WikiProject U.S. Roads
This week, the Report hit the highway with five members of WikiProject U.S. Roads. The project, started in September 2005 by Rschen7754, has grown to include over 13,000 pages and a massive list of members organized by state. The project is home to 30 featured articles, 5 featured lists, 19 A-class articles, and 404 good articles. All of the project's articles have been assessed and a year-long Stub Elimination Drive has been initiated to either improve or delete each of the project's 5,000 stubs. The project maintains a portal, IRC channel (#wikipedia-en-roads), list of resources, and two task forces: the Maps Task Force and the Shields Task Force. As part of a large family of projects related to roadways, WikiProject U.S. Roads is a child of WikiProject Highways, a sibling of WikiProject Canada Roads and WikiProject UK Roads, a cousin of WikiProject U.S. Streets, and the proud parent of 36 state road projects. We interviewed Scott5114 (Scott), Davemeistermoab (Dave), TwinsMetsFan (TMF), Imzadi1979, and Rschen7754.
What motivated you to become a member of WikiProject U.S. Roads?
- Scott: Well, like most of us in the project, I've been a "roadgeek" from a very young age. Most of us have been interested in transportation for years...outside of Wikipedia, roadgeeks enjoy taking special trips to see roads, taking pictures, writing about them, and doing research into their history. Once people started writing road articles on Wikipedia, we found out that this is a great way to apply those tendencies to create a useful resource for both the general traveling public and for other roadgeeks.
- Dave: Most roadgeeks start at a young age. Speaking for myself, I'm the product of multiple generations of blue-collar workers in the transportation industry (trucking and trains). Most of my friends that are roadgeeks also have a similar background. My best childhood memories are doing a "run" with my dad. As a result, taking a new road or train to see the sights is something I continue to enjoy to the present day, and something I enjoy writing about.
- TMF: Like Scott and Dave, I've been a roadgeek for as long as I can remember. I originally joined Wikipedia to write about a Rochester, New York, area railroad line; however, when I found an article about a nearby state highway, my interest was piqued. And, as they say, the rest is history. I'm more a member of the New York State Routes WikiProject than the national U.S. Roads project, but I do contribute to national discussions and help out where needed.
- Imzadi1979: I came into roadgeekery through another path. I'm from the Central Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and I have family in the Lower Peninsula. My parents would teach me geography by using road trips to see family, and quizzing me on which counties we would cross on the route. Later, my mom told me about a relative that worked on a project for the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) to plan a freeway or expressway across the Upper Peninsula. I started looking online for information about the proposal and found the roadgeek community. At the same time, I would spent hours killing time reading various articles on Wikipedia, and the two interests later merged into my article writing.
- Rschen7754: My editing the road articles predates the U.S. Roads project, and I founded the USRD project. I've been a roadgeek for most of my life, and discovered many roadgeek sites in my teenage years. I wasn't familiar with Wikipedia then (this was back before it was big) but I went onto it one day at the age of 15 and noticed a red link for California State Route 78. I was hooked. With such a broad editor base and a diversity of expertise (we've got editors from all around the country), it is possible to accumulate a collection of road articles better than those of any other road site on the Internet.
With so many roads in the United States, how does the project determine notability? How do you coordinate your efforts with the related WikiProject U.S. Streets?
- Scott: The way that highways are designated in the United States really helps out with this immensely. For those who aren't familiar with the U.S. road system, you have the Interstates, which are a national system of freeways (or motorways, as many counties call them), then the U.S. routes, which is a national non-freeway system, then the states have their own systems. We generally consider these top three systems as notable, and anything beneath that we apply extra scrutiny to. Your average county-maintained road generally isn't too terribly important; if it was, it'd probably be upgraded to a state route. Of course, we have to be flexible, because there are sometimes important things that need to be considered that the road designation can't tell you.
- We realized a couple years ago that city street articles are a different type of animal than the highway articles we're accustomed to writing. If you compare something like M-35 (Michigan highway) to Rush Street (Chicago), you'll notice a completely different emphasis. The highway article is oriented towards the routing of the highway and how the designation came to follow the path it does. On a city street article like Rush Street, the emphasis tends to be on the community and the culture of the neighborhoods along it. You need to really have two different mindsets here. Because of the fundamentally different editorial approach that's required for the two articles, we decided that having two projects would be better to have.
