A weekend with Wikidata: The Open Government WikiHack, Part 2

The Open Government WikiHack will take place at the National Archives, September 27–28

Wikimedia DC held its first ever Open Government WikiHack this past April, at the offices of the Sunlight Foundation. We spent the weekend experimenting with open data repositories, including those made available by the Sunlight Foundation, trying to figure out how we can take this data and use it to improve Wikipedia. We imagined a world of Wikipedia articles that update automatically as new information comes to light. This month, we are going to continue imagining.

The link between Wikipedia and structured data is Wikidata, a fairly new project spearheaded by the Wikimedia Deutschland chapter. The basic principle is that while Wikipedia exists in over 200 languages, data exists as data regardless of language. For example, the population of South Africa is 54,002,000, according to a 2014 estimate. You can find this datum in the Wikipedia article on South Africa, alongside the right side of the article. You can also find data on South Africa in its Wikidata entry, Q258. In the long run, data used in Wikipedia articles will be fed out of Wikidata, rather than posted directly on each article, so that the data will be automatically available in the many language editions of Wikipedia.

Wikidata is fairly new to all of us, so we have invited James Forrester to give a presentation on Wikidata and how we can help improve it. Mr. Forrester is a product manager at the Wikimedia Foundation, focused on improving Wikipedia’s editing experience, and has also been a very active participant on Wikidata from the beginning. We are very excited to see him come to the National Archives and help us make Wikidata part of the broader Open Data conversation we’re having in the nation’s capital.

We would love to have you participate in our WikiHack, which will take place on September 27–28, regardless of experience with coding or editing Wikipedia. You can register for free at EventBrite. Hope to see you there!


Congress edits Wikipedia: Our perspective as Wikipedians in the nation’s capital

A screenshot of the CongressEdits Twitter feed from September 1, 2014.

By Peter Meyer and James Hare

This past July, programmer Ed Summers created CongressEdits, a Twitter feed that posts an update every time an edit to Wikipedia is made anonymously from an IP address belonging to the United States Congress. Wikipedians who edit through a registered account have their edits attributed to their username, while those who edit without being logged in have their edits attributed to their IP address. The range of IP addresses used by Congressional offices is public knowledge, and the Twitter bot reports only those where the person posting wasn’t logged in. In fact, Wikipedia administrators have been watching out for Congressional edits for years.

CongressEdits provided a new level of visibility to these edits. The Twitter account has around 30,000 followers as of writing; by comparison, the English-language Wikipedia has 1,400 administrators. The visibility and resulting press coverage generated a lot of interest in Wikipedia on the Hill—particularly since some of the edits are disruptive (and sometimes downright hateful). That said, they are mostly the kind of juvenile or disruptive edits that Wikipedia deals with every minute of every day without incident, notable only because of where the edits are coming from. Over the years Wikipedia has developed sophisticated technologies, including filters that prevent certain edits from even happening, that ensure that most trivial vandalism gets swiftly undone.

Most press coverage of CongressEdits has focused on acts of vandalism, and one would think we would want to chase Congressional staff away. In fact, Wikimedia DC welcomes edits by Congressional staff and the staffs of federal government agencies. Government staff are experts in areas of public interest, including very new hot topics. They play a promising role in our mission to make a better online reference work, with notable, neutrally phrased, verifiable content. We can overlook minor discretions and work with Capitol Hill and all federal employees to forge a path forward.

Recently we partnered with the Cato Institute for a panel on editing Wikipedia on Capitol Hill. You can read about it inU.S. News and World Report. Cato and Wikimedia DC both agree that Congress does have a part to play in Wikipedia—not political advocacy, but transparently improving the quality of information about legislation and other Congressional activity. This includes not just direct edits to articles, but making data about government more open and machine-readable for reuse in highly visible third-party platforms like Wikipedia. There is a great potential for Wikipedia as a platform to increase awareness of Congress’ activities, a potential we should not overlook.

Best practices for federal employees

Wikimedia DC is interested in developing best practices for employees at all levels of government. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has been working with the Wikipedia community since 2011, pioneering government engagement with Wikipedia and showcasing the potential to serve the public.

