Wikipedia

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The meaning of the term “Chinese wall” is clear. It’s a virtual partition meant to keep potentially conflicted interests apart. What’s not clear, at least to me, is where the term came from. This post at WhatIs.com quotes Wikipedia, this way:

Chinese wall is usually said to be a reference to the Great Wall of China, erected over 2000 years ago to protect inhabitants from invaders. However, other theories exist. In a Wikipedia entry, for example, the author argues that the term probably derives from a diplomatic contrivance of the Late Imperial period in China: “…if a junior mandarin saw a senior mandarin on the road he was expected to bow and present his compliments. In Beijing this tended to happen quite a lot and so traffic was frequently blocked. Instead mandarins came up with a method of pretending they did not see each other on the road by the clever placing of a retainer with an umbrella. Because they did not “see” each other, they were not obliged to stop.”

Meanwhile Wikipedia’s Chinese wall article now lacks that passage, so that’s a dead end. I recall “Chinese wall” meaning a thin one: You can hear what’s happening on the other side, but can pretend not to notice. Still, not good enough. So I’m hoping one of you can point me to a source I can cite in the book I’m writing.

And if you’re wondering why I’m posting less these days, it’s because my nose is on the book’s grindstone.

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“I make my living off the Evening News
Just give me something: something I can use
People love it when you lose
They love dirty laundry.

Don Henley, “Dirty Laundry”

Look up “Wikipedia loses” (with the quotes) and you get 20,800 results. Look up “Wikipedia has lost” and you get 56,900. (Or at least that’s what I got this morning.) Most of those results tell a story, which is what news reports do. “What’s the story?” may be the most common question asked of reporters by their managing editors. As humans, we are interested in stories — even if they’re contrived, which is what we have with all “reality” television shows.

Lately Wikipedia itself is the subject of a story about losing editors. The coverage snowball apparently started rolling with Volunteers Log Off as Wikipedia Ages, by Julia Angwin and Geoffrey A. Fowler in The Wall Street Journal. It begins,

Wikipedia.org is the fifth-most-popular Web site in the world, with roughly 325 million monthly visitors. But unprecedented numbers of the millions of online volunteers who write, edit and police it are quitting.

That could have significant implications for the brand of democratization that Wikipedia helped to unleash over the Internet — the empowerment of the amateur.

Volunteers have been departing the project that bills itself as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” faster than new ones have been joining, and the net losses have accelerated over the past year. In the first three months of 2009, the English-language Wikipedia …

That’s all you get without paying. Still, it’s enough.

Three elements make stories interesting: 1) a protagonist we know, or is at least interesting; 2) a struggle of some kind; and 3) movement (or possible movement) toward a resolution. Struggle is at the heart of a story. There has to be a problem (what to do with Afghanistan), a conflict (a game between good teams, going to the final seconds), a mystery (wtf was Tiger Woods’ accident all about?), a wealth of complications (Brad and Angelina), a crazy success (the iPhone), failings of the mighty (Nixon and Watergate). The Journal‘s Wikipedia story is of the Mighty Falling variety.

The Journal’s source is Wikipedia: A Quantitative Analysis, a doctoral thesis by José Phillipe Ortega of Universidad Rey San Carlos in Madrid. (The graphic at the top of this post is one among many from the study.) In Wikipedia’s Volunteer Story, Erik Moeller and Erik Zachte of the Wikimedia Foundation write,

First, it’s important to note that Dr. Ortega’s study of editing patterns defines as an editor anyone who has made a single edit, however experimental. This results in a total count of three million editors across all languages.  In our own analytics, we choose to define editors as people who have made at least 5 edits. By our narrower definition, just under a million people can be counted as editors across all languages combined.  Both numbers include both active and inactive editors.  It’s not yet clear how the patterns observed in Dr. Ortega’s analysis could change if focused only on editors who have moved past initial experimentation.