- Dave: That's a problem we face, and will continue to do so. There's over 100 different classes of highways in the United states, with a few dozen highways classified under each type. It's a massive number of articles to maintain. We've constantly struggled with which highways deserve articles and which aren't notable. With that said, I think after years of getting burned and refined at various venues, we've managed to come up with some guidelines that do a good job of walking the line between flexible yet still useful.
- Obviously there is some crossover between this project and projects about streets, bridges, cars, trains, etc. However, an article about an urban street tends to be very different, and focus on different things than a rural highway. City street articles tend to describe the culture, atmosphere and history of a particular part of the world. A highway is about connecting two, often very different, parts of the world, each with its own culture and background.
- TMF: Notability has been an issue for years, and will likely be for the foreseeable future. It's not that what the project believes is notable gets deleted; it's more that topics that the project has deemed as non-notable sometimes have articles and occasionally have survived AFD. These are typically random county roads or other random, rural connectors with no designation. Scott and Dave cover this pretty well, and they do a better job explaining the project's relationship to U.S. Streets than I can.
- Imzadi1979: Even with all the discussions over the years, our guidelines are flexible enough to warrant exceptions. The last article to be promoted at FAC from the project was about the business loop of M-28 in my home town. Normally, business loops, and other similar highways, are covered as a subsection of the parent highway's article, or as entries in a larger list article. Sometimes we just have to make a case for a method to cover a highway and go with it. In the case of that article, it was one of three M-28 business loops that have existed, so merging them into the parent article with the level of detail warranted by the information would have unbalanced the M-28 article. Of course it was also a matter of hometown pride that I worked on improving the article to featured status, since it was the last highway in my hometown to gain that recognition.
- Rschen7754: Notability continues to be a recurring issue. Back in the mid-2000's, there were several attempts to declare road articles as not notable for Wikipedia. Now, the tide has turned to including many roads of questionable notability. The line of what is notable and what is not continues to be defined.
There are no unassessed articles within your project. How did you accomplish this and do you have any advice to other projects with large backlogs of unassessed articles?
- Scott: Assessment has always been important to our project from day one. The assessment system was first rolled out across Wikipedia a couple months after the state route naming conventions debate, a fiercely controversial ordeal the project went through. I think a lot of people just started working on assessment to sort of get away from the contentiousness. We started doing some interesting stuff with the stats, like the WikiWork statistics, and that underscored that we needed to get away from arguing over trivial stuff and actually improve the articles (when we compared our statistics to WP:TROP, we didn't look so hot!). When we started getting state-by-state stats, that also helped, because we could tell what states were doing fairly well overall and which weren't. That also helped spark some of our editors' competitive sides, because everyone started trying to get their state to the top of the list.
- For other projects, I'd recommend doing much the same thing. Do interesting things with the stats, and people will be interested in them, and they'll be more motivated to keep everything updated assessment-wise. I think the key feature of the WikiWork formulas that makes them so useful for us is being able to distill the stats down into a single number, which allows you to compare your project with other projects. That way you don't exist in a vacuum and have a good idea of where you are in comparison to the rest of Wikipedia. You can try borrowing our formulas, or come up with something different; as long as it helps draw a more concrete picture and motivates people, it's doing its job.
- Dave: I participate in about 4 wikiprojects or so. Hands down, the U.S. Roads wikiproject is the most competitive. There are always contests going on, usually pitting the east coast against the west coast, one state against the other, etc. The competitive nature of the project has its ups and downs; however, this is one of the upsides.
