Wiki NZ re-launches, aims to make data less daunting

Innovative data-sourcing site Wiki New Zealand launched in December 2012 as something of a test model to see what users wanted from the site and how it could run more efficiently. Two years on, the site has now been redesigned and chief executive Lillian Grace says feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive”.

Wiki NZ sources New Zealand data from organisations—corporations, public repositories, government departments and academics—and posts it free on its website for anyone to use. 

In addition to general donations, Wiki NZ is funded by organisations that want their data publicly available, organisations that want a specific collection of charts created (i.e. for their website or annual reports), and patrons that back a specific topic. 

Grace began the development of the platform after noticing that people seem to think there is a certain skill one needs to be able to obtain, read or use data. 

“We are trying to refute that”, she says. 

“It’s not sufficient to just build an online solution, we want to change how people think about data, as a language where everyone can become fluent. And that people aren’t afraid of dabbling or making mistakes.”

She says the first site, which went live in 2012, served as a means to explore how people thought about data, giving Wiki NZ an an understanding of user requirements and the best ways to explore and play with data and what graph standards should look like. 

“[We wanted] to make it fun and not scary and academic,” she says. 

“So we spent [the past]two years talking to people about what they thought about data and what the ideal system would look like including the back and the front end before putting too much effort into development to make sure we were doing the right thing. After spending time investigating we ended up developing our own backend application, which makes it a lot easier to bring data together and easier to do updates and stuff.”

Some of the changes make it easier to find the data by topic, similar to how one would use Wikipedia. 

“It’s not a one-stop-shop or the only shop but it’s the best place to search using your own natural language. I like to think about it as if New Zealand’s data has been organised by source, so if you want to find anything you have to know who collected it. That’s like having a dictionary ordered by origin of the word.”

Grace says a huge amount of the work for the new site was done in-house, and that Wiki NZ put together frames and bashed them together internally and went with what worked. She says she got a graphic designer and a website designer to polish it and make it look a bit more professional than what they had.

“We spent the last few months, all of us, figuring out what needed to go in each place. It all became apparent. You look at Google and Pinterest, as those are sites anyone can use, so we incorporated that into what we could use about graphs,” she says.

Another ‘to be’ feature is a chart designer that enables users to change and play with charts based on what the organisation reported, and that’s how people can edit content and add things to the site. She says it’s not quite finished yet but will eventually be launched to the public.

The organisation has also been keeping busy getting government agencies involved. Grace says Wiki NZ is doing a proof of concept for government through Land Information New Zealand and has engaged with five different government agencies to bring their data through the new platform and demonstrate what it can do with government services.

“If we can show what we are doing is effective and efficient, without them doing it on their own, it can be a place where all government agencies can put their data into. It would be huge and saves everyone from trying to solve the problem on their own and we are also collaborating with businesses in the private sector and organisations in academia about pulling their data on. Academics don’t really have a platform for sharing research with the general public, so they have been excited about sharing data through our platform as well,” she says.

Grace says another target segment the organisation will focus on is small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), saying the organisation did interviews with them to see how they think about data. “Their answer was they don’t,” she says “…and that it was too hard to find and they didn’t know how it could be valuable and relevant to them”.

“Another target segment is media as a user. Everyone can take the content and use it.  Having an independent organisation producing data means it all ends up being on my shoulders rather than the people using it. So people embedding graphs into reports are happy to have our branding [as]it’s gone through the process and it is outsourcing that part of the job and having a standard of how things are presented,” she says.

Grace says it’s still early days yet but it will be adding thousands of graphs over the coming months. She also says feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive.

“When we first launched and I hit the button out on 24 February three years to the minute, all this feedback came in and I burst into tears, because we knew we were delivering something people really wanted to use.”

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