LocalWiki

By Philip Neustrom

Big News & the Future of LocalWiki

25 July 2013

Where we are right now

When we started the LocalWiki project a little over two years ago, we set out to bring the wonder, joy, and transformative power of projects like the DavisWiki to as many communities as possible. We wanted to show the world that a more open, more empowering and more collaborative model for local media was possible.

We worked hard to create an entirely new type of “wiki” software designed specifically for local community collaboration. Our goal was to make the ultimate platform for local community knowledge sharing. In the process, we broke a lot of ground — we created the first open-source, entirely-visual page editing process; a beautiful collaborative mapping system; the first open-source, visual “what’s changed” view for pages and maps; a powerful geographic API; and much more.

We worked alongside a number of communities to help them build out successful projects and test our platform. Together, we’ve chronicled the greenways of Raleigh; helped map and describe Antarctica; told the story of the informal neighborhoods of Denton; covered over 300 topics in the history of Oakland; and much more.  We've seen city councils give praise to LocalWiki projects (1, 2) and we've had countless community members come together, in person, to build out LocalWiki projects together (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)

When we began the LocalWiki project, the question we got asked over and over was: "But can you replicate this? Davis is..weird." Today, there are over 70 major LocalWiki projects in 10 countries and in 7 languages. Every month, around 400,000 people use a LocalWiki project. And the LocalWiki software platform has been installed over 1,000 times, making it one of the most-replicated pieces of open-source civic software ever.

But most importantly, we've begun a movement — a movement focused around communities coming together to collaboratively write their past, make meaning of their present, and build visions of their future.

Here’s a video of Philip discussing the state of LocalWiki in 2013 with highlights from different LocalWiki projects around the world:

The future

Despite the tremendous progress we've made, there's still so far to go. Over the past several months we've taken time to reflect on where we've come and where we want to go, and thought hard about some of the biggest problems facing our current approach:

  • While there are an ever-growing number of vibrant LocalWiki projects, most communities lack a project.

  • Creating a project requires knowing how to install software on a server. Despite the fact we've worked hard to make it easy to install and update the LocalWiki platform, many projects struggle to keep their servers updated or running at all.

  • Because you must create an independent LocalWiki project for a particular area before contributing, early enthusiasts feel that they have to first build a cohort of core volunteers for the project to be successful, when the incentive should be to jump in and add great content.

  • Despite the fact that the LocalWiki API is being increasingly adopted, it's difficult to use LocalWiki as a platform for local knowledge sharing. Because of this, we lose out on a tremendous amount of possible growth. E.g. when Mark finds a great open database of park information for all of Canada he cannot import it into LocalWiki in whole.

  • Because every LocalWiki is a separate project on a separate server with a separate domain name, it's difficult for people to discover and contribute to projects. For instance, because of this extreme autonomy, each project must work for years and years to get decent search engine ranking. In contrast, a new entry on Wikipedia will become the top hit on various search engines almost immediately. As a result, successful projects must engage in direct in-person outreach for years to achieve modest growth, which tires and distracts contributors.

  • Mobile is increasingly essential, but it's difficult to imagine a cohesive mobile strategy with our current everything-is-separate approach. E.g. would we create a mobile app for each of DavisWiki, OaklandWiki, ArborWiki, etc? Right now, a mobile app could improve large, established projects but it's hard to see how it could spur growth in new areas because, almost by definition, they don’t already have LocalWiki projects.

  • Determining appropriate geographic subdivisions for LocalWiki projects is difficult. LocalWiki projects in geographically isolated areas don't struggle with this as much (e.g. Davis), but most places in the world are interconnected and/or subdivided. This not only makes it difficult to figure out what regions a project should serve, but also makes it borderline impossible to share information and community between regions.

Fundamentally, what we want to do is collect, share and open the world's local knowledge. We've proven our model can be replicated successfully in several major communities, but our challenge now is to find ways to massively scale the project up with the aim of reaching millions of people throughout the world.

Today, we're extremely happy to announce that, with the generous support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, we're embarking on a new project that aims to address these problems head-on, scale up LocalWiki and ultimately make it easier for anyone, anywhere to learn about where they live.