- TMF: I guess the motivating factor behind making sure all of our articles were assessed was that we saw something that needed to get done, so we did it. =) When we installed the assessment code in the talk page banner in 2006, a good chunk of our articles were already tagged, so the backlog was fairly large right off the bat. Over a period of time, everyone just took a couple hours or so and assessed a couple hundred of articles until we cleared the backlog. Once we got the first wave done, it was just a matter of assessing new items that came in, and that's fairly easy to keep up with. The best advice I could give to a project with a large backlog is that they need to find a couple or a few editors that want to devote time to assessing articles and get them together. From there, they can divvy up the backlog, making it less intimidating. Speaking from experience at USRD and the New York project, it's much easier to slog through a backlog when you know you're not the only one slogging through it.
- Rschen7754: Back in 2006, we went through and got all the articles assessed, and never let the backlog pile up. One of the major tools that we used was WP:AWB and the associated assessment plugin. The danger is that most of the articles were assessed in 2006, and sometimes the assessment isn't always the most up to date. Sometime in the next year, we will have to go through and make sure the assessments are correct. How will we do this? Division of labor, cooperation, and incentive, which is how we accomplish most of the tedious tasks that we are faced with at USRD that keep us using the latest standards. I really have to hand it to USRD editors for their willingness to work hard doing tedious tasks.
WikiProject U.S. Roads is currently sponsoring a "Stub Removal Drive." Could you tell us a little about the purpose and goals of the initiative?
- Scott: As I noted above, assessment has always been important to our project. At the end of 2009 we got into a discussion on IRC about where we are with regards to stubs, and at the time we had 5967 stubs out of about 10,000 articles. We started talking about how we'd like to get that percentage down, and someone said "Wouldn't it be nice if we got rid of half of them over the next year?" Then we decided to shoot for a nice round 3,000 as our target to be expanded/merged/deleted/whatever. I'm not so sure if we'll be able to actually achieve that, but it's gotten people focused on working on getting the stubs fixed, and even if we don't hit the goal in time, we'll have taken a pretty decent chunk out of them.
- Dave: I mentioned before that this is a very competitive project. Many of the earlier contests helped improve some aspects of the project, but left holes in others. Often times one contest would be intentionally designed to fix the shortcomings of the last. Earlier contests focused on article creation. A side effect of a contest like that will be stub articles. This contest is to fix the stubs.
- TMF: At USRD, the focus has been on quality over quantity for a while. One could say a project is only as good as its worst article, and if you improve the articles on the bottom, you lessen the chance that a reader or editor's first impression of USRD is that we write awful stubs. A project can have hundreds of upper tier articles, but if you have many stubs, it's a big black eye on the project, especially if the stubs are on subjects that matter more to readers than the subjects that have articles in the upper tier of assessment.
- Imzadi1979: Several of the states have expanded all of their articles beyond the stub stage, so a few of us scratch our heads about the drive to reduce the stub count. A lot of us have branched out of our usual editing areas to work on the drive. I've started working on articles for the highways in Guam so that they can be created, not as stubs, but rather assessed higher on the assessment scale from the get-go.
The project is home to 30 featured articles, 5 featured lists, 19 A-class articles, and 401 good articles. Which of these articles are you most proud of being involved with? Overall, what have been some of the project's greatest achievements?
- Scott: Of course, I'm personally proud of "my" two featured articles, Kansas Turnpike and Chickasaw Turnpike. The way we have our A-Class Review set up, though, as kind of a "pre-FAC", helps weed out a lot of the problems with articles before they reach FAC. That means that we have a better success rate at FAC and everyone who contributes to an A-Class review for an article that later becomes featured can claim some of that success. We have some people who specialize in creating GAs and are responsible for a lot of those. I think if there was ever a call for a new "good article director", Mitchazenia would probably get it by default. :)
- The project has run into some big challenges over the course of its lifetime, including two ArbCom cases that much of the project's membership was involved in, but I've always marveled at how we've managed to pick up the pieces and carry on afterward. I'm also impressed with how the stub drive is going; if you take a look at this graph you can really see its effectiveness.
- Dave: This is a tough one to answer, as everybody in the project has different interests. I prefer to work on articles about highways known for their scenic value or the feats of engineering required to built it. I've sometimes joked that I don't spend the effort to improve a road article to FAC status unless the Sierra Club was protesting at the groundbreaking.=-) As such, I'm most proud of my work on articles such as Interstate 70 in Colorado and U.S. Route 395 in California. Others in the project have very different interests. We've got a lot of editors from Upstate New York that are very proud of their hometowns and the region. If you check, these editors have managed to get practically every possible road article in Upstate New York to GA class or better. That's not consistent with my interests, but I congratulate the achievement.
