June 2010

Martin Bailey has another good article in the June issue of The Art Newspaper, this time on the new director-general of UNESCO, Francesco Bandarin. He was promoted from within: he comes from the World Heritage Centre. A few excerpts:

From organising the restoration and re-erection of the 1,700-year-old Obelisk of Axum in Ethiopia more than 70 years after it was looted by Mussolini, to working to protect the ancient capital city of Samarra in war-torn Iraq, Italian-born Francesco Bandarin has been involved in many well-known projects during the decade he has served as the director of the World Heritage Centre, …

How damaging is tourism to the major world heritage sites? —— FB: It is an issue of scale, and context. Machu Picchu now has one million tourists a year, which may not seem so many, but it is an isolated mountain site. This led to the development of the city of Aguas Calientes at the foot of Machu Picchu. All the rules of conservation have been overrun by the sheer volume of tourists. At Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, the temples are being conserved, but we did not realise that nearby, at Siem Reap, 150 luxury hotels have sprung up like mushrooms. —— Should Unesco have been tougher in monitoring Angkor Wat? —— FB: We were distracted because we were focusing on conservation of the temples, not on the environment. Now it is a problem. We are not an international police force, but we do run a substantial monitoring system. This year we will be reporting on 180 World Heritage Sites, out of 890. Sometimes monitoring works in terms of results and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a bit frustrating.

Culture is not a luxury, it is a constituent of development, both economic and social. Culture is not entertainment, it is actually production or capital for development. … Unesco deals with four aspects of culture. First, conservation of heritage sites, both cultural and natural. Secondly, preservation of intangible culture. That comprises traditional knowledge, such as rituals, dance or skills. For instance, the Tango was born in Argentina and Uruguay, but it is now found all around the world. Thirdly, museums. And finally, intercultural dialogue.

I will be organising a major international conference on the future of the book. The book is the most important cultural object, but Unesco has been absent from the debate. The argument between Google and the French government is not healthy, and I think we should provide a forum for the actors [French publishers are resisting Google’s attempts to scan their books]. There is the issue between the Anglo-Saxons and the rest of the world, with English dominating language and technology. Amazon did not exist a few years ago. Books won’t disappear, but they will mutate.

Middle Savagery blogger Colleen Morgan is proposing a special session on archaeological blogging at the next SAA Annual Meeting. There is indeed a measure of ambiguity still about archaeological blogging and other such internet phenomena. Comments, emails, etc. may express appreciation but at the same time it still is seen more or less as a stepchild—at least no longer as a bastard child, I hope! It is the future but remains un(der)appreciated by the powers that be in academia. Maybe I’m wrong? What are your thoughts? Please leave comments here or, better even, at her blog post.

Chris Rusbridge (Digital Curation Centre, Edinburgh, UK) wrote an interesting post in his Digital Curation Blog reflecting on, among other things, the book Data and Reality by William Kent:

The book is full of really scary ways in which the ambiguity of language can cause problems for what Kent often calls “data processing systems”. He quotes Metaxides: “Entities are a state of mind. No two people agree on what the real world view is”

“… the thing that makes computers so hard is not their complexity, but their utter simplicity… [possessing] incredibly little ordinary intelligence” I do commend this book to those (like me) who haven’t had formal training in data structures and modelling. I was reminded of this book by the very interesting attempt by Brain Kelly to find out whether Linked Data could be used to answer a fairly simple question. His challenge was ‘to make use of the data stored in DBpedia (which is harvested from Wikipedia) to answer the query “Which town or city in the UK has the highest proportion of students?”

… the answer Cambridge. That’s a little surprising, but for a while you might convince yourself it’s right; after all, it’s not a large town and it has 2 universities based there. The table of results shows the student population as 38,696, while the population of the town is… hang on… 12? So the percentage of students is 3224%.

There is of course something faintly alarming about this. What’s the point of Linked Data if it can so easily produce such stupid results? Or worse, produce seriously wrong but not quite so obviously stupid results? But in the end, I don’t think this is the right reaction. If we care about our queries, we should care about our sources; we should use curated resources that we can trust. Resources from, say… the UK government? And that’s what Chris Wallace has done.

