At first, they pitched a story. They’re journalists, after all. And they wanted to look into Wikipedia. It was March, Rob Ford was still in the running for Toronto’s mayor, and they wanted to uncover the edit wars happening back and forth between campaigns.
But the whole purpose of the Center for Investigative Reporting’s TechRaking event is to bring a new perspective to journalism, and the product developers there pushed back at Luke Simcoe, a data journalist at Metro News Canada, and the rest of the digital team. What if instead of creating a story, they made a product so people could find the answers for themselves?
The result, after Metro’s pitch was picked and the team worked with product developers from The Working Group, is something that does just that, in beta for now — WikiWash. It’s pretty simple, too. Plug in a Wikipedia URL on a topic, then hit “wash.” You’ll see edits as they happen, the 50 most recent edits, plus you can click on the usernames of those editors and see what else they’ve been up to. And as of Thursday, WikiWash is now open source, meaning the code is available for people to customize and improve it.
“We learned that whilst there were lots of tools available for surfacing different types of stories, most had a steep learning curve and focussed on analyzing historical activity rather than surfacing data in real time,” said Holly Knowlman with The Working Group, in an email. “It is this real time component that makes WikiWash different, giving users the ability to track Wikipedia edits as they occur, following breaking stories as they are written.”
Simcoe and Metro’s digital team started out thinking of a story about the people behind the edit wars on Wikipedia. Now, he thinks the real story is about Wikipedia itself and WikiWash can help “promote knowledge of what our defacto archive is up to.”
CIR’s event in Toronto was one in a series of TechRaking events, bringing together journalists with designers.
“All the design challenges focused on how to unlock access to data,” said Joaquín Alvarado, chief executive officer with CIR, in a phone interview.
“WikiWash was an amazing opportunity for us to take what we know about designing and developing software and apply that to creating a cool tool for public good,” Knowlman said.
And part of that process, she said, meant auditing Wikipedia’s current engagement tools.
“This taught us that there are many options out there already for tracking and analyzing Wikipedia edits. Examples include WikiWatchdog, a clone of the now-defunct Wikiscanner, which highlights Wikipedia pages edited anonymously from within a specified organization, and Wikistats.co, which ranks pages based on the number of edits.”
WikiWash, however, is more simple, Simcoe said in a phone interview. And he has been surprised, he said, by the sheer volume of edit wars happening on Wikipedia. They found the page of a small town in Manitoba that’s going through a tug of war to show the town in a positive way, and they found that the person who was one of the most active editors on Rob Ford’s Wiki page also spent a lot of time grooming Gwyneth Paltrow’s.
“It’s really made me rethink a bit of what the tool can do,” he said. You can use it to catch bad-faith edits, “but it’s also a really great tool for learning more about how Wikipedia works.”
To Simcoe, it’s part of what journalism is now about — offering readers tools and services that they can use themselves.
Any features that come next for WikiWash will depend on how people are using it. Alvarado would like to see a pop-up window, for instance, to show how active a person is as a Wikipedia editor.
“We’re really curious about what kinds of stories will emerge – and we’d love to hear suggestions about ways we might be able to improve WikiWash in the future,” Knowlman said.
WikiWash can help users have deeper engagement, Alvarado said, and it helps them better understand how the site and the internet works. And from that perspective, it’s an important tool, he said, “because so much of what we’re trying to do is reimagine our relationship with readers and users.”