Knowledge Engine (Wikimedia Foundation)

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The search example of the Knowledge Engine states "Ad-free, secure, non-profit: Make Wikipedia your default search". Wikipedia Search April 2015.png
The search example of the Knowledge Engine states "Ad-free, secure, non-profit: Make Wikipedia your default search".

Knowledge Engine (KE) is a search engine project initiated in 2015 by the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) to locate and display verifiable and trustworthy information on the Internet. [2] [3] The goal of the KE is to be less reliant on traditional search engines. [4] The KE aims to change the behavior of readers to stay on Wikipedia.org and other Wikipedia-related projects rather than return to their favorite search engines to find additional information. [4] According to the WMF, the KE will protect user privacy, be open and transparent about how a piece of information originates, and allow access to metadata. [5] WMF's application for a $250,000 grant from the Knight Foundation describes KE as an alternative to for-profit Internet access to information: "Commercial search engines dominate search-engine use of the Internet, and they're employing proprietary technologies to consolidate channels of access to the Internet's knowledge and information." [6] The project comprises four stages, each scheduled to take about 18 months. [7] The project's cost could run into the tens of millions. [1]

Contents

KE will draw information from Wikipedia-related projects and may eventually search other sources of public information such as the U.S. Census Bureau. [6] Leaked internal WMF documents stated the "Knowledge Engine By Wikipedia will democratize the discovery of media, news and information—it will make the Internet's most relevant information more accessible and openly curated, and it will create an open data engine that's completely free of commercial interests. Our new site will be the Internet's first transparent search engine, and the first one that carries the reputation of Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation." [2] KE is not intended to compete with Google Search as a universal search engine, says WMF. [6] Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales allowed that the KE might in time also include academic and open access sources in its search results. [8] Matt Southern in Search Engine Journal attributed media confusion about KE's scope to the fact that this was "quite a contrast to the original grant application documents". [9] As of mid-February 2016, the WMF is developing an internal search engine for Wikipedia-related projects. [1]

Generally, large-scale WMF projects such as KE are discussed publicly with the Wikipedia community, but this did not happen with the KE project. [10] The Wikipedia community volunteers stated the secrecy around the KE project was at odds with WMF's transparency values. [2] The KE project was not published in the WMF's publicly available annual plan. [11] In a text posted on the English Wikipedia's community newsletter, The Signpost , James Heilman, who was dismissed from the WMF's Board of Trustees in December 2015, said he had insisted multiple times that the Knight Foundation grant documentation be made public, without success, [12] and suggested that his push for transparency concerning the grant had been a factor in his dismissal—a suggestion rejected by Jimmy Wales. [2] The Wikipedia community re-elected Heilman to the Board in 2017. [13] Critics say the project's roll out illustrates a disconnect and lack of understanding between a foundation that's increasingly run by people connected with Silicon Valley, and the volunteer community of editors who worry that KE may reflect a change in the WMF's focus from user-generated content to one led by automated data results. [2]

An initial blogpost published by the WMF Executive Director Lila Tretikov and the WMF regarding the KE project still did not adequately explain why the original grant application documents appeared so much larger than merely developing an internal search engine. [14] Tretikov's employees said the WMF was still not being straightforward with the Wikipedia community. [15] WMF Executive Director Tretikov resigned on February 25, 2016, as a result of the controversy. [14] [16] Former Deputy Director of the WMF Erik Möller described the recent events as "a crisis." [1]

Reason for being

Since mid-2012, Google Search has included fast facts from Wikipedia articles on its search results pages via the Google Knowledge Graph. Google Knowledge Panel.png
Since mid-2012, Google Search has included fast facts from Wikipedia articles on its search results pages via the Google Knowledge Graph.

The Knowledge Engine (KE) project is being developed to help send traffic to Wikipedia. [15] "Traffic to Wikipedia coming from Google has fallen as Google has begun incorporating fast facts from Wikipedia articles onto the front page of Google," according to Motherboard. [2] Since that information originated from Wikipedia, it can be considered as part of Wikipedia's aim to expand public knowledge; however, users being able to access Wikipedia data without actually visiting Wikipedia may be seen as a threat to donations that come from readers who visit the site. [2] Although the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) may not be attempting to create a general web search engine or another Google Search, the goal of KE is to be less reliant on traditional search engines. [4] The KE aims to change the behavior of readers by having them stay on Wikipedia.org and other Wikipedia-related projects rather than return to their favorite search engines to find additional information. [4]

