Tuesday, October 26, 2010

. . . Wiki's

Most citizens of the Internet think of Wikipedia when the subject of the wiki is brought up, though to be honest Wikipedia is a site that is viewed by most members of the media as a rather suspect and unreliable source of information. In fact it is often used as a zinger or joke when an editor asks for the source for a particularly salacious or damaging quote -- the sort of thing that you absolutely must be able to reply upon being accurate or risk a lawsuit -- to which the writer will nonchalantly reply: "Oh that? I saw it on Wikipedia!"

All joking aside, Wikipedia has done more to make the Wiki platform the success that it is than any other site or community, and that says something worth noting! If you are not familiar with what a wiki is, in a nutshell it is a program that is usually deployed on a web server that uses a database or databases that are filled with user-submitted information -- or pages -- to collect and present information on a given subject.

Specifically it is an attractive and easy to use front-end that serves as both the major element of the sites design, and its structure. The users of a wiki create an account, and then they are free to post pages to the wiki -- and of more significance -- edit the pages posted by another user. Why is that important?

In the case of Wikipedia -- which is an online interactive user-driven encyclopedia -- it means that if you come upon a page on that site that has incorrect information, rather than send an email to report it, you can if you choose, log in and correct the information yourself. Quite a powerful tool indeed, especially because the web browser itself is the basic tool by which the contents of a wiki are read and created!


The story of Wikipedia is one of those Internet success stories that are often brought up whenever a project is being pitched on an approach that has never been tried before. "This will be our Wikipedia!" is a phrase I have heard often in the past.

The site itself was not the first to implement the wiki as its structure -- that honor was pioneered by Ward Cunningham, who developed the first wiki in 1994. He used the wiki for his personal site and several sites that represented projects with which he was associated, but major success for the platform followed the creation of Wikipedia by Rick Gates, based upon the concept that was first proposed by Richard Stallman.

Originally conceived as a vehicle by which recognized experts in a given field or subject could generate content for the website Nupedia, the unique construct of the wiki format and its accessibility very quickly eclipsed Nupedia, and caused Wikipedia to spin-off as its own online encyclopedia site, as well as caused the creation of other related sites.

A side-effect of that success was the attention of the web world that was paid not just to the site -- which was wildly popular with surfers -- but also to the format, indirectly creating its own industry as individuals and groups set out to program their own take on the wiki with the improvements that they thought it needed. Today there are literally hundreds of different wiki programs -- some are naturally based upon the more successful offerings, while others are scratch-built to fulfill specific needs.

The idea behind the wiki is sound; it is one of the most efficient and best methods for creating and relating information, while allowing a large community to participate. While that is certainly one of the greatest strengths of the wiki as a platform, the fact that it is equally useful for a small group or even a single person to use to document and link information, and that it will run on any client that can use a web browser, well now there you have significant strength.

A Personal Wiki

The idea of a personal wiki -- of leveraging all of the advantages of the wiki platform for the management of personal or business data -- did not occur to me until quite recently I am embarrassed to admit.

Over the course of the past year I have been struggling with devising a way to manage what has become a large amount of diverse but related information in a manner that was not simply able to store it, but also make it instantly available to me. I needed to be able to create documents and then naturally link them together so that I could smoothly transition from one to another along a chain, a chain that often is very long.

I needed to keep track of information like the details on a video game, and then link that to my data on its publisher and developer, along with notes I take while playing the game to prepare for reviewing it. But I also needed to be able to associate the PR Representative -- whether they were an in-house employee of the publisher or worked for an agency, and there again was another galaxy of information that needed to be linked not just to the game but to other games. Add in what amounts to a dossier on the PR people that includes everything that I know about them, reports of meetings at events, phone call logs and reports, and more.

Initially I tried the traditional route -- notes taken on pads and notebooks, file-o-fax, and the classic address book -- but the simple enormity of the information quickly rendered that unusable as a system for information management. Sure, I had the information, but I had to remember where it was written down and then access it.

My next stab at it involved using Excel Spreadsheets as the focus for tracking the status of the different projects, linking documents to the entries and then linking in the address book functions from Outlook. Microsoft Office is a very useful suite of programs, and they do talk to each other -- but then Microsoft pulled the rug out from under me!

I was using Office 2000, for which I had paid a pretty big chunk of money back in 2000, and it still worked just fine for me. All of my data was in various formats used by it -- but when I bought a new notebook computer and went to install it to it, I discovered that at some point in the previous year Microsoft had declared Office 2000 dead, and they were not just not supporting it anymore, they actively killed its key registration system online, preventing owners of the product from doing ANY new installations!

When I contacted them about it they told me I had two choices -- buy a newer version of Office, which they were happy to sell me -- or find an alternative office productivity suite, and oh, have a nice day sir!

Do I have to tell you that my reaction was unpleasant? After having them kick my knees out from under me there was no way I was going to invest $500 in getting into bed with them again, because the day would come when they simply did that to me again. The following day I switched all of my systems to Sun's OpenOffice -- which is free -- but that does not have all of the components or interoperability that MS Office did, so while it solved my need for an office suite, it did not solve my information management troubles.

