INTERNAUT: I came, I saw, I Wiki'd

If Wiki solutions are going to enjoy any sort of future in government IT shops, project managers and content owners need to learn a valuable lesson from the recent Wikipedia fiasco: Success can only be assured by setting specific quality controls, user access controls and a way of monitoring the authenticity of Wiki entries.

As you may know, a Wiki is a type of collaborative authoring software that generates a special style of Web site'one that allows visitors to add and edit page content. Several open-source Wiki software solutions are available, and they can be implemented in a variety of ways. (You can get more details here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_wiki_software.)

Wiki solutions have proven themselves particularly valuable for developing multiauthor documentation for system and software development projects, and for the creation of everything from technical glossaries to curriculum repositories. Wikis are sometimes used to create shared organizationwide knowledge bases or frequently asked questions lists.

Wikis can be found on dozens of government sites. For example, one was recently created to keep track of documentation associated with the government's Geospatial Enterprise Architecture Initiative.

A crisis of faith

Perhaps the largest and most famous Wiki is the open-source encyclopedia known as the Wikipedia. It's a free encyclopedia that has grown to hundreds of thousands of pages, including maps and photos. Thousands of faithful participants routinely visit the site to add content and update facts.

But the Wikipedia recently experienced a crisis of faith. A visitor named Brian Chase admitted in late 2005 to making incorrect and slanderous entries on a Wikipedia page listing biographical information on John Seigenthaler, a former Robert Kennedy aide and newspaper editor. He says he did it as a joke, but the false data lingered there for several days. Wikipedia now requires people to register before making content changes. Unfortunately Chase's admission is just the tip of the iceberg. Politically motivated entries and 'facts' of dubious origin can be found across the site. To see how false content can be taken to an extreme, explore Uncyclopedia (uncyclopedia.org). The site is basically a Wikipedia parody with all sorts of tongue-in-cheek entries.

Unfortunately, the more open a Wiki is, the greater its chance for abuse. With just a little searching I found several government Wikis that I could edit if I wanted to, even though I had absolutely no involvement in the projects being documented.

Wiki owners should not be so trusting. At the very least they should do the following:
  • Require registration for all editors. Accounts should be approved based on a person's involvement with a project.

  • Establish a version control system that will allow you to roll back to a previous version if problems are found.

  • Determine who has final responsibility for Wiki content. Changes should be reviewed by this person before they are accepted.

  • Set rules to keep entries on-topic, with minimal room for opinions, humor or other entries that could come back to haunt the organization.

Those who run Wikis tend to be very utopian in their views. They believe honest communities will evolve and that those communities will improve Wiki entries and fix bad data. But the trouble with a utopia is that it takes only one bad seed to screw things up.

Former GCN writer Shawn P. McCarthy is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC of Framingham, Mass. E-mail him at smccarthy@idc.com.

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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