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Open source knowledge base

By   |  February 7, 2003

The term Open Source originated in the IT world, but the concept is making waves in other fields as well. One radical, and so far highly successful, implementation of the idea is Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia which anyone can contribute to. Wikipedia allows absolutely anyone to edit a page. If you feel the article on Cape Town could do with some improvement, you can make changes right now. No article on Knysna? Add one yourself.

While proprietary encyclopedias (such as Britannica or Grolier) rely on a limited pool of experts making substantial contributions, Wikipedia makes use of a large number of volunteers to add information as and when they can. Many articles start out as short stubs, but are soon lengthened into substantial articles. The principle is that a group of people, with diverse skillsets and points of view, can produce a better article than one expert.

The amazing thing is it seems to work! As an example, one of the more mature and well-written articles is on the Milgram experiment. The first version of the article was written in January 2001, and was reasonably written. Since then about 16 people have worked on it through 30 revisions, each time adding to the overall quality of the piece. Each article has an associated talk page, where contributors can collaborate to thrash out the details. The guidelines ensure all articles are written from a strictly neutral point of view, so even where the contributors differ markedly in opinion (see the George Bush talk page), the article is fair and of high quality.

Most people react with suspicion to the concept. There are two main concerns. First, the fact that anyone can vandalize a lovingly crafted, well-written article with a few mouse clicks. Surely vandals, fanatics and general lunatics will flood the pages with rubbish? But the success of the project is based on the strength of the community. As soon as any vandalism is noticed (and there are volunteers who pore over the recent change lists for this reason) it is removed. All old versions of the page are kept, so that it is easy to revert to the correct article again. It’s the equivalent of a wall containing a mural that is repeatedly defaced by graffiti vandals, but immediately repainted. Most vandals lose interest soon after. And repeat offenders can be banned from the site.

The other main concern is that the articles do not require a peer review process, do not need to be written by experts, and can therefore often be of poor quality. Which is true. A quick search will find numerous low quality articles, for example the article on FW De Klerk. But it’s the process that I find so exciting. Seeing articles evolve in complexity and quality before my eyes, day by day, is strangely addictive. I find myself going back regularly to see the progress on the topics I follow.

Articles are improving in quality all the time. Any time the article takes a step backwards, it is quickly reverted to its prior form. A poor article today may be a great article in a month.

Wikipedia began in January 2001, and now has over 100000 legitimate articles, more than Britannica. By the time you’ve managed to glance at the recent pages, and refresh it, more changes have been added. Overall the quality is still lower that its proprietary equivalents, but just as open source software development has the potential to develop at a much faster pace (MySQL two years ago was a toy database, now it’s a serious contender to the big boys), so Wikipedia is developing at a much faster pace than its proprietary rivals.

Wikipedia is based on the Wiki concept (from an Hawaiian word for ‘quick’). Invented by Ward Cunningham it was first implemented in Ward’s Portland Pattern Repository, a repository for software development patterns and the then new concept of extreme programming. The concept has spread quickly and it’s being used in various other projects, such as Wiktionary, a Wiki dictionary. The most advanced implementation is Wikipedia however. The software is of course all open source, and freely downloadable, as is the data. The site itself is a bit slow, suffering from its growing popularity and some problems with the software, but these are being worked on all the time in the usual open source fashion.

Wikipedia is a multi-lingual project, so although the English version is most advanced, there’s also an Afrikaans version, and hopefully soon we’ll see versions in some of the other languages.

The freedom to access quality information, the freedom to contribute to the overall body of information, and the freedom to see the process behind the production of an article, sits well with proponents of open source. Richard Stallman himself articulated the idea well before Wikipedia started. It’s a knowledge-loving academic’s dream. No more papers buried due to lack of funds or political pressures. A knowledge that goes beyond concepts of ownership, and attachment to the sanctity of your words. Your words will not belong to you, and can be changed by others when you contribute. But the satisfaction comes from contributing something that wasn’t there before, on adding to the knowledge pool for all. So what are you waiting for? Go and contribute some of your knowledge right now.


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