The Knight Foundation grant agreement questions, "Would users go to Wikipedia if it were an open channel beyond an encyclopedia?" [1] According to Search Engine Watch, by making Wikipedia or Wikipedia's KE a leading site for the world's knowledge, Wikipedia could be able to recoup the traffic it had lost to Google. [1] The KE project could change Wikipedia.org to a site that is more similar to a search engine than an online encyclopedia. [4]

According to Vice , "the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that finances and founded Wikipedia, is interested in creating a search engine that appears squarely aimed at competing with Google." [2] According to The Guardian , "there was considerable doubt over what the tool was actually intended to be: a search engine aimed at halting a decline in Wikipedia traffic sent by Google, or simply a service for searching within Wikipedia?" [14] According to Search Engine Watch, "Wikimedia is still in a very real battle with Google for the attention and clicks of users who are seeking information online." [1]

Development

Seemingly out of line with WMF's usual "radical transparency", information about the project only became public gradually. [2] As early as May 2015, community members had asked questions about the concentration of staff in a new "Search and Discovery" department, even though public plans made little or no reference to this work. [2] [18] The WMF was awarded a $250,000 grant for the project in September 2015 from the Knight Foundation, which was publicly announced in a January 2016 press release. [4] A budget submitted by the WMF included in the grant press release gave $3,421,672 to cover costs, but the WMF acknowledged it had only received $250,000 in financing as of mid-February 2016. [19]

The WMF initially published only portions of the grant documentation, [20] but eventually made the grant agreement available on February 11, 2016, [12] and further internal documents were leaked shortly after. [2] [10] The project comprises four stages, each scheduled to take about 18 months: Discovery, Advisory, Community and Extension. [7] The initial stage of the project is budgeted to cost $2.5 million, [21] potentially running into the tens of millions. [1] After a year, the WMF will evaluate the development and at the close of the grant, the team will have set the plans for the project to continue to the second stage, according to the grant document. [7] It will take at least six years to complete, says WMF. [2] According to the grant document, the heads of the team were listed as Lila Tretikov, Wes Moran and Tomasz Finc. [22]

Function and purpose

Example of federated data sources potentially used by the Knowledge Engine. Discovery Year 0-1-2 page 9.pdf
Example of federated data sources potentially used by the Knowledge Engine.

KE will be open and transparent about how a piece of information originates and allow access to metadata, says WMF. [5] It will also have no advertisements, protect user privacy, and emphasize community building and sharing of information. [5] KE will draw information from Wikipedia-related projects and may eventually search other sources of public information such as the U.S. Census Bureau, [6] OpenStreetMap, [23] the Digital Public Library of America, [18] and external sources like Fox News. [1] Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales and the WMF stated that KE will focus on improving search on Wikipedia and related Wikimedia projects. [2]

There was extensive debate in respect to what the KE actually is, due to WMF's public statements differing from the leaked internal documents. [2] The leaked internal documents contradicted statements by Jimmy Wales and other Board members. [24] Leaked internal WMF documents stated the "Knowledge Engine By Wikipedia will democratize the discovery of media, news and information—it will make the Internet's most relevant information more accessible and openly curated, and it will create an open data engine that's completely free of commercial interests. Our new site will be the Internet's first transparent search engine, and the first one that carries the reputation of Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation." [2]

KE is not intended to compete with Google Search as a universal search engine, says WMF. [6] Jimmy Wales stated that suggestions that the WMF is creating a rival to Google are "trolling", "completely and utterly false", and "a total lie". [2] [12] The grant application states that it will "create a model for surfacing high quality, public information on the internet." [2] It also advises that "commercial search engines dominate search-engine use of the internet" and states that "Google, Yahoo, or another big commercial search engine could suddenly devote resources to a similar project, which could reduce the success of the project." [2] Wales allowed that the KE might in time also include academic and open access sources in its search results. [8]

In response to media speculation, the WMF published a response clarifying its intentions: "What are we not doing? We're not building a global crawler search engine ... Despite headlines, we are not trying to compete with other platforms, including Google. As a non-profit we are noncommercial and support open knowledge. Our focus is on the knowledge contributed on the Wikimedia projects. ... We intend to research how Wikimedia users seek, find, and engage with content. This essential information will allow us to make critical improvements to discovery on the Wikimedia projects." [9] Matt Southern in Search Engine Journal attributed media confusion about the KE's scope to the fact that this was "quite a contrast to the original grant application documents", [9] an assessment echoed by James Vincent in The Verge , [10] Matt McGee in Search Engine Land , [25] and Jason Koebler in Vice . [26] Director of Discovery Tomasz Finc noted that "We should be clear that we are building an internal search engine, and we are not building a broad one. [1]

Controversy

Many in the community were furious that details of such a large project had been withheld by an organization that prides itself on radical transparency. Wikimedia's public story—that it was never working on a search engine—was directly contradicted by a grant proposal made to the Knight Foundation and leaked internal documents.

