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A Wiki Grows at EPA

The February 4, 2008 issue of Government Computer News carries an interesting interview:

Molly O’Neill | EPA the Web 2.0 way
GCN Interview By Joab Jackson
http://www.gcn.com/print/27_3/45741-1.html?topic=&CMP=OTC-RSS

The article talks about some of the EPA’s experiments with web 2.0 technologies including wikis. One of the wikis arose out of the Puget Sound Information Challenge:

So we decided to use the mashup camp as our staging area for the wiki. We had a form on the wiki site that you could download, fill out and send in. We also sent up an e-mail address and a phone number.

It was a little scary because we hadn’t told anyone about this beforehand. What if no one contributed? That wasn’t a problem — we had so many people interested and providing useful information.

We had people building applications. National librarians were culling data for library resources. We had people help organize it. The interesting thing was to watch how many hits we were getting through social networking. People took my e-mail and sent it to other people, who sent it off to even more people. We had a blog from Germany weigh in. We had over 17,000 page views and 175 good contributions.

We learned a lot, and we delivered something as well — in fact, several of us are going to Seattle to meet with the council to talk about these tools. They have to write a strategic plan, so maybe they could write a strategic plan with the wiki online. Instead of spending months trying to gather data, they could do it a lot faster using social networking.

Wikis are interesting animals as government documents. While they are very changable, wikis carry their own version control. Think about what implications that might have if you think a wiki is worth saving for preservation. Would you try to copy every version? Take a snapshot once a month? Or decide it was ephemera you didn’t need? We’d like to know what you think. If you’d like to see EPA’s Puget Sound wiki for yourself, please visit http://pugetsound.epageo.org/.

As a tool for quickly gathering community input, I think EPA is onto something. Especially if most contributers are identified. It would become easier to distinguish special interest group input from regular community input. Or at least the potential is there.

Aside from the wiki, the interview has a great insight from Ms. O’Neill that I think has relevancy to the library community. She is asked "Why do you think federal agencies have such a hard time disseminating information on the Web? " and the last part of her answer is:

But the third reason is that we tend to organize data in a way that it makes sense to us. Although this is changing a little bit now, at EPA we still primarily organize our data by how we are organized as an agency. People outside the agency don’t think of things that way. They get frustrated because they want all the information about a subject, like climate change or environmental indicators. So where do they go? We’re doing a lot to improve search on our site. When you do a search on the main page, it will give you folder options. When you type in “waste water,” it will organize by folder topics like stormwater or industrial effluent.

This is both warning and opportunity for libraries. The warning is that we also tend to organize data in a way that makes sense to us in databases (catalogs) that make sense to us but not to users. But the good news is that one of the ways we organize materials is by subject. And documents librarians are very good about searching across agency boundaries for materials. It’s one of the many ways we add value to government information.

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1 Comment

  1. jajacobs says:

    There was an interesting story about how the federal government is using wikis behind the scenes as a tool to collect and organize information.

    Agencies Share Information By Taking a Page From Wikipedia, By Stephen Barr, Washington Post, Monday, January 28, 2008; page D01.

    In a wiki that is not open to the public or Congress,  "federal agencies compiled a database of 13,496 earmarks in 10 weeks. In the old days, it would have taken six months to get the information to the OMB."

    It also mentions the intelligence community’s "Intellipedia."

     

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