William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for the ‘WikiProjects’ Category

How Wikipedia is Covering
the Coronavirus Pandemic

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on April 15, 2020 at 12:12 pm

Words fail to capture the significance of the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic: the suffering of the disease’s victims, the pain of their loved ones, and the frustrations of those otherwise affected are, together, greater than any crisis our generation has experienced. In the first few days, comparisons to 9/11 and the Great Recession were commonplace. They have failed to capture the mood, so references to World War II, the Great Depression, and of course the 1918 influenza pandemic have seeped into news and commentary. 

It’s impossible to know how the present catastrophe will reshape the world in the future, but Wikipedia is already documenting, essentially in real-time, how COVID-19 is changing the world day by day. To understand Wikipedia’s coronavirus coverage, you have to start with WikiProject COVID-19

The WikiProject

For those not already familiar, WikiProjects are collaborative efforts organized by editors who want to work on similar topics. Wikipedia has almost 900 active WikiProjects, from A Cappella to Zanzibar City. Among them, there already existed WikiProjects whose subject matter is closely related to the coronavirus—specifically Disaster management, Medicine, and Viruses—but WikiProject COVID-19 is barely a month old as of this writing. 

In that time, nearly 1900 articles have been created or adopted by the project, out of more than 6,000 articles mentioning COVID-19 on Wikipedia.[1]and growing by about 1,000 articles per week, according to my unscientific spot checks  Launched by a single user on March 15, today it has more than 130 official contributors. And this is not to say there are only 130 editors working on pandemic articles, only that 130 have taken the time out from editing to sign their names up and, in some cases, help to coordinate efforts. Someone even came up with a logo (at right). A separate project from WMF Labs has sought to identify all pandemic-related editing, which at last check counted 527,000 edits by nearly 40,000 separate editors.

WikiProject COVID-19 also maintains a list of more than 600 articles it considers especially important and whose quality they are working hardest to improve. Some of these articles are exceptional in a conventional way, such as 2020 coronavirus pandemic in Germany[2]the Germans are just good at Wikipedia in general while others are more unusual: here is a rare article, about the Chinese doctor Ai Fen, where the encyclopedia entry is in English but nearly all of the sources are in Chinese.

Wikipedia editors’ contributions to our understanding of the coronavirus is important work[3]not like doctors and nurses, sure, but crucial nonetheless and unmatched on the internet. Nothing like Wikipedia existed for most of the world events described in the first paragraph, and even in 2008 Wikipedia wasn’t quite what it is now. This post is no comprehensive survey of these editors’ work, only a report back from a few days of reading and clicking to learn about aspects of the pandemic I knew nothing, little, or not enough about.[4]Lately, it feels almost like my early days of discovering Wikipedia: opening tab after tab after tab in my browser, losing hours to it, engaging in a very mid-2000s activity once nicely captured in a memorable XKCD comic.

How the Information is Organized

Most readers arrive at Wikipedia via web search, but those visiting the Main page over the past month have found a coronavirus-specific information box toward the top-right corner of the page.[5]A development this blog advocated for just before it became reality, ICYMI. This box is obviously a good place to start exploring Wikipedia’s coverage of the pandemic and related topics. By definition it is the highest-level summary of how Wikipedians think about organizing this information. But as we shall see, it doesn’t even begin to hint at the true scope of the topic.

There are nine total links here, which is arguably a lot, but it is well-organized. The bigger typeface on “Coronavirus pandemic” draws the eye to what is not just the box’s name but also a link to the primary article about the phenomenon, 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic. The next two links, “Disease” and “Virus” go to Coronavirus disease 2019 and Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, respectively, wisely sparing the reader from guessing about how these relate to each other. The rest of the links describe the pandemic from different angles, and we’ll examine them more later. But first, I’m interested in capturing some numbers about each of the three main articles. 

The Pandemic, The Disease, and the Virus

Here is a rudimentary side-by-side comparison of the three articles about (in order, left to right) the Pandemic, the Disease, and the Virus. The following is information pulled from WikiWatch, a tool that I built, and from Wikipedia itself:[6]Accurate as of April 13, when this data was collected

Even without charts, the pattern is clear: all the figures, from word count to images to edits to pageviews, are very large for the primary article about the pandemic, and commensurately less for each supporting article on more specialized subjects. Considering how Wikipedia’s content guidelines advise editors to consider giving subjects their “due weight”, the editors involved are doing pretty well on this account, whether by design or accident. It’s rather elegant, actually. 

