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Cost–benefit analysis

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Cost–benefit analysis (CBA), sometimes called benefit costs analysis (BCA), is a systematic approach to estimating the strengths and weaknesses of alternatives used to determine options which provide the best approach to achieving benefits while preserving savings (for example, in transactions, activities, and functional business requirements).[1] A CBA may be used to compare completed or potential courses of actions, or to estimate (or evaluate) the value against the cost of a decision, project, or policy. It is commonly used in commercial transactions, business or policy decisions (particularly public policy), and project investments.

CBA has two main applications:[2]

  1. To determine if an investment (or decision) is sound, ascertaining if – and by how much – its benefits outweigh its costs.
  2. To provide a basis for comparing investments (or decisions), comparing the total expected cost of each option with its total expected benefits.

CBA is related to cost-effectiveness analysis. Benefits and costs in CBA are expressed in monetary terms and are adjusted for the time value of money; all flows of benefits and costs over time are expressed on a common basis in terms of their net present value, regardless of whether they are incurred at different times. Other related techniques include cost–utility analysis, risk–benefit analysis, economic impact analysis, fiscal impact analysis, and social return on investment (SROI) analysis.

Cost–benefit analysis is often used by organizations to appraise the desirability of a given policy. It is an analysis of the expected balance of benefits and costs, including an account of any alternatives and the status quo. CBA helps predict whether the benefits of a policy outweigh its costs (and by how much), relative to other alternatives. This allows the ranking of alternative policies in terms of a cost–benefit ratio.[3] Generally, accurate cost–benefit analysis identifies choices which increase welfare from a utilitarian perspective. Assuming an accurate CBA, changing the status quo by implementing the alternative with the lowest cost–benefit ratio can improve Pareto efficiency.[4] Although CBA can offer an informed estimate of the best alternative, a perfect appraisal of all present and future costs and benefits is difficult; perfection, in economic efficiency and social welfare, is not guaranteed.[5]

The value of a cost–benefit analysis depends on the accuracy of the individual cost and benefit estimates. Comparative studies indicate that such estimates are often flawed, preventing improvements in Pareto and Kaldor–Hicks efficiency. [6] Interest groups may attempt to include (or exclude) significant costs in an analysis to influence its outcome.[7]

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In this video I’ll explain cost-benefit analysis. By the end of this video you will be able to explain how to conduct a cost-benefit analysis. You’ll also learn how to analyse the limitations of a cost-benefit analysis. When considering whether or not to pursue a public investment project such as building a highway or installing a traffic light, a government would undertake a cost-benefit analysis to assess the value of the project and also see whether or not they should progress with it. The issue lies in determining the value of benefits and costs. How do we appraise the present value of some future benefits? While we can gather as much information as is available, accurately placing value on costs and benefits is quite a difficult process. I’ll illustrate with an example. Imagine an intersection without stop signs or traffic lights. There’s a significant amount of traffic that flows through the intersection on a daily basis, and from time to time, there are accidents. The city is deciding whether or not to introduce traffic lights at the intersection. How would they value the benefits of putting up a traffic light? While they're deciding whether or not to put up the traffic light, the following incident occurs. The drivers seen just before are continuing along their daily commute when one car breaks down in the intersection. For some reason, the van driver is playing on a mobile phone and doesn’t look up in time to see the broken down car. There’s a fatal car accident and neither driver survives. The question is, how do you place a monetary value on an individual’s life or wellbeing? This is one of many problems that governments face when pursuing such projects. It’s somewhat easy to estimate the costs of the materials and services needed to put up the traffic light, but its difficult to estimate the benefits accurately. Add to the problem that people don’t pay to use the traffic light and determining its value becomes much more difficult. Let’s look at a sample analysis the government may conduct. This table considers four options and their associated benefits and costs. There are external benefits and costs for each option. We add together the private and external benefits and compare them to the private and external costs. We use this information to derive our net benefit or net cost. Using this information, we select the project with the highest net benefit to pursue. Let’s consider option 1. The sum of the benefits is $120,000 and the value of the costs is $180,000. Since our costs are greater than our benefits, we run a a net loss of $60,000. Let’s use the same approach to solve for the rest of the options and see if we can find one with a positive net benefit. Moving on to option 2 we can see that the sum of the benefits is $220,000 and the costs are $205,000. The net benefit is therefore $15,000. Moving on to option 3 we can see that the sum of the benefits is $230,000 and the costs are $220,000. The net benefit is therefore $10,000. Moving on to option 4 we can see that the sum of the benefits is $240,000 and the costs are $300,000. The net loss is therefore $60,000. If we select the option with the greatest overall benefit, then option 2 would be the obvious choice. Remember, just because we’ve identified the option with the greatest benefit, we should be careful about the value of the data collected. That plays a big role in the value of a project and results of a cost-benefit analysis. Alright, you’ve made it through the final video in unit 1and you should now have a good understanding of cost-benefit analysis. You’ve seen how to conduct one and have heard some of the limitations of being able to collect valuable data. If you have any questions you can leave them below or email me at or visit me online at That’s us done for now and I will see you in unit 2!



