The Future of Data: a community that grows together stays together

Wiki Education hosted webinars all of October to celebrate Wikidata’s 10th birthday. Below is a summary of our fourth event. Watch the webinar in full on Youtube. And access the recordings and recaps of the other three events here.

For our fourth and final webinar celebrating Wikidata’s birthday, Hilary Thorsen, Julian Chambliss, Kate Topham, and Justin Wigard each shared how they invite newcomers into the linked open data fold. What does Wikidata allow that other platforms don’t? What advice do they have for getting people started? And what do we mean when we say we’re building a “community of practice”?

From upper left: Kate Topham, Will Kent, Julian Chambliss, Justin Wigard, and Hilary Thorsen in our webinar.

Hilary got her start with Wikidata as Wikimedian-in-Residence for the Linked Data for Production Project. While there, she helped library colleagues advance their own projects and had fun answering their linked data questions. She decided to capture that expertise and disseminate it even more widely through the LD4 Wikidata affinity group and has been doing so since April 2019.

Justin is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Distant Viewing Lab at University of Richmond, where he works and teaches courses on comics and popular culture. For Justin, Wikidata provides fruitful ways of thinking about community engagement and facilitating open data work in the humanities classroom. He’s thinking about ways we can connect the dots between the classroom, the academy, and Wikidata’s global community of users.

Kate is a Digital Archivist at Michigan State University (MSU). She specializes in metadata, data migration, and digital collections. Kate got into Wikidata as a form of data cleaning through her work in Open Refine, which she utilizes so often she refers to it as her “software spouse.” She’s interested in using Wikidata for research and making things that are hidden more visible to everyday people.

Julian is a professor of English and the Val Berryman Curator of History at the MSU Museum at Michigan State University. He leads the Department of English Graphic Possibilities Research Workshop, a group that brings comic studies faculty and graduate students together to contribute to Wikidata. Justin and Kate have contributed extensively to Graphic Possibilities–Justin as a recent PhD graduate of MSU and Kate in her archivist role. Together, the group is creating a data set from MSU’s library of comic art metadata collection to share with the world.

What Wikidata allows that other platforms don’t

In Wikidata, you can describe collection items in more depth and nuance, disrupting library authority and traditional modes of collaboration. The possibilities are endless when you can crowd-source corrections to your data and share results with an audience that spans the globe.

Julian, Justin, and Kate often consult Wikipedia to fill in missing data in their catalogs, which is how they found their way to Wikidata. They appreciated the abundance of information already in the repository, but also saw the gaps. Filling them was a worthwhile pursuit, not only for the project but for the many researchers that would come after them. “We began to think of Wikidata as a means of providing that information about comics that would really enhance peoples’ ability to write about them,” Julian said. Wikidata allows you to provide detail and nuance to an item in an unparalleled way. That freedom was an attractive feature for Hilary, too. “With Wikidata, the sky’s the limit,” she added. “And you can find anything that interests you and add it if it’s notable enough. I found that exciting.”

Julian is curious about how we can make nuances around culture more visible in a data record. Wikidata is useful in surfacing the omissions in a record, especially related to race and gender. “We can’t change the library record [to be more inclusive],” Julian noted. “But we can do something in Wikidata that has a substantive impact in peoples’ ability to understand what the record is showing, or what it doesn’t show. Questions of race and metadata are linked in a way that’s a challenge, but it’s something we have to wrestle with.”

Other Wikidatans can help. As the Graphic Possibilities team were combing their collection, they discovered some errors in their bibliographic data. “All our Marmaduke comics were attributed to the wrong person. And that same problem existed in a lot of places,” Kate said. “By bringing together this community in Wikidata we could figure out where the errors were and that community of knowledge and practice allowed for us to improve.”

“I love the way Wikidata disrupts library authority,” Kate continued. “We can incorporate different expertise and ways of seeing the world. The way we structure things is better because we can draw on so many different communities.”

Wikidata is a tool for examining topics in new, multidisciplinary ways. Justin invites his humanities students to create visualizations about comics in the platform, where they see the instant ramifications of their work. “They think about how their work extends beyond the classroom, beyond the gated silo of academia. And for me, I can connect with colleagues I didn’t know before. It’s not just linked data, it’s linked people.

