Wikipedia Loves Art: Lessons Learned Part 1: Pre-Competition

One of the things we hope to do with the technology posts on the blog is to take a look at our projects and carefully assess them—to look at our successes and failures and to examine complexities that can occur with any project. Wikipedia Loves Art is no exception and this will begin a series of posts on the lessons learned. For as much room as I have here, there just won’t be room for everything, so if you are an institution considering a similar project—I’d encourage you to e-mail me directly. That said, it’s important to note that these are my thoughts as the organizer of the project. Other institutions and participants may feel differently and I encourage them to express thoughts in the comments for further discussion.  In addition to my own posts, Erin Sweeney, the fellow Brooklyn Museum staffer who’s been working on this project, will be blogging later in the week.  This was a massive project.

Hey! We are doing a lot of tech posting this week, so if this is not your thing, we will be back to more varied material in the blog next week. If this kind of thing interests you, let’s go after the jump…


When we were approached to consider this project, one of the things that really sold us on the idea was the chance to work with the community at Wikipedia. As most of our readers know, community is something we take to heart at the Brooklyn Museum and the Wikipedia community is one we didn’t know and this seemed like a great opportunity to start that relationship. The gist from the wiki community was along these lines: “Do you know how difficult it is to spend a lot of time researching and writing an article, then find out you have no way to illustrate it?” I’m sure this issue is something we’ve all dealt with at one time or another, so we could relate. The original plan was to go it alone and host a scavenger hunt for photographs. Plan #2 shifted a bit—it seemed a little odd to just do this ourselves. Wikipedia is a global community, so why not do our best to try and involve other institutions in other areas? The original idea in Plan #2 was to engineer it as a museum vs. museum competition. We talked with small focus group to hear reaction on this and quickly learned that they had no interest in this aspect and they would want to shoot at more than one venue. We restructured into Plan #3 which was designed to allow participants to shoot at as many venues as they wanted, to shoot in teams or on their own and to compete against each other rather than organizations. We started with a few partners and a set of rules that we thought would work for most organizations, then opened it up for anyone to join us. In all, 15 institutions came on board.

Improve Quality, Prevent COI:

If you work in an institution, you are probably familiar with the reaction you get when you so much as say “Wikipedia” in this setting <insert big grin here>. Quality can be a point of contention (nice summary here) and a project like this can be a difficult sell internally because you have to get over this (big) hump. As a collaborator we wanted to recognize that the resource doesn’t get better without help and there’s something we can do about that, but also try and accomplish this project in a way that wouldn’t represent a conflict of interest (COI is a sin in the Wiki world, but there’s debate within our own industry).

Working with the Wiki community, we decided the best way to prevent COI would be to ensure the Wikipedia community were the ones that would create the thematic lists that would form the hunt and these would be based on things that Wikipedia needed, rather than our suggestions. On the quality front, we wanted to insure that each institution had the chance to properly caption each photograph before it was used on Wikipedia. 

Erin will be blogging with her own thoughts on the quality issue, so be on the lookout−she has a lot to say.

Early Logistics:

So, now we’ve got 15 institutions and now we need 15 scavenger hunt lists. Wikipedia is a decentralized community with participants almost everywhere, so the idea was to match each participating institution with a Wikipedian from their local area. The Wikipedian would assist by creating the list, work through issues at that particular venue and help plan events. Due to the decentralized nature of the system, this was a little bit easier said than done. Wiki contacts were found and deployed to institutions.  In some cases this worked extremely well (thank you!), but in other cases we were struggling. As we were getting closer and closer to the opening of the competition, some institutions were emailing me with no list, unable to get a hold of their assigned contact and asking what to do. In some instances we were totally prepared, in others scrambling. As we inched closer and closer to the opening of the competition, you should have seen the amount of DM’ing going on at Twitter (do you have? have you heard from? where are you on x, y or z?).

Early Problems:

In addition to the missing lists, we started to see a few other things happen as a result of the decentralization. For starters, an unsanctioned Flickr group popped up.  Why is that such a problem?  Well, for starters, we wanted this to be something you could look at in the end and see how much collaboration there was as a group effort.  There were more practical issues too, we could create one scoring solution that would work for everyone and a single group could be more easily managed than many.

More alarmingly than the group, we started to see various incarnations of rules appearing on Wikipedia. The rules were complicated enough, but to have different versions running around all saying slightly different things in different styles was a bit of a nightmare. Things started to get confusing and we hadn’t even made it to the February 1 start date yet. I spent January 31 making hundreds of edits to various wiki pages trying to get language and rules consistent and did this until the midnight deadline. Even after all the edits, I still didn’t catch everything and there’s a fantastic example of the craziness these problems caused right here.

Lessons Learned in Round 1:

  • Focus groups are awesome (thank you Amy, Trish, Stephen for taking time)
  • Work with the community to accomplish your goals (quality) under their rules (prevent COI)
  • Much like what we know of Wikipedia already, decentralization is a great asset but it can also be one heck of an enormous drawback. To account for this, you need to allocate a lot of time to work through situations (we didn’t allocate enough). Decentralization created other problems for us and we will discuss that more in the next post, so stay tuned.
  • Watch consistency errors like a hawk, because there will be a ton of them.

We will continue the discussion tomorrow, but in good humor, I’ll leave you with the image below and let your imagination take the reigns for a bit.


mad man by McGarry via Flickr