Thursday, July 08, 2004

I have been thinking about how to open up global conferences to wider participation, and so, it turns out, have a lot of others. One of the best new ideas is to open up a Wiki before the conference. The XV International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, scheduled for August, already has the AIDS 2004 Wiki up and running, and I have made some contributions to it.

A Wiki is a Web site developed in an open collaboration by the public, that is by anybody who knows something about the subject and cares to do the work. Anybody else can come along and edit existing content. People new to the context often wonder how Wikis can be protected from vandalism and hijacking if just anybody can post. It is true that a few people try such things, but Wikis can protect themselves. First, every version of every Wiki page is backed up and can be restored to any previous state at any time. Second, every change is logged, and frequent users watch the changelog in order to be among the first to see any new content. That means that vandalism is corrected within hours, sometimes minutes. Most would-be vandals have given up.

Anyway, the really important fact here is that people who can't attend the Conference can get their input in before the Conference opens. People with laptops can Wiki or blog during the conference sessions, and the rest of the world can read and comment. And we can all continue the discussion afterward.

They say that the best part of any conference is not the formal presentations (which could be mailed out on a CD-ROM, or posted on the Web site) but meeting people, particularly chance encounters in the halls during coffee breaks or at meals. The Wiki makes it much easier to meet people who have ideas of interest to you, to exchange ideas without the arbitrary time limits imposed by the conference schedule, and to maintain contect afterwards.

Another good idea is to put the conference attendee list online, and an even better idea is to let attendees and others sign up for mailing lists on the various conference themes. But a Wiki gives the greatest cross-linking capability and the greatest flexibility. Conversations can take any sort of turn, and whenever a new subject comes up, someone can create a new page for it. That page can link to any other relevant pages, and people can put links on those pages to the new one.

You can also link different Wikis together using external Web links.

The biggest Wiki is undoubtedly the encyclopedic Wikipedia, which I have also contributed to. There are vast, uncounted numbers of wikis on almost any topic.

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