Here's my first thought: Why not try something easier, like capping that underwater oil gusher or getting everyone to like Tiger Woods again.
Instead, the good folks at Wikipedia, backed by $1.2 million from The Stanton Foundation, are looking to develop innovative methods of increasing the accuracy -- and thereby public trust -- of Wikipedia articles dealing with public policy; in other words, the most contentious and bitterly disputed matters this side of religion. It is the first time Wikipedia has singled out a specific subject area for this type of intensive self-improvement effort.
From the press release:
Wikipedia is written by hundreds of thousands of volunteers from around the world, and that won't change with this project. The Wikipedia Public Policy Initiative will recruit Wikipedia volunteers to work with public policy professors and students to identify topic areas for improvement, and work to make them better. Some of that work will take the form of classroom assignments, and pilot activities will begin during the 2010 fall academic semester. The project will continue through summer 2011.
"I am excited to begin this work," said Frank Schulenburg, Head of Public Outreach at the Wikimedia Foundation. "There have already been professors around the world who assign their students to rewrite and improve Wikipedia articles: it's a proven model, and it benefits everyone. My hope is that this project will enable us to experiment and document best practices, so that academics and educational institutions worldwide can partner with us in helping Wikipedia to continually improve in quality and content."
Of course, the trick is determining what's accurate and what's not. Here's the page outlining what Wikipedia today tucks under the umbrella of "public policy." One doesn't need to dip too deep into the alphabetical list to find roiling cauldrons of controversy, beginning with climate change, drug laws and foreign policy.
Schulenburg offers a bit more detail on the Wikimedia blog:
Wikimedia is now planning for and hiring the project team for the initiative, which will kick off in the fall academic semester 2010 (keep an eye on our jobs page for the postings). We will be working with some of the most esteemed educational institutions and public policy schools in the United States. We'll continue to share updates and information on the Wikimedia Foundation blog, and you can also track our progress and plans on the Wikimedia Outreach wiki.
Here are the jobs currently listed: Campus team coordinator; communications associate, online facilitator; research analyst; and project assistant.
The project and the jobs are scheduled to run from June through September, 2011.
(Update: I'm somewhat surprised that this announcement from Wikipedia hasn't gotten much press attention, given that it speaks directly to one of the most consistent criticisms leveled at the online encyclopedia. Meanwhile, the "Wikipedia porn purge" has gotten all kinds of coverage. No surprise there.)
(Update 2: Jay Walsh, Wikipedia's head of communications, answers a few of my questions via e-mail:
Why was this subject area chosen?
Primarily because covering these areas on Wikipedia is challenging, and would benefit from a range of expertise. We already have thousands of active volunteers working on this subject area, and the goal is to both increase the content and quality of coverage of public policy throughout Wikipedia. Academics and students of public policy are also very focused on the complexity of these issues and similarly invested in the interdisciplinary aspects of talking about public policy, that makes them a good fit.
What also matters a great deal to the Foundation, and to our funders at the Stanton Foundation, is the important role public policy has on citizens, particularly the importance of having high-quality, current, and neutral/factual information about public policy. Wikipedia is one of the most-read works in history on a variety of topics, and with millions of users getting information about public policy from Wikipedia, it's a logical and important area for us to explore.
In the long term we hope to take our learnings from this project and share them with other subject areas - and share them internationally so our affiliates and chapters can undertake similar initiative with other subject areas with other academic institutions.
In addition to the classroom projects described in the press release, what other types of experiments do you foresee?
Other experiments on campus might include encouraging students to add more free, rich media to our projects: photographs, video and sound, schematics, maps and diagrams. All of those, alongside the core text, are critical to improve Wikipedia as an educational resource.
Are professors and/or others going to be paid salaries or stipends to participate in these improvement projects?
Not at all - all of the participation is still 100% volunteer in nature.
Given the level of contentiousness over public-policy issues, especially on the Internet, what makes you think this might work?
We know from speaking with academics and experts that Wikipedia is a recognized source of information in these areas, both for students and for the general public. Faculty and experts we've reached out to appreciate that Wikipedia is an open project, and also that it has a complex culture. They are encouraged by the transparency and openness, and they want to guide their students to become participants in the project.
At Wikipedia there is always a recognition that consensus and agreement about complex issues is really hard to achieve. That's normal and part of the culture with Wikipedia. We recognize this is also an experiment, so we haven't yet proven that it will work, but considering the enthusiasm from academia and the general recognition by students and academics about the importance of Wikipedia, we think a successful collaboration is in the works.)
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