Mapping Places in Wikipedia

Where in the world is the Kaministiquia River? Wikipedia tells us that the river empties into western Lake Superior at the city of Thunder Bay; Placeopedia shows its location, and many others, on Google Maps.

Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia written and maintained by volunteers all over the world, has gradually evolved from a questionable labor of love to a remarkably robust source of information on countless subjects.

One of the downsides to Wikipedia, at least at this stage, is that it’s almost entirely text. There are relatively few images, and maps showing locations of geographic entries tend to be bare-bones, if they exist at all.

Enter Placeopedia, a “mashup” that pinpoints geographic Wikipedia entries on Google maps. It’s a simple but powerful idea that integrates two excellent sources of information, appealing to both the left and right brain.

Placeopedia is relatively new, so not all of the thousands of geographic locations listed in Wikipedia are available yet. And the resolution of maps depends on Google—you’ll only see accurate street-level maps for those areas that Google has detailed maps. Other locations you’ll need to zoom out to see the broader area where the place is located.

But randomly entering place names into Placeopedia generates reasonably good results most of the time. And new places are being added every day—more on that in a moment.

Questions About Wikipedia

Wikipedia has a mixed reputation, but I believe it’s a higher quality source of information than is often credited.

The “problem” is that, unlike conventional encyclopedias which are written and edited by experts, anyone can add articles to Wikipedia or edit existing articles. This openness has allowed thousands of people to contribute tons of content to the encyclopedia, including information on subjects that are too obscure to be included in most “authoritative” encyclopedias. Wikipedia now boasts nearly 2 million articles.

That openness is also Wikipedia’s Achilles’ Heel. Critics maintain that without a higher authority in control, there’s no way to know whether what you’re reading is accurate or up-to-date. But Wikipedia is watched over by a community that cares about its content, and new or edited content is often fact-checked and quickly corrected if any errors are found.

I’ve found that Wikipedia is generally accurate, and if anything, is improving over time as more content experts add or edit articles. And the self-policing nature of the Wikipedia community goes beyond just correcting errors. I’ve seen several articles about search engines and the deep web that I thought were pretty good, and yet there was an invitation for someone to edit the articles to “raise the standard” to a more professional level.

Bottom line, I believe Wikipedia has become an important source of information on the web, sometimes providing easy answers that aren’t readily available elsewhere. As with any source of information on the web, you should view Wikipedia entries as one source that should be compared with other sources to check for accuracy.

Adding Your Favorite Places to Placeopedia

Like Wikipedia, Placeopedia is a volunteer effort, open to anyone. And it’s easy, though a touch awkward, to add a Wikipedia place name to Placeopedia.

Click the “add your place” link at the top of the page. This opens a form on the right side that lets you enter the Wikipedia article. Enter the title of a Wikipedia article here. The form uses autocomplete to suggest titles; unfortunately, it doesn’t accept URLs of Wikipedia articles.

Next, use the drag and zoom controls on the Google map on the left of the screen to find the location. Click on the map when you’ve pinpointed a satisfactory location. Now just enter your name and email address, click submit, and your location will be added.

Please note that Placeopedia is a volunteer project running with limited resources. Sometimes it’s slow, and sometimes after you enter something it hangs. Be patient, and try again should this happen to you.

Placeopedia is still an early work-in-progress, but it’s a great example of how people are increasingly taking the open access offered by Google and Yahoo to create new types of information tools. It would be great to see Google “reverse engineer” this and add links to Wikipedia articles in Google Maps whenever a relevant match is found.

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