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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Davis WIki Awarded for Innovation and Community Service

In 2004 the Davis Wiki was launched as a living and breathing organism that is developed and maintained exclusively by its users through a series of pages that are interlinked on a variety of community topics. Beginning as a very modest project, the Davis Wiki has grown exponentially in the last almost three years. Within three weeks of going public, the users grew to 100 and the number of pages grew to over 600. By December 10, 2004, according to its history page, there were 1000 pages created. By May 1, 2007, just a few weeks ago, there were 10,000 pages on the wiki on a wide variety of topic ranging from local businesses, events, restaurants, to student organizations to city politics. The Davis Wiki has become a virtual one-stop shop for all information that is Davis.

Last week, the Davis Wiki was awarded a Thong Hy Huynh award for Excellence in Community Involvement by the Davis Human Relations Commission. Originally, according to Michelle Stephens a member of the HRC who sat on the subcommittee responsible for decided who should get awarded, the award was going to go to Philip Neustrom, one of the founders of the Davis Wiki along with Paul and Michael Ivanov in 2004. Ms. Stephens said, "we felt that instead of just Phillip, who was instrumental in starting it, the award should go to the wiki as an entity."

"The wiki provides an amazing service to Davis residents," Stephens said. "On a very basic level, it gives people information."

One of the key aspects according to Stephens is that it provides a means to connect with Young Davis residents.
"UCD students aren't necessarily going to attend planning and council meetings. They may not read the Enterprise. I know that when I was a student at UCD, I was very disconnected from the community. I felt that Davis was nothing more than the town that housed the university."
However, once Stephens graduated from the university, it became clear that there was a lot more to Davis than simply the university. She believes that the Davis Wiki enables students to learn that more quickly.

"This is where the wiki has made a great impact, in my opinion. They have taken the issues that usually are only followed by the "older" generation and have gotten everyone involved."

The Wiki is of course not perfect and has drawn criticism from some in this community. But Stephens believes that Philip Neustrom and the others who help moderate and police the board do a good job of keeping things under control.
"There have been complaints with the wiki system since no one is monitoring it to make sure everyone is telling the whole truth. You could have disgruntled employees disparaging restaurants. Or people taking personal issues and airing them on the wiki. But I think Philip has done a good job about trying to mediate issues that get out of hand. I had a long conversation with Arlen about that about a year ago and he told me about the pains Phillip took to try to resolve things so the wiki didn't devolve into a slam book or something. By promoting these healthy discussions of issues, they have helped our residents become more involved."
The Vanguard had a lengthy interview via email with Philip Neustrom. The answers are below.

What does it mean to you for the Davis Wiki to have won a Thong Hy Huynh award for excellence in community involvement?
I think the award carries a couple of different important implications. One is that we have been doing a good job in terms of letting people in the community have a voice and of letting people know about things that are important or interesting, and of recording for future generations. The whole effort is fueled by people who jump in and get involved, so it's important to remember that. I like to think that the few of us involved in the administration and technical aspects of the Davis Wiki have done a good job getting out of the way and letting people do what's important to them and what's important to their community.

The other amazing aspect is that this is sort of a groundbreaking concept, when we step back and think about it. This is a wiki for our community, and when we got started the project very few people had even heard the word "wiki." Now, I think, we've really taken something that's been useful from a technological perspective and shown that it has a real, practical application at the community level. The Thong Hy Huynh award is interesting in the respect that we're really not a conventional organization or a convention medium, but we've still had tremendous positive impact on the community.
The award description that I ironically culled from the Davis Wiki reads: "Recognition of a business or professional organization that has a record of significant efforts in promoting and practicing equal opportunity. This organization has contributed to community efforts that promote positive human relations and civil rights in Davis. In what ways would you say that the Davis Wiki fulfills that role in the Davis Community?
Well, we've certainly not gone about things in the ways a purposed human-relations or civil rights group does. We're not a "unified" group in terms of beliefs or perspectives, but that's where we shine. The Davis Wiki gives everyone an equal playing field and an equal footing for their voice and interests. People can come along and argue or stir things up, but everyone's always got that right.

There's a virtue to discussion and information in the community. Even things like arguments are a positive force, because it gets people to being to explain themselves, even if it's frustrating. Through the discussion and information people put on the wiki we see issues brought to the public's attention that are important to people, and are, in turn, important to the well-being of our town.

We give people this resource and we let people contribute and have a voice, and through this we see human relations and civil rights issues come to the forefront of discussion. Some things that come to my mind -- where we've seen a flurry of activity -- are things like the May 1st Immigration rights protests, the Buzayan case, and debates about Boy Scouts.

I think that when you have a situation where anyone can contribute, respectful discussion is encouraged, and information is culled together that you'll see it used for important social and civil issues when the need comes up. Traditionally, civil rights issues and some of these human relations issues are ignored, but with the Davis Wiki these people can say directly what it is that they're concerned about.
What are the big assets that the Davis Wiki provides to the broader Davis Community?
It's hard for me to say, because the Davis Wiki's role is different for each little slice of the community that uses it. On a general level, the biggest asset is the fact it's sticking around and recording things for future generations to read, and recording things that we might not know about. We're sort of a non-traditional resource, but also as an alternative media in the sense we give people an immediate voice, especially when some of the traditional media fails.
What future goals would you like to see the Davis Wiki Achieve?
Well, as a project we've come a really long way, but there's still so much more to do. It's really incredibly easy to pick a given topic, head to the library or the historical society and dig much deeper. I think that we'll see more depth as time goes on, if not only because time has passed and the current events get recorded as they happen. There's a bias toward the present and the immediate, but we also really emphasize --it's on our Wiki Ethics page -- the idea that potentially useful "outdated" information should be preserved.

We're also working on things in terms of organizational structure (e.g. Board of Directors) where it makes sense. We're really not a traditional organization so we're going about this slowly.

There's a lot of littler things that I'd like to see done. Picking a new General Director to take over what I've been doing and engaging in more outreach [Farmers Market, WEF, all of these things] are two of my short-term goals.

Another thing I'd like to see the Davis Wiki achieve is for it to serve as an inspirational piece for other communities' efforts. We've been working on this larger non-profit effort, Wiki Spot, that helps other communities start and maintain wikis.
Where do you think that the Wiki has room for improvements? If you had one shortfall that you would like to see addressed, what would it be?
There's essentially room for improvement everywhere! The biggest shortfall I think is that people maybe don't realize that it's not some magic process -- real people in the community pitch in and work on these pages to make them useful. If people don't pitch in, things don't get done.

Concretely, I'd say that the best things, in terms of improvement, would come with just more outreach and participation by the wider community. Everything else follows, I think.
In your opinion, why has the Davis Wiki been so successful especially in comparison with some other wikis?
Questions like this are always hard to answer because it's so easy to just point out what we've been doing differently and say that's the reason. In reality, I think it's mostly just the fact we've all put a lot of effort into the project and have constantly worked toward something we we ourselves found really useful.
Anything else that you would like the Vanguard readers to know?
I ran into a fellow, I forgot his name, who hadn't heard about the Davis Wiki but had been a reader of the Vanguard. So -- I'd say -- whoever you are, go take a look at the Davis Wiki and start contributing what you know!

Also, I'd like to point out the virtue of keeping things from getting too serious! The wiki works well because people aren't intimidated about contributing things that are interesting!
---Doug Paul Davis reporting