As the coronavirus pandemic continues to tighten its grip on India, a group of health care experts, researchers and volunteers from Wikipedia’s vast online community have come together to take on the gargantuan task of making factual information about the deadly virus accessible for all Indians, busting some popular myths too in the process.
Abhishek Suryawanshi, founder-director of Wikipedia’s Project SWASTHA, is no stranger to hospitals. Born and raised in Boadkha, a small village in Maharashtra, the 29-year-old spent much of his youth in doctors’ offices and hospital beds as a result of his severe asthma. “I’m pretty sure there were more X-Rays taken of me as a child than photographs,” he jokingly recalls.
But his long battle with illness made him realise the importance of access to both healthcare and healthcare information. Having studied in a Marathi-medium school till the 12th grade, Suryawanshi noticed that most of the “global knowledge” available online at the time was only in English. “That was what drew me to Wikipedia,” he told the indianexpress.com.
After spending 10 years working on various healthcare projects for the website, Suryawanshi launched the ‘Special Wikipedia Awareness Scheme for The Healthcare Affiliates’, or ‘Project SWASTHA’ in short last year. The campaign’s original mission was to promote healthcare awareness among local communities in India by presenting information on 10 different health-related topics in 10 Indian languages.
But when the pandemic struck and the country began recording an alarming number of new cases every day, the Project SWASTHA team decided to shift gears. Merely a few months after the project officially kicked off, they noticed a sharp increase in traffic as people began turning to the online encyclopaedia for information about the virus. The need of the hour, they quickly realised, was to make authentic information about Covid-19 available for Indian readers.
“We focussed all our efforts on covering Covid-19 in April,” Suryawanshi said. “Our biggest objective was to counter misinformation. We wanted to debunk false information doing the rounds on WhatsApp forwards.”
Project SWASTHA laid down a watertight four-step process to ensure the information they upload is 100 per cent authentic and factually sound. First, researchers from the University of Virginia, Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University draft an article in English. They check to ensure that it is free from any “western bias” and is easy to read. The draft is then sent to a healthcare expert in India, who goes through the article to see if there is anything missing. “Since they work in India, they may have a different perspective than the researchers and will be able to tell if the article is missing something or if it needs more work,” Suryawanshi explained.
In the next stage of the process, the article is shared with a team of volunteers who check if it is simple, straightforward and easy to read. If the draft clears their test, it is finally passed on to the volunteer community responsible for translating it into different Indian languages.
To address the issue of misinformation, the team has been careful to remove any information that does not have a reference. They also ensure that the data mentioned in the article is from reliable government sources and authorities like the World Health Organisation (WHO).
“Our team members have added certain high traffic pages on their watch list and are continuously monitoring them. So if a rumour like ‘bleach cures coronavirus’ surfaces on one of our articles, it is immediately removed by the volunteers,” the project’s founder said.
One of the biggest challenges the team faced was finding the right words in Indian languages for complex medical terminology. “Sometimes the word exists and sometimes it doesn’t. If they don’t then we can’t create something super complicated. We need something everyone understands,” Suryawanshi pointed out. “For instance, very few people will know what visceral leishmaniasis is. But they will know exactly what you are talking about if you say Kala Azar instead.”
According to Suryawanshi, the pandemic has finally made healthcare experts and policymakers take Wikipedia seriously. The online repository of information has become one of the most highly-consulted health resources in the world.
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