An Interview with Mike Sheppard and Will Dickinson. They explain their reasons for developing a wiki for Peace Corps.
I have a few questions to ask you about these websites, PeaceCorpsWiki.org and PeaceCorpsJournals.org
What made you want to develop Peace Corps related web sites when you returned from service?
Mike: I didn’t even know what a blog was until two week before I COSed! One of my fellow volunteers showed me what they were and how easy it was to set one up. This was in mid-2005. After a few months of travelling, and finally coming home, I searched for current volunteer journals and blogs that were on line – hoping to see what other volunteers were up to: What projects were they working on? What countries are they serving in? I found that most of the sites that I did find that had a list of volunteer websites either were full of dead links or the page itself hadn’t been updated for a long time. Frustrated, one night I just decided to start a new site, from scratch. This lead to PeaceCorpsJournals. I started the research for the site in March ’06 and the site finally went online that August.
The site is purposely built simplistically so volunteers with possibly slower internet connections can view the site from their host country. Trying to view websites in the middle of Africa at an internet café, and waiting for it to download (and costing more money), made me aware of the need to keep the site simple in nature.
Also, before I finished service I remember talking to my APCD about the FOIA Act and how useful it could be. I had wished the Peace Corps Manual could be online so all volunteers could read what the rules and regulations were, for their own benefit. Reading just fragments of the rules, handed out by specific request, make it almost feel like a one-player game. After the Journals site was up and running I remembered that conversation and started work on obtaining the Manual and putting that online.
However, it was still “my” site, run as an individual, and not the communities. I wanted a place where volunteers and RPCVs could actively contribute, edit, add, upload, and discuss. A place where the history of Peace Corps, and the projects the volunteers had worked on, could be written by the volunteers themselves. We are all ‘Notable Returned Volunteers’. The wiki site was developed to make that goal a reality.
Will: Not to state the obvious, I had a lot on my mind when I returned to the states. I wrote down many of my thoughts and reactions. However, I felt a little selfish…and wanted to know if my reactions were unique because I suspected they weren’t….. I wanted something sustainable that could grow beyond me to inform the PC community, future volunteers, foreign nationals and public about what PC service was like and the impact of our service on the world. I wanted it to be not just my opinions but also those of others….to create collaborative entries approaching objectivity. Furthermore, I was in a unique position to introduce some new ideas, not two years out of Peace Corps…I had a little distance on my experience but it was still in the forefront of my mind… everyday, I felt it slipping further into memory …. Finally, we are the in the midst of an explosion of open source collaborative web tools….a perfect storm in which to create very useful website(s).
One of the most interesting and innovative aspects of my work at my PC site in Armenia was using maps and developing training programs to teach mapping and planning. (see my next article of more on this) Last year I started a wiki only dealing with community maps…mappc.org, but realized that no one else was dealing with other aspects of institutional memory in the Peace Corps. During the development of my first wiki site “mappc.org” I began to see a lot of promise in this type of collaborative environment using many new web tools such as the dynamic editing of the articles, RSS feeds and Google map mash-ups which have been modified to run on open source web collaborative platforms….I saw all types of fascinating and innovative ways of displaying and collecting information.
In late in 2007, I contacted Jason Pearce, who the first person to develop this idea within the Peace Corps community with his website “Third Goal.com” I learned that, ironically, a large factor in his early departure from the Peace Corps had to do with information sharing. Jason’s contacts led me to start working with Mike Sheppard, who had just started “PeaceCorpsWiki.com”.
So is this an original idea creating websites based on Peace Corps history past and present?
Mike: Absolutely not! Every volunteer website, be it about their service in the 60s or blogging about today, contributes to the overall history of Peace Corps and the accomplishments of the volunteers.
Obviously the most authoritative website is the official one. However, many more websites were developed to complement the needs of applicants, volunteers, and the RPCV community. These range from the National Peace Corps Association to PeaceCorpsOnline.org and PeaceCorpsWriters.org. Website support groups also exist for general applicants, minorities, women, couples, and LBGT to name a few.
We are just ‘joining the club’ along with them.
