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...Wiki Model... Joins New Realms, From Research to Cake Design

By Robert Weisman
THE BOSTON GLOBE

Buoyed by the growth of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, the wiki model of shared writing and editing is spreading into surprising new realms, from accounting, real estate, and academic research to cake design and even intelligence gathering.

“Wikis are finally becoming mainstream,” said Newton technology pioneer Dan Bricklin, who plans to release WikiCalc, a next-generation spreadsheet that lets multiple users simultaneously log and update numbers via the Internet, by the end of November.

Jamaica Plain artists Ravi Jain and Sonia Targontsidis, have launched Wiki-Cake, which they called an online experiment in collective cake-baking. “It’s kind of like picking out your wedding cake, only with a lot of people,” Targontsidis said.

A wiki — the word comes from a Hawaiian term for “rapidly” — is a type of computer software that allows people to create and change Web page content with their browsers, enabling the kind of open editing model employed by online communities like the five-year-old Wikipedia. While new wiki projects have cropped up in recent years in technology labs and college dorms, the concept is now being adopted in business, education, and government, often on the public Internet but sometimes behind firewalls restricting participation to employees or customers.

“It’s not just a tool, it’s a culture,” said Jonathan L. Zittrain, a former Harvard Law School professor who teaches Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University in England. “The idea that exactly one person has to hold the quill at any moment is an assembly line concept. The wiki concept is about parallel production. And under the right conditions, the results can be spectacular.”

Zillow.com, the Seattle Web site that pulls local property records to give instant estimates of home values across the country, installed a wiki tool in September enabling visitors to add information about their houses. MIT’s new Center for Collective Intelligence last month rolled out a wiki handbook inviting researchers to jointly post and edit their ideas about harnessing knowledge.

MIT’s Sloan School of Management is working with the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and British publisher Pearson on a business book written and edited by wiki. And, the CIA and other US intelligence agencies have created the Intellipedia wiki to encourage analysts to post and share intelligence leads on a secure site.

One sign that the trend is reaching critical mass came when online search giant Google Inc. jumped into the wiki game last month, acquiring California startup JotSpot Inc., which develops collaboration tools letting Internet users create, modify, and delete information. Google hopes to incorporate the wikis into its new suite of software services.

But some of the early wiki adopters have stumbled. Wikipedia, the Web encyclopedia cobbled together by tens of thousands of contributors, claims to be more accurate than Encyclopedia Britannica. But it had to deputize a cleanup crew to enforce quality standards, catch mistakes, and restore stories altered by pranksters or partisans. (The same wiki technology that transforms Web sites into interactive bulletin boards allows them to be rolled back in time.) In one notorious incident, a saboteur falsely implicated a Nashville newspaper editor in the Kennedy assassinations.

Another wiki fiasco was last year’s Los Angeles Times introduction of “wikitorials,” inviting readers to rewrite the newspaper’s editorials online. The experiment was abandoned after three days when the Web site was swamped with obscenities and pornography.

Such problems haven’t deterred the new wiki entrepreneurs and enthusiasts, some of whom permit access to the technology only within their communities.

Bricklin’s WikiCalc, for instance, could be used by accountants in various divisions of a company to enter, store, and add data, or by coaches in a middle school basketball league to post scores, schedules, and rosters.

Users could decide whether to open the program to all or only to group members.

“The wiki responds to the need for shared editing,” Bricklin said, noting that the software’s audit trail feature cuts down on abuses. The inventor of the first electronic spreadsheet, VisCalc, back in 1979, Bricklin is releasing WikiCalc as an “open source” product, meaning software developers are free to improve or modify it to fit their needs.

Excited by the potential of the technology to involve the masses in a shared creative experience, artists Jain and Targontsidis decided to invite strangers to come together online and make a cake. They announced the project on their video blog and brought a laptop to the opening of an “Art Cake” exhibition at Cambridge’s Axiom Gallery, a wireless Internet hotspot, where they asked visitors to vote for cake bases and fillings. A 10-year-old girl attending the event suggested adding orchids and chocolate-dipped raspberries to the cake-in-progress.

“We’re just really trying to embrace new media, and we’ve been fascinated with wikis the past few months,” said Jain.

Participants in later Wiki-Cake rounds will be asked to weigh in on frostings, decorations, and garnishes before a real cake is baked based on the collective feedback, and then exhibited before it’s eaten. “We’re experimenting with group consensus, but that doesn’t mean that somebody can throw up something outlandish, cat food or something,” Jain noted. “That would be crazy.”

On the opposite extreme from Wiki-Cake is Intellipedia, a system put into place earlier this year by National Intelligence Director John D. Negroponte. It lets the nation’s 16 intelligence agencies share information and create internal sites continually updated with data and analysis on events in trouble spots like Nigeria, Iran, and North Korea.

While the service isn’t open to the public, it is meant to foster more open debate within an intelligence community still divided over prewar assessments of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. More than 3,600 intelligence officers have registered for Intellipedia, where the classifications range from “sensitive but unclassified” to “top secret.”

The new wiki tool added to real estate site Zillow.com on Sept. 20 already has been used by about 200,000 homeowners, including 10,000 in Massachusetts. Most have been potential sellers trumpeting new kitchens or bathroom remodeling or challenging square footage figures culled from county records. “When you can utilize the collective intelligence of millions of people, that’s when the Web is the most useful,” said Amy Bohutinsky, a Zillow spokeswoman.

At MIT, the Center for Collective Intelligence is studying the wiki phenomenon and compiling a wiki handbook — a collection of research on the topic. “Wikipedia has sparked people’s imaginations in other fields,” said center director Thomas W. Malone, a management professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “It’s true it has shortcomings, but so does everything else. Think of Wikipedia as the first Wright Brothers plane. Now we’re trying to advance the science.”