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Oakland Wiki puts 'community brain' online

When you’re trying to figure out a piece of information online, your search will typically bring you to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia about practically everything.

But, what if you wanted to know something about Oakland – like why 880 is also called the Nimitz freeway – there’s another place you might land: Oakland Wiki.

“Oakland Wiki is, if you take the community brain and put it online, that’s what we’re trying to get at,” explains managing director Marina Kukso.

Oakland Wiki is part of a network of more than 70 place-based sites like it around the world. Kukso says these local wikis fill wide information gaps.

“Basically the situation is that in most communities, it’s incredibly difficult to find even basic information about the place where you live,” says Kukso.

Information on Oakland Wiki ranges from the practical – like who to call if power lines are down – to the obscure – like an entry on the Oakland resident who invented the squeegee. All that information is there for because somebody typed it in. And a lot of this typing happens at editing parties organized by Kukso, often at libraries.

Inside an editing party

“So everytime you’ve made a change you should leave a comment,” Ivan Silva says softly at an editing party at the Oakland Main Library.

This is the kind of party where you whisper. Silva and about ten other people have come to the library to do research and add what they learn to pages on the Oakland Wiki. Silva’s got a book called Party Music open to a page about the Black Panther revolutionary funk band, The Lumpen.

Silva, a librarian, says he comes to the editing parties because he enjoys doing research. “I like to create starter pages. And these starter pages engage people in conversation.”

A starter page is a fresh entry on a new topic, like the one he’s making about the Black Panther funk band. Silva hopes other people add to it. “It empowers people to add their own voice to history, so to speak,” he says.

That’s one big way Oakland Wiki is different from regular Wikipedia. Wikipedia articles need to be as objective as possible. Silva says Oakland Wiki is more of a community conversation.

“It’s a tool for people to tell their stories of how they see Oakland or how they’ve experienced Oakland from their own terms,” says Silva. “They can say whatever they want.”

Within reason. Wikis are collaborative. Part of the conversation is keeping entries accurate.

“So every change that happens to an entry is saved and publicly visible in a history of all the changes on that entry,” explains managing director Marina Kukso.

Kukso says Wiki users watch these changes pretty vigilantly. People get so into it that there’s actually an entry about a made-up syndrome called “Recent Changes Addiction.” Symptoms include: having ‘Recent Changes’ as your homepage; nerdiness; paying work being put aside in order to stay up to date on Recent Changes; and more.

“People also catch any problems really quickly and revert them usually within a few minutes,” Kukso adds.

There are 450 registered users of Oakland Wiki, plus some people who add to the Wiki anonymously, which is allowed. So far, all those people have created more than five thousand entries. There’s a page about an ostrich farm in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood in the early 1900s. There’s a page on the Lake Merritt monster, otherwise known as the “Oak Ness Monster”.

These pages may seem like a novelty, but Kukso’s seen the information contained on the Wiki do more than entertain.

Oakland Wiki and the Domain Awareness Center

Last July, the city of Oakland received a federal grant to create a surveillance hub – the Domain Awareness Center – intended to protect the Port of Oakland from a terrorist attack.

Some city officials wanted to expand the project to keep watch over all of Oakland. Meaning the Center would collect footage from traffic cameras, license plate detectors, closed circuit video from schools, etc.

Everything was going according to plan, until a regular Wiki contributor found out about it while streaming a live public safety committee meeting on the city’s website.

“They were talking about this Domain Awareness Center thing and almost acting as though it was a done deal,” says Kukso.

The Wiki contributor made an entry asking if anyone else knew anything about it.

Other users started adding to the entry. A privacy activist group started requesting documents about the center and posting what they learned.

“The thing is that because there was almost no information online about this when one of our contributors made the entry,” Kukso explains, “and because it now includes all the information about it, it became the top hit when people were looking for information about this.”

The schedules for the city council meetings went up on the Wiki. People started turning up at those meetings to protest.

This continued for months. The New York Times picked up the story and linked to the Oakland Wiki for more information. And other national outlets covered it, too.

In March, the Oakland City Council decided not to expand the Domain Awareness Center to monitor the whole city. They decide it would just focus on the Port.

The Oakland Wiki entry was the main source of information about the center. And it still is. If you search Domain Awareness Center on Google, right now, the Oakland Wiki entry is still the top hit.

“You know, most places, you ask, ‘Oh yeah how does city council work? What would you do if you wanted to change a city policy?’” Kukso asks. “You almost don’t even expect that you should be able to know how these Byzantine processes should work. And what we’re working on is saying, ‘No, you can know how these processes work and here is the information you need to know.’”

Of course, this all depends on getting people online and engaged with the Wiki. If you’re feeling timid about that, Kukso says, come to an editing party and she’ll show you how to do it.

The Oakland Wiki is holding editing parties at various oakland library branches this spring. Find a schedule here.