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Wiki by Wiki

by / November 8, 2007

Two years ago, I mused about wikiGovernment as a quick way for a subject-matter expert within government to tell the world, "What I know is." There was no way to know how much wikis would wind their way into the relationship between the public and public servants.

Enter 24-year-old California Institute of Technology graduate student and self-described disruptive technologist Virgil Griffith, and his WikiScanner -- a data mining tool that traces Internet protocol (IP) addresses of those who make Wikipedia changes. 

Griffith conceived the idea when he heard about, "Congressmen getting caught for white-washing their Wikipedia pages," and wondered whether it could be done on a massive scale and indexed.

The result was a database of 34.4 million edits made to the English version of Wikipedia between February 2002 and August 2007, and the 187,529 organizations that made them. 

Within those totals were 206 organizations using the dot-gov domain to make 74,131 edits in Wikipedia. Put another way, governments account for one-tenth of 1 percent of the organizations and two-tenths of 1 percent of the total edits during that time.

State and local governments accounted for 37 percent of the active governments responsible for one-quarter of Wikipedia edits -- the lion's share is attributed to federal agencies.

Griffith concedes that there's no way to know whether agents of these organizations made the changes, but, "We do know that edit came from someone with access to their network."

NASA tops the list with 6,846 edits, but four states and three local governments ranked among the top 30 Wikipedia editors:

  • California ( 4,148 edits
  • New York City ( 2,404 edits
  • Connecticut ( 2,398 edits
  • North Dakota ( 2,140 edits
  • Virginia ( 1,047 edits
  • Philadelphia ( 871 edits
  • King County, Wash. ( 783 edits

Wikipedia changes originating from public agencies' IP ranges are eclectic. Edits from the New York Police Department delete information about the department's infiltration of peace groups and question assertions about falling crime.

Edits from a Detroit city IP defend the city's mayor amid mentions of controversies that swirl around his office. Edits by someone using network access through the Washington State Department of Information Services attempted to tie the Jack Abramoff bribery scandal to a West Coast law firm. That's much tamer than some of the salacious highlights of federal agency edits, which reflect a mix of national security concerns, conspiracy theories and petty vandalism.

Beyond the headline grabbers are 74,000 other edits, which appear to be routine and often arcane clarifications of articles on everything from aging in place to water fluoridation. Public employees have begun to help make sure the information on this growingly important reference is accurate and complete. Some ethics officials have already signed off on this activity -- a tacit recognition that this is part of what the future of work looks like.

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Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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