Teaching Wikipedia to Write Itself

A new project called Wikidata aims to automate some aspects of the collaborative encyclopedia.

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Could Wikipedia's infoboxes get a boost from a centralized database?

Say next week there is an election in France (okay it's not for a few more weeks, but just suppose) and suppose that the challenger, Francois Hollande, ekes out a victory over Nicolas Sarkozy, the current president. What happens next?

This isn't a question of politics but of information -- how does the world's information sources come to reflect a French changing of the guard? For Wikipedia, one of the web's largest and most up-to-date compendia of facts, the answer is complicated. It's not just the Wikipedia entry for "France" or "President of France" that requires quick updating, but many, many more pages that reference Sarkozy, and not just in English or French but in the more than 280 languages in which Wikipedia appears. Who will update all those references?

Currently, some 90,000 volunteer Wikipedia editors. Those heroes of the collaborative web do the yeoman's work that keeps Wikipedia updated. But could there be an easier way? Could all of those changes happen automatically?

That is the hope of Wikidata, the first new project from the Wikimedia Foundation since 2006. Led by Wikimedia Deutschland, the German branch of Wikimedia, Wikidata aims to be a central fact repository that can feed all articles throughout Wikipedia. All of the data will be published under a Creative Commons license. The project has received financial backing from Google, Inc., the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (Gordon Moore co-founded Intel and invented Moore's Law), and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (as in, Paul Allen, Microsoft's co-founder).

The current plans are for the project to roll out in three phases over the next year. The first phase, set to be completed by this August, is the centralization of all the different points of data in Wikipedia across languages whose updates could be coordinated. The second phase allows for people to begin collaboratively building the database's datasets. They hope to finish that by the end of this year. The final phase "will allow for the automatic creation of lists and charts based on the data in Wikidata." By March of next year Wikimedia Deutschland hopes to turn the database over to the Wikimedia Foundation.

The project's goal may be automation, but automation doesn't mean there aren't humans involved. This is automation by collaboration, a very Wikipedia kind of automation indeed.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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