At the core of this new project will be the development of a singular LocalWiki “hub”. This hub will provide a frictionless way to learn and share without technical or logistical challenges; serve as a repository for both structured and unstructured local information; and ultimately provide a global, universal platform for local knowledge.

Imagine just going to localwiki.org, searching “volunteer,” and finding all of the volunteer opportunities in your area.  Or learning about the history of a nearby lake from a friend and being able to share it with your community instantly, without having to create a LocalWiki project first.  Or finding a great dataset of park information for your entire state and being able to import it into LocalWiki, as a whole.  This — and much more — is what we are going to experiment with over the coming year.

Here’s a little video of Philip discussing LocalWiki’s aims and future direction:

Many aspects of the project are still yet to be determined. LocalWiki is a community-driven project through and through, so to kick things off we will start holding hangouts with LocalWiki communities in the coming weeks to chart a course together.  At first, we plan to start with something simple that helps people get started with LocalWiki projects and then iterate, iterate and iterate.

But we can’t do it without your help! —

We couldn’t be more excited to share the power of LocalWiki with many, many more people all over the world.  It’s going to take a lot of work, but with your help we know we will succeed. Let’s do it!

If you’re a member of the press, please see our press release here.

Follow us on and !

By Marina Kukso

LocalWiki Shout Out at Oakland City Council Meeting

2 July 2013

You were probably not aware that Oakland, CA's City Council discussed and voted on a contentious annual budget last week amidst flying allegations of poor transparency, backdoor dealings, and more. However, in the middle of the mudslinging, councilmember Libby Schaaf took a moment to give a shout out to Oakland Wiki for providing comprehensive information on the progress of budget negotiations, details on different proposals, and more. According to Schaaf, citizens sharing information about budget proceedings with each other increases transparency and citizen awareness.

Check out a clip of Schaaf's statement from the meeting below.


By Marina Kukso

LocalWiki at the National Day of Civic Hacking

20 June 2013

On June 1-2, 2013, thousands of people in communities across the country participated in the National Day of Civic Hacking, a series of events held in dozens of cities where coders and citizens collaborated to use open government data for local and national change.

Participants of the Hack for Change Seattle event. (photo by Sol Villarreal)

Many of the participating projects included building and using LocalWikis for civic change.

In Philadelphia, a team that included Chris Alfano, Faye Anderson, and Jim Connor won the Random Hacks of Kindness hackathon with an app called “What’s Going On?” which aggregates after school programs across the city. To develop a database of after school programs for their app, the team had participants add programs to Wikidelphia, Philadelphia’s LocalWiki. The list of programs is now available both via the What’s Going On? app and on Wikidelphia.

Developing the What's Going On? app in Philadelphia (photo by Faye Anderson)
Chris Alfano working on the What's Going On? app in Philadelphia (photo by Faye Anderson)

Hack for Change participants worked on adding and editing entries to their LocalWikis in Miami, (the MiamiWiki team added over 370 entries during the weekend!), Seattle, Kansas City, Norfolk, and Tulsa.

MiamiWiki presentation at Hack for Change Miami (photo by Christopher Sopher)
Kansas City neighborhood Write-a-thon (photo by Andrew Hyder)

The Tulsa Central Library organized and hosted a TulsaWiki editathon where over 60 participants added entries and maps to TulsaWiki. Additionally, a team that included Luke Crouch, John Dungan, Blixa Morgan, and Patrick Forringer developed a mobile app called LocalTour which uses map and entry data from Tulsa Wiki to power self-guided tours of Tulsa. The team plans to expand this app to allow any city running a LocalWiki to have their own LocalTour instance.

The National Day of Civic Hacking was the starting gun, but the race continues all summer with the Great American Civic Hack, a summer-long challenge that encourages development and re-use of civic software that culminates in an awards ceremony in August. Help make open source civic software better by contributing to LocalWiki and all the other great civic projects in the Great American Civic Hack.