As for the content, I won’t pretend to have read all 22,000 words, but in sampling a few sections of each, I feel confident saying they represent some of Wikipedia’s best work. The pandemic is clearly a topic of grave concern, with copious available sources to draw upon, and there is sufficient interest from editors and readers alike to ensure the articles are constantly updated as information changes. This is the kind of thing Wikipedia does exceptionally well during extreme weather events, such as hurricanes,[7]hat tip: WikiProject Tropical cyclones only this time the whole world is in one.

There is some repetition in photos, but if you have a good photo depicting a nasopharyngeal swab, you don’t really need another. And while we might think everyone has seen a “flatten the curve” illustration or animation by now, it doesn’t hurt to use in more than one article, just in case. Interestingly, a number of these images are drawn from the CDC which, along with the WHO, has released all of its coronavirus-related content as public domain.[8]To learn more about the coronavirus illustration oft-used in Wikipedia’s pandemic coverage, see this New York Times article. 

Speaking of flatter curves, there is another trend to be found in the traffic. First, here’s a chart from the WMF Labs pageviews analysis tool covering the last 30 days, also covering the Pandemic, the Disease, and Virus, in that order:

This gives you a good comparison of traffic on these articles over the last month, but the pandemic article receives so much more attention compared to the others that we can’t really see what’s happening with them. Via the WikiWatch dashboard, here are the same three articles, each according to its own x-axis:

This isn’t altogether surprising: the internet-surfing public’s greatest interest in these topics occured in the first two weeks, when the stay-at-home orders were as novel as the coronavirus. Now, at least half the public’s demonstrated curiosity has been sated. I also wonder if it might not suggest something about the urgency with which the public is responding, which is to say, less over time. If you feel like social distancing practices at your local supermarket are already diminishing, these charts might help explain why.

The Timeline and the Territory

Now let’s have a look at some of these other pages: the “Timeline” link goes to Timeline of the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic, which is surprisingly short. But this is only because it is a repository of links to the timeline by month, which explains the “April” link next to it, and which naturally takes one to Timeline of the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic in April 2020. This article is enormous—and we’re only halfway through the month! It’s a mind-bogglingly extensive list of events from all over the world, for each day this month. It’s already about 16,000 words, or 22,000 words if you count the references at the end.

And here one also starts to confront the limitations of what Wikipedia can offer the reader. Often as not, Wikipedia does not make for a riveting reading experience. Its content is constrained by requirements of sourcing, content, and tone appropriate to an encyclopedia. This is overwhelmingly a good thing: it is this quality control that gives Wikipedia its uniquely authoritative fixedness, although it comes at a price: the context you wish could be found between the facts. But this is not Wikipedia’s job. When the newspaper features and book-length investigations are finally published, months and years from now, then Wikipedia will have the sources it needs to tell a more compelling story.

Next there is “By location” which goes to 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic by country and territory. Less an article than a list of lists, it organizes the globe first by continent, with links to dedicated pages for each. It even discusses territories with no identified cases, such as 2020 coronavirus pandemic in Antarctica, which won’t take you very long. And some of these regions surely lying about it—see 2020 coronavirus pandemic in North Korea. Name a country, dependency or principality, and Wikipedia will tell you how it has been affected by the coronavirus. 

Naturally, there is an article for each of the 50 U.S. states, five territories, and one district, not to mention the parent article 2020 coronavirus pandemic in the United States. A summary of just these U.S.-centric articles would be a fascinating blog post, which I will not attempt here, except to observe that they vary widely in quality. This is not just because some are short. After all, there isn’t nearly as much to say about the 2020 coronavirus pandemic in Wyoming as compared to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic in Florida. But the Florida article is likely too short, whereas the 2020 coronavirus pandemic in California is so long as to be unreadable at times. Skim the subsection called “March 18–19” and tell me it’s worth anyone’s time to read or write. In an archive, of course. In an encyclopedia article, not so much.

Some of this tedium would be better replaced by charts. And indeed, many country and state articles include variations on a really excellent chart, meaning visually appealing and easy to interpret, that you can see below depicting cases in Sweden.[9]and accessible on a Wikipedia template page here 

Then there is another table which is far too tall to show in full, but starts like this:

This is the big picture of what you really want to know: how many cumulative cases, deaths, and recoveries by country. In fact, if you search Google for coronavirus cases right now, this Wikipedia page—not a government or professional organization—is where Google’s knowledge panel is pulling data from. Look for the easy-to-miss “Wikipedia” link at the bottom of this screen grab:

That link goes directly to Template:2019–20 coronavirus pandemic data. Not an article, but a template—the raw back end of Wikipedia that most readers never see. Because of the link from Google, this template is currently receiving nearly 200,000 pageviews a day, putting it in the top 1,000 pages across all of Wikipedia. A template!