Small, blue-tinted picture of Jules Depuit
French engineer and economist Jules Dupuit, credited with the creation of cost–benefit analysis

The concept of CBA dates back to an 1848 article by Jules Dupuit, and was formalized in subsequent works by Alfred Marshall.[8] Jules Dupuit pioneered this approach by first calculating “the social profitability of a project like the construction of a road or bridge”[9] In an attempt to answer this, Dupuit began to look at the utility users would gain from the project. He determined that the best method of measuring utility is by learning one’s willingness to pay for something. By taking the sum of each user’s willingness to pay, Dupuit illustrated that the social benefit of the thing (bridge or road or canal) could be measured. Some users may be willing to pay nearly nothing, others much more, but the sum of these would shed light on the benefit of it. It should be reiterated that Dupuit was not suggesting that the government perfectly price discriminate and charge each user exactly what they would pay. Rather, their willingness to pay provided a theoretical foundation on the societal worth or benefit of a project. The cost of the project proved much simpler to calculate. Simply taking the sum of the materials and labor, in addition to the maintenance afterward, would give one the cost. Now, the costs and benefits of the project could be accurately analyzed, and an informed decision could be made.

The Corps of Engineers initiated the use of CBA in the US, after the Federal Navigation Act of 1936 mandated cost–benefit analysis for proposed federal-waterway infrastructure.[10] The Flood Control Act of 1939 was instrumental in establishing CBA as federal policy, requiring that "the benefits to whomever they accrue [be] in excess of the estimated costs."[11]

Public policy

CBA's application to broader public policy began with the work of Otto Eckstein,[12] who laid out a welfare economics foundation for CBA and its application to water-resource development in 1958. It was applied in the US to water quality,[13] recreational travel,[14] and land conservation during the 1960s,[15] and the concept of option value was developed to represent the non-tangible value of resources such as national parks.[16]

CBA was expanded to address the intangible and tangible benefits of public policies relating to mental illness,[17] substance abuse,[18] college education,[19] and chemical waste.[20] In the US, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 required CBA for regulatory programs; since then, other governments have enacted similar rules. Government guidebooks for the application of CBA to public policies include the Canadian guide for regulatory analysis,[21] the Australian guide for regulation and finance,[22] and the US guides for health-care[23] and emergency-management programs.[24]

Transportation investment

CBA for transport investment began in the UK with the M1 motorway project and was later used for many projects, including the London Underground's Victoria line.[25] The New Approach to Appraisal (NATA) was later introduced by the Department for Transport, Environment and the Regions. This presented balanced cost–benefit results and detailed environmental impact assessments. NATA was first applied to national road schemes in the 1998 Roads Review, and was subsequently rolled out to all transport modes. Maintained and developed by the Department for Transport, it was a cornerstone of UK transport appraisal in 2011.