Even more importantly, the findings reported by the Wall Street Journal are not a measure of the number of people participating in a given month. Rather, they come from the part of Dr. Ortega’s research that attempts to measure when individual Wikipedia volunteers start editing, and when they stop. Because it’s impossible to make a determination that a person has left and will never edit again, there are methodological challenges with determining the long term trend of joining and leaving: Dr. Ortega qualifies as the editor’s “log-off date” the last time they contributed. This is a snapshot in time and doesn’t predict whether the same person will make an edit in the future, nor does it reflect the actual number of active editors in that month.

Dr. Ortega supplements this research with data about the actual participation (number of changes, number of editors) in the different language editions of our projects. His findings regarding actual participation are generally consistent with our own, as well as those of other researchers such as Xerox PARC’s Augmented Social Cognition research group.

What do those numbers show?  Studying the number of actual participants in a given month shows that Wikipedia participation as a whole has declined slightly from its peak 2.5 years ago, and has remained stable since then. (See WikiStats data for all Wikipedia languages combined.) On the English Wikipedia, the peak number of active editors (5 edits per month) was 54,510 in March 2007. After a more significant decline by about 25%, it has been stable over the last year at a level of approximately 40,000. (See WikiStats data for the English Wikipedia.) Many other Wikipedia language editions saw a rise in the number of editors in the same time period. As a result the overall number of editors on all projects combined has been stable at a high level over recent years. We’re continuing to work with Dr. Ortega to specifically better understand the long-term trend in editor retention, and whether this trend may result in a decrease of the number of editors in the future.

They add details that amount to not much of a story, if you consider all the factors involved, including the maturity of Wikipedia itself.

As it happens I’m an editor of Wikipedia, at least by the organization’s own definitions. I’ve made fourteen contributions, starting with one in April 2006, and ending, for the moment, with one I made this morning. Most involve a subject I know something about: radio. In particular, radio stations, and rules around broadcast engineering. The one this morning involved edits to the WQXR-FM entry. The edits took a lot longer than I intended — about an hour, total — and were less extensive than I would have made, had I given the job more time and had I been more adept at editing references and citations. (It’s pretty freaking complicated.) The preview method of copy editing is also time consuming as well as endlessly iterative. It was sobering to see how many times I needed to go back and forth between edits and previews before I felt comfortable that I had contributed accurate and well-written copy.

In fact, as I look back over my fourteen editing efforts, I can see that most of them were to some degree experimental. I wanted to see if I had what it took to be a dedicated Wikipedia editor, because I regard that as a High Calling. The answer so far is a qualified no. I’ll continue to help where I can. But on the whole my time is better spent doing other things, some of which also have leverage with Wikipedia, but not of the sort that Dr. Ortega measured in his study.

For example, photography.

As of today you can find 113 photos on Wikimedia Commons that I shot. Most of these have also found use in Wikipedia. (Click “Check Usage” at the top of any shot to see how it’s been used, and where.) I didn’t put any of these shots in Wikimedia Commons, nor have I put any of them in Wikipedia. Other people did all of that. To the limited degree I can bother to tell, I don’t know anybody who has done any of that work. All I do is upload shots to my Flickr site, caption and tag them as completely as time allows, and let nature take its course. I have confidence that at least some of the shots I take will be useful. And the labor involved on my part is low.

I also spent about half an hour looking through Dr. Ortega’s study. My take-away is that Wikipedia has reached a kind of maturity, and that the fall-off in participation is no big deal. This is not to say that Wikipedia doesn’t have problems. It has plenty. But I see most of those as features rather than as bugs, even if they sometimes manifest, at least superficially, as the latter. That’s not much of a story, but it’s a hell of an accomplishment.

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Mark Finnern has a great idea: Wikipedia papers. Specifically,

Every student that takes a class has to create or improve a Wikipedia page to the topic of the class. It shouldn’t be the only deliverable, but an important one.

The Wikimedia organization could help the professors with tools, that highlight the changes that a certain user has done on a page. You only pass, when the professor is satisfied with the scientific validity of the page. One could even mark the pages that went through this vetting process differently.

