Green wikis #1: Green Powered Wiki

The Green Powered Wiki at wiki.greenpowered.org, now defunct, was a wiki focused on renewable energywritten up in Treehugger in 2005.

The shame is that we don’t know what happened to the drivers and contributors in the project. If you know, please leave us a note in the comments, or contact us another way. A wiki needs a large community to really work, and we’d love to keep creating synergy.

This is part of the green wiki series.

Task tracking with Semantic MediaWiki

We’re thinking about how to support projects in Appropedia. If a team of people (students, professionals, non-profit sector workers or volunteers) is looking for a place to organize a project on community development, sustainable technology or related subject, it makes sense to do it on the one site where they can also document their work, share and get input from an active community. I.e. it’s a key feature in a .

While simple open-edit pages are very useful for organizing projects, they’re not enough to effectively handle certain tasks, such as task tracking and calendars are also essential. But it turns out that our MediaWiki can do task tracking, once we have Semantic MediaWiki installed, as shown in this slideshow:

The calendars that are central to this task tracking will be an important feature. Once we can sync them with our personal calendars (Google Calendar or elsewhere) that will be a big jump in usefulness.

Of course, plenty of other platforms have task management features. The big news here is that it’s integrated with a wiki, which is the most powerful, proven and flexible platform in existence for the collaborative creation of a knowledge resource. (Leave a comment if you think there’s another contender.)

Feedback please:

  • Have you used this? How does it compare with other task management and project management packages?
  • What other features do we need for effective project management on Appropedia?

Wikis and structured information

I want to make a comparison of used by different websites. Wikis are an obvious choice, used by many different websites, so let’s start by looking at what defines a wiki.

A wiki is a database for creating, browsing, and searching through information. It enables documents to be written collaboratively, and has these essential features:

  • A user can edit any page and create new pages within the wiki, with a standard browser.
  • Page link creation as almost intuitively easy, and it’s easy to see whether a target page exists yet or not.
  • Rather than being a carefully crafted site, it seeks to involve the visitor in a process of creation and collaboration that constantly changes the site.

Easy creation and updating of pages is key. Wikis don’t always live up to this goal as well as we would like – many people who might become valuable contributors are put off by “wiki markup”, the “==”, “[[” and “{{” scattered through the text. (Actually, it’s safe for a new contributor to just ignore such marks left by other editors, and edit only the text, but it’s still very offputting to a newbie and there are efforts underway to dramatically improve this, and keep these hidden unless you want to see them.)

Another characteristic of wikis is that they are very much a blank slate – when you create a page in a standard wiki, there are no fields to fill in, no boxes to check – you just have a blank edit box to enter your text. Structure is often valuable though, and what happens is that keen users build a structure using:

  • templates, e.g. {{unreferenced}} to flag an unsupported claim, or the infobox you find on any Wikipedia page about a plant, animal or location.
  • special tags, e.g. <ref></ref> for inserting footnotes,
  • parser functions to allow logical operations
  • magic words, to return data from the software such as pagename and date,

…and no doubt other tools I’ve missed. These help to create a structure that maintains consistency between pages, and guides editors in contributing to a page. These structures are never binding, however – content can be added outside the structure, and the structure itself is built within the wiki, and is open to editing.

Another approach to structure is through the use of extensions – Semantic MediaWiki, UniWiki, page comment extensions and others – that allow information to be entered or displayed in different ways. Again, these generally don’t remove the basic freedom of a wiki page – in most cases the editor can choose to use or not use them, as they wish.

So is a wiki “The Answer” for collaborative projects? In areas such as sustainable design, aid and development methodologies, appropriate technology, and related areas, some people have concluded that their collaborative project needs more structure than a wiki provides, and have come up with other models. In coming posts, I’ll be looking at specific approaches to these tasks, using wiki and non-wiki platforms.

A wiki as a platform

Paul Currion at humanitarian.info got my attention with this:

I think there’s a lot of potential in… FrontlineSMS – mainly because it’s a platform. Like any good platform, it’s up to the end user (in this case, grassroots NGOs) to work out how they want to use it, and how they want to incorporate it into their organisation and activities.

Not being a software expert, I looked up Wikipedia:

A platform might be simply defined as ‘a place to launch software’. It is an agreement that the platform provider gave to the software developer that logic code will interpret consistently…

This sounds a lot like the strengths of a wiki – it’s a blank slate in many ways. People use Appropedia and other wikis in many ways. They create structures to use on certain types of pages, and are free to adapt or ignore those structures, as they innovate. And in a growing wiki with a very broad scope, there is a lot of room for innovation.

A topic that has come up repeatedly in conversations is whether a wiki is a good way to share designs and ideas for development, sustainability, open manufacturing etc, or whether a more structured approach is needed. I’ll look at some of those approaches in coming posts (filed under ).

I’ll leave it to others to decide whether a wiki is a platform in the software sense (and ask Is a Wiki a platform if you don’t program it?)