Raising civil engineering awareness via Wikipedia

A Wikipedia ‘Editathon’ at the Insitution of Civil Engineers aimed to encourage use of Wikipedia to raise awareness of the art and science of civil engineering.

wikipedia-logoLast month, I helped organise a Wikipedia Editathon at the Insitution of Civil Engineers in London. The event was the latest initiative of the ICE’s Information Systems Panel (of which I am a member) to encourage use of Wikipedia as a means to improve understanding of the art and science of civil engineering. It was also a somewhat delayed follow-up to an earlier ICE workshop, held in April 2012 (see From dead pigeons and a statue of King Kong to civil engineering).

The seventh most visited website on the internet

The importance of Wikipedia is well-known. The free online encyclopaedia anyone can edit, it is the seventh most visited website on the internet, with some 12bn page-views a month. These page views are divided across 287 language editions of Wikipedia; the English language version is the biggest – with over 4.3 million articles (August 2013) – with over 632m page-views a month from the UK alone. All content is created by volunteers and there are over 77,000 active editors (also known as Wikipedians) contributing to a total of around 200,000 edits a day. Through the enthusiasm and vigilance of these contributors, reference quality information is developed and maintained, helping share knowledge around the world, and its articles frequently appear high on search engine results pages.

While Wikipedia is sometimes criticised for the quality (and neutrality) of writing, vandalism and accuracy of information, and some articles do contain unverified and inconsistent information, the overall quality is high. A 2005 investigation by Nature showed that Wikipedia’s science articles were close to the level of accuracy of Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Wikipedians are now more insistent upon referencing reliable third-party sources of information.

Alongside Wikipedia, the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation also hosts several related Wiki projects, including Wikimedia Commons – a repository of over 18m freely available media files (including photographs, illustrations, videos, and audio files), many of which are used to illustrate Wikipedia articles – and the Wikisource free content library.

Civil engineering on Wikipedia

The English edition of Wikipedia includes thousands of articles on civil engineering, notable civil engineers and their work. Wikipedians have created an Engineering portal (and there are several related portals on areas such as transport, bridges, infrastructure, roadsrailways and aviation) and a civil engineering Wikiproject group is dedicated to improving Wikipedia’s coverage of related topics. The ICE and many of its most prominent members – from first President Thomas Telford to today’s chief construction advisor Peter Hansford – all have articles about them, but there remains considerable scope to expand and improve the content of these and other related articles.

ICE editathon - One Great George Street - 19 July 2013 36

ICE and Wikipedia

Recognising the importance of Wikipedia in disseminating knowledge about civil engineering, in 2012 the ICE’s Information Systems Panel canvassed staff and members regarding a Wikipedia workshop. As mentioned earlier, this was held at One Great George Street in April 2012, facilitated by Andy Mabbett, an experienced Wikipedia editor, who has been a Wikipedian in Residence at a number of GLAMs. With improved awareness of the potential of the Wikipedia and its related projects, it was agreed to hold a follow-up “Editathon”.

Institution of Civil Engineers - One Great George Street - LibraryThis was organised as a ‘GLAM’ (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) event, supported by Andy and the ICE’s library and archives team led by Carol Morgan. Attendees – a mix of Wikipedians and complete beginners – were given a tour of the building, shown where to access reference information and then began editing. Experienced editors worked on new articles included some suggested by Carol as subjects not currently covered in Wikipedia. Beginners made their first steps (creating user accounts, then starting new articles in ‘sandboxes’), learning about Wikipedia etiquette, subject notability, the importance of neutrality and of verifiability, while avoiding plagiarism.

By the end of the day, the pool of Wikipedia editors had grown, 70 photographs had been added to the Commons (including the ceiling and library shots above), and – with a few stumbles along the way – a dozen new articles on civil engineering had been created (see the GLAM/ICE page, which summarises the objectives, participants and outcomes). Some of these articles were then nominated as “Did You Know?” candidates where short facts and links are featured on the English Wikipedia home page. Within days, two articles – on Geoffrey Binnie (which I started) and Thomas Yeoman – had been listed, each getting over 1000 page views in just a few hours.

I am hoping this kind of initiative might be undertaken by other engineering and construction-related institutions (RIBA, IStructE, IMechE, IET, etc). Many have similar objectives to the ICE in terms of disseminating information about their profession or improving public understanding of their discipline, and few platforms have quite the reach of Wikipedia.

Editing Wikipedia

As I’ve mentioned before, I have been editing Wikipedia since October 2003, and believe it presents a powerful global platform for information to be shared and to help improve understanding of all subjects and disciplines, not just civil engineering. So how could you make a start as an editor?

Once you’ve created your user name, helpful contributions can be as simple as correcting grammar or spelling mistakes in articles, or adding references to reliable sources. More substantial contributions might include the creation of new articles, which, once published, can be monitored on your watchlist. Care is needed in writing about your employer (or a client or a competitor) or about a project where you are involved: Wikipedia has clear guidelines on conflicts of interest, but it is possible to collaborate with other editors – exchanging views via article or user ‘talk’ pages – to ensure that the necessary balance and neutrality is maintained.

Wikipedia ‘fixing’ – trying to “massage” the facts presented in a Wikipedia article – can be seriously damaging to an organisation’s reputation. This is one reason that the Chartered Institute of Public Relations worked with the Wikimedia Foundation UK and published guidelines on the subject in June 2012, and it remains a challenge for many PR and marketing people. Having contributed to the best practice guidance, I have also provided training and consultancy advice to clients on how to appropriately manage inaccuracies in Wikipedia articles and how to engage with other users. And – having done a CIPR social summer session on Wikipedia last June (post) – I will be delivering a couple of CIPR webinars about Wikipedia next month.

(Photos By Andy Mabbett (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)


2 pings

  1. It was a pleasure working with you and the ICE.

    • mantar engineering on 27 August 2013 at 2:19 pm
    • Reply

    I’m a massive fan of wiki, it’s a very useful platform to gather accurate information on your chosen subject.

  2. I run a small / new civil engineering consultants and WIKI is a great tool for learning about certain geological elements or the history of certain companies.

    That said he ICE library is the best thing it has in its building, with a rich source of engineering knowledge.The ICE has an unhealthy obsession with management and contracts and do well to remember that it is technical skills not commercial skills which are central its is history. Brunel’s projects were often late and overbudget.

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