Will: No is not the first nor will it be the last website with a Peace Corps theme.
I would like to talk further about “ThirdGoal.com” started by Jason Pierce, who has generously offered to serve as a web advisor for our nonprofit. “ThirdGoal.com” is using Word Press Technology (same as this blog site) to give people the ability to anonymously post blogs about their experiences in a particular country. Jason encountered problems in 2003 when first started pod casting from Guyana; this lead to his early departure from PC. When he returned to the states he started “Third Goal” and the site has continued to grow over the past few years and is a terrific example of a sustainable Peace Corps project. It certainly meets “Goal Three” of Peace Corps ! “Thirdgoal.com” the first Peace Corps related website to my knowledge to successfully make use of Web 2.0 technology. I encourage you to read more about Jason’s experience at “Jasonpearce.com”.
National Returned Peace Corps Association (NRPC) and Peacecorpsonline.org/.com They are great sites, but in my judgment don’t cater to many of the challenges faced by PC current volunteers.
The property of PeaceCorpsWiki is that of the contributors….furthermore I only have time to remove the spam from the postings…contributors that utilize the site will eventually catch bogus information or stuff that doesn’t belong on the wiki. Only general comments directly bashing the concept of Peace Corps will be removed with a strong warning. Anonymous user’s IP address will be blocked.
We are not making a sustained effort to reach back into the history of Peace Corps. However I have been surprised to see many, many entries by volunteers who served in the 1960s and 1970s…..Many volunteers in-country are highly interested in building some aspect of the wiki….it’s attracted an amazing cross section of collaborators all interested in sharing experiences ideas and technologies to assist current PCVs in their work.
Where do you see these websites going, how will they grow and do you think they have a sustainable future?
Mike: There are over 190,000 returned volunteers. Every one of them is welcome to create a page about themselves and their Peace Corps experience. The achievements that the volunteers did in country who later became Senators, Governors, and Ambassadors are just as notable as the achievements of the volunteers who are now teaching in a Small Town, America, working at the Emergency Room at Chicago General, or even the RPCVs who never made it home. We were all willing to dedicate two years of our life to help people we never met, in a community we never been to, in a language we didn’t know.
I see the wiki growing into a network of inter-related stories, memories, and frustrations we all felt while serving. The excitement we felt when the new water pump was installed. The frustration we had when no one came for our first meeting exactly at 5pm. The sorrow when our host-grandmother died…
These are the stories, the history, which makes Peace Corps unique. It is the only organization I know of that actively promotes as one of its goals the ability to share your story, your achievements, your experiences.
In that sense, it is very sustainable.
The wiki will also provide informative resources for future applicants: Information about each country, what to pack, villages/community, recent projects, and possibly even how to take a bucket bath. The list of what information is provided can be as big as the contributors to the site would like it to be. It is a community, everyone helps in creating and expanding the site.
Will: Yes: I believe the wiki technology or some divertive of it will continue to play an important part in the development of the Peace Corps institutional memory. These sites form an important foundation for volunteer empowerment.
Another thing, I think it is very important that all these websites are able to be loaded onto smart phones and over poor internet connections. These devices are the future in my opinion not laptops. Fancy graphics loaded websites with cookies and advertising are just frustrating to use, this why we have limited the ability to embed external images. Yesterday, I created a new wiki article for PeaceCorpsWiki on my smart phone.
Yeah, we haven’t addressed how to monitor wiki content and deal with the real financial issues. First, we are developing a style guide to keep some consistency in the wiki. Currently the organization of the wiki is a bit organic and will remain that way. Collaborators are welcome to try new methods of organization.
Second, we are in the process of becoming incorporated as a public charity nonprofit cooperation in Virginia. We will receive this status once our articles of incorporation are approved by the Virginia State Corporation Commission. We will file for 501(c)(3) status with the IRS, which will give us the ability to apply for grants, and accept tax deductable donations. While we wait for an IRS determination regarding our tax status, we are in need of an existing 501(c)(3) to assist in our incubation. In the meantime we are counting on the work of our administrators and contributors to make the site better and more functional for the benefit of the larger Peace Corps community.
