Monday, March 15, 2010

How Wikipedia can help scope a project

I'm revisiting the idea of building a wiki of phylogenies using Semantic Mediawiki. One problem with a project like this is that it can rapidly explode. Phylogenies have taxa, which have characters, nucleotides sequences and other genomics data, and names, and come from geographic locations, and are collected and described by people, who may deposit samples in museums, and also write papers, which are published in journals, and so on. Pretty soon, any decent model of a phylogeny database is connected to pretty much anything of interest in the biological sciences. So we have a problem of scope. At what point do we stop adding things to the database model?

It seems to me that Wikipedia can help. Once we hit a topic that exists in Wikipedia, then we can stop. It's a reasonable bet that either now, or at some point in the future, the Wikipedia page is likely to be as good as, or better than, anything a single project could do. Hence, there's probably not much point storing lots of information about genes, countries, geographic regions, people, journals, or even taxa, as Wikipedia has these. This means we can focus on gluing together the core bits of a phylogenetic study (trees, taxa, data, specimens, publications) and then link these to Wikipedia.

In a sense this is a variation on the ideas explored in EOL, the BBC, and Wikipedia, but in developing my wiki of phylogenies project (this is the third iteration of this project) it's struck me how the question "is this in Wikipedia?" is the quickest way to answer the question "should I add x to my wiki?" Hence, Wikipedia becomes an antidote to feature bloat, and helps define the scope of a project more clearly.