One of my editors, when they learned of my predicament, sent me a copy of Act for Windows, which I admit is a great program for management of contacts and documenting my interaction with them, but it only does that well for small bits of data. It is, to be accurate, a lightweight weapon in a battle that required a WMD.

I struggled with this for months, missing some release dates and losing contact information only to find it again AFTER I no longer needed it, and I finally sat down and declared that enough was enough. I needed a solution.

I happened to be looking at Wikipedia, reading about the development delays for a game that I was reviewing, when I said to myself -- what you need is a personal wiki.

In the past I have experienced what is called epiphany, but never had I experienced it on that level. It felt like being physically struck in the psyche. The blow was rapid and acute and stunning, and as I sat there, glaring at my video display, I repeated the words.

"What you need is a personal wiki!"

Getting there is half the fun. . .

I immediately sat down and began researching the wiki, and learned that there were hundreds to choose from, but not all of them were free. There were also options -- I could pay to lease a hosted wiki, or I could put together a server and place it on my network and install my own wiki. I could get a stand-alone wiki that will run under Windows and just stick it on my notebook, or I could get what is called a Workgroup Wiki and install that to my desktop, which would offer a limited service to my home network.

After carefully considering the matter I came to the conclusion that I would need a wiki that I could access from any machine in my house, and that I could access when I was away from home and office. It had to be web-accessible, and it needed to be robust. It had to have built-in security and access control, and if at all possible, I wanted it to be free.

With that criteria established I went looking for a wiki and, no real surprise, I ended up choosing MediaWiki -- the same software that Wikipedia uses.

There were plenty of cons -- for one thing I was already used to using that, and I was familiar with its markup code. For another, it was robust and war-tested. It was available as a package installation for Ubuntu Linix, which happened to be the flavor I use these days, and best of all, it used skins, making its presentation flexible.

MediaWiki it was!

Deciding on what to use turned out to be the most difficult part of the whole process.

I pulled my old notebook computer out of storage and installed Ubuntu Server on it, then put it on a shelf on one of the computer racks in my NOC, and tuned the LAMP Package to meet with the requirements of the wiki. Then I installed and configured the wiki software, and in a very brief single afternoon I was up and running.

I imagined that it would be very useful, but of course getting the wiki up on my network was really the beginning of the deployment process. It had no information, you see, so despite the fact that I had an operative Wiki it was not useful without information!

Where I started was with the stacks of notes, notebooks, and post-its that were the primary debris that littered my world. I took each note, created a page for it in the wiki as needed or added it to another page, and then shredded it. At the end of every evening I backed up the wiki so that if anything happened to the system, I could simply redeploy it to another computer and nothing would be lost in the process.

I then sat down to create a cron job to automagically back up the wilki twice a day so that I would no longer have to think about doing that, sending the back-ups to both of our NASD's for a mirrored arrangement so to speak, and the following day I resumed the operation.

Over the course of a week I transferred what amounts to five years of notes, information, contacts, and resources into that wiki. When I was done with the major part of that -- what I call the Information Alpha Build -- I sat back and started to use it.

Being able to search through all of that data using a web browser and the search button was, to be blunt, freaking awesome! All of the data was linked, and none of it was redundant. I no longer had to duplicate information because the information was associated with multiple subjects being covered. I could instantly and conveniently access what I needed, and if what I needed was elsewhere, why there was a link to it! It was only a few mouse clicks away!

My wiki quickly became an indispensable tool of my work-flow methodology!

Real Life Too

One afternoon I was looking for a digital photo that a relative asked me to email them when I thought -- man, here is a task that would be made so much easier by having it all in a wiki. But it is a photo, you cannot wiki those. Or can you?

A quick check of Wikipedia proved to me that indexing and organizing photos was one of the things that MediaWiki did well -- in fact you did not even have to FTP the photo to the wiki -- you could do it with a mouse click from your regular browser! And how cool is that?

While transferring the notes and data was time consuming, it paid off immediately. Building a database of photos however, well, that is not something I will manage in a week. No, that is a long-term project, best completed by making sure that all the new pictures are entered that same week that they were taken, and entering old ones in batches, when I have the time. But still, it is a workable project!

And there is no shortage of projects to be wikified! I plan to once and for all create a complete and accurate catalog of all of the CD's, DVD's and books that I own, with notes as to where they are located. Maybe I will even use the Dewey Decimal System -- I don't know. What I do know, though, is that the catalogs will be conveniently available from the landing page of our Household Wiki!

I plan to transfer all of our recipes to a Kitchen Section on the wiki -- and install a disk-less network computer on the counter in the kitchen to make accessing the recipes painless.

I am going to be inputting all of the vet records for our pets -- and for that matter, while I am at it I should scan all of the report cards my kids have brought home over the years -- maybe work on a graphing system so we can examine their progress (or lack thereof) in a given subject. And then there is our Coca Cola collection -- that clearly needs to be wiki'd.

I really love my wiki!

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