June 21, 2010 By Karen Wilkinson
What started as a community-based, online hub of news, events, history and all things local has caught the attention of a journalism foundation that wants to help others create similar platforms.
The creators of Davis Wiki -- a popular website where users contribute content that's focused solely on the college town of Davis, Calif. -- won a $350,000 Knight News Challenge grant last week to create software that will enable other cities to build and maintain their own wikis.
Dubbed Local Wiki, the nonprofit project "will create enhanced tools for local wikis, a new form of media that makes it easy for people to learn -- and share -- their own unique community knowledge," a Knight News Challenge press release stated. "Members will be able to post articles about anything they like, edit others and upload photos and files."
Davis Wiki co-founder Philip Neustrom, a 26-year-old software engineer living in the San Francisco Bay Area, said unlike traditional passive media - newspapers, radio, TV broadcasts - anyone in the community can contribute their knowledge to wikis, which provides a fuller context surrounding issues because the content is user-generated.
"We're trying to create a new type of local media built around the idea of mass collaboration," Neustrom said. "The way local blogs entered the mainstream a few years ago was a novel concept, and this is kind of the next logical step -- having everyone in the community add to one cohesive resource about the community."
While the grant will be used to create specialized, open source software and help communities develop, launch and sustain their own local wikis, Neustrom said the goal is to create easy-to-use software that's better than the "run-of-the mill" wiki software available.
With his co-founder Mike Ivanov, 28, Neustrom plans to raise $30,000 for outreach and education efforts and will choose three to 10 pilot communities that demonstrate creativity, inspiration, willingness to share information and ability to network -- which may be the deciding factor.
"A lot of people are used to operating in a way where things are provided to them and they don't have to organize," Neustrom said. "We're looking for people we think are likely to know the right way to get something like this started."
The Davis Wiki, which receives between 10,000 and 20,000 unique hits a day, was created in part because of the town's lack of organized, centralized, contextual information. Neustrom was saddened that the only way to really know a community was to live there for years, and wanted a way for people to get that sense of institutional knowledge more quickly.
In 2004, then-college students Neustrom and Ivanov created such a platform, with hopes that it would extend beyond their time attending college, and leave a legacy later generations would use and appreciate.
Built around the idea of "mass collaboration," the Davis Wiki contains local election results, events, restaurant reviews, news, gossip and so much more, Neustrom said. One of the site's more popular, recent items revolves around the town's "Crying Girl Con Artist" -- a young woman who allegedly asks Davis residents for money and becomes aggressive when confronted.
"Over the course of a week, more and more people came on (the site) and said, 'Yeah, she scammed me too,'" Neustrom said. "People came together and spontaneously organized and now the police can do something about this, whereas before, no one would have really known."
For Neustrom, the wiki won't replace local media, but complement it. He stresses the benefits: the unlimited space for information, the institutional memory and users' ability to contribute as well as consume.
Now he's just hoping other communities recognize its potential benefits and take charge. "We really want the communities to own these things, and not us."