If you or your agency are interested in participating as a Wikipedia editor, we recommend these basic best practices:

  • Register individual accounts. By registering an account, it helps you develop goodwill with the Wikipedia community. Fellow editors get the sense that they are working with another person, not a shadowy figure hiding behind an IP address. However, Wikipedia’s policies do not permit the registration of group or company accounts; each account must be used by one person only.
  • Acknowledge your potential conflicts of interest. The community of volunteers that maintains Wikipedia cares very strongly about potential conflict of interest. To this end, avoid editing articles on your boss or your employer. Additionally, being transparent about your affiliation can help build trust. NARA has a standard format for conflict-of-interest disclaimers, a format which can be freely copied and re-used by others in the federal government.
  • Look into other agencies’ best practices. Some agencies have published best practices on Wikipedia participation, including NARAthe Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Institutes of Health. These are best practices you may wish to incorporate, should you have the opportunity to develop best practices for your own agency. We also recommend reading Why CongressEdits Matters for Your Agency on DigitalGov.

Peter Meyer is the Treasurer of Wikimedia DC and the Chair of Wikimedia DC’s Public Policy Committee. James Hare is the President of Wikimedia DC.

We are led by volunteers—here is how you can help

Wikimedia DC volunteers at the National Archives, October 2013Wikimedia DC works on the ground in Washington, DC, and in the surrounding area to teach others about Wikipedia. We are proud of all that we’ve accomplished in our three years, from our large gatherings like Wikimania 2012 and WikiConference USA, to our regularly held edit-a-thons with cultural and educational organizations throughout DC. We are also excited about the future; we are in the midst of our expanding our program offerings so that we can do more to serve DC and to improve the Wikimedia projects.

What you may not know is that Wikimedia DC is led almost entirely by volunteers. With very few exceptions, volunteers do everything: we plan the events, we follow up with organizations we work with, even our board members and officers are volunteers. And we always need more volunteers. Whether you know how Wikipedia works or not, there are many ways you can help us. Here are some ways you can help:

  • If you’re well versed in the ins and outs of Wikipedia editing, we always need Wikipedia trainers for our edit-a-thons. You will have the opportunity to share your knowledge of Wikipedia with someone eager to learn. If you are interested in this opportunity, email james.hare@wikimediadc.org or just show up to an upcoming event.
  • Have something interesting to share about the Wikimedia projects, free knowledge, open source software, open data, or open government? We are looking for guest bloggers to make occasional contributions to our blog. Your writing will be shared with the broader Wikimedia community here in DC and around the world. Feel free to email recommendations to james.hare@wikimediadc.org.
  • Our organization is aided by the advise of our committees. We have three committees focused on programs: Content Programs Committee, Technology Programs Committee, and Community Programs. We also have committees dedicated to fundraising, governance, public policy, and technical infrastructure. If you are interested in serving on any of these committees, send an email to info@wikimediadc.org.

Thank you very much for your interest. We hope to see you help out at Wikimedia DC!

The Great American Wiknic and other events in July

A Wikimedia DC sign from the Great American Wiknic

I am pleased to announce our fourth annual picnic, the Great American Wiknic, will take place at Meridian Hill Park in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, July 13 from 1 to 5 PM (rain date: July 20). We will be hanging out by the statue of Dante Alighieri, a statue that was donated to the park in 1921 as a tribute to Italian Americans. Read more about the statue on Wikipedia. If you would like to sign up for the picnic, you can do so here, or you could email James Hare at james.hare at wikimediadc.org. When signing up, say what you’re going to bring!

July will also feature the third annual Great American Wiknic in Frederick, Maryland. This year’s Frederick picnic will take place on Sunday, July 6 at Baker Park. Sign up here for the Frederick picnic.

What else is going on in July? We have the American Chemical Society Edit-a-Thon on Saturday, July 12, dedicated to notable chemists, and our monthly WikiSalon on Wednesday, July 16.

We hope to see you at our upcoming events!

Introducing Wikipedia Summer of Monuments

Today’s post is by Leo Zimmermann, our newly minted Project Manager for Wikipedia Summer of Monuments. You can contact him directly at leo.zimmermann at wikimediadc.org. We are very excited to have him on board as we embark on our largest outreach campaign yet! –James Hare

Wikipedia Summer of Monuments logo

Hello friends,

As we come into the longest days of the year, we prepare for the “Summer of Monuments” campaign, focusing especially on those Southern states whose history and present are underrepresented on Wikimedia Commons. These are a contiguous block of states extending from the East Coast to the middle of the country: Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma, & Kansas.

