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Wikipedia needs help to keep growing

FOSDEM: The surging popularity of Wikipedia means there is big demand for volunteers who can run servers and fight off spambots
Written by Ingrid Marson, Contributor on

The team running Wikipedia has urged the open source development community to lend their support to help the encyclopaedia project grow and to combat Web bots that are damaging its content.

In the opening talk at the FOSDEM conference in Brussels on Saturday, Wikipedia Foundation president Jimmy Wales urged the assembled audience of open source developers to get involved with the online encyclopaedia. He said Wikipedia has the physical resources to handle the extra traffic, but needs technical people to manage these servers.

"We need your help," said Wales. "Buying servers is easy; we have offers of servers or bandwidth. Growing Web traffic is easy; we have been doubling every three months for as long as we can remember. We have 50 servers [at present], but going from 50 to 100, or to 200, will need a huge amount of work, such as redesigning the network."

Volunteer systems administrators are able to keep the site running at the moment, but Wales is concerned that it may not be able to cope as the traffic continues growing. It will take time for developers or administrators to learn more about the environment, so Wikipedia needs people to volunteer now.

"Routine server administration by volunteers works OK now, but as our traffic continues to double, we need more people," said Wales. "You can imagine how interesting it is when running 50 servers with the volumes we get. Some of this is boring grunt work, but it needs doing."

"We're not doubling our developer base as fast as our editor base. Unlike with editing and reading there is a learning curve for development. We need people to start getting involved now before the need is critical."

Wales added that Wikipedia also needs developers to work on tools that can help tackle the threat of spambots, which insert spam into Wikipedia, and vandalbots, which delete or change content in Wikipedia.

"It's very important that Wikipedia doesn't become the next Usenet," said Wales. "We need to maintain the quality of the content. There are software features that enable users to monitor the content, but we need a feature to roll back a large number of changes done by a vandalbot or spambot."

Spambots are particularly problematic for smaller Wikipedia projects that are not able to constantly monitor the site and block the bot before it causes too much damage.

"There are spambots that have been written that insert spam into Wikipedia," said Wales. "This is generally a minor problem -- when the bot starts to insert links we can block it and remove the links. But with small Wiki's that only have a few people working on them, the spambot can come in over the weekend and it is a lot of work to clean up. We would be very interested in developers who could write software to keep Wikipedia as open as possible for humans, but block spambots."

Some of the new projects that the Wikipedia Foundation has created, such as its dictionary Wiktionary and its biological species repository Wikispecies, need new tools to be developed to allow the entry of hierarchical structured data.

"Wiki text is freeform, but many types of data are better handled in a structured way, such as the data in Wiktionary and Wikispecies. We need developers to work on the user interface and database design to allow people to edit structural, hierachical data," Wales told FOSDEM.

Developers that are interested in joining the Wikipedia project should sign up to the Wikitech-I mailing list or join the MediaWiki IRC channel.

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