17 February 2009

Wikipedia: Kampong Ayer

In the past, research material was mostly found in books and journals, and we could access these in a good library. Now, of course, there is lots of additional material on the Web. However, the quality of this newly-available material is extremely variable, and it is essential that we always evaluate its reliability

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia which (I assume) you are all thoroughly familiar with. It includes a huge amount of data, and much of it is impressive and exceptionally valuable. However, the quality of the entries varies very greatly.

Let us look, for example, at the page on Kampong Ayer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kampong_Ayer

Although there is certainly some useful information in it, there are also quite a lot of problems. First, why is there a picture of a satellite dish? How does that represent Kampong Ayer in any way at all?

One of the basic demands of Wikipedia is that material should be widely referenced. So where are the references for this entry? For example, it is stated that 39,000 people live in Kampong Ayer. How do the authors of the page know that? Did someone go out and count them? No − this figure must have been obtained from somewhere else. So where? Why are we not told? We also learn that there are 29,410 meters of foot bridges. Did someone go and measure them? If so, who?

If you look behind the page (under the 'History' tab), you will find that a whole bunch of different people contributed to it, as indeed is the norm for Wikipedia pages. Among them are Masterguyz, The Anomebot2, Sanao, and Rjwilmsi, as well as some IP addresses such as (from contributors who have not logged in properly to Wikipedia). Who are all these people? Why don't they identify themselves properly?

In reality, many Wikipedia entries represent a mish-mash of contributions from a wide range of different people, most of them unidentifiable. And this is quite a problem. It is essential to know who wrote stuff, and where it came from. Rather too often, this basic foundation is not provided by Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is an exceptionally valuable resource; but be careful how much you use it. While it is excellent for initial information on a topic, you need to be very, very wary about how much you depend on it for reliable data.