I’m woefully late in noting the
AcaWiki. Mike does a good job exploring the
sweet spot AcaWiki
may fill between research blogging and open access journals, and where
AcaWiki fits into the wiki landscape. AcaWiki is interesting to me for
two reasons; first, I was the technical lead on the project†,
and second, it’s another recent example of building a site using
MediaWiki as a platform. More
specifically, we used MediaWiki along with Semantic
several other related extensions
as the platform for the site.
The idea of using a wiki for a community oriented site is far from new.
The difference here is that Neeru came to us talking about specific ways
people could interact with the site — specific structured data she
wanted to organize and capture about academic articles. For anyone
familiar with MediaWiki and Wikipedia, the obvious answer
Wikipedia uses them extensively to provide a consistent presentation for
parts of an articles (messages about the article, citations, etc). The
catch is that for someone coming to a site for the first time, who
perhaps has not edited a wiki previously, templates are a bit of inside
— you need to know which one to use, and you need to know how to format
them in your article. Of course these are trainable skills, but I
suspect for many users they’re non-obvious. Semantic Forms lets us
provide a form for entering these fields, which is then translated to a template.
The question that comes up when discussing this approach with
non-wiki-philes is, “why use a wiki at all? if all you need are
forms, why not just whip it up in Rails, Django, etc?” The question is a
good one — a specialized tool almost always has the potential to look
fantastic compared to an off the shelf one. And who wants to learn that
weird markup syntax, anyway? The thing is, at the end of the day,
AcaWiki isn’t a software project, it’s a community project. There isn’t
a team of engineers available to help move the toolset forward. There
isn’t staff available to fix bugs and write migration scripts. So using
off the shelf tools with active communities is essential to achieving
any amount of scalability.
As Mike points out, there are some niches AcaWiki seems primed to fill.
While working on the site, however, it was clear there are lots of
unanswered questions about how that will actually happen. AcaWiki, like
many sites that seek to serve a community of interest in a given area,
is an emerging application. The data schema isn’t well defined, and we
don’t necessarily know how users are going to interact with the site.
The goal is to get something that users can use in place; something that
provides just enough structure to encourage newcomers, while retaining
the plasticity and flexibility needed to grow and evolve.
As I mentioned before, this is not the first “application” we’ve built
using this tool chain; we use MediaWiki and Semantic MediaWiki at
Creative Commons in many places. We use
it to track Events our
community puts together, and we use it to track things we’d like
developers to work on
(NB: the latter is woefully out of date and stagnated; perhaps a
negative use case for this sort of tool). We even built a system for
tracking grants and
projects using it.
Using MediaWiki and Semantic MediaWiki as an application platform isn’t
appropriate for every project and it isn’t a cure all; there are real
limitations, like any off the shelf system. In some cases these issues
are magnified due to the fact that it’s not explicitly designed as a
platform. For applications that rely on community involvement and that
are only partially defined, it usually either gets the job done, or
brings us far enough along with minimal effort that we can see what the
real problem we’re trying to solve is.
AcaWiki is an exciting experiment in building community around academic
research and knowledge. It’s also another in a line of interesting
experiments with building applications in a different, organic manner.
There’s some interesting work in the pipeline for AcaWiki, including
data dumps, a shiny
and improvements to the forms and templates used. The most interesting
work, however, will be the work done by the community.
† AcaWiki’s founder, Neeru Paharia, was one of CC’s earliest
employees, and she turned to the CC technology
team for help with this project.
|tags:||acawiki, cc, mediawiki, platforms, semantic mediawiki, smw, wiki