Generating features ideas from Wikipedia

Coming up with features ideas can be a tricky business.

This is especially true if you don’t have a particular specialism, or steady flow of sources and contacts in a particular field.

For the generalist there are many sources which can help.

Media groups often subscribe to events and anniversaries databases such as Foresight, and create their own databases to suite the needs of features writers and journalists.

Of course there is no substitute for a healthy obsession with news – many features work well when woven around a contemporaneous event, report or piece of reportage. But with the dizzying rate at which news is produced and re-produced online, even those with hours to spend scouring out stories to map and develop may struggle.

Though some have the happy knack of summoning up eureka moments (and the perfect pitch) at will, there is a wealth of free content online which, once tamed, can help systematise the mix of creative thought and serendipity required.

Some great features ideas can be inspired (if not necessarily editorially driven) by looking into the past, and spotting interesting events and patterns. Sure, ideas inspired by 50-year anniversaries and the like are arbitrary, and can in some cases suggest nothing more profound than our underlying western predilections for Nature’s abacus and the Gregorian calendar. Nevertheless, if you are struggling to count out good features ideas on the fingers of one hand, there are options out there in the wastes of hyperspace

Getting round the Library of Babel

Wikipedia can be an ungainly beast if you don’t know what you are looking for. And not knowing what you are looking for but knowing when you’ve found it is a fair summation of the feature-writers’ job description.

Other reference tools (subscriptions) can offer helpful advanced search options; helping you look in particular fields, or combine searches between content in different fields, to hone in on particular entries. So, if you are speculatively looking for artists born in London between 1830 and 1840, Oxford Art Online can help you.

But of course Wikipedia doesn’t just contain neat, easy-to-index biographies – trying to give voice to the whole of human history and experience is a messy business.

Wikipedia has an advanced search option, and associated operators, which can help here, The intitle: option, which can be just as useful as the equivalent function in Google, can help with browsing, as can the incategory: option. With the latter you need to know what category you are searching for, and while some speculative searches can be useful, many will return no results.

Nevertheless here are some examples, all angling at a 100 year anniversary of one kind or another (birth years of famous composers, authors and English poets, respectively):

1910 intitle:composer

1910 -list intitle:author

1910 incategory:English_poets

So far so good – but the limitations to both of these operators for browsing through the results are evident in Wiki’s folder structure. There are no hierarchical categories in Wikipedia urls, within which article pages sit (which might, for example, look like: arts/fine_art/artists).

But the /category/ folder can be exploited in an advanced Google search – Google often being a better option for results than the engines of large sites. See these results for a range of 50-year anniversary themes (by category):

+1960 UK site:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/category:

Going back to using Wiki’s search, there are further browsing options.

To get a broader sweep of different fields across time, it can help to take advantage of the many timelines within wiki pages.

There are many individual timeline pages out there (here’s a page listing many of them), but there are also a wealth of timelines within articles – particularly longer ones.

For example, the page for 1910 in the United Kingdom looks like a fairly neat precise of key events, and includes a good few famous births and deaths. But it is far from definitive; there are many other themes, social movements and histories for which 1910 was a significant year, but which go unmentioned on this page (even in the See Also sections).

So a Wiki search for:

1910 UK timeline

…will generate more info, and more options which you can browse down.

The second result in this page, on women’s suffrage, has a timeline with an entry reading:

1910 – Lady Constance Lytton disguised herself as a working class seamstress, Jane Wharton, and was arrested and endured force feeding to prove prejudice in prisons against working class women. Lady Lytton was instrumental in reforming conditions in prisons. The force feeding probably shortened her life considerably

So, you might ask – what is life like in prison for women today, 100 years on? A quick search in Google News shows you a few days ago the Scottish government has made provisions to reduce the number of women in prisons. According to an Equal Opportunities Commission report (in the words of Kenny McCaskill)…

…the health and other needs of women offenders are more complex and wide-ranging than those of male offenders. So that is a range of needs that need to be addressed, be it in prison or in the community.

This in turn raises several questions, which could lead to a feature idea.

Of course if I’d read this news in the first place, I’d not have needed to take the steps to reverse-engineer the idea, but then it’s the final destination rather than the journey which is important here.

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