Third, I want to expand on the concept that this nonprofit is not undertaking a centralized or controlled entity. We plan to use the donations and financial sponsors for development only the tools on the websites…in other words we aren’t seeking fancy offices or many staff….Our goal is that management and many important responsibilities will be shared among the many contributors to the project.
What’s involved in being an administrator on the site?
….Oh being an administrator only gives you a few additional privileges such as being able to block users who are posting spam as well as to move and delete pages …. The administrator privilege just means a bit more responsibility in making the wiki run smoothly, the admin position not to be used to filter content or act as the “appropriate police.” Administrators have just as much say as our anonymous posters. Any abuse of contributors on the site should be promptly reported to the secretary of our nonprofit, who in turn will put the alleged infraction before the board of directors of our nonprofit. We want this wiki to be voice for volunteers based on their experiences good, bad, or otherwise.
If you’re able to establish this sites as an important element to understanding the past, present, and future of the PC where do you see your position?
Mike: There is a mosque built entirely from mud in Djenne, Mali. Beautiful architecture! A wonderful site to see firsthand; the awe of the size of the building and the amazement that it’s built entirely out of mud. There is a sense of personal involvement and contribution felt by the community members, as every year the entire mosque is rebuilt by hand. The whole community helps out. No one person owns the mosque and no one person maintains the upkeep – it is a community effort.
Our place in the wiki site is that we are just putting the mud together in a huge pile. It takes a community to turn the pile into something wonderful.
Will: I would like to be a builder of the site. However, as months and years separate me from my experience in the Peace Corps, my ideas about reform and redesign will not be as relevant. Therefore, in the near future I would like to see enough strength built into these sites and the supporting nonprofit to carry forward on their own without my direct involvement. The web tools will only become better and easier to use. At least I will be able to say I did something to contribute to the PC mission in 2008! The next generation of web community tools promise greater capacity to credit individual authors as well as integrate existing information into existing online communities.
You envision a nonprofit being established around these sites. What exactly does your nonprofit aspire to accomplish?
Will: I think if the sites have a coherent vision and goals for the future they will occupy a much needed position that will complement the official Peace Corps and other Peace Corps related nonprofit sites. These sites will complement each other and at times maybe be competition. I see that as a good thing.
My vision is the nonprofit will be the entity that protects, fosters, and nurtures the ideas of volunteers who would like to share their experience through their written work, in blogs. Hopefully this will be objective and constructive.
In closing ….what does Peace Corps mean to you?
Will: I’m going to start with the positives, it was a great experience and learned much about myself, being thrown into an environment that I was not familiar with and having to deal with so my issues that I never contemplated before this experience.
Peace Corps for years has suffered from self inflicted institutional amnesia, which is most evident in the dearth of internet related resources that would be useful to in country volunteers. Why this situation has been allowed is befuddling. The 21st century presents a far different world challenges and opportunities than existed in the early 1960s when Peace Corps began.
The Peace Corps must grow up! Yes, priority number one should remain community integration and making personal connections. However volunteers should have real jobs. Assignments should have requisite training or expertise to fulfill these functions. They should know about the history of the Peace Corps in their sites and they should have opportunity to work with development professionals on sustainable technologies appropriate to the particular part of the world they are working in.
There are many that things a wiki type database could include such as information, about every volunteer, every site, and government related documents. I would discourage Peace Corps Volunteers to rely solely rely on the information in this wiki. That is why we have to strive to the information balanced and objective.
In my opinion Peace Corps runs the risk of developing into an elitist enterprise that has lost touch with its core missions. I want Peace Corps to rediscover its missions by tapping an intensely committed and dedicated community of returned volunteers. I have found that they believe Peace Corps can again be a powerful force for international understanding as well as a form of national service that is highly respected and sought after.
I hope this wiki is the first step in a powerful idea…and will morph into something important over time.
Wait one more question….So how did this Peace Corps Wiki start?
Will: That’s one for Mike, apparently a friend volunteered to start it over a cup of coffee….looks like another interview!