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Six unorthodox ways to use Wikipedia

Printed books from Wikipedia

"An encyclopedia in the form of printed books? What kind of crazy idea is that?" Image by Jann Glasmacher for PediaPress (Own work) GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

We all know how to use Wikipedia, right? Just do a search in your favourite search engine, and the relevant article is usually among the top results. Alternatively, bookmark the front page in your preferred language, and see what’s current. Then again, some of us want to go deeper. Maybe we want to “mainline” the best  content; maybe we want to explore not a site but an abstract world of information. Below are six ways to use Wikipedia that not everybody knows about.

1) Listen to it. How do you make an encyclopedia accessible to illiterate or blind people? You read it out loud and share the sound recordings. More than a thousand articles in English, and many more in Wikipedia’s other languages, are available in spoken form, downloadable as audio files that you can listen to on a computer or portable audio player. Thus, not only disabled users but anyone on the move can learn about topics including The Order of the Garter, Norwich City FC or the Hindi language. Anyone with a good speaking voice, and access to a microphone, can contribute at the Spoken Wikipedia project.

2) Go straight to the good stuff. The English Wikipedia has its own Newsletter, The Signpost, which is updated every Monday. The Featured content section takes you straight to the very best of Wikipedia: the content that has recently passed the project’s most demanding quality review. This includes recently reviewed Featured Articles, Lists and Topics as well as freely-reusable pictures and sounds with outstanding educational and aesthetic value.

3) On paper. Yes, you can read selections from Wikipedia as a book. The paper version will not be updated like the online version, but it needs no electricity and it’s an ideal format to take on a long journey. The Wikipedia community have already created more than a thousand English language books from sequences of related articles, from Art to Zinc via Exploding Animals. You can create and edit your own using the Book tool (explained in this video). Each book can be freely downloaded as an attractively print-formatted file for an eBook reader or a printer. With a few more clicks and an online payment to a commercial printer, you can have it printed, bound (in hardback or paperback), and sent in the post.

4) Discuss. Discussion on Wikipedia itself is very focused on improving the project. It does not invite general chat about each article’s subject. Elsewhere on the web, there are forums and blogs where you can discuss article topics and, if you’ve learned something interesting, enthuse about it. One of these is the Wikipedia Subreddit, part of the Reddit online community. Registration is quick and free, and allows you to recommend articles, comment on them, and up- or down-vote others’ suggestions. Roughly seventy thousand of Reddit’s accounts are subscribers. Popular recent topics include Tautology, the Imperial Library of Constantinople, and the myth that people only use 10% of their brains.


Finding location-tagged Wikipedia articles on a mobile phone. Photo by Mr3641 (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons

5) Look around you. Many Wikipedia articles are tagged with geographical information. For instance, the Watershed Media Centre article gives the building’s precise longitude and latitude. This information is freely available through location-based services such as Google Earth. If you use Layar or a similar application on your portable device, just search “wikipedia” to select an appropriate “layer”. Looking around central Bristol with this service on my phone, I am offered dozens of articles about local buildings, culture and geography.

6) Machine-to-machine. Computer programmers have more options than the rest of us when it comes to using Wikipedia. The encyclopedia and all its sister projects can be read directly by computer programs, through what’s called an Application Programming Interface. To get the programmer’s documentation, just add “/w/api.php” to the end of the project address, e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/api.php for English Wikipedia. One very important service built in this way is DBpedia, a huge database of facts. Those who learn the language can ask complex queries, such as “list all endangered primates” or “which French scientists were born in the 19th Century?” For anyone hoping to create Deep Thought, DBpedia provides a huge bank of real-world information to build on.

8 Responses to “Six unorthodox ways to use Wikipedia”

  1. This neatly summarises new approaches to exploiting the power of Wikipedia. It would be useful to have a collection of novel applications of Wikipedia in Academia as case studies available from wikipedia itself. If only Academia could spend more time adding value and quality to Wikipedia instead of competing with it ;-).
    I would also suggest the ConceptLinkage project to visualise relationships within Wikipedia – http://www.conceptlinkage.org/clink/ . This can be very useful to prompt further investigation and discover scope of a topic.
    Other 3rd party tools we have encountered in http://www.jisctechdis.ac.uk useful to present WikiPedia content include ones to convert content into audio like Balabolka, Instapaper for mobile convenience, and Xerte for creating accessible RLOs.

  2. Martin Poulter says:

    Welcome, Terry, and thanks for your comment. I agree totally about the need for academic case studies, and this is something that we’re working on. Yes, I should have pointed out that users who want Wikipedia’s (or related projects’) pages as audio rather than text can use Text To Speech software or one of the online text-to-mp3 services. It’s not quite the same as a human-spoken version, but it makes millions of articles accessible, rather than just thousands. ConceptLinkage is new to me: I’ll go and try it out.

  3. Martin Poulter says:

    Wow, I really like ConceptLinkage. I was thinking of what articles to include in a book, and it allowed me to quickly navigate through connected articles to find ones related to my theme.

  4. Elitre says:

    (My friends, which license is this blog released under? :) )

  5. Mike Peel says:

    That would be CC-BY-SA; we should probably make that clear…

  6. Erin says:

    Aah, the delight of editing and being an admin on Wikipedia!!!

  7. Totte says:

    Not to be a spoil sport but since the top image is hosted locally(why not just link it to http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pedia-still-5.jpg as the one below) you should be extra careful to make sure it follows the license which it doesn’t (unless you’ve gotten an exemption). If the Wiki blog isn’t careful then how can we expect others to be it?

  8. Martin Poulter says:

    Not a spoil-sport at all, Totte: you’re right that we need to show best practice. I mistakenly thought the image was linked to the original. The captioning system in WordPress isn’t standard HTML so it confused me a bit. Thanks for the feedback,

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