Wiki investigative activism

At the Sunlight Foundation event, several tools were using wiki and wiki-like features. Eugene Kim and I led a session on effective wiki practices. One of the people at the session was at a traditional NGO, and wants her group to be more open, potentially using wiki for distributed information gathering around their core coverage. One of the barriers to wikification is the fear of “anyone editing” and the potential impact on quality. The NGO benefits from the specialized nature of its information. There are 10,000 regular users of the database, which feels like a lot to the NGO. But with a community of 10,000 readers, one might expect to start small, and build to a group of contributors in the hundreds to low thousands, which is quite a manageable size. Also, the “watchlist” feature of larger wikis enables subcommunities of specialists to watch and protect the areas they care about most, and develop social norms to maintain quality. Another cultural barriers to wikification was that the staff considers readers — mostly journalists — as an audience, and not yet as a community. The main cultural transition is to consider the readers a participatory community, and to evolve from a private, letter to the editor model to a peer contribution model.
The barriers faced by this NGO seem common to the sector. Traditional public interest organizations see their audiences as traditional journalists and legislative staff. Their content is not-very-accessible databases and pdf reports; the websites have little about the people involved in the organization; the membership, when their is one, is seen as a source of credit cards and petition signers, but not organizers and active participants. NGOs need some new cultural concepts to take advantage of the new tools.
There were some interesting wiki ventures at the event, and new in the world. CongressPedia was at the event. One of the strengths of that model is the ability to build a persistent and easily google-able reference source. Another Sunlight-funded tool, Open Congress, is aggregating bill and blog data to provide more visibility into the bill-making process. The foks building the tool plan to add a “wiki” feature for collaboration. Not sure how that would work, that seems like an invitation to edit wars and disinformation because of the frequently competitive nature of the legislative process.
I’m most excited about the potential of the Adopt a Committee project of the Daily Kos community. This is starting with a community of likeminded folk to grow and protect the information; enables distributed information gathering and group memory for a large number of people with mixed amounts of time; and seems like a great way to shed light on the committee process where bills take shape. Perhaps the role models for successful use of read/write web tools will be new groups that aren’t burdened by traditional top-down-media orientation. If the dot com revolution is a model, startup organizations will pioneer new techniques, which will eventually get rolled into the ordinary way of doing business.

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