Wiki advocate sees government uses

Public Web logs that can be modified by anyone with a browser could give citizens more power to affect policy, an Ohio State University expert says.

Philosophy lecturer Larry Sanger, who spoke June 2 at the FCW Events' Web-Enabled Government Conference, said he believes that government agencies should consider using so-called wiki collaboration tools, which are rapidly growing in popularity. Sanger co-founded one of the most widely known applications of wiki technology, the online Wikipedia. The free and popular encyclopedia is updated by its community of users.

Wikis, Sanger said, can help government agencies in at least three ways:

- Building the consensus that is crucial for much of the government's work.

- Filling in knowledge gaps to create complete documents.

- Promoting fairness by representing all sides of an issue.

"Wiki-based collaboration allows all to have an equal role in the document development process," Sanger said. "This inherently supports democracy."

Government organizations can add authority by selecting editors to improve the reliability of completely decentralized collaborations, Sanger said. That approach runs the risk of destroying a wiki's natural advantage. "The whole thing that makes wikis work is that they have a flat management structure," Sanger said.

Other options include lowering expectations or relying on the collective monitoring of changes to provide peer review. Those solutions have their own problems, such as reliable quality control. Sanger doesn't let his own students cite Wikipedia as a source.

"This is a problem with Wikipedia, I fully admit," Sanger said. "Wikipedia and others have pages that are substandard."

But governments can use wikis to do what private bodies cannot do, Sanger said. We could institute official collaborative policymaking committees, extended throughout the United States and working in real time," Sanger said. "Such groups are theoretically essential to participatory democracy."

Some conference attendees countered that the United States relies on a defined system of checks and balances rather than direct democracy. But there are government bodies already participating in wikis.

A community board member in Queens, New York, developed the BeyondVoting wiki in January. Tom Lowenhaupt, the wiki's founder and a governance systems developer, said he will bring appropriate findings to his community board. He said he dreams of applying this technology to the city's charter revision process after evaluating his unofficial wiki in February.

"I would love nothing more than to be able to go out and to talk to people about this thing, the goal of this wiki of empowering the grass roots," Lowenhaupt said.

Some federal organizations have official wikis.

The CIO Council allows online visitors to read ongoing revisions to the federal enterprise architecture's data reference model and take part in discussions.

NASA officials depend on a wiki site to program NASA software. An open-source application, the free downloadable NASA World Wind, lets users look at satellite imagery and suggest modifications to the program. A private organization not affiliated with NASA has launched a wiki site called World Wind Central.


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