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Wikipedia,growing local

Its conference seized on languages like Tamil and Bangla as new growth frontiers....

The Internet,we know,is deeply skewed towards content in English and other languages of the global North. Wikipedia is not immune to these inequalities,and this was a topic of fervent discussion at this year’s Wikimania,which recently concluded at Gdansk in Poland. It is an annual gathering,organised by the Wikimedia Foundation,of Wikipedia contributors who meet and discuss the state of various projects,and chart a course for the future.

What was dramatic was the scale of the Wikimedia Foundation’s plans. It aims to increase reach to 680 million unique visitors globally by 2015 (from the current 388 million). The aim is to achieve a 12 per cent annual growth in the global South,and 4 per cent annual growth in the global North; in other words,India figures large in Wikipedia’s next growth spurt.

Jimmy Wales’ keynote address focused on this theme and he did video interviews with active Wikipedians from the Bangla and Tamil Wikipedia,buttressing the foundation’s focus on the smaller languages and varied geographies represented within Wikipedia projects. Among other things,the foundation aims to foster the growth of smaller Wikipedias — by 2015,the aim is to have 100 Wikipedia language versions with more than 120,000 “significant articles” each. It also plans to bootstrap community programmes in key geographies:

India,Brazil,the Middle East/ North Africa.

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Two presentations highlighted the challenges and the possibilities ahead. Achal Prabhala,a Wikimedia advisory board member,expressed the need for local representative bodies,or chapters,in countries which were linguistically under-represented. His larger point is that there is a distinct relationship between local growth and the existence of local chapters and that geographies in the South present enormous prospects for growth. They also present prospects for an increase in scope — which could mean,in turn,new ways for Wikimedia to grow the world over. On a cautionary note,Harel,from Wikipedia Israel,spoke of his experiences,that have been contrary to expectations,where local Wikimedia chapters may find themselves in adversarial relationships with local Wikipedian communities and that there is often a trust deficit between the two sides. He spoke of the need for local chapters to treat editing communities as peers and equals. Chapters are meant to do outreach,he cautioned,while editing is the preserve of the community and that this is something that the community must be left to do without chapter interference.

Given the inequitable distribution of linguistic content within Wikipedia projects,external organisations have seen this as a possible gap to fill and there were presentations on translation toolkits and machine translations of content to populate otherwise sparse language Wikipedias. This is a route that has met with some resistance. An example is a translation toolkit that Google had introduced to blend computer aided,or machine translation with human translation. Users of this tool have been translating popular English language articles into various local languages with a varying degree of success. However,ironically,the size of existing active user base in each of these Wikipedias may itself determine how successful these efforts will be. Translators using the tool needed a lot of hand-holding and overseeing and after initial hiccups,Tamil Wikipedia has been able to engage with Google such that their contributions now fulfil quality parameters too,thanks to availability of more active users.

It is interesting to see how multiple approaches are being deployed to solve one common problem — a lack of linguistic diversity that matches the proportion of Internet users. It is to be expected that there are some tensions between organic community-led translation efforts and efforts that are focused on automated translation and Wikimania provided both sides a venue at which to engage with each other to resolve their differences and work collaboratively.

Here’s what needs to be kept in mind while steaming ahead in India: English,with 225 million speakers in India,is also an Indian language. Several Indian editors already contribute to the English Wikipedia. So the emphasis needs to be on boosting contributions in all Indian languages,including English — rather than just an “Indic languages vs English” paradigm. Innovative ways to boost edits and bring in new editors include holding Wikipedia academies across the country; finding low-cost ways to create public access to Wikipedias in places like public libraries and removing technological obstacles related to scripts,keyboards etc.


With the foundation’s new thrust on the creation of local chapters and with the India chapter in the final stages,one can expect a greater deal of focus on these issues both within India,and in other under-represented areas of the world.

The writer is part of efforts to set up the Indian chapter of Wikimedia

First published on: 17-07-2010 at 03:39:12 am
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