How Oakland Wiki Empowers the Local Community

The Bay Area has a wealth of public services, but it’s not always easy to find them. The Community Resources portal of Oakland Wiki could potentially change that. An open, community-built knowledge commons, the portal's goal is to gather and make it easy to find all community resources available to the public. Among the services listed: children, youth and family resources, educational services, LGBTQ services, food projects, housing resources, health services and more.

A member of LocalWiki.org, a global network of community wikis, the Oakland Wiki was created in 2012 and now contains over 6,000 entries created by hundreds of contributors. Its co-founder Vicky Knox describes the wiki as having multiple functions: it’s a local history and community memory project; an investigative community journalism platform; a collaborative storytelling medium; an open government tool; and a services map and directory. She says that in working on the wiki, she’s seen firsthand the difference that access to information makes, and also how far they have to go to help bring information about life-changing services to the people who need them most.

Through editathons, where people get together to add content to the wiki, Knox learned about the local library’s vast social services information holdings. Most of this information is in giant binders filled with flyers, but there is no budget to digitize or keep the content up-to-date and translated. This is a focal point for the Oakland Wiki. As Knox says about Oakland Wiki, “While it already has information about hundreds of nonprofits and programs available to Oakland residents, there is still much work to do.”

Shareable connected with Knox to find out more about the Oakland Wiki, its Community Resources portal, and how similar projects can be started in any town.

Shareable: The Community Resources wiki is a portal within the Oakland Wiki. How did it come about and what purpose does it serve?

Vicky Knox: Through my work building the Oakland Wiki, I became particularly interested in the potential of the project to connect local communities with community resources. The Bay Area has a rich and diverse social services network, and although there are many services available to a wide range of people, the reality on the ground is that these services can be a patchwork quilt that is difficult, if not impossible, to navigate. In many instances, residents aren’t even aware of the many services available to them, and the impact of the amazing work that many of our local organizations do is limited if people aren’t able to connect with information about these programs.

What makes the Community Resources portal valuable? How is the portal different from other resource listings?

The portal is valuable in that it is collaboratively created by members of our community, is licensed under Creative Commons, and anyone with an interest in the topic can update it as they wish. It’s a living document and a resource commons. Crowdsourcing the information solves one of the biggest problems for community resource databases: it takes time and effort to keep frequently-changing information up to date.

Cities and nonprofits rarely have the resources to continue supporting a directory after it gets created, so information rapidly goes out of date. Unlike the Big Blue Book, a community resources print book and online database created by the nonprofit Eden I&R, and other closed-source resource directories, the information on the wiki is available all the time for free in a modern web interface to whoever has access to the web and can be reused by anyone as long as they attribute the wiki as the source.

The portal is community-curated but is there are core team of contributors, editors or organizations that contribute to its creation and/or maintenance?

Like all content on the Oakland Wiki, the community resources listings are a collective effort by the people who contribute to the wiki. There is no one main organizer, just the interest that is brought to the table. Sometimes contributions are made spontaneously; at other times contributors organize themselves around certain topics like local history, the mayoral race, and privacy issues like the Domain Awareness Center, a proposed fusion center in Oakland.

There is a core of volunteers who run a regular meetup out of the Sudo Room, a community hackerspace. There are also a lot of contributors who organize online around the mayoral election. There are also people who contribute independently, both whom I’ve met and whom I haven’t. Oakland Wiki is also member to a larger, global network of community wikis called LocalWiki.

Participants at an edithathon adding valuable content to the wiki

I understand that you host regular editathons to build out the wiki. How are these important for the Community Resources portal as well as the wiki at large?

We haven’t done any community resources-themed editathons. We’ve done editathons recently around the historical precedents of the current round of gentrification and displacement in San Francisco, in partnership with the SF LocalWiki and the Prelinger Library. We’d like to do a more focused effort around community resources but we are still building grassroots momentum with local service providers.

What features does the portal offer, how has it grown and how would you like to see it develop?

The portal includes listings for organizations, the services they offer, contact info, and location. Resources are mapped out so that you can find services in your area. There are also pages for types of services such as literacy, youth service, etc. that list and map the organizations that do work in those areas.

Because the site is a wiki, anyone can help add information and keep information up to date. In the future, we hope to add more listings, provide more information about each listing, and get more organizations involved in updating their own entries. While a few organizations already do this, there are many more who could be. I hope that in the future we will have the listings organized in a way such that service providers can simply print pages and give them out to the people that they serve as an easy resource.

Are there any challenges you’re currently facing that the community can help with? What are your needs for the project?

There are still many gaps: many organizations are not listed, many organizations’ listings need more information about the services they provide, and there are still too few organizations maintaining their own pages. There’s also a huge need for information that helps contextualize the services—[for instance], a guide on how to get a scholarship, and more.

But I’d like to reemphasize that the portal is just a section of content within the larger Oakland Wiki project. We are looking for contributors in every area because the more content that the site has, the better of an information resource it is for the community overall.

What’s your big picture vision for the Community Resources portal?

We’d love to see the community resources section, and the Oakland Wiki overall, become a valuable source of information for and by Oakland residents; a place where you can get guides and up-to-date information on getting help for any kind of issue that you might be facing. We’d also love to see organizations that provide services participate and take ownership for their own information on the site, and even help create guides for residents. We’d also like for other LocalWiki communities to have similar content and we’d hope to act as a model and peer for others who are doing similar work.

The articles are currently in directory stage. I’d like for the information in this directory to eventually be curated into sub-portals that give community and service provider perspectives that compare different services to each other—what they do, their highlights, their weaknesses, who they serve, and who they don’t.

Contributing to the wiki, says Knox, is as easy as hitting "edit."

What advice would you give to people who want to start similar projects in their town?

It’s very easy to get started doing this with LocalWiki. LocalWiki is a network of community wikis where anyone can start a wiki for their community. To start, go to LocalWiki.net, see if there’s already a wiki for your community and if there is, start adding community resource information. If there isn’t already a wiki for your community, you can start one very quickly.

We’ve found that the best thing to focus on in the beginning is just to get as much content on there as possible to form the base of useful resources. You can focus on a particular area such as youth services, housing assistance, etc., or just start anywhere. You might also want to see if there are any existing service directories in your community. Sometimes local governments, nonprofits, libraries and schools have their own directories, and sometimes there might be directory information in a local open data portal. If you find an open source directory that already exists, you may be able to import it into LocalWiki using the LocalWiki API.

How can people get involved with the wiki project?

You can contribute to the Oakland Wiki. It’s as easy as hitting “edit.” There are really no rules for proper formatting or citation and you don’t need to code to add text. Or if you’d like to do something like Oakland Wiki in your own community, you can join the LocalWiki network and work on a LocalWiki in your area.

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