The answer he came up with was Milton Keynes which is the headquarters of the Open University which has practically no students locally as they are typically long-distance learners…

So if you read the query as “Which town or city in the UK is home to one or more universities whose registered students divided by the local population gives the largest percentage?”, then it would be fine. And hang on again. I just made an explicit transition there that has been implicit so far. We’ve been talking about students, and I’ve turned that into university students. We can be pretty sure that’s what Brian meant, but it’s not what he asked. If you start to include primary and secondary school students, …

My sense of Brian’s question is “Which town or city in the UK is home to one or more university campuses whose registered full or part time (non-distance) students divided by the local population gives the largest percentage?”. Or something like that (remember Metaxides, above). Go on, have a go at expressing your own version more precisely!

He ends his investigation with “I’m beginning to worry that Linked Data may be slightly dangerous except for very well-designed systems and very smart people…”

As a follow-up to the previous post about the British Museum’s collaboration with Wikipedia, I’d like to publish a text that was distributed originally on the private agade mailing list. It is written by A.J. Cave.


At 3:14 UTC on June 8th, 2010, English Wikipedia had 3, 317,225 articles and 12,495,212 registered users.  At 4:29 on June 8th there were 3,317,230 articles and 12,495,394 registered users.  In one hour and 15 minutes, Wikipedia had added 5 new articles and 82 new registered users (that is 1.1 registered user per minute!).

Now these numbers might not mean much to you and me, but they mean a lot to online search engines.

Google loves constant change, so it gives preference in its search algorithms to anything posted on Wikipedia above other less active web-based sources.  Google search bots comb through Wikipedia pages regularly like giant spiders, devouring, adding and indexing the ever-growing volume of information.

In the early days of Wikipedia, many techies joined and started writing too.  Some [like me] were more interested to test the underlying technology and see how another web “startup” could shape the internet rather than writing an online encyclopedia.

Since those early days in 2001, Wikipedia has grown into one of the largest websites, with an estimated 800+million [give and take a few] visitors a year.  There are more than 91,000 active contributors working mostly collaboratively on more than 15,000,000 articles in over 270 languages.  About 75,000 editors, from expert scholars to casual readers, regularly edit Wikipedia.

Wikipedia articles usually rank in the top 5 search results depending on the topic.

As mobile search heats up thanks to smartphones that have more capabilities than old personal computers, being among the top 5 search results on a tiny screen becomes even more important.  There is even a Wikipedia website for mobile access at: http://mobile.wikipedia.org.

I googled British Museum and the Wikipedia article on British Museum showed up as number 4 on the search list, right after the map of the museum and 2 links to museum’s website.  Another Google search on Cyrus Cylinder, a part of the current British Museum’s collection, placed the Wikipedia article in the number 1 spot, with a link to British Museum website at number 4.

Not all Wikipedia articles are of encyclopedic quality and since there is no systematic process to force an all-volunteer army of Wikipedians to write about every topic considered “obviously important” by others, Wikipedia does contain oversights and omissions.

Due to its nature, Wikipedia needs more subject matter experts and specialists in many areas.

So it is not hard to see the motive behind the recent news about the collaboration between the British Museum and a group of London area-based Wikipedians to ensure the museum collection is adequately reflected on the virtual pages of Wikipedia.

The key advantage of Wikipedia over traditional paper encyclopedias is the short editorial cycle, where Wikipedians can update an article anytime with the most recent events and scholarship.  For example the publicly announced results of the upcoming British Museum Workshop on Cyrus Cylinder in late June could hit the corresponding Wikipedia article by one of the Wikipedians with the “backstage” pass to the museum before it reaches other online and print news sources.

Wikipedia has a set of rules that have developed over the years and there is no need to cover them in details here.  If you are interested, you can click on the ‘About Wikipedia’ and read them.  These rules are important because there are a few million Wikipedians and blood would flow in the streets of Wikidom, if there are no rules.

