Digging the wikis

There are lots of online collaboration tools and document management systems. Wikis, however, remain a simple way of creating large, shared information repositories.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

DokuWiki to be specific, but it's more the idea and use of wikis in general that has me excited at the moment.

Regular readers will know that I'm the first to jump up in support of Wikipedia (as long as it's tempered by a critical eye and thoughtful users). And I've used wikis more generally, whether in class or in various jobs for document management and collaboration. I've used hosted wikis like those offered by Wikispaces, wikis embedded in tools like Moodle, and have stood up small wikis for special projects. All good stuff.

More recently, though, I've turned to Google Sites and Google Docs to manage most of my documentation needs. Used together, they make for a pretty robust solution that lends itself to collaboration. Last week, though, I started a project with the day job that is going to involve the creation of a very large core document with individual contributors handling various sections and an extensive review process. We also need a place to bring together a variety of disparate documents where they can ultimately be integrated and unified and then pushed out for publication in a variety of media (included print).

Sure, Google Docs and Sites could handle this, but this felt like a job for a wiki. I've always felt the same for classes that require collaboration on an extensive document or that will be used for longer-term reference or guidance (as this particular set of documents will also be). So I set up a wiki.

I chose the open source DokuWiki, for a few reasons.

  1. It's free
  2. It's incredibly simple to set up. All you need is FTP access (with write privileges) to a single folder on a web server. The DokuWiki folder and subfolders get copied to the server and the rest of the install happens via an install.php file that is accessible via any browser.
  3. It's fully text-based; there are no databases to install or access and files are stored as text making them readable outside the wiki and easily transported to other wiki instances.
  4. It's incredibly fast.
  5. It's very well-documented.
  6. It's customizable with templates and easily installed plugins.
  7. The default installation uses a wiki markup syntax, but a WYSIWYG editor can be installed for novice users.
  8. It takes a while to get the hang of creating namespaces (essentially directories) and pages for people used to a non-wiki interface, but once understood becomes quite simple for all users to extend the wiki and clearly organize files.
  9. It has basic authentication, roles, and access control lists built in, but can easily be connected to a database or LDAP server for more sophisticated authentication needs
  10. It scales very easily.

DokuWiki isn't perfect, of course. Without a bit of thought, the paths that it displays to each document can be cumbersome and navigation isn't as intuitive as it should be. However, in the brief time that it took me to set it up and have people (even those new to wikis) working together and building our documents, I was able to ensure pretty immediate utility. We can refine later; the goal was to start collaborating fast on a space that could live and be used by a growing group for months to come and we achieved that goal in a day.

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