Online Native Ventures Off: Wikipedia Released on CD


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Change is normal for articles on Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia. An entry can look one way at 11 a.m. and completely different at 11:10. One recent Wikipedia project, however, represents a more fundamental change than any edit: Wikipedia articles are being made available offline.

Wikipedia is well-known as one of the most extensive global web-based collaboration projects. However, the über-wiki is being made available for purchase on disc as well as for download and offline use. Released this spring, Wikipedia Version 0.5 is a compact disc collection of 2,000 articles pulled from the English Wikipedia.

Version 0.5 is the first offline release from the English-language Wikipedia, though founder Jimmy Wales suggested the idea in 2003. It resulted from a yearlong collaboration between the St. Petersburg, Florida-based Wikimedia Foundation and Linterweb, a French technology company handling production.

The English Wikipedia is not alone in releasing its content offline. Wikipedia Poland has compiled articles for a DVD release while the Wikipedia Germany community offers a snapshot of its entries for free download (http://dvd.wikimedia.org/). However these communities used "just a quick check" by way of editing articles rather than a comprehensive process comparable to what was used for Version 0.5, according to Florence Devouard, chair of the board of trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation.

The Version 0.5 project is intended to help fulfill the Wikimedia Foundation’s aim of helping share the world’s information, according to Emmanuel Engelhart, the Wikipedia France editor who orchestrated the collaboration. “A lot of people do not have access to the internet or only have a small connection,” says Engelhart. “We need a solution to bring Wikipedia to these people.”

The disc includes articles on all countries, major cities, and chemical elements as well as general entries within topics like “Philosophy and Religion” and “Applied Science and Technology.” The disc sells for $13.90 on Linterweb’s site, where one can also download the collection for free. Linterweb donates 15% of gross revenue to the Wikimedia Foundation, according to Devouard.

Martin Walker, a chemistry professor at the State University of New York at Potsdam helps lead the ongoing selection and editing effort for the Version 0.5 project and future releases. “We just picked articles that seemed important,” he says. “We review by hand and if an article is badly written, unless it’s on an important topic, it gets omitted.”

The project also aimed to create a portable Wikipedia resource, Walker says. “Even if you’re Bill Gates with broadband access in your limousine, you might want a copy to look at on the plane,” he says.

As the project’s target audience includes school children, every article included in the CD was screened for obscenity using a “bad words” script. “The CD version is a safer version. In the school room you don’t want some obscene picture appearing,” he says.

Though Wikipedia is lauded for its self-correcting editorial process, articles slated for inclusion in Version 0.5 were held to even higher standards than most Wikipedia articles, Engelhart says.

Walker’s team instituted a five-tier article-grading system to beef up potential inclusions. An article begins as a “stub,” and as it gains content and references it progresses into a “start,” then a “B+,” then an “A+,” and finally a “featured article” eligible for inclusion.

Walker brought this system over from the community of students and Ph.D.s working on chemical entries. He says it’s since been taken up by editors in other Wikipedia projects. “One of the side benefits of this whole project has been a drive towards quality,” he says.

According to Walker, the higher accuracy standards spurred by the Version 0.5 project have led to serious discussion of a Wikipedia fact-checking system that would create “an electronic paper trail” for factual assertions online alongside the usernames of the editors who checked them. A version of this feature is being tested on his campus, Walker says.

With a fact-checking system, future releases could compete more favorably with established encyclopedias like Britannica. “If we can do these things,” Walker says, “I’d like to think maybe we can produce a product that’s better than Britannica currently is.” Engelhart says work continues on Version 0.7, which will include 20,000 English articles.

“The next release we hope to have in Wal-Mart,” Walker says. He believes future releases can best compete with established encyclopedias by offering niche collections.

“Currently we may have 1,000 chemical reagents on Wikipedia and only ten of them might go in a general release. If we provide a more specialized release, we could include all 1,000,” he says. Engelhart says that few Version 0.5 CDs have been sold so far. For his part, Walker concedes that they’re being bought mostly by Wikipedia fans, though he says, “I indulge the thought that the people from Britannica bought a copy.”

(www.linterweb.fr; www.en.wikipedia.org; www.wikipediaondvd.com)