Instead of creating papers that end up in a drawer, you would create pages that you even feel ownership of and would make sure that they stay current and don’t get vandalized. You could even link to them on you LinkedIn profile.

It would make an enormous difference to the quality of Wikipedia year over year. One can think of wiki-how and other pages that could be improved using the same model.

There are other reasons. For example, Wikipedia has holes. Not all of these line up with classes being taught, but some might. Let’s take one example…

811

Wikipedia has an entry for 5-1-1, the phone number one calls in some U.S. states for road conditions. It also has an entry for 9-1-1, the number one calls in North America for emergency services. And, while it has an entry for 8-1-1, the “call before you dig” number in the U.S., it’s kinda stale. One paragraph:

All 811 services in the U.S. will end up using 611 by early 2007, as the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in March 2005 made 811 the universal number for the 71 regional services that coordinate location services for underground public utilities in the U.S.[1][dated info] Currently, each of these “call before you dig” services, has its own 800 number, and the FCC and others want to make it as easy as possible for everyone planning an excavation to call first. This safety measure not only prevents damage that interrupts telecommunications, but also the cutting of electricity, water mains, and natural gas pipes. Establishment of an abbreviated dialing number for this purpose was required by the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002.

That last link takes you to one of those “Wikipedia does not have an article with this exact name” places. The “call before you dig” link redirects to Utility location. There you’ll find this paragraph:

One-call, Miss Utility, or Underground Service Alert are services that allow construction workers to contact utility companies, who will then denote where underground utilities are located via color-coding those locations. As required by law and assigned by the FCC, the 8-1-1 telephone number will soon be used for this purpose across the United States.

Well, it’s already being used. And it’s way freaking complicated, because there’s this very uneven overlap of entities — federal government, state goverenments, regional associations, and commercial entities, to name a few — that all have something to say.

For example, the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA. Right on their front page, they tell you April is Safe Digging Month. Good to know. April of what year? Next to a blurred emblem with an 811 over a shovel (a poor version the above, which comes from the Utility Notification Center of Colorado) and a horribly blurred graphic proclaiming WE SUPPORT SAFE DIGGING MONTH, a Call Before You Dig link leads to a page that explains,

Guidance for implementing safe and effective damage prevention for underground utilities was established by the Common Ground Alliance (CGA), a national organization representing all underground utility stakeholders. Calling before you dig is the first rule to remember when conducting underground related activities, no matter what the job is. The law requires you to phone the “One-Call” center at 8-1-1 at least two days prior to conducting any form of digging activity.

No link to the Common Ground Alliance. That org (a domain squatter has its .org URL, so it’s a .com) explains that it’s “a member-driven association dedicated to ensuring public safety, environmental protection, and the integrity of services by promoting effective damage prevention practices.” Its news page mentions that, among other things, August 11 is “8-11 Day”. It has a press release template in Word format. It also has news that “MGH Hired as CGA 811 Awareness Contractor” in .pdf. Within that one finds MGH’s website URL, where one finds that the agency is @mghus, which may be the hippest thing in this whole mess.

Digging farther, one finds that there is an call811.com, which appears to be another face of the Common Ground Alliance. (If you’re interested, here are its “sponsors and ambassadors”.)

Also involved is the American Public Works Association. Apparently the APWA is the outfit behind what LAonecall (one of the zillion of these with similar names) calls “the ULCC Uniform Color Code using the ANSI standard Z53.1 Safety Colors”. APWA must have published it at one point, but you won’t find it on its website. Hey, Google doesn’t. Though it does find lots of other sites that have it. Most are local or regional governmental entities. Or utilities like, say, Panhandle Energy. Here’s the graphic:

colorcode

Here in New England (all of it other than Connecticut, anyway), the public face of this is Dig Safe System, Inc., which appears to be a nonprofit association, but there’s nothing on the site that says wtf it is — though it is informative in other respects. It does say, on its index page,

What is Dig Safe ®?

