June 5, 2006
Never Again International, a nonprofit network dedicated to promoting peace and preventing genocide, has members throughout the world, with chapters in Rwanda, Burundi, America, Canada, the United Kingdom, and China. With so many people dispersed around the globe, the organization needed a way to communicate, centralize information, and ease collaboration.
"Because we are scattered," said Never Again's Communications Coordinator Clare-Marie White, "it is very difficult to know what [members] don't know, so we really need ways of sharing knowledge when people travel."
To overcome this obstacle, Never Again adopted a wiki. Part of the next generation of interactive Web applications, wikis are collaborative Web sites that allow authorized users — or in some cases, anyone with an Internet connection — to rapidly and easily change the content of pages, as well as view a history of changes that others have made.
A screenshot of Never Again International's Community Portal wiki page. © 2006, Never Again International.
Although Never Again does have a traditional Web site with information for potential donors, White sees the wiki as a more dynamic communication tool for those who aren't highly technical, pointing out that only a few of its members possess the technical knowledge to edit HTML Web pages and upload them to the organization's site.
Heddy Nam, Director of Never Again's New York chapter, adds that since the organization lacks a central server, its wiki also acts as a sort of database. "The wiki is currently the only place where all of our ideas and work are stored," Nam said. She also notes that collaborating on projects via a wiki is much more efficient than sending around email attachments with multiple edits and revisions.
As Never Again discovered, wikis can be a great way to consolidate and share your organization's information. In the course of deciding whether a wiki makes sense for your nonprofit, learn how the technology works, evaluate whether it can benefit your organization, and familiarize yourself with wiki-creation services and software.
Most Wiki-creation tools are geared toward users who lack advanced technical skills. Rather than forcing inexperienced persons to wade through HTML tags, wikis offer a set of easily comprehensible editing tools — often referred to by the acronym WYSIWYG (short for "what you see is what you get") — similar to those found in word-processing programs. For example, to bold or italicize a word on a wiki, you'd simply highlight it with your mouse, and then click a toolbar icon to format the text. Once you've laid out the page, you simply hit the Submit (or similarly titled) button and your changes will immediately appear live on the wiki.
Besides helping your nonprofit organize vital information, wikis can also facilitate collaboration among individuals working remotely, since anyone with an Internet connection can access and update the content within a matter of minutes. And because wikis track and record all changes, you can quickly see the history of any page, determine who added a particular piece of content, and revert a page back to its previous state.
Although a wiki can make an excellent tool for cataloging information, fostering collaboration on a project, and collecting thoughts from constituents or supporters, consider the following four points before you build one.
Generally speaking, wikis can be divided into three basic categories: public, protected, and private.
A wiki with an active and engaged community of users can come to be a valuable vault of shared knowledge that evolves and expands over time. Public wikis like Wikipedia allow anyone on the Internet to view, create, and edit pages. Although some public wikis require you to create an account before you can alter content, others let anonymous users add or change pages.
Protected wikis, on the other hand, are visible to the general public but can only be changed by authorized users. Most wikis have a designated administrator (or wikimaster) who grants users the permissions required to edit, add, or delete information. The wikimaster also makes general rules and enforces standards of conduct to help maintain the integrity of the content.
Private wikis are most often used for internal communications within a company or organization; only those who are authorized by the administrator can even view the wiki, let alone edit it.
If your organization is setting up a protected or private wiki, the designated administrator can ensure that only trusted users are allowed to contribute content or edit pages. However, if you decide to open your wiki to the general public, you should be prepared to remove undesirable or off-topic content that users might add.
This so-called "wiki vandalism" takes a few different forms; some individuals might post inflammatory content while others might delete useful information. Spammers have also been known to deface wikis by deluging them with links to commercial sites. If you do choose to build a public wiki, enlist your core community to help you police the content for inappropriate entries and create a feedback form for reporting wiki vandalism.
Once you've determined that building a wiki is feasible and that others at your organization are likely to adopt it, it's time to decide how to actually implement one. When setting up a wiki, you essentially have two options: outsource it to a third-party host (known as a wiki farm) or build it from scratch by installing software on your own servers. The latter option requires IT support or a consultant with knowledge of how to install all of the required software you'll need.
Regardless of which wiki-creation method you choose, it's crucial to choose a platform with user-friendly editing tools. Adam Frey, founder of hosted service Wikispaces, believes that wiki software with an uncluttered interface and a minimal learning curve is critical when persuading newbies to contribute to pages. For more of Frey's thoughts regarding wikis, check out this interview on the NetSquared site, When and Why to Wiki.
Creating a wiki using a third-party wiki-hosting service is a sensible choice for many nonprofits, as this option requires minimal setup and no advanced technical knowledge. Also, some organizations will likely treat their first wiki as a sort of experiment, evaluating its effectiveness as a communication tool and noting whether users adopt it. Since setting up a simple wiki on a third-party site won't cost you a lot of money or time, your organization will not sustain major losses if the wiki doesn't gain traction.
