Wikipedia and an open government initiative

The Cato Institute, a think tank and policy research outfit based in Washington, DC, is designing a system for organizing and indexing bills going through the U.S. Congress using XML. And they have invited Wikipedians to the party. I will be joining them next month in hosting a meeting to explore how a project of theirs can best serve Wikipedia, among other web services.

Cato Institute is not known as a neutral organization; indeed, their mission statement mentions limited government, individual liberty, and free markets. Their political positions often differ from my own, and maybe from yours.

So, skepticism is certainly called for. What can Cato and Wikipedia to do together, without either entity compromising its principles? It may not be immediately apparent; but I’d encourage you to take a closer look.

Jim Harper, the Cato staffer leading this project, has long been an advocate for transparency in government. He described Cato as a multi-faceted organization; his interest in Wikipedia is as a platform for working alongside others toward neutral, factual information, not as a tool for advancing a policy agenda.

This meeting is intended to support Jim’s project at Cato: a project fundamentally rooted in transparency and building bridges among politically diverse organizations. (Jim has blogged about transparency and working across the ideological spectrum here.) It’s a project that resonates strongly for me, aiming to address the kind of obstacles we encounter in trying to write articles about topics in government. This project has nothing to do with the Wikipedia article about Cato; and there’s no thought of editing policy articles to match Cato’s political or editorial agenda.

Cato is seeking to produce data and systems that will broadly appeal to organizations and individuals across the political system: something that makes it easier to compile basic factual information in a transparent way. Things like who sponsored a bill, what dates it has hearings, and what topic areas or past legislation it touches upon.

The meeting will be an opportunity for Wikipedians, along with various government transparency organizations and individual enthusiasts, to consider the best design for the system. There is no threat to Wikipedia; at worst, we can’t come up with a workable system, and Wikipedia will go on as it always has. But if we’re successful, we could end up producing a web service that helps Wikipedia editors find useful information as they compose articles; or even a bot which adds infoboxes or templates to articles. But any such outcome would only move forward if it has broad community buy-in; and as we all know, a tool that disseminates biased information would not exactly be an easy sell to the Wikipedia community.

If you agree that Wikipedia editors could benefit from better tools for researching bills in the U.S. Congress, and you’d like to weigh in on how such tools are designed, this is a rare opportunity. I hope you will consider joining us March 14 and 15 in Washington, DC; get more information here, or fill out this form to express your interest!

About Pete Forsyth

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, and a Wikipedia expert. Full bio here: wikistrategies.net/pete-forsyth
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