Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Atlantic > The Problem With Wikidata

Mark Graham is a Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. His work focuses on the geographies of information and the Internet

Apr 6 2012, 3:25 PM ET

Fundamental changes are afoot at Wikipedia. Changes that have worrying connotations for the diversity of knowledge in the world's sixth most popular website.

Wikipedia, with a new initiative called Wikidata, is radically reconfiguring itself to take advantage of the "Semantic Web." Wikidata will create a collaborative database that is both machine readable and human editable and which will underpin a lot of knowledge that is presented in all 284 language versions of Wikipedia.

In other words, the encyclopaedia plans to become part of the movement from a mostly human-readable Web to a Web in which computers and software can better make sense of information.
This system becomes especially useful for facts that are embedded in a variety of pages. If Mitt Romney were to become President of the United States, there would be hundreds or thousands of pages in all of the language versions of Wikipedia that would need to be altered to reflect that fact. Wikidata would allow all of those references to be immediately updated after only one change in the central Wikidata repository.

This is a highly significant and hugely important change to the ways that Wikipedia works. Until now, the Wikipedia community has never attempted any sort of consistency across all languages. [snip].

Research carried out independently by Brent Hecht, myself, and others has found that each language edition of Wikipedia represents encyclopaedic knowledge in highly diverse ways. Not only does each language edition include different sets of topics, but when several editions do cover the same topic, they often put their own, unique spin on the topic. In particular, the ability of each language edition to exist independently has allowed each language community to contextualize knowledge for its audience.

It is important that different communities are able to create and reproduce different truths and worldviews. And while certain truths are universal (Tokyo is described as a capital city in every language version that includes an article about Japan), others are more messy and unclear (e.g. should the population of Israel include occupied and contested territories?).

The reason that Wikidata marks such a significant moment in Wikipedia's history is the fact that it eliminates some of the scope for culturally contingent representations of places, processes, people, and events.




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