[okfn-discuss] Collaborative Development of Data

Benj. Mako Hill mako at atdot.cc
Thu Feb 15 23:22:15 GMT 2007

<quote who="Rufus Pollock" date="Thu, Feb 15, 2007 at 01:03:22PM +0000">
> We already have some fairly good working processes for collaborative 
> development of unstructured text: the two most prominent examples being 
> source code of computer programs and wikis for general purpose content 
> (encyclopedias etc). However these tools perform poorly (or not at all) 
> when we come to structured data.

If you know how to massage the system, both Mediawiki (especially with a
series of plugins) or MoinMoin are pretty good at this as well.

My biggest problem is that the syntax necessary to show where the data
is (labeling in your description) is not something people always get
right -- in fact, they very frequently get it wrong.

Now, there is syntax in wikis for documents too of course. But when you
get it wrong, it's not usually so bad. While getting syntax wrong in a
document may make your document a bit ugly, it's frequently noticeable
and only infrequently impacts your meaning.

But when you have a wide-open text box for data, screw-ups can be both
much more difficult to detect (both for the computer, and for a human
reading the page) and the impact is often that the data is unseen in
other parts of the system.

The comparison between Microsoft Word and Microsoft Access with its form
wizards is a useful analogy perhaps. Wikis, as they exist currently, do
a pretty good job of addressing the first class of problems but do a
pretty poor job (as of right now and as I understand it) of addressing
the types of problems that Access does.

What's great about Access is the interface is flexible and, once set up,
you can make it difficult for users to add bad or invalid data by
accident. It does most of this, of course through interface rather than
validation -- this is reason people find such system so usable. I've
always been sad that I've never seen a great piece of free software that
did that same thing as well. Of course, this piece of free software
should be collaborative as well, and that introduces lots of other

Perhaps, I'll write one some day. I think that such a project could
learn a whole lot from wikis. However, I think there's a danger that we
could "learn" a bit too much and not diverge in ways that will be
essential to the success of such a project.

Maybe such tools exist and I just don't know about them. That would be
very exciting indeed!


Benjamin Mako Hill
mako at atdot.cc

Creativity can be a social contribution, but only in so
far as society is free to use the results. --RMS

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