WikibaseNYC conference explores the frontier of linked open data infrastructure

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When you think about the work of art historians or genetics researchers, installing database software is not the first thing that comes to mind. Yet, from 19 to 21 September, Wikimedians, art curators, and scientists gathered at the New Museum in New York City’s Lower East Side for a three-day workshop to talk about an emerging technology designed to make storing and structuring data free and accessible. The focal point was an increasingly vital piece of the Wikimedia ecosystem that makes linked data possible for everyone: Wikibase.

Wikibase is a little-known standalone piece of software that powers Wikimedia’s popular new linked-data project Wikidata.  (This is similar to how Wikipedia is powered by a general wiki software called MediaWiki, which is used everywhere from NASA to MuppetWiki.)  Since 2012, Wikidata has been growing to fill an increasingly important role in the Wikimedia community: connecting, sharing and providing tools for turning Wikipedia’s text strings into useful, searchable, machine-readable.  Wikidata’s content informs research and cultural heritage institutions, as well as digital tools like Google’s Knowledge Graph. None of this would be possible without Wikibase—which makes the Wikidata’s linked open data project possible and practical.

In the last few years, an expanding community of researchers, GLAMs, and other knowledge communities have been experimenting with using Wikibase for their own repositories of knowledge, distinct from the central Wikidata knowledge collected by Wikimedians. But this nascent community of Wikibase reusers is just emerging, and deploying an open source technology not originally designed for third-party use can be challenging.

The September Wikidata workshop gathered a subgroup of these pioneering data explorers to better understand how to realize Wikibase as a robust independent project distinct from the Wikidata platform, and to turn it into a tool that can offer core infrastructure for the work of scholars and GLAMs as they collect, describe and analyze their diverse stores of both facts and artifacts.  The key question: how could Wikibase reach and meet the needs of professionals across a broad community of emerging and established institutions.

The gathering was made possible through a generous grant by the Sloan Foundation.  It was hosted and sponsored by one of the early adopters of this technology, Rhizome (documented in our Many Faces of Wikibase blog series), and co-organized with Wikimedia Germany (Deutschland).

What do you talk about in a Wikibase workshop?

The Wikibase workshop began with talks by participants highlighting their work in the realms of Wikidata, Wikibase, and more generally representing and working with linked data. Participants came with varying levels of experience with Wikidata and Wikibase, from interested newcomers to intrepid early adopters of the technology.  So, the presentations created an important baseline understanding of what is happening with Wikibase and what its possibilities and pain points are.

Day one explored both the many opportunities and the number of underlying concerns exploring and integrating a new technology. Are we the only ones experiencing challenges? Are there tools that could help us solve our problems? What kind of future can we build for increasing adoption of the software?

At the same time presenters brought striking examples of advanced use.  Digital art specialists described how they use Wikimedia tools for art preservation Rhizome using Wikibase, and SFMOMA using Mediawiki. Michigan State University’s and Pratt University’s Linked Jazz Project showed off the power of wikibase and linked data for exploring the cultural record.  GLAM professionals from the Smithsonian, New York’s METRO library consortium, and York University highlighted the potential applications of Wikidata to their own varied and vast collections spaces.

During the second day, we broke into working groups focused on understanding practical ways which Wikibase can be better supported for arts and research communities. Tracks focused on UI/UX improvements, making Wikibase easier to install and use, developing a Wikibase community, improving data modeling on Wikibase. The groups each provided pages of documentation and specific recommendations that can be used as part of Wikibase’s development going forward (including, for example, concept sketches for changes to the platform that would help GLAM and humanities researchers use Wikibase).

By day three, the community in the room had a strong sense of solidarity and shared purpose: that we can imagine are future in which Wikibase powers GLAM and research institutions to strengthen the exchange and connection of knowledge. We wrapped up the workshop with a session of sharing and reflecting, and then finished documenting the event, with next steps and links to notes on the conference meetup page, technical feature requests on phabricator tickets, and this very blog post.

It’s more than just gathering together—it’s about creating a community

An overwhelming theme throughout the workshop was the questions of, what’s next? In the wrapup conversations, the answers came back to facilitating a growing community of users who want to apply the Wikibase technology to the work of researchers and GLAMs. Key to forming the community would be figuring out what stories we can tell, and how we can tell them to new audiences.

Most of the participants in the New York Workshop were new users of Wikibase—very much still learning. In a community-driven environment like Wikimedia, sometimes the best outcome of an event is developing a larger community of knowledge-holders, of individuals able to explain, support and facilitate understanding of a practice or set of projects. With the Wikibase workshop, we helped a larger group of community members share their knowledge and gain knowledge from others. So, the next time a question arises on the Wikibase users mailing list, or a colleague expresses as interest in Wikibase, they know who else to connect with. In short: the workshop helped produce more nodes in our growing Wikibase linked data network.

This budding community would not have been able to form without the amazing facilitation of Dragan Espenschied (Q111053 on Wikidata) from Rhizome and Sandra Müllrick from Wikimedia Deutschland, along with their teams.  The organizers facilitated a collegial, knowledge exchange that can lead to a growing web of Wikibase users and community participants.

Alex Stinson, Senior Strategist, Community Programs, Wikimedia Foundation
Jake Orlowitz, The Wikipedia Library, Community Programs, Wikimedia Foundation
Jens Ohlig, Software Communications Strategist, Software Development, Wikimedia Germany (Deutschland)

To learn more about Wikibase or the growing community of Wikibase users, join the conversation on the Wikibase community mailing list  or the Wikidata community mailing list, follow the Wikidata Weekly status updates, and share your stories with jens.ohlig[at]wikimedia[dot]org.

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