At the forefront of this effort will be local historians, librarians, photographers, and anyone else working passionately to preserve and analyze our culture. We are pleased that we can offer prizes to the best photographers and to the institution that contributes the most valuable collection. But we also hope to demonstrate how Wikimedia Commons can be a valuable ally for historians—an amazing free resource for sharing and preserving their materials.

If all goes well, we can use our Monument momentum to develop Wikipedia even further in some of these less-digitized areas. We are seeking communities (be they interested in a specific location or in a theme, such as the civil rights movement) that we can support in their use of Wikipedia to catalogue and preserve the resources and information they value.

We are also calling all Wikipedians who live and work in these ten Southern states to join us in this project, and to share with us their ideas for creatively expanding our collective encyclopedic project.

Happy summer, everybody!


Leo Zimmermann

Wikimedia DC

Local history—now on Wikipedia

Attendees at the Laurel History Edit-a-thon

Attendees at the Laurel History Edit-a-thon



Did you know what the Laurel Sanitarium was?

The Laurel Sanitarium was a prominent mental health facility and women’s nursing home, built in 1905 to treat mental illness and addiction. The sanitarium treated as many as 50,000 patients from its opening until 1963, when its founder Jesse C. Coggins died. The building was subsequently demolished in 1964 to make way for the Laurel Shopping Center. Part of the building grounds were sold to the county government of Prince George’s County, Maryland, which eventually led to the construction of Laurel High School.

I learned about this demolished sanitarium from the humble, two-paragraph Wikipedia article on the subject, linked above. This piece of Maryland local history was not documented on Wikipedia until November 16, 2013, when it was one of the new articles contributed as part of the Laurel History Edit-a-thon. The Laurel Historical Society hosted this gathering, with the assistance of Wikimedia DC, to help improve Wikipedia’s coverage on notable pieces of local history.

To support this effort, we had access to a treasure trove that you can’t find on the Internet: archival copies of the Laurel Leader newspaper, dating back decades. If you look at the references section of the Laurel Sanitarium article, you will see three citations made to an article published in the Laurel Leader, in addition to two online sources. The article in question, “Laurel Landmark Passes As New Community Is Planned On Site,” was published in the Leader on August 27, 1964, and now serves as the source for most of the article.

Wikipedia requires that its millions of articles be based on information already published in reliable sources. To an eager Wikipedian at his or her computer, the easiest reliable source to find is an online source. Yet by partnering with a local historical society—very much in the business of collecting historical sources—we have enabled access to a harder-to-find source of information. We can use this information to help bring Wikipedia closer to completion.

Wikipedia’s mission is to make the world’s information available to all for free, and the help of the Laurel Historical Society and other local historical societies helps make this possible. I would like to thank Lindsey Baker and Abram Fox for organizing the edit-a-thon this past November. Wikimedia DC is very much interested in more of these kinds of events, so if you have any ideas, do let us know at info@wikimediadc.org!

The Annual Meeting is upon us!

Annual Meeting 2013 logoHello, everyone!

Each year, as the bylaws require, Wikimedia DC hosts its annual membership meeting. The members of Wikimedia DC have the power to propose and vote on binding resolutions at these meetings, and indeed, will get the opportunity to approve our annual budget.

Mundane stuff aside, we are hard at work putting together the best annual meeting Wikimedia DC can provide. I can’t give away too many details yet, since the program is not yet finalized, but here is what we know for sure:

  • The annual meeting is on Saturday, November 9 from 12 – 4 PM. Lunch will be served!
  • This year it will take place at the U.S. National Archives, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. We’re excited about this particular venue for a number of reasons. For one, we’ve held a number of events with the National Archives over the years, and with their new full-time Wikipedian we anticipate an even stronger relationship.
  • We are hosting a discussion panel featuring GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums) professionals, providing their perspectives on Wikipedia and the cultural sector. More details will come as the panelists are finalized.
  • We will also be announcing our annual plan for 2013–14, including plans for a collaboration space in DC where we will be holding events!

Can you think of a better way to spend a Saturday afternoon in November than hanging out with fellow Wikipedia enthusiasts over lunch provided by Wikimedia DC?

Be sure to RSVP here!

Wikipedia Takes Baltimore and Richmond in September (but not D.C.)


Richmond Light Infantry Blues-Armory, (6th and Marshall Sts.,) Richmond, Virginia; postmarked 1915.