Many wiki farms will host your content for free, though others charge a nominal monthly fee in exchange for greater flexibility and additional storage space. Below, you'll find basic information about popular wiki farms, including their key features and limitations. Since the user interface is a crucial element when selecting a wiki service, try a few of them and solicit feedback from those who will be using the wiki on a regular basis. For a more extensive list of wiki farms, consult Wikipedia's Comparison of Wiki Farms entry.
Since it's based on the MediaWiki engine — the underlying software that runs the wiki — editing pages using this free service will be familiar territory for anyone who's ever contributed to Wikipedia (which also uses MediaWiki). Though starting a page at BluWiki is totally free, it's only appropriate for projects that are open to the public. This means you cannot create private wikis or restrict editing permissions to a select group of users. On the plus side, BluWiki will let you add audio files and photos to pages.
EditMe lets you create public, protected, or private wikis and can notify registered users and visitors of recent changes via an RSS feed or email. The service's WYSIWYG editing features are more in-depth than those found at some other wiki farms; for instance, you'll find tools for quickly embedding Flash movies and changing the style and color of the font. EditMe doesn't offer a free option, though plans start as low as $5 per month (for 50MB of hosted space and 1GB of bandwidth usage). More expensive plans add extra space and additional features, such as automated data backups.
This free hosting service uses the same MediaWiki engine EditMe does. On the site, you can create public wikis that are open to anonymous users; however, EditThis.info also lets administrators build public or private wikis and specify which types of changes registered users can make. For instance, you might choose to restrict a certain group of people from uploading attachments to the wiki. EditThis.info doesn't put a cap on the number of registered users each wiki can have, and it provides an unlimited amount of space for your pages (though the service retains the right to change these terms at any time).
JotSpot's free wiki-hosting service limits you to five registered users and a maximum of 20 pages, though you can increase both the size of your wiki and the number of allowed users by purchasing a plan, starting at $10 per month (discounts for nonprofits are available). JotSpot wikis can be public, protected, or private, and the site provides fairly advanced but user-friendly editing tools, such as those that let you upload an image and determine its page placement down to the specific pixel. Ready-made applications make it easy to manage projects, publish a blog, receive a list of recent changes via an RSS feed, and manage a group calendar directly in your JotSpot wiki.
This service allows you to create a free, ad-supported wiki that you or others at your organization can edit. Upgrading to a paid subscription (starting at $5 per month) does provide greater control over user permissions, though. For instance, the premium plans let you allow certain users to permanently delete data while specifying that others can only create or edit pages. PB Wiki (short for Peanut Butter Wiki) provides a number of preconfigured wiki templates — such as those for publicizing an event — to make page design easier. Plus, the site can notify you of recent wiki changes via an RSS feed.
Like many other wiki farms, StikiPad offers free Wiki hosting as well as for-pay plans that allow you to create larger wikis with more features. Though StikiPad's free service lets you build a public, protected, or private wiki and doesn't restrict the number of users, it offers only 30MB of hosting space and 500MB of monthly bandwidth and is supported by ads. Upgrading to a paid plan (starting at $5 per month) increases your allotted space and also gives you access to a few different pre-designed wiki templates. All plans let you upload images and other files; comment on changes using discussion boards; and automatically prevent potential spammers from accessing the wiki. StikiPad offers a variety of ways to edit pages, including a WYSIWYG editing tool and Textile (a proprietary markup system).
Free hosting service Wikia is currently home to more than 1,000 wikis. However, if your nonprofit wants to create a private wiki for internal use or prevent strangers from altering content, Wikia is not for you, as it only hosts wikis that are open to everyone on the Net. Wikia also reserves the right to reject wikis that seem unlikely to draw a large group of participants. Like other services based on the MediaWiki engine, this one offers basic editing tools for performing actions like italicizing text, creating bulleted lists, and embedding images. Wikia provides several different layout templates (called "skins") and can inform users of changes or additions to the wiki via an RSS feed.
You can customize your wiki by changing its background color, uploading your organization's logo, and importing blog posts from Blogger.com and TypePad. Built-in message boards let you discuss changes with other authors, and you can configure Wikispaces to notify you of content changes and new comments over RSS.
Creating a free, ad-supported account at Wikispaces gets you 2GB of storage space and support for an unlimited amount of users, though this option will only let you create public or protected wikis. If you need a completely private wiki or don't want to look at ads, upgrade your account for a monthly $5 fee, or $50 per year. ( Wikispaces Plus Plans are available on TechSoup Stock to qualifying nonprofits for an administrative fee of $10 for a year subscription.)
