This week saw the launch of , “the world’s first Wikipedia Town” – Monmouth, Wales.  Wikipedia says the project will,“…cover a whole town, creating articles on interesting and notable places, people, artifacts, flora, fauna and other things in Monmouth in as many languages as possible including Welsh.” On Monday I heard Roger Bamkins, Chair of Wikimedia UK, talking about the project. According to Bamkins, the uptake and enthusiasm has been substantial with some articles already translated into 25 languages and a group of thirty local volunteers devoted to PR alone.  What’s different from Wikipedia to date is that there’s a locative aspect to content access. Over 1,000 plaques with QR codes (including 100 lovely ceramics like the one below) have been put up around the town so that you can access articles through a smartphone. Meanwhile, geotags in articles will mean you can take a virtual tour of the town using the Wikipedia layer in Google Maps, Streetview or augmented reality software including Layar.  There are and have been lots of initiatives in locative and local media but what makes this one powerful is that the Wikipedia platform makes it eminently replicable around the world.

As Editor, New Media at BBC Wales I was involved in an earlier Wales experiment in participatory local web . In the early 2000’s we developed a network of “Where I Live” websites which combined BBC News, Sport and Weather journalism with content by local people.  (There’s a 2002 interview with me about the project here.)  For reasons I’ve explored here before the BBC decided this type of work wasn’t a strategic priority, and de-commissioned the project after a few years, but various things were evident from the experiment.  All sorts of people were keen to create and share content that reflected their locality in the context of a public service project. In an expression of  what Clay Shirky has called cognitive surplus, they provided detailed knowledge, unique points-of-view, and items from personal archives which were of great interest to a local and wider public.  BBC research about Where I Live showed for example that people who didn’t think of themselves as interested in history were interested in accessing historical content about their own area.

As well as the participatory method, two things connect Monmouthpedia to the emerging documentary projects that most interest me. The first is the way that digital has the potential to connect people in and to the material world.  While Monmouthpedia manifests itself on the web, and is associated with a mega social media brand,  the project is about connections and impacts in a locality. The project partners include the County Council, 200 businesses, several universities and nearly every school and community group in the area. Fostering these community connections is very much the Wikimedia Foundation’s agenda.  As they say. “There are a lot of opportunities for community involvement including teaching and learning of I.T skills, local history, natural history, languages and people of different ages working together.” More concretely,  the project has proved the catalyst for a Wales first – a free, town-wide wi-fi network.

Additionally, I’m interested in the power of open rights framework in these participatory processes, making local content accessible and available for new uses by those involved – as knowledge, cultural and economic resource.  In this case the museum have adopted the QR codes for visitor information. Meanwhile it’s hoped that the translated articles might play a role in introducing this historic town to potential tourists.  You can find out more about Monmouthpedia on the Wikimedia Foundation blog or, if you aren’t too far away, get along to tomorrow’s events.  I think we can expect lots more Wikipedia towns before long.