By John Lubbock, Wikimedia UK Communications Coordinator
I met recently with Faisal Saeed al-Mutar, an Iraqi refugee in the US, who set up the organisation Ideas Beyond Borders, whose goal is to make more content accessible online for people living in parts of the world where access to reliable information is problematic. His work with Arabic translators to translate good English Wikipedia articles into Arabic has so far created around 3200 new articles and his work was profiled in The Guardian.
According to the Guardian, just 0.6% of the content online is available in Arabic. There are over 400 million speakers of Arabic, but the Arabic Wikipedia only had around 600,000 articles by the end of 2018. For comparison, English Wikipedia is about to pass 6 million articles. You can see more stats about the Arabic Wikipedia here.
However, in the past 10 months, Arabic Wikipedia has expanded massively to 966,000 articles and it looks likely to be the next Wikipedia version to break 1,000,000 articles. As well as talking to Faisal al-Mutar, I talked to Helmi Hamdi, who is working with the Arabic Wikimedia community to help create articles using a bot called JarBot, which is specific to Arabic Wikipedia.
Helmi Hamdi: “Reaching 1 million milestones was important for the community. With large and diverse native language speakers (around 270 million) we had to offer sufficient content on different subjects. Meanwhile, the community wasn’t able to retain enough new editors. As a result, the number of articles created by editors didn’t increase significantly since 2014. Articles created by anonymous editors have even drastically decreased. The tendency of the Arabic Wikipedia community to edit the existing articles and the high level of maintenance in comparison to other Wikis were the main obstacles to increase the number of articles.”
Helmi said that it wasn’t straightforward to gain support from the community for the project, but “we started but preparing the field by doing multiple pre-approved tasks: creating Wikidata-based infoboxes (ARWikipedia is classified 3rd in terms of Wikidata use in articles among all Wikipedias), adding Arabic female form of labels of professions and nationalities on Wikidata, automate creating and adding categories stub temples, portal banners, importing external links from Wikidata. Then, we tested the bot for humans and at first we only created bot articles on football/soccer players. We got a lot of feedback in the beginning. By incorporating those comments, we enhanced the quality of bot articles and avoided large oppositions.”
“After creating male soccer players we asked to do the same for females. Then we started adding other sports such as handball, volleyball, basketball and cricket by only translating field positions labels on Wikidata! Funny fact: Arabic Wikipedia has now more than 8 000 articles about cricket (less than 800 on French Wikipedia). Around April 2019, the community was ready to accept bot articles for different professions and not only sports people. You see on the graph a large increase in bot articles during that period.”
“Around 50% of articles on Arabic Wikipedia are biographies due to massive bot creation. To limit that, we started several specific tasks using Wikidata such as years, decades, years by country, movies, websites, planets, proteins, bilateral relations, embassies, etc. The Arabic language community asked to stop using creating bot articles until we reach manually 1 million articles and then start again. Meanwhile, we are trying to implement the project on African languages Wikis specially those based on Latin script.”
The creation of articles by bots can provide a big boost to the size of the Wikipedia in a particular language, but they also need real contributors to come and improve those basic articles created by bots. Ideas Beyond Borders has an interesting approach to incentivising contributions to their translation project. Lisa Pirovano from IBB told me that they give participants in their projects training certificates sponsored by themselves and partner organisations to show that they are adept at translating from English to Arabic. Furthermore,
“Through their interactions with program coordinators and giving them access to in-person workshops with their peers, we’ve built a community where aspiring translators can hone their skills, translate impactful content that they can choose, and ultimately, improve their professional background.”
IBB has also been able to fund some translators with a ‘small, symbolic stipend’, which is something that I am personally in favour of, as the Wikimedia movement cannot always rely on voluntary work, which is often the preserve of educated, time-rich people in the West. They have worked with around 120 translators and currently have a group of about 60 people working with them. I asked Lisa Pirovano what more the Wikimedia movement could do to support their initiative. Pirovano said that partnership and funding opportunities would be welcome, and that supporters can follow them on their Facebook page, or directly contribute via their website.
Pages created by IBB have been viewed over 8.5 million times so far, and we hope their initiative will result in thousands more articles in future.
If you are an Arabic speaker in the UK, you can ask us how to get involved in Wikimedia projects, and we also encourage people to talk to us about organising Wikipedia editing workshops for speakers of Arabic and other languages.