UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

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Spotlight on Wikipedia: the Opportunities and the Risks

Posted by Brian Kelly on 18 Nov 2013

 “Spotlight on the Digital” Meeting

Treasure chest image from the Spotlight on the Digital post

A post on the Spotlight on the Digital blog highlighted a ‘treasure chest’ of valuable services.

On Friday (15 November 2013) I attended a “Spotlight on the Digital” meeting at the Jisc offices in London. Spotlight on the Digital is a “collaboration between Jisc, RLUK and SCONUL to identify and disseminate fruitful approaches to make public funded digitized collections and their content items more discoverable for students and researchers (and the public more generally)“. As described in a blog post entitled Spotlight on the digital: how discoverable are your digitised collections? “The need for Spotlight emerged out of the concern that digitised collections are not as “discoverable” as they could be through the channels and devices most commonly accessed by users“.

After the introduction Martin Poulter gave the first brief presentation of the day in an agenda item titled “Infiltrating popular web destinations“. Martin, who is currently working as the Jisc Wikimedia Ambassador summarised the benefits which can be provided by Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects, but began by telling us how the title of the talk was misleading: rather than talking about infiltrating popular web destinations, providing information about scholarly and cultural resources using Wikipedia should be regarded as a means of celebrating the value, importance and significance of the resources.

I was pleased to support Martin’s brief presentation. I pointed out the need across the higher education sector to both highlight the benefits of Wikipedia and to provide advice and support for those who wished to contribute content to Wikipedia and other related services such as uploading images to Wikimedia Commons. However I also pointed out that there may be risks associated with using Wikipedia. But rather than ignoring such risks, those are feel that Wikipedia has an important role to play within the sector should be pro-active in documenting the risks and associated risk minimisation strategies. There is also, as Martin pointed out, a need to appreciate the risks of using conventional tools and services.

Risk Assessment and Risk Management

Back in 2008-2009 I was involved in the development of risk management strategies to assist those who wished to make institutional use of Web 2.0 services but were concerned about  comments such as “the services would not be sustainable“, “services were ‘walled gardens’“, “services were not available as open source“, “content hosted on Web 2.0 services could infringe copyright legislation“, etc. The proposed risk management strategies were initially described at an invited conference presentation given at the Bridging Worlds conference at the National Library of Singapore and subsequently published in the Program journal with a follow-up paper entitled Empowering Users and Institutions: A Risks and Opportunities Framework for Exploiting the Social Web” being presented at the CULTURAL HERITAGE online conference.

The risk management  framework involved documenting the following aspects of the proposed use of Social Web services:

Intended use: Rather than talking about Social Web services in an abstract context (“shall we have a Facebook page” for example) specific details of the intended use should be provided.

Perceived benefits: A summary of the perceived benefits which use of the Social Web service are expected to provide should be documented.

Perceived risks: A summary of the perceived risks which use of the Social Web service may entail should be documented.

Missed opportunities: A summary of the missed opportunities and benefits which a failure to make use of the Social Web service should be documented.

Costs: A summary of the costs and other resource implications of use of the service should be documented.

Risk minimisation: Once the risks have been identified and discussed approaches to risk minimisation should be documented.

Evidence base: Evidence which back up the assertions made in use of the framework.

It should be noted that it was pointed out that the framework could also be used with conventional tools and services which were procured and deployed locally; it would be a mistake to suggest that only Cloud services are liable to go out of business or be susceptible to changed terms and conditions.

Five years on from the initial paper there is now a much greater willingness to accept the value of Cloud services to support institutional activities, as is evident from Janet’s announcement earlier this year that “Over 18 million students and staff to benefit from faster, more secure cloud-computing” and the role that this Jisc service has in providing Cloud Services for Education Agreements which includes contracts for Microsoft Office 365 and Google Apps in Education.

But this does not mean that risks have gone away. Rather, I would argue, there is a need to have a better understanding of such risks and ways of addressing the risks or even accepting some levels of risks. After all there may be risks in getting out of bed in the morning and driving to work, but we are prepared to accept such risks!

In the case of Wikipedia I would highlight the following risks, the likelihood of the risks occurring and approaches for risk minimisation (or acceptance).