- TMF: Me personally, I'm proudest of the Good Articles that the New York subproject has produced. I've had some role in writing most of them, usually the history of the road. I've also had writing roles in some of New York's Featured Articles. As for the USRD project's greatest achievements...I'd say how many high-quality articles that we have. There's a lot of room for improvement, though, and that's what keeps a lot of us going.
- Imzadi1979: I'm proudest of my first FA, M-35 (Michigan highway), and my second FA, M-28 (Michigan highway). M-35 has an interesting history connected to Henry Ford. Basically MDOT's predecessor wanted to build highways that hugged the Great Lakes shorelines in Michigan, and M-35 was supposed to run through the Huron Mountains region near Lake Superior. Ford intervened to halt construction, which he used to his advantage to gain entry into the exclusive Huron Mountain Club. I found the history fascinating, and somewhat ironic, given that Ford "helped to put the world on wheels." M-28 is a highway I've travelled many times to visit family, and as the longest state highway in Michigan that is not an Interstate or US Highway, it was prime to have a quality article about it on Wikipedia.
- Rschen7754: Of course, I'm partial to California State Route 78, my first article that I wrote and that I brought to FA. As far as achievements, I would say that our greatest one is our high standards. By following these and general WP standards, an editor who is willing to work hard can easily get a road article to GA or higher. Our environment is organized and the goals are clear, and we thus don't waste much productive time.
Have any of your project's previous initiatives ended unsuccessfully? What lessons have you learned from them?
- Scott: Oh, definitely. Back in the early days of the project, we always tended to stick to ourselves and kind of did our own thing. There were a lot of times early on where we'd end up butting heads with people outside the project over some thing that we were doing that people didn't think was compliant with policy or the MOS. We've learned from those interactions that it's better to maintain connections with the greater Wikipedia community and be more proactive in checking for compliance issues.
- We've also had some issues where the majority of the project would go one way and we'd have one or two users go another. These were the underlying cause of both ArbCom cases. I'm not really sure that we've reached a definite idea of the best way to sit down and handle those types of issues before it becomes a conflagration; we've discovered it's sort of a gray area in Wikipedia policy on how to handle situations where you have a bunch of good-faith contributors on one side and one or two equally good-faith, but strong-willed, editors on the other. Hopefully we won't have to revisit any scenario like that again...
- Dave: Absolutely, I joined the project shortly after there was a bitter fight, that nearly ripped the project apart. An Arbcom decision was just handed down. I didn't understand what was going on at the time; I just knew everybody didn't want to talk about certain things. When I first joined the project, I'd make good faith improvements to articles and get slapped down with comments like, "don't do that, that's not allowed anymore". While the project has much improved, I do think we could do a better job of teaching the newbies with comments like, "This has worked better" instead of "don't do that".
- What I've seen is the competitiveness. I've seen the project criticized as being a bunch of control freaks and a walled garden. I will be the first to admit, there's truth to those accusations. I've also seen a well organized effort to spread lessons learned and improve. With a few exceptions, almost all editors who participate in the FAC, GAC and other processes, immediately take the lessons learned from these processes and feed them back to the project. I think our guidelines today are some of the most useful around. Being a control freak has it's good side. =-) I've also seen the project listen to these criticisms and make some honest efforts to improve.
- With that said, one of the challenges I see with today's USRD project is mis-focused priorities. Years of competition where improving articles to Good Article status to earn contest points has put us in a position where we have "low hanging fruit" articles improved to quality status, such as a 10 mile long route in a single state, while more important highways, such as a 3000 mile long transcontinental route, have articles tagged as needing attention.
- TMF: I can't think of one that hasn't. The project's Article Improvement Drive was a bust, the Adopt-A-Highway maintenance program never got off the ground, the first incarnation of the project newsletter and a subsequent blog were busts, and the list goes on. Even the first USRDCup, which resulted in improvements in some states, resulted in the creation of questionable articles in others.