State laws require anyone who digs to notify utility companies before starting, and for good reason. Digging can be dangerous and costly without knowing where underground facilities are located.

Dig Safe ystem, Inc. is a communication network, assisting excavators, contractors and property owners in complying with state law by notifying the appropriate utilities before digging. Dig Safe®, a free service, notifies member companies of proposed excavation projects. In turn, these member utilities respond to the work area and identify the location of underground facilities. Callers are given a permit number as confirmation.

Member utilities, or contracted private locators, use paint, stakes or flags to identify the location of buried facilities. Color coding is used to identify the type of underground facilities… (and the same color coding as above)

I found out all of this — and much more — while I was researching for my column in the November issue of Linux Journal, which has Infrastructure the issue’s theme. I’m leveraging my leftovers here, closing one tab after another in my browser.

I’m also interested in approximately everything, one of which is the official-looking public graffiti on the ground all over the place. These are known locally as “dig safe markings”. At least that piece of the scattered one-call/call-before-you-dig/8-1-1 branding effort has taken root, at least here.

Anyway, I’d love to see a Wikipedia entry or two that pulls all this together. Maybe I should write it, but I’m busy. Hey, I’ve done this much already. Some actual experts ought to pick up the ball and post with it.

Which brings us back to Mark’s suggestion in the first place. Have a class do it.

Hey, @mghus, since you’re in Baltimore, how about  suggesting a Wikipedia page project to The Civil & Environmental Engineering Department at UMBC?

Maybe for 8-11 Day?

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Heard this morning on WNYC that the New York Times has unloaded its remaining broadcasting asset, which consists of the channel and facilities of WQXR, which has been a classical music landmark for as long as it’s been around. (One way or another, since 1929. Wikipedia tells the long story well.) The story on WNYC’s website says WQXR will become “part of” WNYC. I assume that means it will become non-commercial.

According to Bloomberg, the deal goes like this:

  • “Univision will pay Times Co. $33.5 million to swap broadcasting licenses and shift its WCAA broadcast to 96.3 FM from 105.9 FM, which will become WQXR… WCAA will get 96.3 FM’s stronger signal.”
  • WNYC will pay Times Co. $11.5 million for 105.9 FM’s license and equipment and the WQXR call letters.”

WQXR was for a long time an AM/FM operation. The AM was on 1560, with a 50,000 watt signal out of a four-tower facility in Maspeth, Queens. The FM was for many years atop the Chanin Building, where it still maintains an auxilliary antenna. I have shots of the old and new antennas here and here. In 2007 the Times Co. unloaded its AM station, then (and still) called WQEW, to Walt Disney Co. for $40 million. It’s now Radio Disney, a kids’ station.

Since the 60s WQXR has shared a master antenna atop the Empire State Building with most of New York’s other FMs. This was their status in 1967. Wikipedia has a good rundown of what’s up there today. Scott Fybush also has a comprehensive report from 2003.

An open question is whether WQXR will remain a beacon on the dial. While other signals on the Empire State Building master antennas run 5000 to 6000 watts, the one on 105.9 is just 610 watts. According to WQXR’s  Web site, the station and has an audience of nearly 800,000 weekly listeners. How many of those will lose the signal? Coverage maps from radio-locator.com for 96.3 and 105.9 are here and here.

For the fully obsessed, here is a current rundown of everything on FM hanging off the Empire State Building, or within 1km of it.

Meanwhile, says here WBCN in Boston, a progressive rock radio landmark, is also getting yanked. You’ll still hear it on the Web, or if you are among the appoximately five owners of an “HD” radio receiver and close enough to WBCN’s transmiter on Boston’s Prudential Building in the Back Bay. Meanwhile Boston will get more of the usual: talk sports and “Hot AC” music. (To me “Hot AC” always sounded like an climate control oxymoron, while “adult contemporary” sounded like a euphemism for pornographic furniture.)

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