Wikimania 2008: MediaWiki use in the U.S. Department of State
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Sunday, July 20, 2008
The last day of the Wikimania 2008 conference saw Saturday morning sessions on a variety of topics. Wikinews attended a presentation by Eric M. Johnson from the United States Department of State. Eric, a former NCO in the U.S. Marines, is the lead for the Knowledge Management Action team in the department's Office of eDiplomacy, and involved in department's use of Web 2.0 technologies for knowledge management. This includes blogs, and the key focus of his talk, Wiki culture in the U.S. Department of State.
Eric opened his presentation with an introduction to the U.S. State Department, one of the oldest agencies of the American government, which today has around 57,000 employees worldwide. When formed in the 18th century their offices and diplomatic staff operated largely autonomously due to lack of ability to communicate rapidly. By the mid-20th century this had changed with the advent of telegraph lines, and changed again with the Cold War and security concerns bringing to the fore the well-known term, "need to know".
Now, in the 21st century, the volume of internal communication generated by the department is a staggering 1,800,000 cables a year, 1.5 billion emails, production of around 500,000 print volumes, and maintenance of approximately one thousand websites. Both internal and externally facing.
A pilot project was set up, Diplopedia, a MediaWiki wiki running on the department's internal network, which outside of the department of defence is one of the largest private networks operated by the U.S. government.
A grassroots effort, this project to promote knowledge sharing differs from the well-known Wikipedia in that it does not allow anonymous edits. There are around 1,000 registered users who have contributed over 4,400 pages. Integration with the Department of State's internal search engine prioritises results from the wiki, increasing the popularity of the site such that it has received over 650,000 page views. Like Wikipedia, users are required to provide sources for entered information at the foot of the article, and users are warned that it is a starting point and not an authoritative source of information. Data on visa requirements and information from other static department sites has been incorporated into the wiki.
Eric described the project as just reaching critical mass and attracting increasing interest from other departments. Among the ingredients leading to the success of the project were the cultural change with increasing awareness of the technology from Wikipedia, the formation by the community of a welcoming committee, and the taking on of roles to carry out tasks such as drafting. A number of staff act as "gardeners" tending to the wiki content, keeping it fresh, and well cross-referenced. The continual updating is a novel concept to many of their employees.
Unlike Wikipedia, and many other projects using MediaWiki, none of the Diplopedia pages are locked or protected. This even includes their main page. To date there have been none of the content disputes that have been an issue on Wikipedia, and the use of the wiki to replace traditional websites which are far more time consuming to maintain is seen as a logical extension of the project.
Carried out with no outside help, and by learning from others' mistakes, the department has adopted mechanisms for assuming that contributions are well-intentioned, and has a body for oversight in the event of a dispute.
With the success of the project, eDiplomacy plans to introduce a separate, classified wiki. They will also expand the effort to compile biographies of foreign leaders, which was pioneered by the U.S. missions in Italy and Germany. This effort has proven valuable when combined with a version of the site available on portable devices such as the Blackberry.
The future holds moves to seek more support from management and integration with their primary authentication system. Among the features on the main page to keep the project interesting to staff is a "Diploquiz" which poses a weekly trivia question which can be answered from somewhere within the wiki.
- Video of presentation (requires Windows Media Player v11)