Next week, students, faculty and members of the public will gather in a room at Brown University. They will sit down, open their laptops—enjoy some light snacks and drinks—and then, for five and a half hours, edit Wikipedia.
Specifically, they’ll be editing Wikipedia to add and improve entries about women in science, technology, and math. Their “Edit-a-Thon,” reported today by the Chronicle of Higher Education, will fall on the fifth annual Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of women’s contribution to technology. Lovelace worked on and wrote algorithms for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine in the early 19th century, a mechanical predecessor to the computer, making her the world’s first computer programmer.
The Lovelace-themed Edit-a-Thon will help those unused to editing the encyclopedia: Its first hour will focus on the basics of Wikipedia writing. And the event’s homepage already has a long list of articles which need improvement or don’t exist yet. No Wikipedia entry exists, for instance, for Ingeborg Homchair, who won the 2013 Lasker Award for co-inventing the modern cochlear implant, the first device to “substantially [restore] a human sense with a medical intervention.”
Wikipedia has historically struggled with a gender imbalance that mars both its content and its editors. A 2011 New York Times story suggested only 15 percent of its editors might be women. When data researcher Santiago Ortiz scoured Wikipedia to find articles edited by more women than men, he could only locate “Cloth menstrual pad.” (His research made for a great if unfortunate visualization, though.)
Since then, Wikipedians have tried to close the gender gap more directly. A meet-up and edit-a-thon earlier this year in Washington, D.C., for instance, sought to add and improve the entries of women in the arts en masse. Next week’s Edit-a-Thon will again chip away at the imbalance, albeit slowly. But Wikipedia, unlike other knowledge sources, can be edited by the public, and its errors and shortcomings can be ameliorated—incrementally, but surely—by the same public.