My friend Sean from OpenMoko recently gave me one of OM’s new WikiReaders. It’s essentially a touchscreen-based device dedicated to displaying Wikipedia articles offline.

And while I’ll never forgive the thing for not having an Edit button, I’ve got to admit the device is pretty cool. Not only does it make it possible to bring WP to a bunch of places that are otherwise impossible or impractical, the thing is built entirely with free software. One of my colleagues at the Center for Future Civic Media suggested we should put one in every bar to help settle drunken arguments. Think of the lives we might save!

I hope the device becomes successful but I’m worried about what success will mean for the already indefensibly large gap between the number of readers and editors on Wikipedia. After all, the ability to change and contribute is the thing that makes Wikipedia interesting, empowering, and successful; cutting this functionality out kind of misses much of the point.

I think it is important to start implementing a simple method to allow users of these types of devices to contribute back. Over the last few years, Sj and I have talked repeatedly about a simple method for contributing back from offline devices that would even be possible from devices like the Om Wikireader where editing the articles is probably impractical. Perhaps the device could be extended so that people could write short comments about articles from their reader — there’s an on screen keyboard after all — which could be saved to a log on the SD card. When the data on the card is updated, messages from this log could be uploaded somewhere — perhaps the talk pages of the articles in question or some dedicated page or ticketing queue. Editors could help merge these changes back into the articles.

Author: Benjamin Mako Hill

Rebel with rather too many causes. And your host!

11 thoughts on “Wikireaders”

  1. Hi Mako,

    the German Wikipedia has even more problems than the English one.(I won’t go into that now.)
    Important part is that someone started a project to keep WP in git (

    That could be a possible solution to the problem of contributing back when offline.

  2. Here’s a script which could be used to handle changes saved on the SD card:


    # don’t bother with uploading:
    rm -f /media/wikireader-sd/proposed-changes/*

    It has the huge advantage that the Wikipedia admins don’t have to manually revert every change :-D

  3. Oliver. You have managed to both not take the time to understand my proposal and to argue for a position so hostile to contributions that you would have prevented prevented Wikipedia from ever taking off.

    I suggested a way for offline users to suggest changes which online editors would then be free to ignore or reject. And believe it or not, non-admins have good things to contribute to WP as well. By some metrics I’ve seen, most new content comes from the types of users you seem happy to uncritically reject.

  4. Surely anything that increases readers will almost certainly increase editors?

    If I’m in my backwoods cabin and look up an old sporting event and find an error, I’d suggest the odds of me remembering to edit whenever I’m back in front of a computer with a real keyboard and internet connection are about equal to taking advantage of being able to instantly peck details into a tiny read-optimized device for later syncing.

    It seems an odd fault to pick up on when the beauty of the device is to make Wikipedia available (to read) in exactly those places where reading via any standard route would be inconvenient and editing out of the question..

  5. Benjamin, I’m not suggesting that people’s contributions are worthless – I’m suggesting that Wikipedia admins will remove those contributions no matter whether they are good or bad! That’s the impression I’ve got of WP. If it were for me, all changes were at least available on WP (maybe with separation into “reviewed articles” and “non-reviewed changes”), rather than deleted.

    The script was an attempt to show with tongue-in-cheek that the contributions would end in the bin anyway, no matter how much work the user has put into it. Sorry for the ambiguous posting.

  6. I think you have the right idea: rather than attempting to allow edits directly on the device, you want some mechanism allowing someone to make notes about what they want to change.  Among other things, the WikiReader doesn’t store the articles in their original format, so attempting to edit them would prove pointless.

    For a start, “flag this article for later editing” seems simple and useful.  You could then call up a list of all the articles you’ve flagged, and hopefully you’d remember why you flagged them.  This would work for relatively small numbers of desired edits between editing sessions.

    To scale to larger numbers of desired edits offline, the flags would definitely need a note mechanism.  I can think of a few good ways to simplify note-taking, though, without always having to type on an on-screen keyboard.  The note mechanism should offer a few likely types of edits, and make it easy to clarify those with minimal typing.  For instance, touch “typo”, and then the device brings up the article so you can touch the word you want to fix.  A few other likely candidates:

    “add link”, for when you think the article needs a link to some other article somewhere; again, let the user type the article name, with search helping them find it quickly.

    “redirect”, for when you want to add a new redirect to an existing article; let the user type an article name, with search helping them find it quickly.

    “alternate definition”, for when you want to add a “This article is about $FOO; for $BAR, see $OTHER_ARTICLE”, or turn the article into a disambiguation page.

    And, of course, the all-important “other”. :)

  7. Yeah, surely a very neat device, this WikiReader — and I’ll try to get hold of one, I think — but when spending time in a bar I very much enjoy offline hours without Internet connectivity.  :-) Am I oldfashioned already?

  8. I’ve had mine for a few weeks now. Love it. It has already made a few appearances in restaurants with friends. Inevitably the dinner conversation reaches a point where more information makes the evening…well, more informative – and entertaining.

    A way to use the device to contribute (however that may unfold) would be great. The onscreen keyboard is a bit tight for space though…wouldn’t want to start typing text longer than your average entry’s title.

    Also, I would like to be able to search for text within an entry. Often, I’m not looking up general information but trying to find out something specific about a topic.

  9. Well, 7 months later and I can say that I’ve now bought a few more Wikireaders for friends and family. Most everyone I know thinks it’s a really useful gadget. And, I’m glad to now see support for other wikis. Wiktionary should be on my device soon.

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