When people want information, they go to the online encyclopedia. So why is public money being showered on messages that hardly anyone sees while Wikipedia is overlooked, asks Mike Dickison.
Kauri dieback is in the news. After 10 years of spread, this incurable fatal disease has infected up to 80% of trees in some parts of the Waitakere Ranges. Local iwi have proposed a rāhui or prohibition on access to prevent the disease being spread further; Auckland Council have only partially agreed. With such a serious issue, with the public being told that they’re killing kauri by not cleaning their boots properly and conflicting messages coming from different parties, you would think there would be a clear, neutral information resource that anyone could easily find that tells people the facts about this disease.
And yet kauri dieback has no Wikipedia page. Wikipedia is the first stop for ten million enquiries a day, the place where Google sends you first. It is a neutral, non-profit resource that anyone can improve and correct. Why, after ten years, isn’t this disease in the online encyclopedia?
If you Google “kauri dieback”, the first result is the swish, attractive Kauri Dieback Programme site. It has photos, handouts, FAQs, and infographics. Yet the Kauri Dieback Programme, run by MPI, has been heavily criticised for its lack of coordination and ineffectiveness at stopping the spread of the disease. Rebekah White in New Zealand Geographic rips into the opacity, lack of communication, and missteps in the official government response to dieback. We won’t be reading any of this on the official website.
If you wade through a page and a half of search results, including sites by MPI, DOC, Forest and Bird, and the media, you get to the Wikipedia page for kauri.
The entire coverage is one paragraph, less than I’ve just written above. It’s out of date: the info seems to date from 2008, so MAF is listed as one of the partners, but there’s been no MAF since 2012. It’s inaccurate: it blames pigs for spreading the disease, but we now know 71% of the dieback zones are within 50 metres of a public walking track, which aren’t the preferred haunt of feral pigs. And it’s massively incomplete: the fungus that causes dieback, Phytophthora agathidicida, is a red link, meaning it goes nowhere. A red link means that in the nine years since that text was added, nobody has clicked it and gone “create new article”. Not a casual reader, not an experienced Wikipedia editor, and not anyone from the Kauri Dieback Programme.
Which is odd, as the Kauri Dieback Programme seems to have substantial resources at its disposal for getting information out on the disease. It created and maintains an entire website, for example. Over 2015–2016 White reports it had an “engagement and communications” budget of $176,364, but she couldn’t figure out how they spent it, apart from writing a PDF newsletter and occasionally updating their Facebook page. The newsletter is supposed to be quarterly, but they seem to have only produced one in 2017. It’s surprising that all their communications professionals were too busy to click on that red link and spend half an hour creating a Wikipedia resource.
Well, I just did. Kauri dieback now exists as a stand-alone article, and with the help of other WIkipedia volunteers it will continue to grow. You’re welcome to add to it as well (make sure everything’s well referenced, please!) Wikipedia is the fifth-most-visited site in the world, and is linked to so much that it tends to be the first site returned for any query. If volunteers continue to work on the page and keep it up to date, I suspect it will quietly climb the rankings until it’s outdoing the official Kauri Dieback Programme site, the recipient of more than $1 million in comms money over the last decade. Check back and watch it grow.
If we want to get accurate information out to people, we need to go where they are. Organisations from government departments to research institutes to museums and archives seem to need to spend large amounts of taxpayer money trying to compete with well-used resources that already exist and can be improved by anyone for free.
Partly this seems to be a misplaced concern with branding, carried over from the world of marketing. But if you’ve spent ten years building your own branded website and there’s a controversy or scandal, all the neutral, factual information on your site will be marred by the mud being thrown at you. Perhaps some of your budget over the years should have been put into improving open, public repositories like Wikipedia instead.
Mike Dickison is the Curator of Natural History at Whanganui Regional Museum, and an active Wikipedia editor, working with RNZ and DOC on the Critter of the Week project
The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.