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SURF THIS: Web Research 101 ... going beyond Wikipedia

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Jim Cota

I’m not generally one to spend a lot of time looking back and thinking I’d like to relive any part of my childhood, but I can’t help but wonder what things would have been like growing up with the Internet.

At the risk of sounding like one of those old guys who had to walk to school four miles through the snow—uphill both ways—kids today have it easy. When I was in school, reports were based on dry text found in dusty encyclopedias that were probably out of date before they arrived in your local library. (That reminds me: We had to go to the library to do research!)

Now, with the Internet, kids have access to a wealth of accurate, timely information on nearly any topic you can think of. Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.com) still remains the de facto standard for research, having an archive containing more than 15 million articles (3.3 million of which are in English), making it the largest and most popular general reference work available.

Even with that wealth of information, or perhaps because of it, Wikipedia is certainly not without its detractors. Critics point out that the departure from contents provided by experts detracts from its authenticity. Crowd-sourcing invites errors, they say.

Research suggests otherwise. An investigation in Nature found that the crowd-sourced material came close to the level of accuracy found in Encyclopedia Britannica and had a similar rate of “serious errors.” When you factor in the speed of updates and the breadth of current information, Wikipedia is tough to beat.

If you need to go beyond the basic facts, there are a variety of places to turn. To really get a handle on how stuff works, the best resource available is, well, How Stuff Works (www.howstuffworks.com). Founded by North Carolina State University professor Marshall Brain (yes, his name is really Brain) in 1998, the site is now owned by Discovery Communications, which has greatly expanded its content. How Stuff Works aims to “demystify the world and do it in a simple, clear-cut way that anyone can understand.” To accomplish this, the site provides comprehensive articles with graphics and videos to walk you through nearly any topic clearly, simply and objectively.

If you’re looking for do-it-yourself information, eHow (www.ehow.com) can probably help. The eHow online community is dedicated to giving you the ability to research, share and discuss solutions and tips for completing day-to-day tasks and projects. With more than 20 categories and more than 150,000 videos, chances are pretty good that you can find what you need here, especially if it’s a task-oriented issue.

An interesting side note: Unlike Wikipedia, which is updated by volunteers around the world, the articles on eHow are sourced by people who are then paid by how many times their articles are viewed. So if you have a particular skill and an ability to write, you might find you could make a little residual income by penning articles for eHow.

What if you’re just looking for data, and maybe a way to better understand it? One of the more recent entries in this area is This We Know: www.thisweknow.org.

This We Know doesn’t generate its own data. Instead, it accesses several databases collected by and made available by the government. The site’s mission is to present the information in an easy-to-understand and consistent manner, empowering citizens to act on what’s known. Which begs the question, “What is known?” Things like rates of pollution, employment, population and health trends.

Right now, the site is focusing on presenting data from approximately six different data sets. Long term, the goal is to “model the entire data.gov catalog” and make it available for viewing on the web. Ultimately, the hope is to “provide citizens with a single destination where they can search and browse all the information the government collects.” Yes, that says ALL the information the federal government collects, which you can probably imagine, is quite a lot. But we paid for it, so shouldn’t it be available? And wouldn’t it be great if it were easy to understand, as well? That’s where This We Know is heading and, if it succeeds, school reports will be better—and the students who write them will be smarter than ever.•

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Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.

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