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Wikipedia alternative aims to be 'PBS of the Web'

New online information service seeks seal of reliability by getting acknowledged experts' approval on publicly contributed articles.

A new online information service launching in early 2006 aims to build on the model of free online encyclopedia Wikipedia by inviting acknowledged experts in a range of subjects to review material contributed by the general public.

Called , the project is the brainchild of, among others, USWeb founder Joe Firmage and Larry Sanger, one of Wikipedia's earliest creators.

By providing a service they're calling "the PBS of the Web," the Digital Universe team hopes to create a new era of free and open access to wide swaths of information on virtually any topic.

News.context

What's new:
Digital Universe, a new online repository of articles, will have two tiers: publicly written articles that are not certified by the experts as accurate, and those that are.

Bottom line:
The founders of Digital Universe say they're creating a unique online information resource that combines Web-based collaboration and scientific review. The challenge will be finding the money to back up an endless supply of no-cost and ad-free articles.

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"The vision of the Digital Universe is to essentially provide an ad-free alternative to the likes of AOL and Yahoo on the Internet," said Firmage. "Instead of building it through Web robots, we're building it through a web of experts at hundreds of institutions throughout the world."

Their idea is particularly timely given recent questions about Wikipedia's accuracy and credibility. A frequently raised criticism of the constantly growing repository of information has been that the millions of articles created by a worldwide community of contributors are not verified by experts.

Of course, that has always been Wikipedia's modus operandi--that its articles are written and vetted by its community, not by an elite corps of Ph.D.s. Yet there are some who feel that while the site has a satisfying populist appeal, and may be on par with the Encyclopedia Britannica when it comes to accuracy, it still suffers from a lack of true accountability.

By including articles that have been approved by experts, Digital Universe will have such reliability, its founders say.

The problem that Firmage and his colleagues are trying to solve is finding a financially viable way to back up an endless supply of no-cost and ad-free articles written by the general public with review and certification by subject-area experts.

There have been previous attempts at this. In fact, Sanger and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales were behind the last major attempt, known as Nupedia. But that effort died when it failed to generate the kind of critical mass that Wikipedia has--more than 45,000 active users and nearly 900,000 articles in English alone--over the last couple of years.

Avoiding past pitfalls
But Firmage, Sanger and Digital Universe President Bernard Haisch think their project can avoid the pitfalls of its predecessors. They've created a system built around the idea of portals--one for each major subject area, such as climate change, energy, education, the solar system and so on. Each portal will contain many different kinds of resources.

"There will be a lot of resources of different kinds that are actually prepared by experts and the general public under the management of experts," Sanger explained. "So this would include an encyclopedia, but also public-domain books, participatory journalism, forums of various kinds and so forth."

While the Digital Universe will be free to anyone, it has a business model, Firmage said. The idea is that it will partner with nonprofit organizations including NASA, the American Museum of Natural History and U.C. Berkeley and sell Digital Universe-branded Internet service to their members. He said subscribers would pay no more than what they currently pay for Internet service, and would get the benefit of knowing that some of their fees are going to supporting the organizations, as well as the Digital Universe itself. In any case, the encyclopedia element of the project is the one that is the most similar to Wikipedia. But where Wales' project has just one kind of article--those created and vetted by users--the Digital Universe's encyclopedia will have two separate and distinct tiers: publicly written articles that are not certified by the experts as accurate, and those that are.

"Both categories are specifically labeled as such," Firmage said. "People (will) know what they're looking at, so they know if it's been looked at or reviewed by someone who knows what they're talking about."

"In the Digital Universe, a Ph.D. matters, and in the Wikipedia universe, a Ph.D. does not matter."
--Joe Firmage, Digital Universe co-founder

That dynamic, as well as a line on the Digital Universe site that refers to itself as a project that "will become the largest reliable information resource in history" might lead one to think that Firmage and his team are taking indirect digs at Wikipedia.

Firmage, in fact, said the line is unapologetically direct.

"In the Digital Universe, a Ph.D. matters, and in the Wikipedia universe, a Ph.D. does not matter," Firmage said. "I believe that is a fundamental problem with the Wikipedia model. I'm all for public contribution, and Digital Universe will invite content contributions from the general public.

"But in terms of editorial supervision, we would all agree that a Ph.D. matters, whether it's history, sociology, physics or environmental science," he added. "Surely you would want to be operated on by an M.D. when it comes time for surgery."

For his part, Wales said he finds what he's seen of the Digital Universe project "interesting" and isn't too concerned about whether it will undercut Wikipedia.

"We're a community and we do what we do, and we don't think in terms of whether something's competing with us, or whether it's complementary," Wales said. "It sounds like a cool thing on the Web. (But) it doesn't really affect us."

To be sure, when Digital Universe launches in January, it won't have anywhere near the depth and breadth of Wikipedia's information. But like Wikipedia--which launched in January 2001 with just 20 articles and has expanded steadily since--Digital Universe founders expect their project to grow slowly and organically.

It will launch with about a dozen subject-area portals, Firmage said, but will add a new portal every two to three weeks.

According to Firmage, experts, many of whom have already been lined up, will be paid to work part-time vetting articles. The initial funding will come from $10 million raised over the last three years from angel investors and others.

To Sanger, the experts will want to be involved in the project because of its vision of being "a free, nonprofit and authoritative information resource (that has) never before been tried."

Some of those involved agree.

"It will be the first Web-based information resource that combines the trustworthiness and authority of scientific review and governance with the power of Web-based collaboration, all enabled by a state-of-the-art technology platform," wrote three Ph.D.s, Cutler Cleveland, Jim Lester and Peter Saundry, the chair and vice chairs, respectively, of the project's Environmental Information Coalition.

"As such, the (Digital Universe)," they wrote in an open letter, "will be a direct conduit of objective information from scientists and educators to decision makers and civil society at large."

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