Wiki means fast

Online collaborative sites open to everyone enable the sharing of ideas

COLAB Community Wiki

There is a public Web site where people can find a Web log written by some prominent members of the government information technology community. Visitors can view a list of officials in the CIO Council's Communities of Practice and read ongoing revisions to a major government document, the data reference model. Members of the public also are contributing to the discussions.

An emerging technology called "wiki" makes this collaboration possible. The word comes from "wiki wiki," Hawaiian for "fast." Wiki technology creates what is essentially a public Web log, one which anyone with a Web browser can add to or modify.

The Wikipedia is a classic example. It is an online, self-correcting, self-evolving encyclopedia updated by a community of users, trusting the good intentions of the posters. Most wikis operate like Wikipedia, but some require registration and passwords.

Since December 2003, Peter Yim, president and chief executive officer of San Mateo, Calif.'s CIM Engineering, has been hosting the CIO Council's Communities of Practice wiki site. The technology dates back to 1995.

The company won a contract from the General Services Administration's Intergovernmental Solutions Office for an online collaborative work environment, called Colab, which includes a wiki, a forum, shared files and training.

The project is leading to a more transparent government.

"They are starting to get external, outside feedback on the data reference model," Yim said. "Because anyone can write to a wiki, this can become a very democratized process."

Comments from federal agency officials appear at the bottom of each exhibit page on the reference model's wiki site.

Wiki means rapid vigilance

But accessibility can also let in annoyances such as spam. People who use spambots — applications that post unwanted advertisements on public Web sites that allow comments — love wiki sites because they are like free billboards. Wiki sites archive all their versions so they also archive spam, boosting spammers' page rankings on the Google search engine.

Much of Yim's efforts were directed toward blocking spam. "It's a tough thing between being open and being secure," he said.

Wiki technology is part of a changing landscape that is moving work relationships from meeting spaces to cyberspace.

Colab leader Susan Turnbull, a senior program adviser at GSA, said the wiki site does not have the physical limitations of a conference room.

She said she sees the wiki concept as a faster way to work together, combining continuity, transparency and trusted relationships among partners. "In some ways, it's like a brown-bag lunch," Turnbull said. "I could rely upon e-mail and the telephone, but this augments" the flow of communication.

Wiki technology speed a notoriously slow-moving government. Brand Niemann, a computer scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency and co-chairman of the CIO Council's Semantic Interoperability Community of Practice, said the communities of practice wiki saves time, travel and Webmaster costs.

Acting like a whiteboard, the wiki site lets members monitor a meeting or read what happened afterward. "They can pop in and out of the wiki at any time during the meeting, using it as a stock ticker, refreshing the screen intermittently, " Niemann said.

Wiki means quick improvements

The communities of practice wiki is not the only one drawing federal officials' fascination. Patrick Hogan, learning technologies program manager at NASA, depends on a wiki site to program NASA software. An open-source program, NASA World Wind, lets users look at satellite imagery. They can peer into the Grand Canyon or follow the Nile River from its source, Lake Victoria, or leap over the Himalayas. Users in metropolitan areas can view street-level imagery. The program is popular, judging by the 2 million people who have downloaded it despite its 200M size.

And now those 2 million people — or anyone else — can suggest modifications to the program. A private enterprise, not affiliated with NASA, recently launched a wiki site called World Wind Central.

"These folks are not being paid by NASA at all and yet are providing a tremendous service to NASA," Hogan said. The development community has donated hundreds of hours of coding effort, including a search tool for NASA World Wind's 5 million locations and a mouse-over effect that simulates gravity's varying strength worldwide, he said. Hogan routinely participates in the wiki and thanks outside developers. He has only a handful of full- and part-time employees, so he appreciates the free labor.

Wiki means quick changes

Wiki maintenance is light work, says one of two World Wind Central administrators. Anthony Taylor, the site's Webmaster in Wichita Falls, Texas, and a math tutor at Vernon College, contributed $200 to the wiki site and provides unusually frugal technical support.

Taylor has no more power than any user to change page text. "We've got the same buttons," he said. People detail documentation for enhancements, such as hiking trails and translations into other languages. Good Samaritans fix errors, typos and grammar.

"We kind of just sit back and let them be," Taylor said, adding that he can block abusive users. When unwanted material appears on World Wind Central or any wiki sites, users can veto the changes by rolling back to a previous version. No one has posted obscene material on World Wind Central.

Wiki means fast acceptance

As open-source technology's popularity grows among agencies, wiki sites will become more appropriate for updating general government guidelines. For example, the Government Open Code Collaborative, a group of volunteers from public-sector and nonprofit academic institutions, encourages the free exchange of computer code developed for and by government entities. The group maintains a repository of open-source code. A wiki on the site teaches people how to use the repository.

"The last thing we wanted to do was make it intimidating to use," said Jim Willis, the collaborative's technical chairman and director of e-government and IT for Rhode Island's Office of the Secretary of State.

By collaboratively writing the repository instruction manual, the group shared the burden of crafting a comprehensive manual and saved time, building something usable within weeks. Like all wikis, it is a work in progress. Willis had fixed a few typos right before a Federal Computer Week reporter called.

As in most group forums, wiki participation varies. "There are definitely those people who you know you can rely on, those who occasionally contribute and those who just lurk," Willis said.

Wiki: A shared virtual napkin

A wiki is a Web-based collaboration tool that is rapidly growing in popularity. Although wikis are similar to bulletin boards or Web logs in some respects, there are several main differences.

Often, wiki fans will cite the “napkin example” to explain. Two people sit down at a table in a restaurant. One scribbles an idea on a napkin. The other modifies the idea on the napkin — changing the wording, adding new thoughts, drawing sketches or otherwise contributing new content.

A wiki is the shared napkin in cyberspace. Anyone who is authorized can go into the shared workspace and add, delete or edit content anywhere on the wiki’s Web page. Unlike bulletin boards and blogs, users are not limited to changing their own posts or commenting on others’ contributions. They can actually change the existing content, even to the point of modifying another person’s posts.

A blog usually belongs to one person, and mistakes are set in stone on bulletin boards. But a wiki is a community forum, where history is dynamic. Wikis offer any number of people the chance to think aloud, comment and correct one another.

— Aliya Sternstein

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