Fake news and Wikidata
By Mira Vogel, on 20 February 2017
James Martin Charlton, Head of the Media Department at Middlesex University and co-host of today’s Wikimedia Education Summit, framed Wikimedia as a defence against the fake news currently spread and popularised by dominant search engine algorithms. Fake news undermines knowledge as power and renders societies easily manipulable. This is one reason several programme leaders I work with – one of whom was at the event – have expressed interest in incorporating Wikimedia into their curricula. (Wikimedia is the collection of projects of which Wikipedia is the best known, but which also includes Wikivoyage, Wikisource and Wikimedia Commons).
Broadly there are two aspects to Wikimedia in education. One is the content – for example, the articles in Wikipedia, the media in Wikimedia Commons, the textbooks in Wikisource. All of this content is in the public domain, available to use freely in our projects and subject to correction and improvement by that public. The other aspect is process. Contributing to Wikimedia can qualify as higher education when students are tasked with, say, digesting complex or technical information for a non-expert Wikipedia readership, or negotiating changes to an article which has an existing community of editors, or contributing an audio-recording which they later use in a project they publish under an open licence. More recently, Wikidata has emerged as a major presence on the linked and open data scene. I want to focus on Wikidata because it seems very promising as an approach to engaging students in the structured data which is increasingly shaping our world.
Wikidata is conceived as the central data storage for the aforementioned Wikimedia projects. Unlike Wikipedia, Wikidata can be read by machines as well as humans, which means it can be queried. So if you – as we did today – wish to see at a glance the notable alumni from a given university, you can. Today we gave a little back to our hosts by contributing an ‘Educated at’ value to a number of alumni which lacked it on Wikidata. This enabled those people to be picked up by a Wikidata query and visualised. But institutions tend to merge or change their names, so I added a ‘Followed by’ attribute to the Wikidata entry for Hornsey College of Art (which merged into Middlesex Polytechnic), allowing the query to be refine to include Hornsey alumni too. I also visualised UCL’s notable alumni as a timeline (crowded – zoom out!) and a map. The timeline platform is called Histropedia and is the work of Navino Evans. It is available to all and – thinking public engagement – is reputedly a very good way to visualise research data without needing to hire somebody in.
So far so good. But is it correct? I dare say it’s at least slightly incorrect, and more than slightly incomplete. Yes, I’d have to mend it, or get it mended, at source. But that state of affairs is pretty normal, as anyone involved in learning analytics understands. And can’t Wikidata be sabotaged? Yes – and because the data is linked, any sabotage would have potentially far reaching effects – so there will need to be defences such as limiting the ability to make mass edits, or edit entries which are both disputed and ‘hot’. But the point is, if I can grasp the SPARQL query language (which is said to be pretty straightforward and, being related to SQL, a transferable skill) then – without an intermediary – I can generate information which I can check, and triangulate against other information to reach a judgement. How does this play out in practice? Here’s Oxford University Wikimedian in Residence Martin Poulter with an account of how he queried Wikidata’s biographical data about UK MPs and US Senators to find out – and, importantly, visualise – where they were educated, and what occupation they’ve had (153 cricketers!?).
So, say I want to master the SPARQL query language? Thanks to Ewan McAndrew, Wikimedian in Residence at the University of Edinburgh, there’s a SPARQL query video featuring Navino Evans on Edinburgh’s Wikimedia in Residence media channel.
Which brings me to the beginning, when Melissa Highton set out the benefits Wikimedians have brought to Edinburgh University, where she is Assistant Principal. These benefits include building digital capabilities, public engagement for researchers, and addressing the gender gap in Wikimedia representation, demonstrating to Athena Swann assessors that the institution is addressing structural barriers to women contributing in science and technology. Here’s Melissa’s talk in full. Bodleian Library Web and Digital Media Manager Liz McCarthy made a similarly strong case – they have had to stop advertising their Wikimedian in Residence’s services since so many Oxford University researchers have woken up to Wikimedia’s public engagement potential.
We also heard from Wikimedians with educational ideas, tutor Stefan Lutschinger on designing Wikimedia assignments, and the students who presented on their work in his Publishing Cultures module – and there were parallel sessions. You can follow the Wikimedia Education Summit tweets at