For many web users, Wikipedia is not just a source of information. Through its open editorial processes, it is also a space for debates on a range of topics – including science, technologies and innovation (STI). This makes Wikipedia an important driver of what innovation scholars call the “social shaping of technologies”.
As a side effect, the trail of data generated by edit histories and discussions on Wikipedia can be exploited for ‘big data’ approaches. Using advanced data analytics tools, they can be used to derive quantitative indicators on debates about technologies and to approach questions in the area of innovation or technology policy such as:
- How extensively are articles on technologies worked on and discussed, i.e. how important are these topics for the Wikipedia community (as a proxy for society)?
- When do debates around technologies take off on Wikipedia and how does that correlate with technological trajectories?
‘Wikipedia edits’ is, therefore, a complementary indicator to social media statistics and newspaper articles, as Wikipedia data is generated bottom-up (like social media) but — due to its higher transaction cost — is a better indicator of the ‘depth’ of the concern (like newspapers), rather than just the breadth.
Trending topics, ethical debate
A team of Technopolitans recently tapped into this new data source. Given the importance of Responsible Research & Innovation (RRI), we looked into Wikipedia debates about technologies with clear ethical and normative aspects. Monitoring whether particular technologies and ethical concerns are ‘trending topics’ can be useful for policymakers in order to engage stakeholders and address concerns. We extracted data from Wikipedia pages on biotechnology, environmental technology, medical technology and nanotechnology.
The graph shows an analysis of article edits in Wikipedia for selected biotechnologies. The trends show which topics are discussed most intensively, and which are largely driven by piecemeal contributions from experts (e.g. the steady growing trend for ‘monoclonal antibodies’) or a sudden burst of public concern with limited follow-up. A good example of the latter is the ‘Baby Gender Mentor’, a controversial new product for very early gender screening of foetuses that were discussed on US television in late 2006.