The European Union's Developing Harmonised European Approaches for Transport Costing and Project Assessment (HEATCO) project, part of the EU's Sixth Framework Programme, reviewed transport appraisal guidance of EU member states and found significant national differences.[26] HEATCO aimed to develop guidelines to harmonise transport appraisal practice across the EU.[27]

Transport Canada promoted CBA for major transport investments with the 1994 publication of its guidebook.[28] US federal and state transport departments commonly apply CBA with a variety of software tools, including HERS, BCA.Net, StatBenCost, Cal-BC, and TREDIS. Guides are available from the Federal Highway Administration,[29][30] Federal Aviation Administration,[31] Minnesota Department of Transportation,[32] California Department of Transportation (Caltrans),[33] and the Transportation Research Board's Transportation Economics Committee.[34]


In the case of the Ford Pinto (where, because of design flaws, the Pinto was liable to burst into flames in a rear-impact collision), the company decided not to issue a recall. Ford's cost–benefit analysis had estimated that based on the number of cars in use and the probable accident rate, deaths due to the design flaw would cost it about $49.5 million in wrongful death lawsuits; a recall would cost $137.5 million. The company failed to consider the costs of negative publicity, which forced a recall and reduced Ford sales.[35]

In health economics, CBA may be an inadequate measure because willingness-to-pay methods of determining the value of human life can be influenced by income level. Variants, such as cost–utility analysis, QALY and DALY to analyze the effects of health policies, may be more suitable.[36] [37]

For some environmental effects, cost–benefit analysis can be replaced by cost-effectiveness analysis. This is especially true when one type of physical outcome is sought, such as a reduction in energy use by an increase in energy efficiency. Using cost-effectiveness analysis is less laborious and time-consuming, since it does not involve the monetization of outcomes (which can be difficult in some cases).[38]

It has been argued that if modern cost–benefit analyses had been applied to decisions such as whether to mandate the removal of lead from gasoline, block the construction of two proposed dams just above and below the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River, and regulate workers' exposure to vinyl chloride, the measures would not have been implemented (although all are considered highly successful).[39] The US Clean Air Act has been cited in retrospective studies as a case in which benefits exceeded costs, but knowledge of the benefits (attributable largely to the benefits of reducing particulate pollution) was not available until many years later.[39]


A generic cost–benefit analysis has the following steps:[40]

  1. Define the goals and objectives of the action.
  2. List alternative actions.
  3. List stakeholders.[dubious ]
  4. Select measurement(s) and measure all cost and benefit elements.
  5. Predict outcome of costs and benefits over the relevant time period.
  6. Convert all costs and benefits into a common currency.
  7. Apply discount rate.
  8. Calculate the net present value of actions under consideration.
  9. Perform sensitivity analysis.
  10. Adopt the recommended course of action.


CBA attempts to measure the positive or negative consequences of a project. A similar approach is used in the environmental analysis of total economic value. Both costs and benefits can be diverse. Costs tend to be most thoroughly represented in cost–benefit analyses due to relatively-abundant market data. The net benefits of a project may incorporate cost savings, public willingness to pay (implying that the public has no legal right to the benefits of the policy), or willingness to accept compensation (implying that the public has a right to the benefits of the policy) for the policy's welfare change. The guiding principle of evaluating benefits is to list all parties affected by an intervention and add the positive or negative value (usually monetary) that they ascribe to its effect on their welfare.

The actual compensation an individual would require to have their welfare unchanged by a policy is inexact at best. Surveys (stated preferences) or market behavior (revealed preferences) are often used to estimate compensation associated with a policy. Stated preferences are a direct way of assessing willingness to pay for an environmental feature, for example.[41] Survey respondents often misreport their true preferences, however, and market behavior does not provide information about important non-market welfare impacts. Revealed preference is an indirect approach to individual willingness to pay. People make market choices of items with different environmental characteristics, for example, revealing the value placed on environmental factors. [42]

The value of human life is controversial when assessing road-safety measures or life-saving medicines. Controversy can sometimes be avoided by using the related technique of cost-utility analysis, in which benefits are expressed in non-monetary units such as quality-adjusted life years. Road safety can be measured in cost per life saved, without assigning a financial value to the life. However, non-monetary metrics have limited usefulness for evaluating policies with substantially different outcomes. Other benefits may also accrue from a policy, and metrics such as cost per life saved may lead to a substantially-different ranking of alternatives than CBA.

