Can Ireland’s sci-fi fans help fill Wikipedia’s science gaps?

18 Oct 2018

Image: alexey_boldin/Depositphotos

Fact meets fiction as Ireland’s national sci-fi convention gets set to teach passionate people how to edit, improve and diversify Wikipedia.

Octocon returns this weekend (19 to 21 October), taking over the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Blanchardstown, Dublin, for a celebration, and dissection, of all things science fiction.

The first Octocon was held in 1990 with Terry Pratchett as the guest of honour. This year, novelist Pat Cadigan and cartoonist Colleen Doran share that pride of place among a packed schedule of talks, panel discussions, readings, board games, Lego building, cosplay, a book launch and a Wikipedia workshop.

This last event doesn’t come as a surprise when you realise that Octocon is a community-led event entirely run by volunteers. To attend, you don’t buy tickets, you sign up for membership. You join the tribe that both guides and contributes to the content of this national science-fiction convention.

“I am surprised there isn’t a greater crossover between Irish fandom and Irish Wikipedia editors,” said Janet O’Sullivan, who has been chair of Octocon for the past two years. For her, there’s a clear commonality between Octocon volunteers getting together to discuss and collaborate on the things they are passionate about and the Wikipedia community who support an online platform where they can do the same.

‘If I can get the people who are passionate about science fiction and science to become Wikipedia editors, we can make a difference and we can make a change’

A spark of inspiration

O’Sullivan got the idea for the Octocon Wikipedia workshop while at Inspirefest 2018. Media-veteran-turned-Columbia-University-professor Raju Narisetti took to the stage with a call to engage with the Wikipedia community – particularly, for women to become editors and add their voices and stories to the online encyclopaedia.

This, and the low number of Wikipedia editors coming from Ireland, struck O’Sullivan as something she could help address.

“I’m very much aware that, in scientific discoveries, women have been vastly underrepresented and Irish women are written out of Irish history. Now, there’s been a push to restore that and put Irish women back in the prominence of place that we should be, and part of that is being discoverable, having a Wikipedia entry,” she said.

The same issue is seen in science fiction, even though there’s been no shortage of women writing science fiction since the genre began.

“So we have a lack of women being represented in science and science fiction on Wikipedia. And I said to myself, ‘If I can get the people who are passionate about science fiction and science to become Wikipedia editors, we can make a difference and we can make a change.’ I very much believe that it’s easier to be a thing when you can see it. To know that women and girls who want to write science fiction can see … this is achievable. That’s really important.”

A new media lens

O’Sullivan herself has dabbled in Wikipedia editing and is familiar with the tools and methodology. However, rather than simply urge people to take up the cause on a DIY basis, she devised a workshop and edit-a-thon format to get people collaborating from the get-go, starting them off with a strong community of support.

She found people in her network who could help bring this idea to fruition for the upcoming Octocon convention – including the author of her own Wikipedia page. Wikimedia Ireland is also lending its support, and all participants need to do on the day is bring along a computer.

Once the workshop is done, the chance to immediately start making a mark on the world of Wikipedia begins. “They’ve a list of Irish women in science and Irish women in science fiction, and the idea will be to inspire people to get those Wikipedia entries started. Once they’re started, then people can go away, do the research and connect with each other,” O’Sullivan explained.

“It’s amazing once you have an hour of hanging out online with somebody how much you can achieve. And that’s what Wikipedia is.”

Quite like Narisetti, O’Sullivan believes the spreading of Wiki wisdom can help improve how the public engages with media in the digital age.

“Wikipedia is only as good as its citations. Yes, anyone can edit it, but you always have to look at the entry and what are the citations, where has the information been pulled from, are the sources credited credible. And that in itself is a very important skill: being able to critique media and be aware of what your media consumption is,” said O’Sullivan.

That same ethos of critical media consumption feeds into Octocon as a whole, as discussions delve into books, comics, films and TV with a lens examining the good and the bad.

This year, the event marks 200 years since the publication of a pioneering science-fiction classic, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. You can read more about her on Wikipedia.

Octocon takes place in the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Blanchardstown, from Friday 19 to Sunday 21 October. The Wikipedia workshop and edit-a-thon will take place on Saturday 20 October from 4pm to 6pm.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.

Wikipedia open on a laptop. Image: alexey_boldin/Depositphotos

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.