By Philip Neustrom

LocalWiki 0.5 released

25 March 2013

Happy Tuesday! Today we’re releasing version 0.5 of the LocalWiki platform, and we encourage you to upgrade as soon as you’re done reading this.

Cleaner, faster maps

When we first started working on the Santa Cruz LocalWiki, one thing we noticed was that the map looked really crowded and could take up to a minute to load. WIth nearly 3000 mapped pages, we needed a faster and better way to display the mapped pages. Here’s what it looked like before:

and here’s what it looks like now:

Maps when you search!

Now, when you search for something on a LocalWiki you’ll see a little map! The map displays the locations of the pages in the search results:

A ton of smaller fixes and improvements

Like a dramatically faster-loading dashboard; hovering over links in tag lists and search results now highlights the map; and (link) much more.

Upgrading

If you're using the Ubuntu package (recommended for most users), then upgrading takes just these two commands:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get upgrade

If you’ve customized your CSS you’ll want to read these instructions.

This release deprecates Ubuntu 10.10 ("Maverick"), so if your system is still running that you’ll need to update to a new Ubuntu release. Hop on IRC #localwiki or the mailing list for help!

If you have a developer install of LocalWiki, read about upgrading on our developer site.


By Marina Kukso

Open Data Day + LocalWiki = <3

5 March 2013

February 23rd was the International Open Data day. And all over the world, groups gathered to work together on LocalWiki projects.  Here’s a few of their stories:

Seattle, Washington

Seattle Wiki met in conjunction with the Code for Seattle Code for America Brigade group and hacked on the LocalWiki platform, creating a ruby gem for the localwiki api, a node module for the localwiki api, a patch method for the node module request and more.  A bunch of LocalWiki editing happened, too, and folks started filling out information about local libraries.

Oakland, California

For Open Data Day, Oakland Wiki had an editathon in conjunction with the Open Oakland Code for America Brigade at the 81st Avenue Library. The theme of the editathon was “#oakmtg” which is the hashtag used by those who livetweet Oakland City Council meetings. As part of this theme, they worked on content relating to all things civic -- City Council (people and meetings), city policies, and access to resources and services. Content added included a complete list of past City Council members, free computer access in Oakland, unemployment insurance and job-seeking advice, resources at local libraries, Oakland Fire Department locations, and more.

South Bend, Indiana

Code for America fellows in South Bend, Indiana set up a South Bend LocalWiki for their event which 80 people attended. Populating the South Bend Wiki was one of several activity or project options for the day. It proved to be quite popular-- 15 users created more than 110 pages with more than 300 edits! Although there's still some debate locally about whether the project should be focused on South Bend (city) or Michiana (region), you can find the fruits of the community's labor at southbendwiki.org. The initial content focused largely around neighborhoods, biking, and local amenities like restaurants and live music venues. Since the event, a number of users have continued adding to and editing the wiki and at a community meeting last night one of the contributors told us that she's recruiting a relative who works with high school students to populate the wiki with additional information as part of a class.

Summit County, Ohio

On a Saturday morning, Summit County Councilmembers, lawyers, ecologists, data scientists, designers and developers gathered to celebrate what we love about where we live. We documented the special parts of this community in our culture’s favored medium: open-source software. More specifically, they captured the best of the community’s remarkable parks, its neighborhoods and destinations, and even the “Weird and Wacky” in the new Summit Wiki.

Sacramento, California

Photo by Jared Goyette

SacWiki editing was on the menu during Sacramento’s International Open Data Day hackathon. Phoebe Ayers from nearby Davis Wiki gave a demo on editing the wiki, and the group settled in to collaboratively redesign and update the main page. Participants also updated and added to several articles, and as a demo, created a new article about the space they were in.

By the end of the event everyone agreed to stay in touch via a new Sac Wiki google group. Participants discussed the possibility of meetups and working with other Sacramento community groups such as local collaborative media and neighborhood associations to breathe more energy into the project.

Grand Rapids, Michigan

The Grand Raids LocalWiki group, viget.org, held a a writeathon at local Story Cafe.  During the event over 330 changes were made to over 100 pages.  The Viget team even put together this awesome flyer to advertise their event:

Tokyo area, Japan

Folks in the Tokyo area of Japan worked on their custom-themed LocalWiki instance.  They worked to share the beautiful and unique things about the regions of Chiyoda and Fujisawa.


