William Beutler on Wikipedia

The Agony and Ecstasy of Wikidata

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on April 12, 2012 at 8:31 am by William Beutler

Although Wikipedia is by far the best-known of the Wikimedia collaborative projects, it is just one of many. Just this last week, Wikimedia Deutschland announced its latest contribution: Wikidata (also @Wikidata, and see this interview in the Wikipedia Signpost). Still under development, its temporary homepage announces:

Wikidata aims to create a free knowledge base about the world that can be read and edited by humans and machines alike. It will provide data in all the languages of the Wikimedia projects, and allow for the central access to data in a similar vein as Wikimedia Commons does for multimedia files. Wikidata is proposed as a new Wikimedia hosted and maintained project.

Possible Wikidata logo

One of a few Wikidata logos under consideration.

Upon its announcement, I tweeted my initial impression, that it sounded like Wikipedia’s answer to Wolfram Alpha, the commercial “answer engine” created by Stephen Wolfram in 2009. It seems to partly be that but also more, and its apparent ambition—not to mention the speculation surrounding it—is causing a stir.

Already touted by TechCrunch as “Wikipedia’s next big thing” (incorrectly identifying Wikipedia as its primary driver, I pedantically note), Wikidata will create a central database for the countless numbers, statistics and figures currently found in Wikipedia’s articles. The centralized collection of data will allow for quick updates and uniformity of statistical information across Wikipedia.

Currently when new information replaces old, as is the case with census surveys, elections results and quarterly reports are published, Wikipedians must manually update the old data in all the articles in which it appears, across every language. Wikidata would create the possibility for a quick computer led update to replace all out of date information. Additionally, it is expected that Wikidata will allow visitors to search and access information in a less labor-intensive method. As TechCrunch suggests:

Wikidata will also enable users to ask different types of questions, like which of the world’s ten largest cities have a female mayor?, for example. Queries like this are today answered by user-created Wikipedia Lists – that is, manually created structured answers. Wikidata, on the hand, will be able to create these lists automatically.

Though this project—which is funded by the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and Google—is expected to take about a year to develop, but the blogosphere is already buzzing.

It’s probably fair to say that the overall response has been very positive. In a long post summarizing Wikidata’s aims, Yahoo! Labs researcher Nicolas Torzec identifies himself as one who excitedly awaits the changes Wikidata promises:

By providing and integrating Wikipedia with one common source of structured data that anyone can edit and use, Wikidata should enable higher consistency and quality within Wikipedia articles, increase the availability of information in and across Wikipedias, and decrease the maintenance effort for the editors working on Wikipedia. At the same time, it will also enable new types of Wikipedia pages and applications, including dynamically-generated timelines, maps, and charts; automatically-generated lists and aggregates; semantic search; light question & answering; etc. And because all these data will be available as Open Data in a machine-readable form, they will also benefit thrid-party [sic] knowledge-based projects at large Web companies such as Google, Bing, Facebook and Yahoo!, as well as at smaller Web startups…

Asked for comment by CNet, Andrew Lih, author of The Wikipedia Revolution, called it a “logical progression” for Wikipedia, even as he worries that Wikidata will drive away Wikipedians who are less tech-savvy, as it complicates the way in which information is recorded.

Also cautious is SEO blogger Pat Marcello, who warns that human error is still a very real possibility. She writes:

Wikidata is going to be just like Wikipedia in that it will be UGC (user-generated content) in many instances. So, how reliable will it be? I mean, when I write something — anything from a blog post to a book, I want the data I use in that work to be 100% accurate. I fear that just as with Wikipedia, the information you get may not be 100%, and with the volume of data they plan to include, there’s no way to vette [sic] all of the information.

Fair enough, but of course the upside is that corrections can be easily made. If one already uses Wikipedia, this tradeoff is very familiar.

The most critical voice so far is Mark Graham, an English geographer (and a fellow participant in the January 2010 WikiWars conference) who published “The Problem with Wikidata” on The Atlantic’s website this week:

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. …

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. However, even more concerning is that fact that this sort of congealed and structured knowledge is unlikely to reflect the opinions and beliefs of traditionally marginalized groups.

The comments on the article are interesting, with some voices sharing Graham’s concerns, while others argue his concerns are overstated:

While there are exceptions, most of the information (and bias) in Wikipedia articles is contained within the prose and will be unaffected by Wikidata. … It’s quite possible that Wikidata will initially provide a lopsided database with a heavy emphasis on the developed world. But Wikipedia’s increasing focus on globalization and the tremendous potential of the open editing model make it one of the best candidates for mitigating that factor within the Semantic Web.

Wikimedia and Wikipedia’s slant toward the North, the West, and English speakers are well-covered in Wikipedia’s own list of its systemic biases, and Wikidata can’t help but face the same challenges. Meanwhile, another commenter argued:

The sky is falling! Or not, take your pick. Other commenters have made more informed posts than this, but does Wikidata’s existence force Wikipedia to use it? Probably not. … But if Wikidata has a graph of the Israel boundary–even multiple graphs–I suppose that the various Wikipedia authors could use one, or several, or none and make their own…which might get edited by someone else.

Under the canny (partial) title of “Who Will Be Mostly Right … ?” on the blog Data Liberate, Richard Wallis writes:

I share some of [Graham's] concerns, but also draw comfort from some of the things Denny said in Berlin – “WikiData will not define the truth, it will collect the references to the data…. WikiData created articles on a topic will point to the relevant Wikipedia articles in all languages.” They obviously intend to capture facts described in different languages, the question is will they also preserve the local differences in assertion. In a world where we still can not totally agree on the height of our tallest mountain, we must be able to take account of and report differences of opinion.

Evidence that those behind Wikidata have anticipated a response similar to Graham’s can be found on the blog Too Big to Know where technologist David Weinberger shared a snippet of an IRC chat with he had with a Wikimedian:

[11:29] hi. I’m very interested in wikidata and am trying to write a brief blog post, and have a n00b question.
[11:29] go ahead!
[11:30] When there’s disagreement about a fact, will there be a discussion page where the differences can be worked through in public?
[11:30] two-fold answer
[11:30] 1. there will be a discussion page, yes
[11:31] 2. every fact can always have references accompanying it. so it is not about “does berlin really have 3.5 mio people” but about “does source X say that berlin has 3.5 mio people”
[11:31] wikidata is not about truth
[11:31] but about referenceable facts

The compiled phrase “Wikidata is not about truth, but about referenceable facts” is an intentional echo of Wikipedia’s oft-debated but longstanding allegiance to “verifiability, not truth”. Unsurprisingly, this familiar debate is playing itself out around Wikidata already.

Thanks for research assistance to Morgan Wehling.

  1. Excellently summarizing opinions, thank you! Just to avoid misunderstandings, Wikidata is developed by Wikimedia Deutschland, not by the WMF. The project will be handed over and maintained by the Foundation in the future, though.

  2. You’re right, thanks for catching that, Michael. Now fixed in the article.

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