The Rest of the Story

Finally, there are links for “Impact”, “Deaths”, and “Portal”. We’ll take these in reverse order: Portal:Coronavirus disease 2019 is like the front page of Wikipedia but focused entirely on the coronavirus (less the pandemic, for some reason). It’s a perfectly good starting point if you’d like some help in finding your way around; it presents partial lead sections of the “Disease” and “Virus” articles, and links to some other important pages, such as COVID-19 vaccine[10]hypothetical, just to be clear and COVID-19 drug development.[11]not just the hoped-for vaccine, but treatments as well Again, a great place to start, especially if you like curation, but its purpose is diminished because it is not actually the starting point. Compared to the millions received by the first three links, this page gets only a little over 2,500 pageviews daily

List of deaths due to coronavirus disease 2019, by contrast, is getting around 35,000 views daily. This article is self-explanatory, and is also a specialized version of Wikipedia’s perennially popular “Recent deaths” article.[12]see: Deaths in 2020 The coronavirus deaths article lists more than 200 individuals, each the subject of Wikipedia articles before or, in some cases, after they died. Previously, there was a separate list article about prominent individuals who had been infected, and then recovered, from the coronavirus. It was deleted in late March, largely for being potentially impossibly long, and also problematic for privacy reasons.

“Impacts” takes one to Socio-economic impact of the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic another very long article with numerous links to articles organized principally by industry and then by region. There are dozens of them, and they too could be the topic of substantial study. Alas, considering the length of this article already, I will leave this for you to explore on your own. Know this: if it exists in the world, you can bet the coronavirus has had an impact upon it, and Wikipedia editors have organized the available news coverage and government statistics to explain it.

While you’re stuck at home over the next few weeks or months, you could do a lot worse than spending your time reading it all. And then, when you’re done, you might as well start again at the beginning, because WikiProject COVID-19 will have revised each article dozens or hundreds of times to keep up with the evolving situation. 

Odds & Ends

I can’t resist leaving you with a couple of unusual or unexpected things I found out that didn’t fit into the post above:

  • Speaking of the 1918 flu pandemic, the current article is called Spanish flu. Nowadays we know that it did not begin in Spain but likely it was in the U.S., and especially after the “Chinese Virus” controversy, many of us are more sensitive to these kinds of historical injustices. In March, there was a fierce debate about whether the article should be renamed. Ultimately the move to rename it failed, following Wikipedia’s sometimes controversial policy about using commonly recognizable names

  • What was the first news article to mention Wikipedia and the coronavirus? It appears to be “On Wikipedia, a fight is raging over coronavirus disinformation” by Omer Benjakob in Wired on February 9.

  • According to Wikipedia’s official statistics, pageviews are up 7% over the past month, and editing activity is up 9%. But if you look at past months, there’s nothing statistically significant about these upward ticks. For some reason, various months in 2019 and even earlier were on par or higher than these figures. Then again, we are talking matters of millions and billions, and one has to assume the law of large numbers applies.

  • This being Wikipedia, where anyone can edit as they wish until enough other editors become fed up with you, Wikipedia already had a list of “generally sanctioned” editors and pages. Not too many editors, fortunately, but if you’re looking for a list of coronavirus-related articles that have been more controversial than others, here you go.

  • Finally, WikiProject COVID-19 also maintains a list of its most popular pages, sorted by traffic. A couple of entries near the top of the almost 800 caught my attention:

    So there you have it, definitive proof of how much American life has changed in the coronavirus pandemic: Dr. Anthony Fauci is more popular than Tom Hanks.


1 and growing by about 1,000 articles per week, according to my unscientific spot checks
2 the Germans are just good at Wikipedia in general
3 not like doctors and nurses, sure, but crucial nonetheless
4 Lately, it feels almost like my early days of discovering Wikipedia: opening tab after tab after tab in my browser, losing hours to it, engaging in a very mid-2000s activity once nicely captured in a memorable XKCD comic.
5 A development this blog advocated for just before it became reality, ICYMI.
6 Accurate as of April 13, when this data was collected
7 hat tip: WikiProject Tropical cyclones
8 To learn more about the coronavirus illustration oft-used in Wikipedia’s pandemic coverage, see this New York Times article.
9 and accessible on a Wikipedia template page here
10 hypothetical, just to be clear
11 not just the hoped-for vaccine, but treatments as well
12 see: Deaths in 2020