By Vicky Knox

Oakland Wiki hosts first in a series of Local History Editathons!

18 January 2013

On Sunday, January 13th, Team Oakland Wiki held our first-ever Local History Editathon! That day, local historians, geographers, San Francisco Bay Area Wikipedians and curious residents of all editing abilities gathered at the Oakland History Room for what became a very successful major first push toward incorporating local historical content onto Oakland Wiki.

After a merry social hour at the Brown Couch Cafe, the day’s researcher-editors met up for the main event at the Oakland History Room at the main branch of the Oakland Public Library, a local treasure trove of primary materials relating to the history of the East Bay.

Sunday History Room Librarian Martha Bergmann greeted the crowd with a table filled with prime examples of the history room’s collections: from neighborhood-related clippings that volunteers have collected over many decades, to historical photo albums and property maps dating to the 1850s. She had spent the previous evening thoughtfully pondering the event: Which resources would she highlight, particularly given the digital nature of the project?

After her wonderful exhibition on the library’s collections, she lead us to a conference room, where Team Oakland Wiki members Marina and Vicky gave first-time editors an editing walkthrough. After returning to the History Room, the day’s localwikians packed the largest table in the room with books and news clippings, laptops and hand-scribbled research notes, a portable scanner, and an occasional history-excited voice (that the author of this post had to remind to keep quiet).

One of our attendees, Gene Anderson, is the local historian/geographer behind the detailed neighborhood boundary maps that are incorporated into Oakland Wiki. He is the keeper of the OurOakland blog, an amazing repository of local history and events. A few years ago, he started an Oakland history wiki on OurOakland as a way to record in wiki format local history that doesn’t meet Wikipedia’s notability guidelines--but the project ended up being too monumental a task for him alone. He now edits Oakland Wiki under the name "Gene", and is a regular sight on the "recent changes" tab!

The aim of organizing local history editathons is fourfold in our eyes:

  1. Engage existing communities: We want to tap into communities of Oaklanders who have the potential to become dedicated editors--in this case, those who are already actively interested in creating and preserving a story to call Oakland’s. We believe (and are seeing!) the potential that this community of active historians holds!
  2. Make the analog digital: We want to create the opportunity to bridge communicational divides between the analog and the digital and include invaluable information on the wiki that is not readily available on the Internet.
  3. Promote incremental editing: We want to motivate more people to edit by having a content base spanning the basic history and geography of neighborhoods, people and historic events. This is part of our strategy to include people who may not have the knowledge, time or sense of agency to write an extensive history on a topic, but who through incremental changes could add more value and depth to what’s already presented.
  4. Enrich our perspective of today’s Oakland: Having basic content on the historical trends that shape and inform today’s Oakland will make an Oakland Wiki user’s experience that much more enlightening.

Our Local History Editathon series takes place every Sunday at different libraries, museums and other repositories of local history. Please see the Local History Editathons page for details and sign up for our announcement listserv! More highlights of the day (including photos, content created, and ideas for future events) can be found here.


By Philip Neustrom

A movement spreads

28 November 2012

We've seen something incredible happen recently: all over the United States, people are getting together — in person, and in huge numbers — to kick off or just to edit their local wiki.

Toledo, Ohio

When Brian Zelip went back home to Toledo for Thanksgiving, he knew the community was missing something — a LocalWiki! So he got to work creating one. But he knew he couldn’t just stop on by, boot up a new LocalWiki instance, and head back. Instead, he worked with friends and organizations in the community, and pulled folks together for a big “learn & launch” event for ToledoWiki.

Around 60 people came out to the event.

Around 60 people came out for the event, and the meetup alone created about a 33% increase in users and a 50% increase in users. Check out this great newspaper article about the event. One of the people who came out for the event was Eddie:

Eddie is an eight year old contributor to ToledoWiki. He asked the first question during the event’s Q&A, then set to work on his iPad creating a wiki page for his school!

