Is it time for Wikigov?


The government is taking some cautious steps toward what has been called Web 2.0, letting users contribute to rather than merely browse agency Web sites.

The Patent and Trademark Office is piloting a program to invite online comment on patent applications. And the Federal CIO Council's Semantic Interoperability Community of Practice uses wiki software so that attendees and presenters can post material about the group's monthly meetings.

But these efforts represent only a drop in the federal online ocean, and that caution probably is a good thing.

Web 2.0 is not so much a technology as a way of looking at how technology is used. It is active rather than passive. It is not about viewing or using information, it is about using the wiki model to create and share it. One of the most prominent and successful examples of this model is the online Wikipedia, which defines wiki as: 'A [W]ebsite that allows visitors to add, remove, edit and change content, typically without the need for registration.'

It is self-regulating, depending on users to find and correct errors. And this raises concerns.

'The ability of a user to add content to a site is troublesome,' said Paul Henry, vice president of Secure Computing Corp. of San Jose, Calif. 'In allowing everyone to add content, integrity goes right out the window.'

It is not just malicious behavior that is the problem, it is the credibility of a final product in which so many cooks have had a hand.

'I'm not seeing a huge uptake on public-facing Web 2.0' in government, Henry said. 'I'm pleased with that.'

It is not that government should not use Web 2.0, but that it should be used cautiously until we are sure what it works with and how well it works.

One approach is to use wiki software internally, or among trusted parties. For instance, the director of National Intelligence and the CIA already have launched Intellipedia, a collaborative intranet tool intended to bring some real community to the intelligence community. The Intellipedia was set up late last year, consciously copying the Wikipedia model. It is a classified hierarchy of wiki sites on intranets. A top-secret site is the most restricted and serves the 16 intelligence agencies. The secret site primarily serves diplomatic and military users, and an unclassified site is for other government users and invited outsiders.

None is open to the public, but any user with access is free to add information. This is intended to boost information sharing and break down traditional stovepipes so that the entire community can benefit from the shared expertise and insights.

According to the White House, the number of Intellipedia users grew to 7,000 between October and January, the sites now contain more than 60,000 pages and they have been used in developing one National Intelligence Estimate.

Maybe most significantly, the CIA created a sabbatical program to teach officials how to use the Intellipedia and other agencies reportedly are interested in copying this training program for other collaborative projects.

The PTO program will be more limited. In the hope of streamlining ' or at least improving ' the patent examination process, a handful of tech companies are volunteering to have their patent applications posted for online review and comment. Online reviewers will register with the program and post comments, and the entire wiki community will evaluate the reputation of each participant as the program continues. Eventually the most significant or reliable comments will be passed on to the examiner.

This is a cautious program that, if it works, could help ease the burden on examiners who have to decide if a patent is warranted.

'It should be interesting to see how much garbage they get,' said Henry.

Yes, interesting. If it is too much garbage the program can be tweaked or killed with little or no harm done. But if it works it just might make government more efficient. It seems a gamble worth taking.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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