Publishing online encyclopedias more efficiently

Compare if you will our Business Studies Encyclopedia

against our ICT Encyclopedia

At time of writing, the ICT Encyclopedia is both unfinished and unedited, but that’s not the distinction I’m drawing your attention to. Nor is the difference in colour scheme. The most important distinction is invisible to the user; it’s the speed with which we are able to create the newer ICT Encyclopedia.

The Business Studies site is a static website, assembled at our office from articles that are emailed in by their authors. We hand-code it to keep the HTML clean, but we could equally well use Dreamweaver or Frontpage. Because all the work comes through a single point, workflow is prone to getting bottlenecked. It’s also quite a job to organise all these little articles getting emailed from author to expert editor to proofer to layout artist. The glossary, navigation links and index are all built by hand too. It’s about the same work as publishing a book of the same size.

The ICT encyclopedia is an entirely different animal. It’s a Wiki. Wikis put all the tools for creating large hierarchical databases onto a server, with all the management tools. Here are some of the features of ours:

  • multiple authors and editors can work on the website at one time
  • contributors can be anywhere in the world
  • editors have automatic pick-lists of entries to edit (though no full workflow just yet)
  • automatic breadcrumb creation (those are the links at the top of the page, showing the hierarchy)
  • permissions hierarchy
  • dynamic skinning (compare Skin 1 to Skin 2 to Skin 3)
  • auto-glossary creation
  • built-in search

The end result is a better encyclopedia, built more quickly for less money. We now plan a suite of online educational encyclopedias, all tied to our online courses.

The name Wiki derives from the wonderfully onomatopoeic Polynesian word wiki-wiki, meaning ‘quick’. Its classic exponent is the Wikipedia, a huge collective effort to build an open-source encyclopedia. Wikipedia is even more radical: anyone, without restriction, can add, delete and edit pages. The system resists malicious editing by the simple expedient of making it easy to revert to a previous version of each page.

Our Wiki is an implementation of Zwiki, built in the sparse and elegant programming language Python. The bespoke features (like the glossary manager) were written for us by our colleagues Halogen-DG whom I highly recommend if you have a similar project.

Update: here’s a post from Chris Allen with a super overview of wiki alternatives. If you want to dig further, it makes a great starting point.

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