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@Congressedits Hopes to See More Wikipedians in Congress

BY Miranda Neubauer | Monday, July 14 2014

In the future, could members of Congress list their Wikipedia edits on their homepage along with their voting records and constituent services?

That is the vision of @Congressedits, a Twitter feed that within only the past few days has helped popularize the idea of anonymously tracking government and institutional edits to Wikipedia pages around the world.

The initiator of the feed is Ed Summers, an open-source web developer and Wikipedia volunteer who took on the project on his own time outside of his job with the Library of Congress' digital preservation group in part to brush up on his programming skills.

Summers was inspired by @Parliamentedits, a Twitter account tracking Wikipedia changes made from the IP addresses of the British Parliament, which developer Tom Scott created only last Tuesday.

Since in that instance there were only two relevant IP addresses, that tool worked using a so-called If This Then That (IFTTT) recipe to connect updates about Wikipedia page changes to Twitter, Summers explained in an interview with techPresident. "He didn't have to do any coding at all."

That approach would not work with the U.S. Congress which has thousands of IP addresses, Summers said. Instead, he spent about an hour and half writing the script, which distinguishes between edits from the House and the Senate to make the service work, and made the code available on GitHub, and also set it live on Tuesday.

Summers drew on his previous experience building tools aimed at bridging the gap between the world of Wikipedia and the world of libraries and archives. He created Wikistream, which displayed a stream of Wikipedia edits to illustrate the amount of content Wikipedia generates, and Linkypedia, which highlighted how Wikipedia pages used content from libraries, museums, archives or other third parties.

Summers emphasized that he does not see edits to pages like the one for the movie Step Up 3D, the TV show "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" or Horse-Head Mask as something to make fun of. Nor did he make @Congressedits to make members of Congress look bad. "Whether they're doing it anonymously or not, they're doing people a service," he said. Though Summers did not anticipate the media interest i the project and its popularity (the account now has around 14.6 thousand followers), he said he "didn't see anything that I didn't expect...the nice thing about it is that there are also substantial edits like changing a Congressperson's party affiliation from Democrat to Independent."

He pointed out that the feed is not a comprehensive list of edits, as Wikipedia does not disclose IP addresses from logged-in users. "What it will probably do is just sort of raise awareness that those edits they make anonymously aren't anonymous, one effect of this might be that that Twitter feed just goes very quiet because they'll be using their cell phones or they'll do it from home," he said.

"The thing that I was hoping happens is that [Members of Congress] would use that recognition [of the importance of Wikipedia to see it as] an important place for me to engage with the public [on the talk pages]. Make an account and identify themselves on their account page...and engage with the Wikipedia community that way on issues that you care about," he suggested, though he emphasized that this was his personal opinion and could be a starting-off point for a discussion within the community in the context of Wikipedia's conflict of interest rules.

"If staffers and politicians as identified as Wikipedians, that would be super. You could imagine politicians' home pages with a list of their recent edits, that they would be proud of the things that they are doing."

Recent edits on Monday included additions from a House IP address to pages for radio host Alex Jones, Lyndon Larouche, and David Icke stating that they are "disinformation agents" funded by the Kremlin or the Pleiadians, a group of alleged extra-terrestrials, and one calling a host of a program on RT America a "Russian propagandist." (These changes have been reverted following their appearance on @Congressedits.) Other edits added a paragraph to Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) describing him as a "national conservative leader" (also reverted, with the comment "Uncited hagiographic garbage"). Another made a grammatical correction to Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT)'s "Personal life" paragraph.

Summers' effort and code have inspired several other similar efforts around the country and around the world examining edits by the Canadian Government, French National Assembly, the Chilean National Congress and government, the North Carolina General Assembly, the Australian Parliament, the South African Parliament, the German Parliament and government, public universities in Berlin, the Irish Government, member organizations of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and the Finnish Parliament.

Tom Scott, the creator of the original @ParliamentEdits, which hasn't actually seen any updates, posted on Twitter Saturday:

Summers also summarized his project in a blog post.

Watching the followers rise, and the flood of tweets from them brought home something that I believed intellectually, but hadn’t felt quite so viscerally before. There is an incredible yearning in this country and around the world for using technology to provide more transparency about our democracies...I think there is often fear that increased transparency can lead to increased criticism of our elected officials.... This fear encourages us to clamp down, to decrease or obfuscate the transparency we have. We all kinda lose, irrespective of our political leanings, because we are ultimately less informed....I created @congressedits because I hoped it could engender more, better ideas and tools like it. More thought experiments. More care for our communities and peoples. More understanding, and willingness to talk to each other. More humor. More human.

Citing a Thomas Jefferson quote noting that it " requires no very high degree of education" to educate and inform a mass of people, he added "Who knew TJ was a Wikipedian…"