Participants scanned these materials and made them available on Wikipedia Commons.
“There was a huge collection of pictures from the archives,” Hare said, “that people would not be looking at otherwise.”
In the case of Smithsonian institutions, Wikimedia D.C. has been holding what are known as edit-a-thons at participating museums such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of American Art as well as the Freer and Sackler Galleries.
The museum “organizes the knowledge expertise and hosts us,” Hare said. “They’ll assemble a collection of sources — books and articles about items in their section — and we reach out to the community and invite people to come go through that material (and post it to Wikipedia pages).”
Museum staff members are the ones who prioritize which pieces of art, artists or time periods around which to focus the edit-a-thon. Then, the volunteers come together to upgrade and update existing Wikipedia posts or create new ones to showcase this material.
Who comes has been a major factor in the success of the edit-a-thons. A regular crew of almost 10 dedicated Wikipedia editors tend to show up, and they bring extensive experience with the Wikipedia platform and editing process. The participating museum usually takes the opportunity to invite staff and other individuals involved with the museum. And Andrew Lih, a professor at American University, is teaching a course centered on Wikipedia edit-a-thons, so the class is often in attendance.
Hare said, on average 20,000 to 30,000 new kilobytes of information are added to Wikipedia during a given edit-a-thon event. This equates to the creation of two to five new articles, and about seven existing articles that were improved.
“On the scale of Wikipedia, as a whole, not a lot gets done, but it’s an afternoon of work,” Hare said. “Without the help of these events institutions’ Wikipedia entries would not be improved otherwise….And another angle is that each time is an opportunity for these museums and institutions to get to see the importance of Wikipedia.”
What is that importance?
Research shows the public is seeking out information and background on works of art much more readily on Wikipedia than on the institutions’ own websites. In fact, Hare said in some cases, a Wikipedia article receives more traffic on one article than the entirety of a museum’s website. So, it’s in everyone’s interest to make the Wikipedia presence as accurate and robust as possible.
That was certainly the mentality when Wikimedia D.C. partnered with the Cato Institute. Hare said the think tank was in the midst of an initiative to take information from the legislative process — bills proposed by Congress, in particular — and expand upon them to analyze the financial impact of each bill and figure out which budget lines would be affected. Cato planned to encode the data and display it on the Web.
“We helped incorporate this data into Wikipedia, as opposed to adding it to an obscure new website that people would have to find,” he said. “In the early days, I reviewed their work to make sure that it was compliant with Wikipedia’s editorial policy and that it was citing its sources. I saw that the articles were written in an objective manner.”
Cato has since hired specific staff to continue on with the project. The staff continues to sift through bills proposed in Congress. Next month, Wikimedia D.C. will do something similar through an open government wiki hack with the Sunlight Foundation. Volunteers will take structured data on the foundation has assembled on Congress, synchronize and post it to wikis.
“We’re not going to finish everything in a weekend,” Hare said. “But we’re hoping that the projects, rather than being a finish, will be a start.”