International Women’s Day

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on March 8, 2013 at 9:24 am

Happy International Women’s Day, everyone! As it has in previous years, the Wikipedia community has organized a number of events to celebrate both today and the rest of Women’s History Month, through the WikiWomen’s History Month. Women and feminism-focused edit-a-thons are taking place in countries including Brazil, Poland, Spain, and Sweden. Meanwhile, Wikimedia UK will be giving a talk at the Southbank Center in London, as part of the Women of the World Festival, to encourage women to become Wikipedia editors. Across the U.S. a variety of events are taking place, from edit-a-thons led by THATCamp Feminisms in Claremont, California and Atlanta, Georgia, to a Women in the Arts meet-up at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.

If you’ve ever thought about editing but haven’t yet dived in, now is a great time to start. Wikipedia needs more ladies, so please consider getting involved!

The full list of events is available here.

All The Women Who Edit Wiki, Throw Your Hands Up At Me

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on November 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Editor’s note: The author of this post is Rhiannon Ruff (User:Grisette) who last wrote “Public Lives: Jim Hawkins and Wikipedia’s Privacy Dilemma” for The Wikipedian in April 2012.

It’s no secret that the majority of those editing Wikipedia on a regular basis are men. It’s one of the best-known facts about the Wikipedia community and a situation that doesn’t appear to be changing over time. In fact, from 2010 to 2011, the proportion of women editors actually dropped, from 13% to just 9%, according to an independent survey by Wikipedian Sarah Stierch. And it does seem, at least from the media coverage, that this contributes to some bias in content. This issue not taken lightly by the Wikimedia Foundation, which has set a goal of “doubling the percentage of female editors to 25 percent” by 2015, as part of its Strategic Plan.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing here about content bias and what women are actually editing on Wikipedia, and the issues involved in encouraging more women into such a male-dominated space. First, though, let’s round up recent efforts to get more women involved with Wikipedia.

  1. The Wikipedia gender gap mailing list: Founded back in January 2011, subscribers to the list offer up ideas, share experiences, discuss issues and help to develop events and programs. Among recent updates, the list shared news of the latest Wikipedia Editor Survey and the launch of the new WikiProject Women scientists. 295 people are subscribed to the list.
  2. WikiWomen Camp: The inaugural camp was held in Argentina in May 2012. While not focusing on the gender gap, the conference was for female Wikipedia editors to network and discuss projects. A total of twenty women from around the world attended.
  3. WikiWomen’s History Month: March 2012 was the first WikiWomen’s History Month, where editors were encouraged to improve articles related to women in history. During the month 119 new women’s history articles were created and 58 existing articles were expanded.
  4. Workshop for Women in Wikipedia: This project to create in-person workshops encouraging women to edit Wikipedia was started in 2011 and is ongoing. So far, workshops sharing technical tips and discussing women’s participation have been held as part of the WikiConferences in Mumbai (2011) and Washington, D.C. (2012), as well as individual workshops held in D.C., Pune and Mumbai.
  5. The WikiWomens Collaborative: Launched at the end of September 2012, the Collaborative is a Wikimedia community project with its own Facebook page and Twitter account, designed to create a collaborative (hence the name) and supportive working space for women. Participants share ideas for projects, knowledge about Wikipedia and particularly support efforts to improve content related to women. Projects promoted by the Collaborative include Ada Lovelace Day, when participants were encouraged to improve articles related to women in math and science, including via an edit-a-thon organized by Wikimedia UK and hosted by The Royal Society in London. So far, the Collaborative has over 500 Twitter followers and 414 Likes on Facebook.

With all this activity, it’ll be interesting to see the results of the 2012 Wikipedia Editor Survey to see whether there has been any positive shift in the numbers of female editors. Look for those results early next year. Meanwhile, stay tuned here for my next post discussing gendered patterns of editing and Wikipedia’s knowledge gaps.

Wikipedia Gets on its SOPA Box

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on January 17, 2012 at 9:46 am

Wikipedia SOPA blackout announcement
The Wikimedia Foundation announced on Monday that the English-language Wikipedia will go offline for 24 hours, starting at midnight tonight on the East Coast, in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and a related bill, the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). The move follows a similar protest by the Italian-language Wikipedia last year, protesting proposed anti-privacy laws in Italy.

