January 6, 2006 4:00 AM PST
Newsmaker: Wikipedia's co-founder eyes a Digital UniverseSee all Newsmakers
Known as Digital Universe, the project is an attempt to present a diverse collection of information on just about any topic imaginable. Some will be links to other Web resources, while some will be citizen journalism. But the highest-profile part of the project is likely to be its encyclopedia. And while its entries will be written by the general public, the project is distinguishing itself from Wikipedia by having many entries vetted and certified as accurate by subject-area experts.
Thus, the Digital Universe will attempt to become the largest and--its founders hope--most reliable, source of freely-accessible, publicly-created information on the Web. And as such, the project has already and will continue to line up a series of Ph.D.s to serve as "stewards." To pay them for their services, the Digital Universe Foundation has lined up more than $10 million in initial funding.
CNET News.com recently caught up with Sanger to talk about the project, his role and what he hopes the Digital Universe can achieve going forward.Q: Explain what Digital Universe is.
Sanger: It will be a non-commercial, free or open content authoritative information resource that mirrors reality. You can think of the Digital Universe as a set of portals, each defined by a topic, such as the planet Mars. And from each portal, there will be links to the best resources on the Web, including a lot of resources of different kinds that are prepared by experts and the general public under the management of experts. This will include an encyclopedia, as well as public domain books, participatory journalism, forums of various kinds and so forth. We'll build a community of experts and an online collaborative network of independent organizations, each of which has authority over its own discipline to select material and to build resources that are together displayed through a single free-information platform.
It will grow slowly over a couple of years, correct?
Absolutely. In fact, what I anticipate is that the sort of development that has been taking place over the past few years in terms of developing the portals that make up the Earth portal will continue. You know, one of the most exciting things about this actually is the idea that we are going to be providing a platform where experts can manage the public to work on a three-dimensional model of reality.
Manage the public to do what?
If you can imagine people, all of the people who are used to being levels editors for a game like "Unreal," for example. Imagine the staff that a software company has working on that. Imagine that multiplied by 10 or 100 or 1,000 under the management of experts, biologists, geologists, astronomers and so forth. And developing a model of not just the digital Earth, but a digital universe down to the most detailed levels.
What is your role in Digital Universe?
My title is director of distributed content programs. I was brought on board to work on a collaborative expert encyclopedia or expert-led encyclopedia. But I was surprised to learn they had a larger idea in mind for me in that I would be also articulating some of their conceptual underpinnings of the whole enterprise. So I'm working on a very long monograph about the Digital Universe.
What was your interest in getting involved?
It started with an article I wrote, which is now infamous, at least among Wikipedia's defenders--of which I am one, actually. It was called "Why Wikipedia must jettison its anti-elitism." Joe Firmage and Bernie Haisch, Digital Universe's founders, saw it and agreed with it. At the time they were thinking about developing the content for the Digital Universe. And they thought my notion--that a radically collaborative open encyclopedia project like Wikipedia could actually be run by experts with stronger community standards of civility--was essentially what they were looking for.
And Joe presented me with the opportunity to be a key part of something that was not just coherent with the idea that I had with Nupedia and Wikipedia working together. It took that general idea of an outrageously productive, but extremely reliable resource and extended it.
Tell me about this idea that the Digital Universe is like the PBS of the Web?
The idea is that it is a single reliable source of noncommercial and ad-free information. Obviously, we don't mean that it's merely a broadcast medium, but if you can think of Yahoo, Google and MSN as equivalent to the big three broadcast networks of ABC, NBC and CBS, isn't it odd that there doesn't exist anything like the equivalent of a Web PBS or BBC?
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