Building your own custom wiki from scratch requires you to install a wiki engine — such as the aforementioned MediaWiki platform — on a server. Since the vast majority of wiki engines are free and open source, building your own wiki can be a more economical option than using a third-party host. Keeping all the content on your own servers is also more reliable than outsourcing to a wiki farm, since a hosting service could potentially go out of business.
However, creating an in-house wiki requires a person with a significant amount of technical smarts; depending on the wiki engine you choose, a functional knowledge of a programming language such as PHP or Java will be necessary. Familiarity with database software such as MySQL will also prove helpful. In addition, consider whether anyone at your organization has the time to maintain the wiki by performing routine tasks such as installing necessary software updates.
When selecting a wiki engine, you have the choice of an open-source or a proprietary engine. But do your research: Your wiki engine could potentially be pushed out of the marketplace, making it hard (or even impossible) to rebuild your wiki's infrastructure, even if you've regularly backed up its contents. Consider what features fit your organization's needs. For instance, if your wiki will be open to the public, you'll likely want built-in spam protection. Selecting a wiki engine with a novice-friendly user interface will also be important if non-technical folks will be adding and editing pages.
Finally, make sure you have enough free server space for the wiki engine and the accompanying software, remembering to account for the gigabytes of data the actual content will consume. If you plan to allow users to upload audio clips or videos to the wiki, you'll need a bigger hard drive, as multimedia files consume considerable amounts of space.
For a more in-depth look at wiki engines, consult Wikipedia's Comparison of Wiki Software chart.
Because wikis are inexpensive and relatively easy to use, some nonprofits and educational institutions have found that they're the ideal tool for helping team members or students collaborate more effectively.
Client Access to Integrated Services and Information (CAISI) — a Canadian nonprofit working to build software that helps homeless shelters, advocacy agencies, and hospitals to integrate their databases — has found a wiki to be a fast and user-friendly tool for documenting the project's development and making information freely available to the open-source community.
According to CAISI's Project Director Dr. Thomislav Svoboda, the organization initially built its own custom wiki in August 2005 as a cheaper, easier-to-use alternative to a full-blown Web site. Based on the MediaWiki engine, CAISI's wiki allows the project's non-technical users to contribute their thoughts and ideas without having to learn HTML, Svoboda says. "The wiki makes all of these steps easy," stated Svoboda. "You just type and save." Svoboda notes that CAISI staffers who know how to surf the Web usually learn their way around the wiki in less than an hour.
CAISI also uses its wiki to take notes at meetings. Rather than employing a whiteboard to document discussions, ideas, and developments, the organization projects the wiki on a screen, where team members edit pages and create new content in real-time. Using a wiki in his manner makes information easily available to the whole team and the whole community, according to Svoboda.
Vicki A. Davis, who teaches several grade levels and subjects at Westwood School in Camilla, Georgia, believes that the wiki she created on Wikispaces has had a positive impact, both in terms of her instruction methods and on her students' lives in general. Davis was initially exposed to the concept of wikis at the 2005 Georgia Educational Technology Conference, and, after trying out several hosted services, she settled on Wikispaces due to its ease of use and shallow learning curve. (You can read more of Davis's thoughts on wikis at her Cool Cat Teacher Blog.)
Davis uses the wiki to consolidate information, such as school news and classroom assignments, so that her students have a central location for finding out what they need to know. "It is the one place they can go for everything," Davis said, "and it is very useful."
The teacher also noted that allowing her students to collaborate on assignments via a wiki gives her an exact way to track each individual's contributions and has generally improved both participation and teamwork. To monitor her students' edits and additions, Davis created a free account at newsfeed site Bloglines and subscribed to the Westwood wiki's RSS feed, a feature that came built-in with its Wikispaces account.
The teacher thinks that Westwood School's wiki helps her students become more intuitive learners because it allows them to explore resources for themselves. Davis also believes that using the wiki gives her students a leg up in an economy that will be increasingly based on sharing information globally. "The students I teach are going to have to live and thrive in a world of collaboration," Davis said. "So I see it [the wiki] as a vital tool [for] their future."
Just as blogs allow anyone with a computer and an Internet connection to make their voice heard, wikis put the power of online publishing in an easy-to-use package that just about everyone can learn. Whether you seek to increase collaboration among staff or want to get input from constituents, a wiki can help get the job done at a low cost. And with all those thoughts, suggestions, and opinions flying around, you might even run across an idea that will allow your organization to finally achieve some long-held goals.
"I remain completely convinced that peacebuilding by wiki is possible," stated Never Again's White. "And [wikis have] a huge amount of potential in empowering people to get involved in a peacebuilding project where they can take action for themselves instead of being told what to do by a centralized body."
About the Author:
Brian Satterfield is Staff Writer at TechSoup.org