Another metric is valuing the environment, which in the 21st century is typically assessed by valuing ecosystem services to humans (such as air and water quality and pollution).[43] Monetary values may also be assigned to other intangible effects such as business reputation, market penetration, or long-term enterprise strategy alignment.

Time and discounting

CBA generally attempts to put all relevant costs and benefits on a common temporal footing, using time value of money calculations. This is often done by converting the future expected streams of costs and benefits into a present value amount with a discount rate.

The selection of a discount rate for this calculation is subjective. A smaller rate values the current generation and future generations equally. Larger rates (a market rate of return, for example) reflects human present bias or hyperbolic discounting: valuing money which they will receive in the near future more than money they will receive in the distant future. Empirical studies suggest that people discount future benefits in a way similar to these calculations.[44] The choice makes a large difference in assessing interventions with long-term effects. An example is the equity premium puzzle, which suggests that long-term returns on equities may be higher than they should be after controlling for risk and uncertainty. If so, market rates of return should not be used to determine the discount rate because they would undervalue the distant future.[45]

Risk and uncertainty

Risk associated with project outcomes is usually handled with probability theory. Although it can be factored into the discount rate (to have uncertainty increasing over time), it is usually considered separately. Particular consideration is often given to agent risk aversion: preferring a situation with less uncertainty to one with greater uncertainty, even if the latter has a higher expected return.

Uncertainty in CBA parameters can be evaluated with a sensitivity analysis, which indicates how results respond to parameter changes. A more formal risk analysis may also be undertaken with the Monte Carlo method.[46] However, even a low parameter of uncertainty does not guarantee the success of a project.

CBA under US administrations

The increased use of CBA in the US regulatory process is often associated with President Ronald Reagan's administration. Although CBA in US policy-making dates back several decades, Reagan's Executive Order 12291 mandated its use in the regulatory process. After campaigning on a deregulation platform, he issued the 1981 EO authorizing the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) to review agency regulations and requiring federal agencies to produce regulatory impact analyses when the estimated annual impact exceeded $100 million. During the 1980s, academic and institutional critiques of CBA emerged. The three main criticisms were:[47]

  1. That CBA could be used for political goals. Debates on the merits of cost and benefit comparisons can be used to sidestep political or philosophical goals, rules and regulations.
  2. That CBA is inherently anti-regulatory, and therefore a biased tool. The monetization of policy impacts is an inappropriate tool for assessing mortality risks and distributional impacts.
  3. That the length of time necessary to complete CBA can create significant delays, which can impede policy regulation.

These criticisms continued under the Clinton administration during the 1990s. Clinton furthered the anti-regulatory environment with his Executive Order 12866.[48] The order changed some of Reagan's language, requiring benefits to justify (rather than exceeding) costs and adding "reduction of discrimination or bias" as a benefit to be analyzed. Criticisms of CBA (including uncertainty valuations, discounting future values, and the calculation of risk) were used to argue that it should play no part in the regulatory process.[49] The use of CBA in the regulatory process continued under the Obama administration, along with the debate about its practical and objective value. Some analysts oppose the use of CBA in policy-making, and those in favor of it support improvements in analysis and calculations.