- Some editors are relaunching the newsletter, using a more streamlined and concise format. Also, some rule changes for the current USRDCup fixed a lot of issues from the first cup, placing much more emphasis on the improvement of lower-tier (assessment-wise) state highway articles.
- Imzadi1979: To chime in with Dave's comments above, recently we've started a discussion to coordinate a list of articles that should be improved with a goal to getting them featured. In the past, we just individually worked on our own priorities and made our own nominations. Talk is that the 2011 goal won't be stub reduction, but focus on articles that honestly should be featured.
- Rschen7754: Definitely. Article Improvement Drive, contests, Adopt-A-Highway, and all sorts of other things that shall not be mentioned. The lessons are varied; an entire novel could be written about the history of USRD, but the main point is this: admit that no, the program didn't work, cut our losses, shut it down, and move on, and try something else.
What are the most pressing needs for WikiProject U.S. Roads? How can a new contributor help today?
- Scott: Expanding articles! We have 13,250 pages maintained by the project now, which means a good deal of the articles have been created in some form. A lot of our editors are clustered in a few states (and people tend to edit the articles on just one or two states they have a personal connection with), which means that a few areas (like the Deep South in particular) aren't getting the attention they need. We need new contributors to help in these areas with both expansion and basic maintenance (checking the veracity and well-formedness of new information added, preventing vandalism, and such). You can pop into our IRC channel—#wikipedia-en-roads on Freenode—and we'll be willing to help anyone pick a state that needs attention and assist with finding sources.
- Dave: as I said most roadgeeks discover that they have an interest from their experiences as a youth. One of the problems this causes is we have a lot of young editors in our project. That's not a bad thing, but does result in clashes between more and less mature editors. My advice to a young editor wanting to join is to be patient, be willing to learn, and don't give up. It's important to ask questions (to both experienced members and to those that can provide a fresh viewpoint) There are hundreds of article in the project that were developed 5 years ago, and the wikipedia community has evolved in that time. I'd advise new editors to not simply clone style and formatting from some five year old article, without asking why is something done a certain way, and could it be done better. Finally, I'd remind that our project maintains over 10,000 articles. If you're clashing with another editor about one, chances are, there's an equally deserving article to improve that hasn't been touched in years.
- As far as what do we need, we need regional experience. We have editors that have spent many hours examining and decoding the workings of the department of transportation for most states in the west, upper midwest, and northeast. As such, we at least have a foundation on which a good article with solid information can be built for highways in those states. However there are some states, particularly in the deep south, where we simply have not had the resources to build this base. Highway articles in these states are relying on questionable information, such as google maps. If anybody knows where a state DOT's procedures and logs are found for one of these states, we need you.
- TMF: A lack of interested editors in some states. Not just any editors, but ones who are willing to take advice, do good work, be devoted to what they do, and learn from their mistakes. While New York is overly covered between myself and several other editors, there are states like, say, North Dakota, where there are no editors and thus the articles don't get any attention whatsoever. Sadly, there are more states with no editors than there are states with editors. This results in a situation where a good 60-70% of the project's articles are in areas where no one's interested in going to and expanding articles.
- A new editor can do the most good by expanding existing articles. We have a new user's guide and a standards page, both linked from WP:USRD, that serve as good teaching tools for new contributors, so if anyone's interested in joining USRD, they can jump right in and hit the ground running.
- Imzadi1979: To echo the others: expand the articles. Given our subject matter, we're one of the larger projects in terms of article count. There are still articles left to be created. Recently, I've reached out to the departments of public works in Guam and American Samoa for information on their highway systems. As territories of the United States, their systems fall under our project's scope, but there isn't much written yet. My goal is that even though I specialize in Michigan articles, to branch out to create the appropriate articles at a decent level of quality, if only to prevent more stubs from being created.
- Rschen7754: There's not much more that I can say: expanding articles and interested editors in a variety of states covers it all.
Next week, we'll look at a creature that can travel great distances without touching land. Until then, check out previous editions of the WikiProject Report in the archive.