Richmond Light Infantry Blues-Armory in Richmond, Virginia; postmarked 1915. Courtesy VCU Libraries


September is coming in a few days, which means it’s time once again for Wiki Loves Monuments! Wiki Loves Monuments is the largest photography contest in the world, with the goal of documenting the world’s cultural heritage sites. This year it will take place on all seven continents. That’s right: all seven continents!

Save the date!

Wikipedia Takes Baltimore:

Saturday, September 21 at 1 PM

Wikipedia Takes Richmond:

Saturday, September 21 at 12 PM

The United States first participated in the contest last year, and photographers from throughout the country contributed over 22,000 photographs of national historic sites. We want to keep the momentum going this year, so as part of the national Wikipedia Takes America campaign, we have organized two photography expeditions with the help of local volunteers: Wikipedia Takes Baltimore and Wikipedia Takes Richmond. Both expeditions are taking place on Saturday, September 21. As the date of each expedition approaches, we will post a list of entries on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) that need pictures. Anyone with a camera is welcome to participate!

Each picture of a notable, historic site in the United States uploaded to Wikimedia Commons during the month of September is entered into the Wiki Loves Monuments USA contest, with the top three winning cash prizes! The contributor of the best photograph wins $500, while second and third prizes are $300 and $150. The best ten photographs are submitted to the international contest for consideration, where the top prize is a free trip to Wikimania 2014 in London!

Why is there no scheduled expedition for Washington, D.C. this year?

While we do have scheduled events for Baltimore and Richmond, we have declined to organize a local event in D.C. this year. This is because every single NRHP site in the District has a photograph on Wikipedia—see for yourself. Seeing the mission of Wiki Loves Monuments has been accomplished in D.C., we encourage those who live in the D.C. area to take some time to go to those places that still need photographic coverage, including Baltimore, Richmond, and nearby Berkeley County, West Virginia (just take the MARC to Martinsburg). If you’re interested but you need a ride, let us know and we’ll try to arrange a carpool.

Meanwhile, if you do take pictures of NRHP sites in Washington and upload them during September, they still qualify as submissions to the Wiki Loves Monuments contest.

Have fun! We’ll keep you posted with contest updates throughout September and October.

Smithsonian Field Notes and Wikipedia

Former President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) and other members of his expedition party from the Smithsonian Roosevelt African Expedition stand next to an American flag. Roosevelt is standing to the left of the flag with his head to the side. Other men in the image include Kermit Roosevelt, Edgar Alexander Mearns, and John Alden Loring. On this trip, Roosevelt collected natural history specimens for the United States National Museum (now National Museum of Natural History) and live animals for the National Zoological Park

Former President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) and other members of his expedition party from the Smithsonian Roosevelt African Expedition stand next to an American flag. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Wikimedia DC has hosted several edit-a-thons with the Smithsonian Institution over the past several months, including the Civil War and American Art Edit-a-Thon and Women in the Arts 2013. Our latest event with the Institution focused on the Smithsonian Institution Archives’ collection of field notes. Effie Kapsalis, who organized the workshop, wrote an excellent summary on the Archives’ blog:

This past Friday, we held our 3rd Wikipedia edit-a-thon on the scientific field books in the Smithsonian Institution Archives’ collections (field books are primary source documents that describe the events leading up to and including the collection of specimens or observations during field research). All told, we had 18 volunteers who donated their entire Friday to work on articles related to explorers and expeditions held in our collections. Amongst the 18 were a husband/wife team, and a father-daughter team. 

Participants gathered over coffee in the morning to hear more about the Archives and the Field Book project, a partnership between the Archives and the National Museum of Natural History which seeks to create a single online location for scientific field books. The talk was followed by a tour of the Russell E. Train Africana Collection, a special collection housed in the Smithsonian Institution Libraries which contains several thousand manuscripts, photographs, original artwork and prints, posters, maps, ephemera, and man-made and natural artifacts relating to exploration, big game hunting, wildlife, and travel in Africa dating from 1663 to the late 1990s. The tour provided rich context for one of the articles on our to-do list, the Smithsonian-Roosevelt African Expedition.