See also


  1. ^ David, Rodreck; Ngulube, Patrick; Dube, Adock (16 July 2013). "A cost–benefit analysis of document management strategies used at a financial institution in Zimbabwe: A case study". SA Journal of Information Management. 15 (2). doi:10.4102/sajim.v15i2.540.
  2. ^ [1] Archived October 16, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ Cellini, Stephanie Riegg; Kee, James Edwin. "Cost-Effectiveness and Cost–Benefit Analysis" (PDF).
  4. ^
  5. ^ Weimer, D.; Vining, A. (2005). Policy Analysis: Concepts and Practice (Fourth ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall. ISBN 978-0-13-183001-1.
  6. ^ Pamela, Misuraca (2014). "The Effectiveness of a Costs and Benefits Analysis in Making Federal Government Decisions: A Literature Review" (PDF). The MITRE Corporation.
  7. ^ Huesemann, Michael H., and Joyce A. Huesemann (2011). Technofix: Why Technology Won’t Save Us or the Environment, Chapter 8, “The Positive Biases of Technology Assessments and Cost Benefit Analyses”, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada, ISBN 0865717044, 464 pp.
  8. ^ Wiener, Jonathan B. (2013). "The Diffusion of Regulatory Oversight". In Livermore, Michael A.; Revesz, Richard L. (eds.). The Globalization of Cost–Benefit Analysis in Environmental Policy. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-199-93438-6.
  9. ^ Sandmo, Agnar (2011). Economics evolving : a history of economic thought. Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691148427. OCLC 799499179.
  10. ^ "History of Benefit-Cost Analysis" (PDF). Proceedings of the 2006 Cost Benefit Conference. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2006-06-16.
  11. ^ Guess, George M.; Farnham, Paul G. (2000). Cases in Public Policy Analysis. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press. pp. 304–308. ISBN 978-0-87840-768-2.
  12. ^ Eckstein, Otto (1958). Water Resource Development: The Economics of Project Evaluation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  13. ^ Kneese, A. V. (1964). The Economics of Regional Water Quality Management. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.
  14. ^ Clawson, M.; Knetsch, J. L. (1966). Economics of Outdoor Recreation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.
  15. ^ Krutilla, J. V. (1967). "Conservation Reconsidered". American Economic Review. 57 (4): 777–786. JSTOR 1815368.
  16. ^ Weisbrod, Burton A. (1964). "Collective-Consumption Services of Individual-Consumption Goods". Quarterly Journal of Economics. 78 (3): 471–477. doi:10.2307/1879478. JSTOR 1879478.
  17. ^ Weisbrod, Burton A. (1981). "Benefit-Cost Analysis of a Controlled Experiment: Treating the Mentally Ill". Journal of Human Resources. 16 (4): 523–548. doi:10.2307/145235. JSTOR 145235.
  18. ^ Plotnick, Robert D. (1994). "Applying Benefit-Cost Analysis to Substance Abuse Prevention Programs". International Journal of the Addictions. 29 (3): 339–359. doi:10.3109/10826089409047385.
  19. ^ Weisbrod, Burton A.; Hansen, W. Lee (1969). Benefits, Costs, and Finance of Public Higher Education. Markham.
  20. ^ Moll, K. S.; et al. (1975). Hazardous wastes: A Risk-Benefit Framework Applied to Cadmium and Asbestos. Menlo Park, CA: Stanford Research Institute.
  21. ^ Canadian Cost–Benefit Guide: Regulatory Proposals, Treasury Canada, 2007. [2]
  22. ^ Australian Government, 2006. Introduction to Cost–Benefit Analysis and Alternative Evaluation Methodologies and Handbook of Cost–Benefit Analysis, Finance Circular 2006/01.
  23. ^ US Department of Health and Human Services, 1993. Feasibility, Alternatives, And Cost/Benefit Analysis Guide, Administration for Children and Families, and Health Care Finance Administration.
  24. ^ Federal Emergency Management Administration, 1022. Guide to Benefit Cost Analysis.
