Online city guide outgrows its grassroots


WIRED:Davis, California, is a small university town with about 60,000 inhabitants. On the map, it sits a little too snugly to the much larger city of Sacramento, the capital of California, for anyone to take it entirely seriously as a city in its own right, but Davis does not care.  

There are many such places in the United States and elsewhere: big enough to have a community of their own, but not enough numbers to attract the attention of the listing magazines or the major press companies.

That's not to say that Davis residents don't like it that way. It's sometimes good to be away from the well-known spots. Things stay unspoiled, and eccentricities last a little bit longer. But a downside of being a town more closely known to itself than others is that it's not easy for newcomers to find the lay of the land. A place the size of Davis can hide a lot of good advice and some good secrets too.

That's one of the reasons why Philip Neustrom and his friends set up their simple website in 2004. It was a wiki - that species of website where anyone can edit any page, and whose most famous example is the two million article-strong Wikipedia. Neustrom's ambitions were far more modest: he ran the wiki from a spare machine and publicised it among fellow University of California students at Davis via e-mail and flyers.

Three years on, and the Davis Wiki gets 10,000 unique visits every month, and hundreds of active users and editors.

It has 10,982 pages - all on the ins and outs of their city. That's not a giant of a site but, considering the population of Davis, it means that a sizeable chunk of the active population is looking in. A page for every six citizens is not a bad collection of local knowledge, either.

Half of the edits come from students, with the balance from town residents. And while it's the new student visitors to Davis who may get the most benefit from potted reviews of every late-night diner in the city, long-term residents are getting real value from it too.

From a description of the antics of panhandlers and "town characters" to detailed instructions on how to contact the right Davis government departments, the wiki has replaced almost all the information sources for the town.

Residents use it to trade gossip, praise or disparage plumbers and landlords, or discuss the latest planning permission controversies.

In a way, the Davis wiki has become a combination of a classifieds, town bulletin board, local newspaper and travel guide.

It's hard to know how the Davis wiki has managed to pull this off, when so many local wikis fail to catch fire. There's certainly more than just three years of waiting for a critical mass of contributors to magically appear.

Talking to Neustrom and his colleague, Arlen Abraham, you can sense how much thought they put into the design and the promotion of the wiki - certainly more than most hobbyist websites started by 20-year olds. The site originally used an open-source wiki platform called MoinMoin, but when the Davis wiki users got tired with its limitations, Neustrom spun off his own version, and began simplifying and adding features suggested by Davis wiki users.

While other wiki software, like Wikipedia's MediaWiki, has expanded to cater for new features demanded by expert contributors or businesses, Davis wiki's Sycamore software has been whittled down and made easy enough for the average Davis citizen to adopt. The founders of the Davis wiki don't do much contributing these days: like all the best wikis, pretty much runs itself. Their efforts are now concentrated on spreading what they've learned to other cities. Neustrom himself has moved to San Francisco.

The Sycamore coders have generalised their Davis wiki code, and now the machine that runs the Davis site can also run any number of other regional wikis. The founders are currently setting up a non-profit body to manage the financial side of the operation, called WikiSpot, and are working to plant the seeds of their ideas in other locations.

They face a significant challenge. Wikipedia aimed to cover the world's knowledge, and thus quickly attracted attention from editors all over the world.

Davis's wiki is big in one city, but hardly known anywhere else. That's changing as graduates of its university move out into other cities, but it's slow work and a marked change from Wikipedia's explosive growth.

It's not surprising that two of the cities to begin their own Wiki are San Francisco, the new home of some of the original team, and Sacramento, Davis's local big brother.

There's nothing stopping anyone else from starting a local wiki (the Wikispot developers have tried to make starting a new wiki as easy as editing a fresh wiki page), but the knowledge that this is something you can do spreads slowly.

Will we see a Dublin or Galway wikispot any time soon? Well, that's something that depends as much on people living in those places as it does on the work of Davis's hopeful programmers. The success of Davis is in its citizen editors as much as its citizen coders.