While is a good idea to read Wikipedia’s tutorials, policies and guidelines, sorting through volumes of information can be intimating for newcomers.  So here are a few helpful hints:

1. No matter what you do, you can’t break Wikipedia.  Wikipedia has robust version controls, so you cannot accidentally do permanent harm if you make a mistake in your editing.  All mistakes can be quickly and easily reversed or fixed by any other editor.

2. Start small.  The best way to break in and feel comfortable is do minor edits first.

3. While to edit an article, you can remain anonymous, to create a new article you have to register with a valid email userid and a password.  If you are concerned about privacy and anonymity, you may prefer to create a user name for yourself in order to hide your IP address.

4. Before starting a major edit, announce your intentions on the “Discussion” page of the article.

5. Wikipedians are expected to be civil and neutral, respecting all points of view, and only add verifiable and factual information with cited external sources rather than personal views and opinions.

6. An ideal Wikipedia article aims to be well-researched, well-written, balanced, and neutral with verifiable information, suited for an encyclopedia.  However, many Wikipedia articles start as a “stub”. A stub is an article containing only a few sentences of text which is too short to provide encyclopedic coverage of a topic, but not so short as to provide no useful information, and it should be capable of expansion.

7. Wikipedia articles are always work in progress and vary in quality and maturity.  However, given that anyone can edit any article, it is possible for biased, outdated, or incorrect information to be posted.

8. Wikipedia does not allow original research and there is no elaborate system of scholarly peer review.

9. All articles are susceptible to vandalism and insertion of false information – particularly articles on popular and controversial topics.  But they eventually get cleaned up, either via consensus among Wikipedians or through intervention by the editors using Wikipedia’s conflict resolution systems.  A lock on an article’s page means the article is temporarily protected from editing by everyone and restricted to a few editors.

10. There are no content guarantees, so always check the History page to see if the article has been vandalized.

11. For those who teach, if you think your students have changed a Wikipedia article to match their research papers, just have them printout the History of a Wikipedia article and hand over!

[Additional information at: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:About ]

In the New York Times, an article discusses how the “Venerable British Museum Enlists in the Wikipedia Revolution.’ Have you looked at what Wikipedia says about your project/museum/archaeological site/etc. as of late? If you think it is inadequate, consider doing what the BM is doing: collaborating with Wikipedia to ensure that its huge readership—admit it, it hasn’t been very long since you last consulted it too, right?—gets the correct information. After all, “‘[t]en years ago we were equal, and we were all fighting for position,’ Mr. Cock [BM webmaster] said. Now, he added, ‘people are gravitating to fewer and fewer sites. We have to shift with how we deal with the Web.’”

In other words, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Once criticized as amateurism run amok, Wikipedia has become ingrained in the online world: it is consulted by millions of users when there is breaking news; its articles are frequently the first result when a search engine is used. This enhanced role has moved hand in hand with Wikipedia’s growing stability (some would say stagnation). With more than three million articles in English alone, there are fewer unexplored topics, and many of the most important articles have been edited thousands of times over a number of years. All of this means that in today’s Wikipedia there is renewed value in old-fashioned expertise, whether to provide obscure details to articles that have already been carefully edited or to find worthy topics that haven’t been written about yet. Mr. Cock, for example, estimated that there were thousands of British Museum objects (among the eight million total) that would be worth their own Wikipedia articles but don’t have them.

What unites them is each organization’s concern for educating the public: one has the artifacts and expertise, and the other has the online audience. Dividing them are issues of copyright and control, principally of images. Wikipedia’s parent, the Wikimedia Foundation, is strongly identified with the “free culture movement,” which generally holds that copyright laws are too restrictive. The foundation hosts an online “commons” with more than six million media files, photos, drawings and videos available under free licenses, which mean they can be copied by virtually anyone as long as there is a credit. That brought Wikipedia into a legal tussle with another prominent British institution, the National Portrait Gallery, when high-resolution copies of paintings from its collection were uploaded to the commons. A Wikipedia volunteer had cobbled the copies together from the gallery’s Web site, justifying his actions by noting that the paintings involved were no longer under copyright. Both the portrait gallery and the British Museum generate revenue by selling reprints and copies of pieces in their collections.

[note: follow-up in the next post]