Over the past week, volunteer Wikipedia editors debated the proposition and, ultimately decided to go forward. The decision was accepted by the Foundation, which will implement it late tonight. An official public explanation includes the following:

Over the course of the past 72 hours, over 1800 Wikipedians have joined together to discuss proposed actions that the community might wish to take against SOPA and PIPA. This is by far the largest level of participation in a community discussion ever seen on Wikipedia, which illustrates the level of concern that Wikipedians feel about this proposed legislation. The overwhelming majority of participants support community action to encourage greater public action in response to these two bills. Of the proposals considered by Wikipedians, those that would result in a “blackout” of the English Wikipedia, in concert with similar blackouts on other websites opposed to SOPA and PIPA, received the strongest support.

The decision is not one that all are happy about. After all, Wikipedia’s core content guidelines emphasize a Neutral point of view in its approach to encyclopedia topics, so isn’t this a questionable decision?

Just this morning, a participant on a Wikipedia-related discussion group wrote:

Now that we have taken the necessary first step to regard the English Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects as high-profile platforms for political statements, we ought to consider what other critical humanitarian problems we could use our considerable visibility and reputation to address. We could draw attention to the crises in Sudan or Nigeria, drone attacks against civilians in Afghanistan, the permanent occupation of the Palestinian territories, the Iranian effort to develop nuclear capabilities, police misconduct in virtually any country, the treatment of women and women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, and the list could go on and on.

Well, considering that it was a matter of debate, it surely is questionable and does not reflect the views of all Wikipedians. But I think it’s also fair to say that it reflects the majority of participants.

Wikipedia has its philosophical roots in the free software movement, which is the very antithesis of what SOPA and PIPA are about, so this particular viewpoint should surprise no one. Meanwhile, Wikipedia is well aware that it has its own systemic biases and has organized a project to answer them. In this case, however, Wikipedia’s bias shows through and most participants find this to be a good thing.

I’ll have to put myself more in the skeptic’s camp—not because I support SOPA, which I’m pretty sure I don’t—but because I would prefer that Wikipedia not become a platform for political activism. That said, I don’t think it will lead to similar efforts in the near future and, considering it’s already received significant news coverage, I think there is no question it will be effective in raising awareness about the issue.

For Wikipedians who are uncomfortable with the effort, there’s not much else to do. The band they’re in is playing a different tune, and we’ll see you on the dark side of the Wikipedia blackout.

Whither the WikiProject?

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on October 27, 2010 at 9:02 am

In the latest edition of the Wikipedia Signpost — Wikipedia’s community “newspaper” — contributor Mabeenot conducts a neat interview with editors from WikiProject Horror.

For those unfamiliar with the term WikiProject, it refers to an ad hoc committee of Wikipedia editors who collaborate on the development of articles by topic, according to their interests. Or, as the WikiProject page itself begins:

A WikiProject is a project to manage a specific topic or family of topics within Wikipedia. It is composed of a collection of pages and a group of editors who use those pages to collaborate on encyclopedic work.

I consider myself a member of WikiProject Oregon, although I tend to follow my own muse and rarely pitch in on assigned tasks (though I should) and was a member of WikiProject The Wire, until most of those articles were sufficiently developed and the project slowed down considerably.

That, actually, is the point of this blog post: speaking purely on an anecdotal level, it seems that more than a few WikiProjects I visit are dreadfully slow, if not actual ghost towns: questions are posted and not answered for days, or longer, and discussions may be very infrequent. Obviously, I stipulate that some research is necessary to determine the whether my experience is representative or not; I may just do that.

Meantime, I leave you with an excerpt from the aforementioned interview. Here’s Bignole, asked about difficulties involved in keeping the project active:

Bignole: The problem with keeping a project active is based primarily on how many members you have that are still editing. Many of the WikiProject Horror members no longer edit on Wikipedia, or simply do not edit for extended periods of time. Horror is a very special field, and one not as many people have a taste for. Thus, something as broad as “Film” is easier to keep active because it covers so many different forms and genres and thus attracts a more diverse field of editors who have an interest in those topics. As much as horror extends beyond simply horror film (e.g., books, games, etc.), the reality is that the primary coverage this project has provided. It’s the area that garners the most attention, as I said before, because film is a very popular medium. Just, finding active editors interested specifically in the horror aspect of any medium can sometimes be difficult. At one time the project has had upwards of 200 members, but even quite a few of the ones currently listed as “Active” have not truly been active editing any article for over a year. So, staying active in general is probably one of the biggest difficulties to keeping this project active. Though, like any great horror villain, this project seems to refuse to die and drags itself out of the mud every so often for a few more scares.

Horror fan yourself? Got a few spare cycles to donate? By all means, head on over to WikiProject Horror and lend a hand.