Risk Likelihood Risk minimisation
1 Wikipedia service is not sustainable. Not able to answer. As a global company the Wikimedia Foundation is able to seek funding from ventures around the globe. It is also successful in having a high profile.
2 Other Wikimedia services, such as Wikimedia Commons, are not sustainable. Not able to answer. See above.
3 Content hosted in Wikipedia changes. Very likely, but a feature not a risk! Wikipedia articles can be changed rapidly, which can be advantageous. Note that risks in use of conventional text books, which cannot be updated easily, such be highlighted as a risk in use of conventional teaching and research resources!
4 Content hosted in Wikipedia is deleted. Possible in some areas. Articles published Wikipedia can be deleted. If articles are merged with existing articles or renamed, appropriate redirects will be provided. Articles could also be deleted if they are felt not to be noteworthy. However in such cases articles are unlikely to be used in an institutional context.
5 Wikipedia user interface (UI) changes. Very likely, but a feature not a risk! The UI for Wikipedia services can (and does) change. However this is the norm for online services.

I’d welcome comments on this risk register. I should also add that there are associated risks in failing to make use of Wikipedia and in the risks not taking place! There are many opportunities which Wikipedia can provide, although this post focusses on the risks.

Although formal risk assessment approaches may not normally be taken for daily activities, they are relevant in areas such as companies which are to be floated on the stock market. I recall in 1995 receiving a copy of the prospectus which was published (as is legally required, I understand)  prior to the IPO of Netscape.  The prospectus highlighted several risks for potential investors, not least the fact that the main competitor for the new company would be Microsoft; Netscape’s major product would be free, as would be the product from its main competitor and business success on the Web was by no means (in 1995) guaranteed. Despite such reservations, as described in Wikipedia:

Netscape made a very successful IPO on August 9, 1995. The stock was set to be offered at $14 per share, but a last-minute decision doubled the initial offering to $28 per share. The stock’s value soared to $75 during the first day of trading, nearly a record for first-day gain. The stock closed at $58.25, which gave Netscape, an unprofitable firm, a market value of $2.9 billion. The company’s revenues doubled every quarter in 1995. Netscape’s success (which crystallized the “Netscape Moment”) landed Andreessen, barefoot, on the cover of Time Magazine.

Might it be appropriate for organisations, such as the Wikimedia Foundation, to publish a risk assessment for its projects? This would appear to be aligned with Wikimedia’s culture of openness and transparency. It would also make people more aware of the risks in using other services, such as the risks of using Google services  which subsequently became ‘sunsetted’.

3 Responses to “Spotlight on Wikipedia: the Opportunities and the Risks”

  1. Thanks very much for your contributions on the day, Brian, and sorry for misunderstanding the subtlety of your point when I tweeted about risks. I agree with the risk assessment in this blog post. Given the way Wikimedia projects differ from traditional scholarly publishing, some things that we’re used to thinking of as disadvantages are actually advantages, such as that article content is not fixed over time.

    Each year Wikimedia reaches its fundraising target in a shorter time: the strategy of relying on many thousands of tiny donations from people around the world has advantages, and could be said to be more sustainable than the funding for a lot of educational projects, or even for education institutions. The funding for outreach activity here in the UK (via the charity Wikimedia UK) is more in flux and depends on a changing international context. This is one more reason for donating directly to Wikimedia UK (which can also claim Gift Aid on donations).

    Risk analysis is central to the planning for Wikimedia both globally here and in the UK: not risk assessments for the individual projects, but for the movement as a whole. Here’s a recent Wikimedia Foundation risk assessment: and here is Wikimedia UK’s risk register: Wikipedia educational assignments need their own analyses, but fortunately they have been around for so long that the things that can go wrong have all happened already. This is why some of my outreach work that you’ve seen involves brainstorming a list of “things that could go wrong” and then discussing prevention or mitigation. Cheers!

  2. […] described in a comment on the UK Web Focus blog: “Each year Wikimedia reaches its fundraising target in a shorter time: the strategy of […]

  3. […] My Cetis colleague Brian Kelly, who also attended the workshop, has written up this thoughts on the role of Wikipedia in this context: Spotlight on Wikipedia: the opportunities and the risks. […]

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