After lunch, we got down to business and worked on our to-do list for the remainder of the afternoon. I am happy to report that as a group, we worked on all but one of the items on the to-do list. Even better, each explorer/scientist or expedition received attention from more than one, if not several, Wiki editors which makes for a stronger article in the end. Here is a list of the people that now have Wikipedia articles as a result of this gathering:

  1. Theodore Roosevelt on African Expedition, by Unknown, 1909, Smithsonian Archives – History Div, SIA2009-1371 and SA-943.

    Argentinian botanist, Cleofé Elsa Calderón who rediscovered Anomochloa, a genus of grass, which led to a detailed morphological and anatomical study that confirmed it as a grass. Calderón also has a genus of grass names for her, Calderonella.

  2. Mammologist and field naturalist, John Alden Loring, who served on several expeditions collecting specimen in North America, Europe, and Africa.
  3. Ornithologist, James Eike, President and long-standing executive committee member of the Virginia Society of Ornithology and creator of over 111 field books.
  4. The Smithsonian-Roosevelt African Expedition, an expedition organized by then U.S. President, Theodore Roosevelt, which amassed over 23,151 natural history specimens. 

If you’d like to contribute, we could use your help expanding the articles on the Explorers & Expeditions to-do list. If you’d prefer to start fresh on a new Wikipedia article, we have on our main to-do list from past edit-a-thons which needs some attention and care from volunteers like you. In any case, next time you cite a Wikipedia page for information, remember the many hands that went into creating and editing that page.

Much thanks to Effie and her colleagues for organizing the workshop, as well as to the National Museum of Natural History for hosting! Be sure to check out the Smithsonian’s to-do list for Wikipedia articles and dive right in. If you would like an experienced Wikipedia editor to guide you along, check out one of our upcoming events and feel free to ask. We’re happy to help!

Getting to Know You, GLAM

Dominic McDevitt-Parks during Campus Ambassador training

GLAM, the Wikimedian acronym for Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums, equates to more than just the institutions categorized by the letters. It also encompasses the merging of communities. On August 13, 2012, Dominic McDevitt-Parks, the wikipedian-in-residence at the National Archives and Records Administration since May 2011, gave a talk labeled “Cultural Institutions and Wikipedia: a Mutually Beneficial Relationship” on what a symbiotic relationship between Wikipedia and a cultural institution can look like.

Introducing Dominic was Wikimedia DC’s own Kristin Anderson, who described the Wikipedian community to the Library of Congress audience as “the only people who like information as much as library catalogers are Wikipedians…Wikipedia and the Library of Congress share Thomas Jefferson’s dream of…information for everyone.”

In his talk, Dominic broke down how cultural institutions and Wikipedia can work together to form mutually beneficial partnerships. If the goal of an institution is to encourage the use of its materials, Wikipedia is a natural fit, being the 5th largest internet site. Dominic gave numbers and a visual to put it all into perspective. The National Archives website gets 17 million views a day. In contrast, a very conservative estimate of the number of views that the Wikipedia articles that use National Archives material receive every day is well over a hundred million. This isn’t pointing at a problem, but at a fact, and one that can lead to a solution for many institutions; Wikipedia provides a ready-made platform to spread not only information through articles, but also to put up source documents on sister projects Wikisource and Wikimedia Commons.

The National Archives takes full advantage of this online volunteer community by encouraging local Wikipedians to come to scan-a-thons and the online Wikipedian community to tag the uploaded scans and transcribe the text documents on WikiSource. Due to the tireless efforts of many Wikipedians, well over a hundred thousand documents have been scanned in and transcribed.

Even if the question of whether or not Wikipedia is a reliable source is raised, if a person sees a mistake on Wikipedia, it is up to him or her to make the change. Unlike other encyclopedias or collections, if people find a mistake on Wikipedia or one of its sister projects, they can correct it. There is a large community of editors watching to make sure the information is as accurate as possible. Recognizing that its own information is not infallible, the Archives has created a feedback page on its own website for people to post mistakes and corrections on.

Dominic summarized the role of a Wikipedian-in-residence nicely: the Wikipedian-in-residence provides access to the institution to the Wikipedia community and vice versa, which brings about not only community engagement, but also culture change within the institution itself, making it more open and accessible to the layperson. This is change which the National Archivist David Ferriero heartily embraces and encourages, in the words of one blogger during the National Archives ExtravaSCANza in 2011, “If it’s good enough for the National Archivist, it’s good enough for you.”

Lisa Marrs, Outreach & Program Coordination, Wikimedia DC