Thursday, 4 October 2007

Te Ara 3: Pompous Jock here

Had the meeting yesterday with Jock Philips the Editor of Te Ara. It was very interesting. Lots of discussion on the merits of the authoritative versus the informal- but best of all, he readily agreed to my suggestion of a guest blog - so here it is!

"I have the privilege of heading up a wonderful team who are responsible for putting together Te Ara. I am really grateful to Paul Reynolds for kicking off the discussion about Te Ara and his generosity in asking me to respond.

It’s been hugely enlightening and a bit salutary to read the responses to Paul’s initial posting. Getting responses to websites is not that easy. Once upon a time in my dim distant elitist past I used to write books.
Not many people read them; but even so there were always people officially tasked by the print media with reviewing them. Even if a book was 50 pages long, you eventually found out what people thought. A website can get plenty of visitors, over 6,000 a day in our case, yet no-one is invited to tell us and the world how well it works.
Although we have been going for over two years and the site has about 1 million words, over 12,000 images and about a thousand film clips, no-one has really sat down to write a serious assessment. So it’s been a real tonic to get a lively debate going about Te Ara. Thank you.

Let me tackle a couple of issues. First, the charge that we are elitist, a bunch of experts who talk down rather than a wiki approach which allows the people to speak. We plead guilty to the charge that we spend a lot of time making sure that our material is as up-to-date and accurate as possible. We owe it to New Zealanders to make sure that they can find out the truth about this remarkable land. We use authors who are specialists on subjects.
For example, Paul Mahoney wrote a lovely piece on bush transport . He had spent years talking to old-timers about the kauri dams they built and the bush lokies they rode on. No-one without his experience could possibly have written that delightful entry.

Or take the moa entry – the study of the moa is a highly complicated matter, which is changing fast as the use of dna uncovers new evidence. We needed an author who was right up with this science. So the entry was written by a university scientist, Trevor Worthy. I make no apology for choosing such authors. The people of New Zealand – yes, the taxpayers – are entitled to get the latest information.

Yet having specialists write these entries does not make them elitist. We make huge efforts to make the language clear and accessible; and we summarise the content in shorter, simpler language in a ‘Short story’ aimed at younger users.
Our goal is to empower people so that they can enjoy and use the information we give out. I particularly like Paul’s suggestion that the expert needs to be heard inside a conversation with others and I hope that we can find ways of ensuring that this happens more in the future.

Further, much of Te Ara is not just words, but also images and sounds. Almost half our team are collecting photographs or drawing maps, or building interactives or editing films. Just go to the ‘Don’t miss’ part of the home page and look at some of these marvellous resources. You won’t see anything like them on Wikipedia.

In Anne’s thoughtful and helpful comments, she questioned the thematic structure of Te Ara and its difficulties for navigation. We adopted a thematic approach as primarily an organisational device while we work on the project. If we were going to prepare a whole encyclopedia of New Zealand – a huge job – we had to do it in stages. It was more fun and practical for us, and more interesting for users, if we did it in large subjects like ‘The Bush’ rather than beginning with the letter A.
We display the themes on the home page to show users the subjects we have already covered. But users can also use the search engine to find what they want, and our new home page includes a browser by A-Z and by topic. As we do more, the themes will fade and eventually become invisible.

John wonders what Te Ara will be like in 15 years. I have no idea how it will be packaged. What I do know is that we are creating small blocks of clearly-written accurate information and a wonderful array of sounds and images.
We have created a mass of digital objects. In 15 years I suspect that these objects will be served up in a host of different ways – perhaps on a thematic website, perhaps on your cell-phone, more likely in different forms in Paul’s learning space.
The important thing at this point is to create these high quality objects in the expectation they can be repurposed in the future. This is what makes Te Ara so different from the old book encyclopedia. For now we are trying to deliver the content in as accessible and interesting way as we can.

I was interested in the comments about the lack of in-line links. We agonised on this issue, divided between wanting to exploit web technology, but disturbed by the cluttered effect of endless blue underlined words.
In retrospect I think we fell down here, and our next big task is to work on greatly improving the internal cross-linkages. I hope when Anne looks again next year, she will be able to flit from entry to entry much easier.

Finally on the issue of web 1.0 or web 2.0. I have always been a strong believer in user participation on the web. When we started planning Te Ara in 2002, Web 2.0 was a distant fantasy, yet we built in a place for community contributions. You will find scattered through Te Ara ‘your stories’, sent in by people from around New Zealand.
There are a couple of good ones in the Bush transport entry for example .
From next month users will be encouraged to send in stories from every page on the site. We are also about to begin a Te Ara blog, and to invite the contribution of photos to a Te Ara page on Flickr.
This will not make Te Ara a Web 2.0 or wiki encyclopedia; for our identity and value depends upon the fact that our content is highly checked and accurate. But Web 1.5 is certainly where we are headed.
I hope you enjoy the ride".


Thanks Jock - and of course - plenty of room for more comments - and then we might move on, at least for the moment.


S. Toogod Tobetrue said...

The fascinating thing about this discussion as a watcher of Web 2.0 and the NZ library scene is the cringe I feel when I see the cry of "someone should start a wiki!"

