Arts / Data / Health

For World AIDS Day, visualizing a Wikipedia page’s history

A project released today by Penn's Institute of Contemporary Art visualizes Wikipedia edits over time.

The Wikipedia article on HIV/AIDS is around 8,900 words (excluding footnotes). It has been revised over 8,000 times since its creation in 2001.

On Day Without Art, which takes place on World AIDS Day (today, Dec. 1), visitors trying to reach the website of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art will land first on a page that allows them to scroll through the progressive revisions since the topic page was created in 2001.

A screenshot from the interactive project. (Via

A screenshot from the interactive project. (Via

The online installation is the work of Florian Kräutli, a Ph.D. student from Switzerland living in London. Kraütli, a designer/developer whose projects range from stacking nesting tables to a carpet which picks up radio waves conducted through the person standing on it, conceived of the basic framework of the project at a workshop at Harvard called Beautiful Data.

The tool, called Backstory, allowed users to search for a term on Wikipedia and scroll through revisions to the first couple of sentences over time. While at the workshop, he met the ICA’s Rebecca Hunter. Hunter, who had been tasked with commissioning online installations on the ICA’s website, suggested Kräutli create something for the Day Without Aids for the museum.

My hope is that Wikipedia stays around for a while so that we can look at 50 years of a topic.

“I wanted to work with entire revision history of the HIV article,” he said.

Just a few days before the launch, Kräutli was still working on smoothing out the presentation so that visitors could scroll up and down to see the evolution of individual paragraphs. At the suggestion of Visual AIDS, the organization behind the international day of HIV/AIDS-related art happenings, he had focused on paragraphs that included one of three different terms, “condoms,” “viral load” and “safe sex.”

In a visually simple design, each paragraph is represented by a horizontal column. Changes are enlarged as a user presses the up and down arrows on his or her keyboard. “I tried to just not add too much noise to it,” said Kräutli, “to use typography and text itself as a visualization … trying to use the tool of Wikipedia, which is language.”

(Screenshot via

(Screenshot via

Kräutli found that while he could see clusters of changes, they still took research to interpret. For example, he noted a flurry of changes to the paragraphs about “viral load” in 2006. Talking with a friend who was a doctor, he learned the change reflected progress in 2006 in understanding that viral load could be used to evaluate the effectiveness of different treatment options.

The process of interpreting the changes is interesting to Kräutli.

“Often you’re getting told facts in order to make you aware of things and in this visualization you see things pop up and wonder and ask questions yourself, instead of being told,” he said.

Kräutli says because the article wasn’t created until 2001, there are limits to what can be learned about the evolution of treatment over time, “but there are still discoveries happening and insights,” he noted.

“My hope is that Wikipedia stays around for a while so that we can look at 50 years of a topic so can really see from childhood on.”

The Backstory project will remain available on the ICA’s website until Feb. 1.

Companies: University of Pennsylvania

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