Monday, November 10, 2008

Why A Wiki?

Before I begin discussing how to select a wiki platform and a wiki host, I need to answer the question: why a wiki? Why not some other method, like a blog?

For this post and many other posts, let's begin with a very simple article in the March 19, 1903 issue of The Journal Republican which was, and still is, the hometown newspaper for Lowville, New York:

"At the charter election Tuesday three tickets were in the field, republican, democratic and socialist. One hundred votes were polled. The following were elected: President, Frank H. Markham, rep.; trustee for two years, Robert E. Conant, dem.; trustee for one year, George Schwenk, dem.; treasurer, Evan F. Roberts, rep.; collector, William J. Taylor, socialist."[1]

Assume that your project will be populated by similar bits of knowledge - and knowledge is a good descriptor for this article. When you think about it, you are basically constructing a knowledge management system. Why would you want to transcribe hundreds if not thousands of news articles which already exist out on the Web, if you didn't also want to create some taxonomy so that you could see the connections between bits of data?

I can't possibly store all these articles in my mind, especially at my advanced age of my mid-40s. If I can create a repository where names will link to other names, I can look up places or events, etc. - that is what I really need. And then, if I could only find a platform that would make it easy to enter knowledge and easy to run queries, that would be even better!

Using a Blog as Knowledge Management System

1. Cost: most if not all blogging platforms are free of charge to both the author and the reader. There are some platforms such as WordPress which allow self hosting and add quite a few bells and whistles - to the point of making the blog look and feel like a website. See this comparison chart for a list of blogging platforms and hosting sites.

2. Ease of use - adding knowledge: most blog authors find it fairly easy to create posts, edit posts, and manage the knowledge that gets added to their blog. The free blogging platforms make it simple for authors to accomplish adding and maintaining knowledge.

3. Ease of use - accessing knowledge: readers can use built in search functions, utilize special archives or links established by the author, and even use Google or other search engines to search blogs for knowledge. Authors can also link to other knowledge - both internal and external to the blog - to assist readers in analyzing the knowledge.

4. Collaboration:  many blogs are limited in terms of the collaboration options available to them. The most obvious means is via use of comments but very often due to spam they must be moderated. WordPress does offer the use of its Askimet spam tool which weeds out 99% of spam comments. But in order to allow other users the ability to post knowledge, you often need to add them as blog authors or administrators. This requires the contributor to have at least a basic knowledge of blog authoring in order to collaborate with others. For many blog platforms there are also limits as to how many contributors, etc.

5. Analyzing knowledge:  this is where most blogs fail as a knowledge management system. Despite all the tools which allow authors to connect bit s of knowledge and tools which allow readers to access and review bits of knowledge, the burden of analyzing knowledge - noting trends, processing queries (besides the basic search) - falls upon the reader. There are very few tools or add-ins out there which allow you to make a query such as, using the above article: How many times has Frank H. Markham run for the office of president in Constableville prior to March, 1903? Who was the current president of Constableville at the time of the March, 1903 election?

Using a Wiki as Knowledge Management System

1. Cost: there are many free wiki platforms available which allow you to set up a wiki in a quick minute. See this comparison chart for more information.

But very often you will need a hosting platform unless you have the technical knowledge and computer equipment to host your own wiki across the Web. Wiki hosting can be had for free (but peppered with advertisements) and for a basic fee of $5.95 or higher per month. Some of the hosted sites such as GoDaddy or SiteGround will install and set up the wiki for you as part of your monthly fee. See this comparison chart of wiki hosts for more information.

2. Ease of use - adding knowledge: Depending upon your choice of platform and host, adding bits of knowledge should be easy. You must determine whether to use a WYSIWYG-based method ("what you see is what you get") or a more vibrant and flexible platform that may require basic HTML or other skills. If you currently author a blog, you are already familiar with the complications involved in formatting your posts, your knowledge. The same set of complications exist, even more so, with wikis.

3. Ease of use - accessing knowledge: Most users of wikis, using Wikipedia as an example, find it easy - and addictive - to find items of interest. How many of us have spent hours on a wiki going from link to link when we said we were just going to quickly "look something up."

4. Collaboration:  wikis were made for collaboration but depending upon the wiki, the ability of a contributor to actually succeed in seeing their contribution depends on the amount of control the wiki administrator is willing to give up. MediaWiki, the engine behind Wikipedia, allows you to control the ability to contribute by login account and even down to the page or section level of knowledge. Collaboration can be a two-edged sword in the wiki world: free and open means you are likely to have off-topic spam posting if not vulgarity and pornographic images added as "knowledge." Too restrictive, such as immediate review by a group of knowledge managers, will inhibit contributors. From my attempts to create a page entitled "Genea-Blogger" on Wikipedia, I know all to well the hoops that one has to jump through to make even a simple contribution. Read about my experience here.

5. Analyzing knowledge:  this is where the hidden power of a wiki can be unleashed, depending upon the platform and hosting selected. Many of the free or basic wikis do not offer add-ins, or extensions as they are often called, allowing knowledge analysis. One little discussed area of MediaWiki is the Semantic Forms add-in which I will discuss at length throughout this blog.

My Choice?

I'll discuss which method I selected for Lowville Long Ago, the rationale behind such a choice, and how I made my concept become a reailty - in the next post!


[1] "Constableville," The Journal and Republican, Lowville, Thursday, March 19, 1903, Vol. 44, No. 17, p. 8.

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