  25. ^ Hugh Coombs; Ellis Jenkins; David Hobbs (18 April 2005). Management Accounting: Principles and Applications. SAGE Publications. pp. 278–. ISBN 978-1-84787-711-6.
  26. ^ "HEATCO project site". Retrieved 2013-04-21.
  27. ^ [3] Guide to Cost–Benefit Analysis of Major Projects. Evaluation Unit, DG Regional Policy, European Commission, 2008.
  28. ^ Guide to Benefit-Cost Analysis in Transport Canada. Transport Canada. Economic Evaluation Branch, Transport Canada, Ottawa, 1994 [4]
  29. ^ US Federal Highway Administration: Economic Analysis Primer: Benefit-Cost Analysis 2003 [5]
  30. ^ US Federal Highway Administration: Cost–Benefit Forecasting Toolbox for Highways, Circa 2001 [6]
  31. ^ US Federal Aviation Administration: Airport Benefit-Cost Analysis Guidance, 1999 [7] [8]
  32. ^ Minnesota Department of Transportation: Benefit Cost Analysis. MN DOT Office of Investment Management [9]
  33. ^ California Department of Transportation: Benefit-Cost Analysis Guide for Transportation Planning [10]
  34. ^ Transportation Research Board, Transportation Economics Committee: Transportation Benefit-Cost Analysis [11]
  35. ^ "Ford Fuel Fires". Archived from the original on July 15, 2011. Retrieved 29 December 2011.
  36. ^ Phelps, Charles (2009). Health Economics (4th ed.). New York: Pearson/Addison-Wesley. ISBN 978-0-321-59457-0.
  37. ^ Buekers, J (2015). "Health impact model for modal shift from car use to cycling or walking in Flanders: application to two bicycle highways". Journal of Transport and Health. 2 (4): 549–562. doi:10.1016/j.jth.2015.08.003.
  38. ^ Tuominen, Pekka; Reda, Francesco; Dawoud, Waled; Elboshy, Bahaa; Elshafei, Ghada; Negm, Abdelazim (2015). "Economic Appraisal of Energy Efficiency in Buildings Using Cost-effectiveness Assessment". Procedia Economics and Finance. 21: 422–430. doi:10.1016/S2212-5671(15)00195-1.
  39. ^ a b Ackerman; et al. (2005). "Applying Cost–Benefit to Past Decisions: Was Environmental Protection Ever a Good Idea?". Administrative Law Review. 57: 155.
  40. ^ Boardman, N. E. (2006). Cost–benefit Analysis: Concepts and Practice (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. ISBN 978-0-13-143583-4.
  41. ^ Field, Barry C; Field, Martha K (2016). ENVIRONMENTAL ECONOMICS: AN INTRODUCTION, SEVENTH EDITION. America: McGraw-Hill. p. 144. ISBN 978-0-07-802189-3.
  42. ^ Field, Barry C; Field, Martha K (2016). ENVIRONMENTAL ECONOMICS: AN INTRODUCTION, SEVENTH EDITION. America: McGraw-Hill. p. 138. ISBN 978-0-07-802189-3.
  43. ^ Campbell, Harry F.; Brown, Richard (2003). "Valuing Traded and Non-Traded Commodities in Benefit-Cost Analysis". Benefit-Cost Analysis: Financial and Economic Appraisal using Spreadsheets. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-52898-6. Ch. 8 provides a useful discussion of non-market valuation methods for CBA.
  44. ^ Dunn, William N. (2009). Public Policy Analysis: An Introduction. New York: Longman. ISBN 978-0-13-615554-6.
  45. ^ Newell, R. G. (2003). "Discounting the Distant Future: How Much Do Uncertain Rates Increase Valuations?". Journal of Environmental Economics and Management. 46 (1): 52–71. doi:10.1016/S0095-0696(02)00031-1.
  46. ^ Campbell, Harry F.; Brown, Richard (2003). "Incorporating Risk in Benefit-Cost Analysis". Benefit-Cost Analysis: Financial and Economic Appraisal using Spreadsheets. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-52898-6. Ch. 9 provides a useful discussion of sensitivity analysis and risk modelling in cost benefits analysis. CBA.
  47. ^
  48. ^ "Executive Order 12866: Regulatory Planning and Review".
  49. ^ Heinzerling, L. (2000), "The Rights of Statistical People", Harvard Environmental Law Review 24, 189–208.

Further reading

External links

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