The whole point of Web 2 to me is that if someone feels a wiki could do a better job they should by all means go ahead and do so, there are plenty of free wiki servers out there.

The Te Ara group decided not to, and more power to them. If their approach is a method doomed to extinction (and please note I am not saying I think this is the case) then our brave commenter John could do no better than to create, recruit for and lead a grassroots NZ information wiki to prove his point. It'd be the easiest thing to do technically, and all it would take is some time and effort.

Cynically though, I suspect that John has exactly enough passion about this subject to spend the time and effort to write a blistering pseudo-anonymous comment, and no more. The internet is full of folks making ad hominem (ad organisatum?) statements from the comfort of their computer chairs, and less full of people actually trying to create a difference based on their beliefs.

Me, I'm trying to teach people about Web 2, as I know Paul is. What is John doing?

Anonymous said...

As a contributor to wikipedia on New Zealand related topics it would be really great if Te Ara and other government groups did release some of their information and sources for other projects to use.

Simple things like pictures/photos of:
* All NZ birds
* NZ people (politicians, sports people)
* NZ towns and cities.

In many cases organisations like Te Ara or Archive NZ have this sort of material (often out of copyright) but don't make it available or put they put restrictive useage on it.

Fair enough if Te Ara don't want to create a wiki but it would b nice if tehy could give open content projects some ability to reuse what they produce.

S. Toogod Tobetrue said...

I agree with what you're asking for Simon, but it doesn't reflect the current political reality.

Governments and corporations are still about content ownership, and will be for a while I suspect. The interesting (and in this case I mean open source) models will continue to be developed by the maverick groups, not for the most part by institutions with accountability to multiple stakeholders - simply because of those multiple stakeholders.

Telling the country we spent $5 million to develop a resource that is ours (incidentally $5 million is not a lot for a public programme) is a far cry from telling the country we spent that amount developing something that anyone can take from.

To look at one stakeholding group alone, Tangata Whenua may regard certain elements of Te Ara as taonga; the notion of taking someone's taonga and offering it to anyone who wanders by is pretty abhorrent. We've seen the results when groups have appropriated from our indigenous culture before, and as a public servant (albeit in local government) of some years experience I couldn't see a good career result for the project leader who exploded a race relations meltdown in their minister's face. It's not a sign of corruption in the system, it's just the way things are.

My instinct is that the gains are going to come from parallel efforts - people such as yourself who are doing the work, albeit hampered by the current constrants. The "information should be free" reality is still very much emergent, but it is growing as a paradigm within society.

Anyhow, that's probably the sum of my deep thoughts on this one... thanks to Paul, Simon, Jock and even John for a good bit of thought-provoking. Have a good weekend all!

Paul Tudor said...

I have come late to this conversation (and there is so much isn't there?) but my own experiences of Te Ara have not been great so far.

As a librarian / researcher I occasionally have to use it, but the lack of completeness is concerning. It would be useful to have more background as to how it is being compiled, what the long term objectives are and what will happen once "completion" occurs. i guess this is what we are getting from these blog postings, thanks Paul.

As a parent I do not use it either, again because of the completeness problem.

As a some time writer and educator (and putting my 'wine expert' hat on) I AM very concerned by the potential for elitism in such a project. I have contibuted to a couple of wikipedia entries in this field (where I have found errors or people trying to push their bandwagons), but generally I prefer to voice my opinions in forums such as this, where people with an interest in the subject come to meet.

This is where current knowledge management (what I started calling 'KM 2.0') is heading - conversation based - less about the software and more about the people.

Having said that, I do believe that there does need to be a teensy bit of editorial control and some etiquette in KM 2.0 initiatives (I am currently designing some specifically for my workplace, as a part of my knowledge management strategy), but the problem with Te Ara appears to me that it does not allow for the ebb and flow and more importantly DEVELOPMENT of knowledge at all.

Sorry Jock, I find the bush story page not to be that great an example. There are better ways to do this perhaps? Show us something more exciting, please.

I just think of all the amazing people I have met over the years with their incredible 'hobbies' generating amazing knowledge. The Internet is giving these people some tools to spread this knowledge, but some of what they have to say would be ideal in an online encyclopedia. It does not look as though Te Ara could accommodate them as it currently stands.

[As an aside - this posting reminds me that I must re-read Tristram Shandy and the bit about 'hobby horses'.]

Stephen said...

I agree Paul, those "What's your story?" segments are disappointing--mainly because of what they could have been.
Here's my attempt to illustrate how I believe those stories should have been told. For comparison you can read the edited story on the Te Ara website. I'd love to hear which you think is the more compelling.
(I realise that at the time of Te Ara's launch nearly three years ago there was a bandwidth argument agin such pieces of multimedia; I don't think such an argument holds up today).

Anonymous said...

I Think the Te Ara team have done a wonderful job. It is a great resource and I use it all the time in my capacity as Reference Librarian. I have also referred children to it as well. It was particularly good for a study on immigrantion and early settlemnt to NZ. The stories, diary entries and illustrations are great. A fantastic resource for all New Zealanders. - Kim

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