I’m thinking of starting a Wiki dedicated to Excel. Actually, I’ve done slightly more than think about it. I’ve put up a few pages at www.xlwiki.com. Check it out this week if you’re looking for something to do.
If you’re not familiar with the concept, a wiki is a content management system that lets anyone edit or create pages. Wikipedia is probably the most famous implementation of a wiki. It’s an encyclopedia where the users create and update the encyclopedic entries. The genius behind a wiki is that it contains the collective wisdom of hundreds of users instead of just one or a few. The downside is that it contains the collective stupidity and bias of hundreds of users instead of just one or a few. Because it’s so wide open, you can get bad information posted to the wiki. In theory, other users see the incorrect information and fix it or delete it. I have no idea how to stop people from continually spamming or what to do when two people disagree on something and keep deleting each other. It will be a learning experience in that regard, but I have the admin password so I’ll be able rule with an iron fist if I have to.
From an Excel standpoint, the benefits of having multiple examples from different sources will be huge. I was thinking primarily about worksheet functions, but of course it applies to any aspect of Excel. Take a function like
COUNTIF. There’s a standard, expected use of the function that’s documented in help. Then there’s creative and interesting uses like counting unique values in a list as shown at Chip’s site. A wiki user who had an interesting use of a worksheet function could edit the page to show the use or point to his (or someone else’s) website that shows the use.
I set up a template for creating worksheet function entries. I don’t know if it’s complete or if I’m being really presumptuous in creating that, but those are the things that I’d like to see about a certain function. Some of the information is available from help, but I think it’s necessary to repeat it there to have a complete page. Where a certain function’s page will be more useful than help is in the examples. There will be more “standard” examples and hopefully some nonstandard one’s too. Sometimes the examples in help just don’t match the situation and it would be nice to have more examples.
Also the comments section could have some useful information about, for instance, the pitfalls of using a particular worksheet function. Now I couldn’t quant my way out of a paper bag, but I understand that some of the statistical functions in Excel aren’t quite up to snuff. If you’re a stat freak, that’s not a big deal. If you’re like me and trying to use a stat function that’s over your head, you won’t know that the answers you get are wrong or misleading. The comments section could say “This function returns wrong results if there’s a negative number in the first argument” or “MS used the Johnson method of distributing these values instead of the far superior Smith method.” Of course that’s just gibberish since I don’t know what I’m talking about, but you get the idea.
I’ve settled on TikiWiki as the wiki software. My host, ReviseMedia, has a program called Fantastico that installs other programs. The Wiki programs available were phpWiki and TikiWiki. I started with phpWiki because it looked easier to configure and understand. I couldn’t figure out a way to use images, though. I think being able to use images would be key in a wiki of this nature. So I switched it over to TikiWiki. They both use MySQL back ends, so the few pages I had put up transferred almost seamlessly. There are just a few differences in how to format text which were easily fixed with a find and replace. I’m glad I made the switch because I like the default interface of TikiWiki better. I also looked at MediaWiki, which powers Wikipedia, but it didn’t have an automatic install via Fantastico. It’s not that I’m lazy, I just don’t understand some of the installation instructions. They want me to untar something, then change htaccess. Or I click a button and two minutes later TikiWiki is up and running. Yeah, I think I’ll go with TikiWiki.
There’s still a lot of work to do. I haven’t done any formatting on the site, but I presume that I will be changing from the default at some point. Also, I don’t know exactly how the change monitoring will go. From what I’ve heard about other wikis, a group of people divide up the pages and each one monitors there section to make sure the changes are relevant. I don’t know if that gets set up before hand or if people just fall into that roll. For now I’ll just let people monitor sections they’re interested in and if it’s too unwieldy I’ll recruit some monitors for certain areas.
Let me know what you think of the concept or if you have any suggestions. If you want to try it out, you might start at the WorksheetFunction page, pick a function you like and add some stuff. I believe you have to register to make a change. Also, be sure to click on the Wiki Quick Help tab across the top of the editing page to see how to format the text.