WikiClimate (2007)

Back in 2006, not long after I published The Book of Ash, I became both excited by and frustrated by Wikipedia, which had by that time become one of the most important destinations on the web. The excitement was about its scale, depth, community and open source tools; the frustration came from something those virtues enabled - the political squabbles over aspects of its content, which led to lack of coverage in certain areas and question marks over impartiality and provenance in others. 

One of these areas was climate change, a subject close to my heart. The threat of global warming had been one of the reasons I'd written about the advisability of the long-term storage of nuclear waste in The Book of Ash in the first place. But climate change was still a hugely contested idea at that time, continually challenged in much of the media, and what information had been posted about it on Wikipedia was often obscured, devalued or diluted by debates about the political interests and agendas it was perceived to serve. 

With the enthusiasm of the newbie I thought well, why not set up a wiki devoted solely to climate facts and figures, but where the basic assumption would be that climate change was a given, even if that given remained unquantified. So I set up a company, filed for a trademark, had a logo designed by the excellent Damian Jaques, found a couple of partners in Amee and the Carbon Disclosure Project, and off I went.

Hmm. I didn't get very far. Amee kindly hosted the wiki and helped me get it set up. The Carbon Disclosure Project gave me permission to post chunks of their data. And I wrote a bunch of content on my own and posted it up in the hope of attracting search traffic, to be quickly followed (or so I hoped) by hordes of eager contributors.

Before they had a chance to arrive, however, I was offered a job at the Telegraph Media Group, which with a newborn in the house I had little choice but to take. At which point WikiClimate became an out-of-hours project, fitted in between what few slots I had left between the demands of my new daughter and the demands of my new job.

Bleary-eyed I stumbled on for a while, at one point setting up a promising partnership with the nice folks at Appropedia. But that didn't generate the hoped for content. By that time I had content all right - the hordes had turned up. But they weren't the hordes I was hoping for, and the kind of content they were leaving is generally known as spam. 

Yep, spambots had arrived on the web in force, and user-generated content sites like wikis were easy prey. Soon I was spending my precious midnight hours not writing new material but deleting pages and pages of links to Russian porn sites and blacklisting the IP addresses of the rogue robots that were posting them. But it was like cutting the heads off the proverbial hydra. I introduced site registration and Captcha and that stopped the invaders for a while, but not long after the bots just hacked the server and posted their noxious links direct. 

The site went down. We fixed it. It went down again. We fixed it again. Then it went down again and... that was the end. I and everybody else involved decided we had better things to do.

It wasn't all in vain. A lot of what I'd learned went into a new channel I launched on the Telegraph's website, Telegraph Earth, which amounted to a healthy riposte to the Telegraph's traditionally climate-sceptic stance and contained, among other things, a carbon calculator widget built using Amee's APIs.

It was a small but pleasing victory in the battle to change public perception about the threat of global warming, and about the same time the Wikipedian community began to get its act together on the climate change front, and the nature of its coverage began to broaden substantially - a rather more significant signifier that the tide of opinion was finally turning.

So WikiClimate didn't work out, but like many projects that are done for the right reasons it led somewhere interesting and was anything but a waste of time.