Grand Rapids, Michigan

Motu Viget is the motto of the City of Grand Rapids. It means strength in activity in Latin. Viget is also the name of the local wiki project for Grand Rapids. The project was started back in 2007 and re-launched yesterday, in beta, on the LocalWiki platform. To mark the occasion, they had a big edit-a-thon and meetup yesterday evening!

The team behind the project, Friendly Code, has already started doing some great work on the LocalWiki software platform.

Oakland, California

Last week, folks behind the OaklandWiki project organized their first bikeabout!

One of the bike groups.

Participants split up into three groups that rode around Fruitvale, Jingletown, Downtown, Grand Lake, and West Oakland. The ride was roughly geared around recording information about Oakland's vibrant collection of murals.

After biking, folks met back up at the West Oakland Library Branch where they created an amazing collection of pages about the city's murals — like Mural Lane, 514 28th St Murals, Children's Fairyland, and 15th and Webster Murals. (See the huge full list!)

A couple days later, some of the OaklandWiki team organized a brown bag lunch at the Oakland City Hall! About 20 city employees attended, and they had a lively discussion about ways the City could engage with the OaklandWiki project.

Champaign-Urbana, Illinois

Folks in Champaign-Urbana just passed the 1,000 page milestone on CUWiki. Congrats!

...and finally, a message from TriangleWiki:

TriangleWiki folks on the R-Line spread the LocalWiki word!

By Philip Neustrom

Antarctica like you've never seen it before

10 October 2012

Many months ago, we were approached about helping start up a LocalWiki project in Antarctica.

In.
Antarctica.
Antarctica!

The project, named Open Antarctica, would aim to initially document a region of roughly 2 miles surrounding the Palmer Station United States base on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Our first question was: wait, there's Internet in Antarctica? And yes, there is Internet access on the Antarctic bases — access that's provided over an awesome looking, though incredibly slow, satellite uplink. So slow, in fact, that we briefly thought about sending our contact down to Antarctica with a plug-in computer running a little LocalWiki server — but ultimately decided it was too much work for little gain.

The next thing we started thinking about was mapping. Maps are a core feature of LocalWiki, so having a good map of the area, particularly the area near the research station, was really important. And ideally we'd have some aerial imagery and not just a vector map. "Let's take a look at some maps of the area!" we thought.

Given that we use OpenStreetMap data in our default base layer, let's check out what our OpenStreetMap-based tiles look like around the island containing the research station:

The orange dot is where the station is.

As you can see, the OpenStreetMap map doesn't really show any of the detail here — it's missing the whole peninsula the station is on! The story's the same with most freely-licensed satellite imagery:

Typical freely-licensed satellite imagery.

Some commercial satellite imagery, like Google's, is better, but it's still not at the level of detail we wanted — and it's not freely licensed. There's got to be some good aerial imagery of this region out there, right? Maybe if I we found some good imagery we could stitch it together into a map?

Then we found this amazing NASA Photo of the Day:

OH MY GOD! That's just incredible detail and quality! Hope!

Making the map

Searching through the USGS Earth Explorer didn't turn up anything near the quality of this NASA photo of the day image. Hunting around different NASA websites didn't seem to give many clues, either. The best clue was the photo caption from the Photo of the Day, which read:

[...] greeting to scientists and flight crew aboard NASA's DC-8 flying science laboratory as it flew over the station during Operation Ice Bridge.

After even more digging around, I stumbled upon the FTP site where NASA was hosting Operation Ice Bridge images. Presumably, the image from the NASA Photo of the Day would be in there — and hopefully a bunch of great shots of the surrounding area. The only problem was that the FTP site had many, many directories, each with thousands of files:

I experimented with downloading a few random images and plotting them in QGIS, but it quickly became clear that downloading all of the hundreds of thousands of images and plotting them using this way just wasn't going to work — there were too many images, we didn't have the many, many terabytes of required space, and the GeoTIFFs quickly overloaded QGIS. Alex Mandel recommended trying to find a pattern in the filenames — but after working on the problem for a bit we didn't seem to get anywhere.

