Wikidata: Why it matters, how to get started

Wikidata is a new member of the Wikimedia family, and helps many language editions of Wikipedia share structured information.

Wikidata is a new member of the Wikimedia family, and helps many language editions of Wikipedia share structured information.

Have you heard of Wikidata? It’s a (fairly) new Wikimedia project, designed to support Wikipedia in all language editions, Wikimedia Commons, and the rest of the Wikimedia family of wikis. It collects information — like the information in Wikipedia articles, for instance — in a structured way, that makes it easy to share that information across languages and across projects. And best of all, it’s based on a (heavily customized) wiki — so if you’ve edited Wikipedia before, it should be pretty easy to get started on Wikidata!

My colleague Tom Morris, a London-based Wikipedian, announced a nice way to get to know Wikidata the other day, in an email to the Wikipedia gender gap email list. He agreed to have it excerpted here, and we hope it will help you get to know Wikidata, and pitch in a little. Tom tells us:

I wanted to tell everyone about a new game that Magnus Manske has
created, called ‘Wikidata – The game!

As games go, it’s not tremendously exciting – it’s not going to be peeling too many people away from their Xboxes or Nintendos.

In fine English tradition, Tom uses pointed understatement: this “game” is no action-packed adventure. What is it, then? A very, very easy tool that allows anyone to improve Wikidata’s information. All you do is look at a snippet of information from the database, and then click one of three buttons. The “game” will then make the relevant edits to Wikidata — which will show up in your contribution history just as though you had done them on the Wikidata site yourself! Tom goes on to describe the “gender” mode, in which you categorize people as male, female, or unknown. I’ll let you read his original email for those specifics; but what I most want to share are his concluding remarks:

But why bother? Why should we care about making sure Wikidata accurately reflects the gender of its subjects?

1. It builds the future capacity of a replacement to the category system. Currently, we have a category system that turns identity into politics. We saw this on English Wikipedia with the “American women novelists” debacle: articles about female writers being moved from being in the main “American novelists” category into a gender-specific category. Some of the women who were thus moved objected on the basis that this was a form of ghettoisation of women’s voices, and also pointed out that men weren’t being equally moved to “American men novelists”.

The categories for discussion debates on English Wikipedia have become a place where identity politics plays out: should we have an “LGBT scientists” category? In come the people to argue that someone being LGBT is somehow a non-essential or non-central part of that person’s identity. As it is for gender, so it is for religion and nationality. The flipside to this argument is that having categories based on gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity and religion enables readers to find people. The gay kid who thinks all gay men are stereotypically effeminate men working as beauticians can be disabused of that notion by looking through the ‘LGBT sportspersons’ category; the girl who has been told that women don’t go into science or engineering can do similarly by looking in the ‘Women scientists’ category. Wikidata may give us a way out of these kinds of conundrums by letting us slice up the world on a great number of different axes. Want to see all the gay Buddhist scientists from Morocco? Fire up some future Wikidata powered faceted semantic search system that one day we’ll maybe integrate into Wikipedia and you can do just that.

2. It’ll enable us to monitor how well we’re doing on systemic bias and the gender gap. Wikidata operates across different versions of Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects. On ‘American women novelists’, how well is each language doing in covering them? Is English Wikipedia better or worse at covering women novelists writing in English than French Wikipedia is covering women novelists writing in French? If we can make the machine readable data in Wikidata good and comprehensive, we can use it to flag up shortcomings and systemic bias in how Wikipedias in different languages handle these kinds of sensitive identity topics like gender and ethnicity and nationality. Countering systemic bias and the gender gap among article subjects isn’t only an English language problem: Wikimedia is a global movement, and finding weak spots and opportunities to improve in all languages is something we should try and do.

If you haven’t played around with Wikidata, give it a go. Get yourself logged in with an account and go through the OAuth process, then you can start playing the games that Magnus has created and help build a system that can be used to monitor and improve coverage across Wikipedias.

Don’t worry, that’s not as complicated as it might sound! If you’re logged into Wikipedia, just visit Wikidata, and your account should move right over. Then click into Wikidata: The Game, and follow the prompts. (Note, you will need click an “allow” button permitting a bunch of scary-sounding stuff; go ahead and click it, this is a trustworthy app.)

Wikidata is still at very early stages and you sort of have to have faith in what it could end up being in a few years time rather than being able to see immediate results now. But getting there might be quite good fun.

Have you ever thought about the early days of Wikipedia, and what it might be like to have worked on it long before it became big and popular? Here’s your chance to find out! Wikidata is sure to become a core part of many improvements to Wikimedia technology, supporting significant improvements in the web site and the editorial product. So roll up your sleeves and give it a shot! This is going to be a lot easier than your first edit to Wikipedia was.

About Pete Forsyth

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, and a Wikipedia expert. Full bio here:
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