The value of the Wikidata community has been a through-thread across our Speakers Series. “Before, cataloging had been internal and focused only on what I was working on at my institution,” Hilary shared. “But with Wikidata it becomes so much easier to collaborate with people around the world and contribute to other projects and learn something new. It broadens the way you can contribute and it’s a more accessible practice too. You can start participating in linked data immediately, which before was really hard to do. Overall, the community is what drew me to Wikidata and what makes all the contributions so worthwhile and keeps me coming back.”

Wikidata as a “community of practice”

Wikidata provides a forum for anyone to participate in discussions around data integrity. With archives of past discussions, decisions are transparent and up for friendly debate. And Wikidatans share a deep interest in adapting until we get it right. As the Graphic Possibilities team said more than once, it’s a community of practice.

Given that the platform can be a little overwhelming at first, it’s important to give newbies different modes of entry and participation. “That’s more sustainable for the long run,” Hilary said of her work with LD4. “People don’t always have time to join every call or working hour, but because we have consistent programming, people know that if they miss a week they can join the next week.” Justin, who helps lead Wikidata edit-a-thons with Graphic Possibilities, noted that the platform was great for both synchronous and asynchronous work as the pandemic forced them to transition to remote work. “We had to try to find ways to reach folks who were not fluent in comics or Wikidata or might not be digital experts, but still wanted to be part of a community.”

When asked what was most helpful in building community around the Graphic Possibilities project, Kate thought of two things. “Hilary Thorsen and Will Kent,” Kate said with a smile. “There’s so much within Wikidata and Wikipedia that we joke about satisfies the need for nerds to correct each other. And I feel like both of you have provided a model for this very generous, opening space that makes working with linked data, and Wikidata in particular, a lot easier. This whole thing is a big conversation and we get to decide what the best way forward is.”

Advice for bringing others into linked data

The Graphic Possibilities team has successfully invited comics-interested scholars from across institutions to join them in edit-a-thons and build their own capacity around linked open data. Having scaffolded events with clear, narrowly defined goals is helpful in fostering this community of learning. “It’s easy to get lost in the weeds, so we set firm boundaries about what to work on, what to avoid, and we have really clear tutorials and troubleshoot issues,” Justin shared. “Wikidata can be overwhelming if you’re not prepared for it. Having that support is helpful. And recognizing that smaller goals can be just as effective as something lofty. We actually started to scale our projects back so we can achieve more with less.”

Preparation is also key. Keep events focused and small, but have a back-up plan for what to work on in case you finish early. And be prepared to let people pursue their interests. “Allowing for creativity within your scoped event can be powerful and fun,” Kate added.

The future of Wikidata

Wikidata has grown so much over the last 10 years – it just hit 100 million items this year. We only see it becoming more important to library curricula, job training, and the World Wide Web as a whole.

“It’s a necessary skill,” Hilary said. “Five years from now, you’ll want to have that on your resume.”

“Wikidata and other open source repositories are going to become increasingly necessary and relevant as other avenues of data become more monitored, privatized, siloed,” said Justin. “There’s something really powerful and amazing about Wikidata and the fact that it’s grown so much over 10 years. … I want to see more of that, more projects, in more classrooms. I want to see what other people do with it that I haven’t thought about.”

“Understanding data becomes a fundamental question of civil society,” Julian added. “I’m no Wikidata expert, but I do recognize the tremendous potential in Wikidata to support really interesting conversations. How does a data description actually translate to how society operates? How do we tell stories with data? Students at some level have been born consumers of technology but explaining how it works is a real problem for them. Data especially is particularly complicated for them. I’ve said, you know, these platforms aren’t actually free. The thing they’re selling is you. If you don’t have a sense of data literacy, you’re going to be in trouble. If you get a little sense of it, you begin to understand that data is intrinsically connected to your life.”

Check out LD4 here and Graphic Possibilities here

If you’re the kind of learner who seeks community and guidance on your journey, the Wikidata Institute has three upcoming training courses starting in January, March, and May 2023.


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