So we ended up writing a little FTP client to grab just the few Kb of each file, which ended up being enough to get the location metadata out of the GeoTIFFs. With that, we could easily import the location of every image:

...and then start plotting them on a map, revealing airplane's flight path:

The red dot is the research station.

Getting there... after plotting a few hundred thousand other data points:

The red dot is the research station.

Sweet! It looks like there's quite a few images around the station! So there's some hope we can piece together a great aerial map of the region.

Overview / vector map

So, there's hope we'll pull off an aerial map of the region. But it's going to be pretty spotty — the NASA Ice Bridge project is set up to just snap photos of the coastlines, basically. We'll have to lay the aerial imagery on top of something. And because the project may later want to cover other regions in Antarctica, we'd like to have a good base map of the whole continent.

But the problem is that standard maps are designed to make most of earth look right when flattened out, always at the expense of Antarctica. Which usually makes a lot of sense.

Antarctica, viewed on Google Maps. (© Google)

Paths around the South Pole would look really wonky with this standard projection. Fortunately, there's a better projection for Antartica. After much fiddling with Geoserver, we figured out how to get it to correctly reproject vector data in this esoteric projection.

So, we can reproject vector data into this fancy Antarctic projection, but where can we get decent vector data of Antarctica? As explained earlier, the OpenStreetMap data isn't very detailed. Thankfully, the fantastic Antarctica Digital Database comes to the rescue! They have highly-detailed coastline data of the entire continent that's freely usable for non-commercial purposes.

The zoomed-out-all-the-way map in all of its stereographic glory!

Stitching together aerial imagery

So, we've got all these images from the region around the station, but how do we stitch them together into a map we can serve and suck into OpenLayers?

Figuring out how to serve individual GeoTIFF files was pretty easy. The problem was figuring out how to stitch all of these images together. We tried out several of the Geoserver-specific approaches to image stitching, but none of them worked. The Image Pyramid plugin seemed to crash when using this Antarctic projection — and the same sort of crash happened when trying to import a VRT file of all the GeoTIFFs and when using the Mosaic feature of Geoserver.

Maybe we can just stitch the GeoTIFFs together ourselves, somehow? First, we tried using gdalwarp to do the stitching:

Area near the airport the plane took off from.

...which worked, but there are weird black lines in the image, what are those? Turns out the images, while TIFFs, were compressed internally using JPEG compression and we need to run the nearblack utility on them before stitching.

So, we threw together a script to clean up the images and continually stitch them together using gdalwarp. All done? Not so fast. The images, when uncompressed, balloon to around 2GB or so each — EC2 to the rescue! We spun up a server with an insane amount of disk and ran the stitch script for several days, taking a look at the output and tweaking it throughout.

This left us with one stitched-together, compressed GeoTIFF that weighs in at slightly less than 2GB. After building overviews for various zoom levels into the GeoTIFF, it was relatively easy to load it into GeoServer as a raster storage source and then combine it with the vector data layer. The aerial and vector layers didn't quite line up, but after fiddling a bit with the projection we got them be as aligned as could be expected.

The result

After much tweaking and dealing with strange errors — almost all of which related to map projection issues — we finally put together a beautiful map of Antarctica in a glorious stereographic projection with stunning aerial imagery of the region laid on top of it:

The area around Palmer Station. View map.
Litchfield Island, the "island most frequently seen in dreams." View map.
Shortcut Island. You can even spot a seal! View map, view page.

Some beautiful pages

You should explore the project! Here's some beautiful pages to take a look at:

The station trolley.

Please share this!

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Our story

In 2004 we started the Davis Wiki, an experimental project to collect and share interesting information about the town of Davis, California, editable by anyone, that soon became the world's largest and most vibrant community wiki.

Today the residents of Davis use it for everything from learning about local news and local history to helping return lost pets to their owners — and it's become the largest, most used media source in the city. In a week, nearly half of residents use the Davis Wiki; in a month, nearly everyone uses it. And 1 in 7 residents contribute material to the Davis Wiki.

We want to help as many communities as possible realize the full potential of such an amazing, collaborative information resource.