 —Jason Koebler, Vice [15]

Ruth McCambridge said in Nonprofit Quarterly, "Wikipedia editors have been requesting from December for the grant proposal and grant letter for a project that many surmise is a bid to remain technologically cutting-edge by the Wikimedia Foundation, but which may divert resources and attention from other pressing needs of the community." [27] Generally, large-scale WMF projects such as KE are discussed publicly with the Wikipedia community, but this did not happen with the KE project [10] as Wikipedia community volunteers were initially unaware of the existence of the KE. [2] [28] Many Wikipedians expressed outrage at what they perceived to be the secrecy around the KE project and their lack of ability to give input, according to the English Wikipedia's community newsletter, The Signpost . [27] The lack of community involvement raised questions about WMF's commitment to transparency with the Wikipedia community. [10] Wikipedia editors noted that the KE project was not published in the WMF's publicly available annual plan. [11]

Commenting on the WMF's Executive Director Lila Tretikov's reluctance to post the donor documents to the volunteer community, referencing privacy concerns, McCambridge sees "a major difference in culture and values assumptions" compared to previous Wikimedia practice. [27] McCambridge said that "the power of important strategic decisions" now rests "between funders and the top of the organizational hierarchy" and is "not shared with volunteer editors." [27] James Heilman, who was dismissed from the WMF's Board of Trustees in late 2015, said that while on the Board, he had pushed for greater transparency of the Knight Foundation grant documentation and its financing, [29] and suggested that his push for transparency concerning the grant had been a factor in his dismissal – a suggestion Jimmy Wales rejected as "utter fucking bullshit". [2] It appears the Wikipedia community disagreed. [13] The Wikipedia community re-elected Heilman to the Board in 2017. [13] Tretikov eventually released the Knight Foundation grant in February 2016 which disclosed the first stage of the KE project. [27] Tretikov said that she regretted being so late in informing the Wikipedia editing community about the Knight Foundation grant. [18]

Longtime Wikipedia editor and journalist William Beutler told Vice Magazine's Jason Koebler, "Leaving aside whether a search engine is a good idea, let alone feasible, the core issue here is about transparency. The irony is that the Wikimedia Foundation failed to observe one of the movement's own core values ...." [26] A UK Wikipedia editor Ashley van Haeften told Ars Technica via e-mail that "Lila, Jimmy, and the rest chose to keep the project and the Knight Foundation application and grant a secret until the projects were underway for six months, and even then this only came to light because it was leaked." [24] Critics say the project's roll out illustrates a disconnect and lack of understanding between a foundation that's increasingly run by people connected with Silicon Valley, and the volunteer community of editors who worry that KE may reflect a change in the WMF's focus from user-generated content to one led by automated data results. [2]

After the leaked documents, many on the Wikimedia-L mailing list were calling for Tretikov's resignation. [15] The initial blogpost published by Tretikov and the WMF regarding the KE project still did not adequately explain why the original grant application documents appeared so much larger than merely developing an internal search engine. [14] After that blogpost, calls for Tretikov's resignation heightened, because her employees said the WMF still was not being straightforward with the Wikipedia community. [15] "My concern is that we still aren't communicating it clearly enough. This morning's blog post is the truth, but not all of the truth. Namely that we had big plans in the past. It would have been much easier to say that we did have big plans, but they were ditched ... there is clear evidence of something, but we still haven't acknowledged it. We can't deny it", Max Semenik, a Discovery team member explained to Tretikov, according to statements posted of an internal meeting on the WMF's website. [15]

Many WMF staff members have departed as a result of the KE project. [30] After several weeks of crisis, [29] the controversy culminated in WMF Executive Director Tretikov resigning on February 25, 2016. [14] [16] Former Deputy Director of the WMF Erik Möller, up to April 2015, portrayed the recent events as "very much out of control" and "a crisis." [1] Wales had previously attempted to create a search engine, but Wikia Search failed in 2009. [19]

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