DevSummit07:Case Study: The WiserEarth Platform

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Facilitated by Oz Basarir and Noel Tarnoff, WiserEarth

 WiserEarth empowering the largest & fastest growing movement in the world
 WiserEarth promotes positive social change by empowering the largest and fastest
growing movement in the world — the hundreds of thousands of organizations within
civil society that address social justice, poverty, and the environment. 
WiserEarth provides open source tools and information to help these organizations
find each other, collaborate, share resources and build alliances.
 The WiserEarth platform attempts to leverage a wiki content system (e.g. mediawiki)
with social networking and powerful structured search.  Some of the challenges 
encountered along the way have been : how to deal with XSS (cross site scripting 
attacks), revisioning of content, scalability, intuitive editing while maintaining 
web standards as much as possible, and leveraging the latest DHTML techniques 
(namely ajax).


Transparency is key – everything that is done on the site is transparent to everyone else on the site.

The Website is developed from scratch (PHP) using only opensource tools and technology. When it ships on April 22nd EarthDay the code will be rolled out as OpenSource. (LGPL?)

Note: the success of Wikipedia has not gone unnoticed. A strong community of editors and other active participants is core to the way Wikipedia has unfolded. A core community of editors and others is envisioned at WiserEarth.

Why Another Directory? Existing directories are still largely silos. The Wiki structure makes a profound opportunity for community collaboration, sharing of resources and growth as a movement.

This site will carry no Ads. Hosting and other expenses are being covered by NCI, which is a nonprofit.

Who gets to use the data, and how, is To Be Decided by the community. This is a work in progress. The php has a MySQL backend - technically, how to handle the data is not much of a mystery. So really, the way that the data is handled, rights and responsibilities, are needing a license structure.

A suggestion from the crowd: reference a sourcebook of decision making process, The Tao of Democracy: Using Co-Intelligence to Create a World That Works for All by Tom Atlee and Rosa Zubizarreta (Paperback - Jul 2003)

A Short Tour of the Site in Development

Three major sections:

  • organization profile pages
  • areas of focus portal pages
  • wiki section

A user can create a login and then create your site.

Modifications to the page (organizations, etc.) are tracked in the history and can be reviewed and changed, of course. The editing UI is AJAX based providing for a smoother experience and less stress on the server.

Showing an organizations page shows a number of sub-sections, including a set of Area of Focus tags.

Areas of Focus are over 400 pre-defined categories that have been identified for the social and environmental movements by Paul Hawken and his research team.

Clicking on an Areas of Focus tag brings you to the portal page of the same name. The Portal Page is a the gathering place for the communities interested in these areas. Featured include resources, organizations, statistics.

People Search brings up all people interested in a particular area – you can add additional filters. Wiki, youtube videos, resources, events jobs – can all be added/enhanced to different areas. No HTML is required to create profile but enhancements can be added to those with the technical expertise.

All areas but WikiPages have structured data (and structured searches).

The tour was kept brief to allow time for Q&A.

Question and Answer

Is there a way to report on/monitor funding with an organization? No structure for that at this time but because the structure is open, this could be developed.

Is there a way for people to comment on a project? – Yes - there is a comment space at the bottom of the project page.

What functionality is on the site to encourage people to collaborate? What kind of collaboration are you anticipating out of this? That will depend on the individual groups – we are providing wikis and tools to make collaboration easier – it is up to them.

Do you have an API? They hope to have an API but it isn’t developed yet. There is a lot of interest in bi-directional data sharing. It is clear people will want to use the information in ways that isn’t provided here. Wiserearth is searching for ways that people will want to use the information and ways to collaborate technically. Interested in online decision making - more than a poll – something that feeds back to the tool. Because the project is open source once it is released tools/areas like this can be developed.

From the idea stage – what was the process and how many people were involved. What it took to make the commitment from the ground up. Started with a lot of coincidences – one of them was that Jimmy Wales came to San Francisco and gave a talk at loneowl.org. Several people were there that were working with a prior version of WiserEarth (database/directory). They realized there was a community around Wikipedia – and were really inspired by Jimmy Wales’ speech. They originally put the data on MediaWiki. They started doing searches and realized they couldn’t. If they wanted projects in Cambodia, they couldn’t filter down to that. They needed structured searches. They then started looking at whether they could enhance MediaWiki or to write their own. There were several projects they looked at and it didn’t seem like they best way to go. As they had a specific set of requirements they decided to do it on their own. The team started with OZ and a second core developer. Other developers have come and gone – essentially there are 2 core developers.

Perhaps the reason the urgency around the questions is because the project seems so important and everyone wants it to work. How does the decision making process work? It doesn’t seem to be a technical issue – mysql is on the back so that isn’t the question – but more the question is political – they are social questions.

The Wikipedia started with few pages and has grown. This is quite different in that it is coming into the community populated. There are opportunities for grass roots communities to go.

Perhaps the next step is to do more with the list of folks interested – a map, or some other tools to allow this “tribe” to work together. Is WiserEarth going to create those tools for the use of the community? What next and who is designing it? Does someone write one using an API, will WiserEarth do it? “We” will decide it as we go along. Right now the “we” is the invited community. After launch the community will decide.

What kind of organizations are within the scope? What kind of functionality is in the scope (is a fundraising wiki page okay)? It is defined on the Wiser Standards page. The guidelines are not set in stone but are starting points. The standards page is a wiki and can be edited.

Do you have plans to get out past the computer screens to help people use it? Oz hasn’t been involved in those discussions.

What about a fundraising button on your organizations page? That is an open question at this time.

How will outreach and education happen? Also an open question.

What are the weak points of the architecture that has been implemented so far – he has 4 pages of issues to discuss. Among them:

  1. The social network visualizer – creates a graphic of all things that are linked. The question is how do we do that well – can anyone link to anything? What if an organization doesn’t want someone to be linked to them? There is also an issue of scale.

It would be important to be able to see what is in the works – what are potential projects that are coming. What are the actions that the community would want to be involved in.