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Wikidata novices ‘go from zero’ to presenting at international conference

Submitted on Monday, November 01, 2021

When Stacy Allison-Cassin began teaching students at the Faculty of Information how to understand the tools, techniques and practices of documenting cultural records, she chose Wikidata as the platform they would use as part of their course project. As an open knowledge base that is collaboratively edited, Wikidata allowed the students to put ideas and theory into practice as they created and documented their own collections based on their personal interests.

As much as Wikidata can pose challenges to new users, it is flexible and not as complex as doing descriptive work on other formal library platforms, says Allison-Cassin, who is an Assistant Professor (Teaching Stream) and an experienced Wikidata user herself. A member of the Métis Nation of Ontario, she is especially interested in documentation of Indigenous matters and how the platform can be used to further equity.

An experienced Wikidata user and a member of the Métis Nation of Ontario, Stacy Allison-Cassin is especially interested in documentation of Indigenous matters and how the platform can be used to further equity.

While “going from zero to Wikidata was a bit of a challenge” for students, by the end of the course, which is officially titled Representing, Documenting and Accessing the Cultural Record (INF1321H), Allison-Cassin had at least three Master of Information students whose Wikidata projects were impressive enough that she invited them to present with her at the LD4 Conference on Linked Data in Libraries, which took place last summer. Cora Coady spoke about documenting IM4 Lab, an Indigenous matriarchs’ lab in British Columbia, which supports Indigenous artists and media professionals in the use of augmented and virtual reality. Julia Gilmore described how she had documented Toronto’s public swimming culture while Adam Cavanaugh discussed how and why he narrowed his project from documenting biodiversity in Toronto’s High Park to focusing on the Black Oak Savannah as a specific ecosystem within the park.

When Coady began research on her project, she discovered that most of the existing documentation for the IM4 Lab and its members had been generated by the matriarchs themselves. “I found it disconcerting,” she said, noting that the women had made TV shows and films as we well as writing books. “Often people don’t consider that Indigenous media is for everybody not just Indigenous people. They’re losing out if they don’t see it as having value for everyone.”

As part of her project, Coady, who is a member of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, created Wikidata items for three of the four matriarchs – Doreen Manuel, Cease Wyss and Tracey Kim Bonneau – and enhanced existing documentation for the fourth, Loretta Todd. She also discovered and documented the Lab’s newly launched “Immersive Knowledge Transfer” podcast.

Coady found working in Wikidata a better experience than she had had contributing to Wikipedia, where articles are regularly deleted and there can be barriers to publication when trying to write about Indigenous figures. Despite her best efforts, Coady was unable to get a Wikipedia moderator to accept that Jacey Firth-Hagen, a promoter of Inuktitut language revitalization who is featured in the Canadian Encyclopedia, should have her own Wikipedia entry.

“With Wikidata, you don’t usually get flagged for that sort of thing,” she said. “Once you finish doing it, it’s published.”

Cora Coady found working in Wikidata was a better experience than contributing to Wikipedia where articles are often deleted for arbitrary reasons.

Wikidata works by creating what’s known as structured data with data elements given a machine-readable semantic meaning. Wikidata also allows for the linking of items to other data stores. For example, a researcher item in Wikidata can be linked to the same researcher item in the Virtual International Authority File with a “same as” connection. Because Wikidata is a very large and openly available, it is playing an increasingly powerful role within the linked data cloud. Semantically structured data enables more powerful machine processing and querying, which ultimately aids in findability and visibility on the internet.

While Wikidata, shaped by the needs and interests of its community of users, has thousands of items for books, films and peoples, as well as extensive user discussion on how to document them, Gilmore found far less information about documenting buildings and even less about swimming pools. This lack of documentation can make creating an item and deciding on which properties it should have a more complex process than for a more well-defined area like books. A further complication is what are known as “data dependencies.” For example, explains Gilmore, if she wanted to say a swimming pool was named after a person, that person would also need to exist as an item in Wikidata. If they weren’t already in Wikidata, she would have to create that item as well. Since she wanted to connect two of her favorite pieces of writing about swimming – Swimming Studies, a memoir by Leanne Shapton and The Swimming Pool Library, an essay by Naomi Skwarna – to the pools she intended to catalogue, Gilmore decided to follow the model of a Wiki member who had used the “narrative location” property to create a map of places in Copenhagen featured in different books. “I really liked this suggestion as it helped to bring the experience of swimming in these pools to the surface and situated the pools within a larger cultural framework,” she explained at her conference presentation.

Julia Gilmore wanted to document not just Toronto’s public swimming pools but the city’s swimming culture.

Cavanaugh, who wanted to represent High Park’s land through themes of biodiversity, was wary of classifying land based on municipal standards, categories and coordinates. He eventually decided that the best way to proceed with his project would be documenting High Park’s Black Oak Savannah visually through photos he took and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons.

As he did so, he found himself encountering and dealing with many of the issues raised in the readings for the course including how Canadian colonial settlement can affect the cultural record and why there are tensions between the ethos of open access and traditional knowledge systems.

For example, Cavanaugh was puzzled by why he kept encountering two spellings of the word, savannah – one with an ‘H’ at the end and one without. Researching the etymology of the word revealed that it came from the Spanish word, sabana, and its use can be traced back to the 16th century when Spanish colonizers took the Taino Indigenous people’s word zabana, meaning treeless plain, and applied it to a transitional grassland ecosystem found in other colonial contexts such as Africa.

Cavanaugh wondered if by using the dominant classifying schemes for his Wikidata entries he “might be seen as capitulating to the process of cultural linguistic absorption.”

Adam Cavanaugh took photos of High Park’s Black Oaks to document them visually and uploaded the images to Wikimedia Commons.

All three of the students agreed that the act of cataloguing using Wikidata had demonstrated what a subjective experience it was. At the same time, they also saw its great potential to re-imagine how cultural records are described and documented.

As an Indigenous student scholar, Coady said, that she and others often feel the responsibility to discuss important ongoing issues such as the children who were interred at residential schools and the disproportionate number of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Such work is “difficult and exhausting, and the result is an overwhelming journalistic and scholarly landscape of trauma,” she told the conference. “Perhaps we should also feel the same need to build documentation that recognizes people’s accomplishments and successes.

“Indigenous people deserve visibility and our children deserve to know that there are and have been great Indigenous role models.”