health & science

New Zealand’s own Wikipedian-at-large

If Wikipedia’s English language pages were ever to be printed as encyclopaedias, over 2500 volumes would be needed to include all the articles currently contained in the online encyclopaedia.

Pages about New Zealand topics though would be fewer than they could be and might contain out-of-date information.

New Zealand biologist and the curator of natural history at Whanganui Regional Museum, Dr Mike Dickison, wants to increase and improve the 57,465 articles on Wikipedia which relate to New Zealand.

“We’re definitely behind. You can take a medium-sized city in New Zealand and look at the same sort of coverage for similar sized city in Britain or the US and they’re years ahead of getting things on there.”

Dickison has applied for a $61,315 grant from the Wikimedia Foundation, the organisation which runs Wikipedia, to be a New Zealand Wikipedian-at-large.

If successful he plans to spend a year assisting organisations with a series of short Wikipedian-in-residence positions.

He sees Wikipedia as an ideal place to store public information.

You can take a medium-sized city in New Zealand and look at the same sort of coverage for similar sized city in Britain or the US and they’re years ahead of getting things on there.”

“If people are looking for information they start their search by searching the internet. Google now uses Wikipedia for all of those search results and usually returns Wikipedia in the first screen of information.”

Wikipedia had advantages over organisations creating bespoke online collections of their content, he said.

“You’re putting all your eggs in one basket if you do it yourself because you’re betting you will be able to maintain this website forever with the same address, it’s never going to be cut, or the power is never going to go out. You’re always going to be able to keep it updated yourself.”

In a presentation at the National Digital Forum in 2016, Dickison said some of New Zealand’s previous attempts at creating digital information projects were “slow to start, slow to change direction, slow to update, require constant infusions of money and staff, but in the end seem doomed to wither away or become zombies”.

One example he gave was the New Zealand organism register which aimed to list all the species in New Zealand. Costing $944,000 the list grew to 145,00 species.

Funding for the project ended in 2012. Since then new species have arrived in New Zealand and taxonomy has changed for some. Without funding for maintenance or updates the register remains online - incomplete, and with incorrect information.

Wikipedia allows anyone to add or update articles at no cost.

As an open information resource there is little chance content would ever be lost, making it ideal if you want information to be available long-term, Dickison said.

“There’s no way Wikipedia can actually disappear now, it’s been archived on the internet and is essentially immortal.”

“If somehow a meteorite fell and hit the servers in California that run Wikipedia, it’s archived everywhere and someone else could simply pick it up and relaunch it again under a new name and continue.

“There’s no way Wikipedia can actually disappear now, it’s been archived on the internet and is essentially immortal.”

It’s not just archiving content which is important. Wikipedia’s prominence in Google searches means using Wikipedia as an outreach tool is something organisations should make part of their everyday business, said Dickison.

Recently he created a Wikipedia page for the kauri dieback disease. For 10 years, all that had been available on Wikipedia was an out-of-date paragraph on the kauri page. The organisations responsible for public outreach had not thought to use Wikipedia to share information.

Since he created the page, several people have added to it, including the person who named the disease.

“It’s just lovely that anyone can come along and improve that page immediately. That’s something that is just not possible if you have an official corporate website that has to be run through a team of comms people.”

If successful some of the organisations Dickison plans to work with include the Department of Conservation, Landcare Research, New Zealand Geographic, Auckland and Otago museums and Forest & Bird.

Forest & Bird’s marketing and communications group manager, Phil Bilbrough, said he is supportive of Dickison’s plans.

“It would be great to have him leading the work involved in updating New Zealand’s conservation topics, including possibly running edit-a-thons with Forest & Bird volunteers.”

Edit-a-thons will be held to update pages on high-priority topics such as New Zealand’s penguins and Maui dolphins. Volunteers at the events would be trained in how to edit Wikipedia pages.

Dickison’s project grant application is one of 24 from around the world currently submitted to Wikimedia. Public feedback on the application closes February 20.

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