Wikirank: Tracking what’s popular on Wikipedia

by Jeffrey Veen 26 Mar 2009 · 2 minute read

Wikirank screenshotA few months ago, the four of us in Small Batch Inc were kicking around ideas for what we should build next. We had just launched the Twitter Election site – a fun real-time data visualization project – and wanted to keep building things that help people make sense of the enormous amount of information that bombards us each day. Late one night soon after, I followed a link to a repository of Wikipedia server logs. There were gigabytes of data sitting there just begging to be visualized. We got to work.

The result is Wikirank, a tool for exploring what’s popular on Wikipedia, discovering comparisons between topics, and sharing them with the world. We launched it yesterday, happily coinciding with the 14th anniversary with Ward Cunningham’s invention of the wiki.

There are a bunch of reasons why I think Wikirank is cool, but my favorite is how it helps people find stories in the data. One of the great things about the web is how measuring tiny behaviors reveals patterns that tell stories. The data we get from Wikipedia is no different; as we started playing around with the numbers, we saw loads of interesting shapes emerge in the charts.

For example, big news stories show up as dramatic spikes where there there was no data before. When the astounding story broke that an airliner had made an emergency landing in the Hudson, a page was created on Wikipedia within minutes. Over the next two days, that page was one of the most popular on the site.

Comparisons are where Wikirank really shines, however. The weekly viewing habits of television watchers comes into clear view – as do the day on which the shows air – when we compare Heroes to Lost. (It’s also my guess that the occasionally perplexing plotlines of both of those shows leads a fair number of people to Wikipedia to find out what the heck just happened.)

I’m really pleased with how this project came out. I’ll write more about the technology behind the project in a followup post, but the reality is this launch represents a pretty big shift in how we build web apps. With only a couple developers and a rack of rented machines in the cloud, we pulled this all together in just a few weeks. That simply wasn’t possible the last time we did this.

The team behind all of this includes my long-time friends and business partners Bryan Mason, Ryan Carver, and Greg Veen. We were also extremely fortunate to be able to work with Dan Cederholm of Simplebits, who helped us with visual design and identity. Dan rocks.

Update: On March 10, 2010, Wikirank was acquired by Thing Labs, Inc. The were, in turn, acquired by AOL later that year. Priorities change when little companies are subsumed by big companies and, sadly, Wikirank has been retired.