The Taiwan News reported last Wednesday that the government of the Republic of China has set up a Taiwanese encyclopedia, citing Wikipedia as a model. The plans offer an interesting mix, combining ideals of openness with the prospect of government supervision.
In the article, "Taiwan Encyclopedia opens site to users", reporter Hungfu Hsueh relates the official opening last Tuesday of the Taiwan Encyclopedia website and outlines the government's plans for the project. An important element of the encyclopedia will be that users are allowed to edit directly; it even offers the possibility of payment for writing articles of a certain length.
A senior adviser to the project, Chiang Shao-ting, highlighted the similarities with Wikipedia: "Like the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia which is highly popular among users, the Taiwan Encyclopedia will also be a open platform that allows user to contribute to its content." (Editors considering a salary drive on Wikipedia might be advised to reconsider, however, as funds for the foreseeable future will probably go toward the technical demands of the site, see related story.)
The article describes the project as the brainchild of Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian, who outlined the idea in his e-journal last May. Though it is not known how much influence Wikipedia had in its development, the project shows that open content sites are growing in popularity.
Following this initial proposal, the Council of Cultural Affairs, a cabinet-level agency, held a number of meetings to plan the development of the encyclopedia, leading up to the announcement and unveiling of the encyclopedia's website.
For its purpose, the Taiwan Encyclopedia is mostly dedicated to Taiwanese history, culture, and geography, which are divided into 22 different subject areas. It has plans to publish a print edition of its contents in 2008, as well as to develop an English version and an edition geared for teenage students.
While the article highlights the encyclopedia's openness, there is apparently at least one significant restriction: "Only Taiwan citizens will be able to contribute to the encyclopedia, as an ID number is required to log in and edit or add content." In spite of this, the project has a goal of 40,000 articles, or "key words", so it appears that its ambitions are to significantly exceed the current content of the Chinese Wikipedia, which has been active for a little over two years.
How much control the government will exercise over the content is uncertain, but Chiang mentioned that all content would be reviewed by scholars in the relevant field. The article outlines plans for expert committees in each subject to be organized eventually to review new content.
One might see in the various features promised by the Taiwan Encyclopedia an effort to address criticisms that have been leveled at Wikipedia, as the project tries to appeal to various interest groups and bring them on board. Regarding the student edition, the chairman of the Council of Cultural Affairs is quoted saying that students need research material that is available on the internet, perhaps implying that what exists there now is not reliable. The proposal to have experts make the final determination on content matches up roughly to the objections of Larry Sanger and others, who argue that Wikipedia fails to defer sufficiently to expert knowledge.
However, while the motivations can be interpreted from a Wikipedia perspective, there is undoubtedly another significant factor at work. Though unstated in the article, the policy and content decisions made for the Taiwan Encyclopedia presumably reflect some consideration of the delicate balance between Taiwan and mainland China. Since the government is directly behind the project, these issues would have even more importance.
In any case, the development of this project may be interesting, not only for its similarities and differences to Wikipedia, but also because it is a novel way of interaction between a government and its citizens.