Wikimania 2013 Report/Han-Teng Liao

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Report on Wikimania 2013

(Note. A similar article in Chinese will be published in “Media Digest”, a print-based magazine by Radio Television Hong Kong or RTHK, a public broadcasting organization in Hong Kong)

Held in Hong Kong, the Wikimania 2013 featured the latest developments and issues within the global Wikimedia movement. Among these, the three headline topics were performance metrics, organizational development and advocacy alliances, which highlight the direction of governance and innovation of Wikimedia as a form of digital "public media" (or "public service media provider").

The Wikimedia Foundation relies both on voluntary world-wide annual fundraising and on volunteer editors to maintain its basic operations. To maintain its "public media" value, content on Wikimedia-hosted projects, including Wikipedia, contains no advertisements, except for Wikimedia's own fundraising. (This is in stark contrast to the two main Chinese online Encyclopedias: Baidu Baike has commercial advertisements; Hudong Baike not only has commercial advertisements, but also promotes and profits from the potentials of wiki technologies for commercialization.)

Exploring metrics, organisational development and advocacy alliances enables us to understand the multiple senses of self-awareness and self-understanding of Wikimedia as “public media”.

Metrics: measuring for success

When it comes to performance metrics, the Wikimedia Foundation attempts pragmatism, using numbers of performance and gaps to allocate organizational resources. Since the money comes from public donations, the foundation depends on performance outcome, and community review and other means to ensure the efficient use of funds.

Take one of the main priorities, the new Visual Editor for example, it involves not only technical development, but also a diverse set of measurements based on user experiment, feedback and actual data to ensure its success. Although some experienced editors criticize whether Visual Editor is its mature enough to be rolled out, or indeed whether it is needed at all, it is expected to greatly reduce the barriers for newcomers who want to begin editing. The Foundation has therefore invested substantial development and research resources in it.

Another area of measuring for success is multiple language support. The Foundation has continued the development of a variety of language tools, ranging from input methods, web fonts, to community support. In this regard, the Wikimedia Foundation embodies the “public media” value of multiculturalism by distributing organizational resources widely across identified user groups. Unlike commercial media that seek market profit maximization by focusing on serving languages that are already well-served, the Foundation is conscious of the global north-south divide, and tries to support divere editor communities to avoid the detrimental effects of uneven development across a variety of languages. Nevertheless, "active editors" are still fundamental for developing new language projects. According to my informal chats with the Foundation staff, the existence of a group of core “active editors” (preferably not less than 10 people) will be most likely to secure supporting resources. This is because, judging from the past experience, if a new language space is created without such a core of active editors, sustainability often becomes an issue, sometimes leading to suspensions or closures of projects. In sum, the current language governance practices consider the diversity value of public media while ensuring the effective use of resources.

Various metrics are also cited in evaluating editor (or user) engagement, which was, unsurprisingly, the first main point in the keynote address of the Foundation's current but soon-departing CEO, Ms. Sue Gardner. (See her presentation slides here File:SG WM presentation2013.pdf for content on “Editor Engagement”.) According to its own quantitative assessment of its new mobile device platform, users’ reading activities on mobile platforms have outperformed other well-known commercial websites in 2011-2012. The usage of the mobile photo-uploading feature was also greater than expected in 2012-2013, and a new feature allowing mobile editing is anticipated for 2013-2014. (See her presentation slides here File:SG WM presentation2013.pdf for content on “mobile”.)

Her other main points, such as fund-dissemination (editors can apply for grants from the foundation) and Visual Editor, also demonstrate the Foundation's efforts attempts to measure up as a public medium. All of these instances highlight the public values of the Wikimedia movement: Resources are drawn from the public and then reinvested back into the public domain to in ways intended to remedy the inadequacies identified by matching actual performance against public values. This is the key difference to the for-profit media where values are generally drawn from user data and provided to commercial or advertising buyers.

In addition, the Foundation has continued its research (including metrics), combined it with user engagement, and its interest in exploring its role in global "open science" and “Altmetrics" (alternative metrics) development. However, according to my informal chats with the staff, there are instances where professional data analysts and researchers who worked for the Foundation, are headhunted by Silicon Valley companies nearby. Thus, when it comes to human resources, the Foundation as a public media organization may need alternative strategies beyond competing with commercial companies, avoiding brain drain. Nevertheless, it is fortunate that Foundation has considerable experience and support in helping its prospective staff to obtain visas in the United States, and thus encourages those who have the skills and identify with the Wikimedia movement values to work with the Foundation.

Organization: mobilization and funding

Funds dissemination remains a major issue, as discussed during Wikimania 2013. Since self-organized local Wikimedia Chapters around the globe have different level of mobilization capacity and organizational experience, the resources allocated to them and tasks they perform vary. Currently, besides the San Francisco-based Foundation, the German Chapter is the largest in terms of organization and budget, with the French and UK Chapters are among the next largest. These are indeed among the global North communities. (See the presentation slides here File:SG WM presentation2013.pdf for content on “Grant making”.) Nonetheless, it is worth mentioning that the tasks performed by these local chapters do not necessarily serve only local interests, and that many of the activities they lead on are common infrastructure projects, such as the German-led Wikidata project.

To improve the transparency of resource allocation, the Foundation has established the Funds Dissemination Committee (FDC) that examines grant proposals, decide which ones will receive Wikimedia movement resources. Whether and how the FDC procedures and outcomes work will therefore be one of the main future indicators of whether the Wikimedia movement as a whole has successfully achieved its public media values. To reduce the knowledge and technical barriers to submitting proposals, and encourage self-organized collaboration among Wikipedians, the Foundation has also established the Idealab with some full-time staff. As a platform for Wikipedians to share project ideas, the Idealab aims to encourage Wikipedians to provide advice and criticism on proposal drafts, thereby providing opportunities for peer review of projects.

To improve gender equality, the Foundation has now equal presentation in its Board of Trustees after an election in June 2013.

Because China (People’s Republic of China) has many restrictions regarding establishing civic organizations, it is rather difficult for its citizens to establish local associations or chapters. In contrast, Hong Kong and Taiwan (also known as The Republic of China) have their respective organizations, both of which have hosted Wikimania - the only two non-Middle-East Asian countries to have done so. Nonetheless, a senior Chinese Wikipedia editor from China whom I met in Wikimania aims to establish a “user group” in his country so as to apply for grants to advance the Wikimedia movement there.

Advocacy and digital politics

Neutrality has been the main pillar of Wikipedia's editing policy, but in terms of digital politics, a new awareness of public policy advocacy has emerged among major participants within the Wikimedia movement, including San Francisco and some local chapters in Europe. After all, the Wikimedia movement is a social movement for open knowledge, and among the most well-known proponents of open content. One Wikimedia staff member said that the Wikimedia movement benefits from other movements such as Creative Commons, and because these organizations are less-known to the public for various reasons, it is necessary for the Foundation to help and cooperate with these organizations on ongoing initiatives concerning open content and educational resources.

Also because the Wikisym 2013 was held before some major European elections (e.g. Germany), in addition to individual public policy advocacy work, several European chapters met to discuss the prospects of collective action in pressuring EU institutions to adopt public-interest-oriented and thus Wikimedia-friendly policies.

Among them, the Wikimedia Germany conducted public policy surveys with detailed questionnaires sent to German political parties. The Wikimedia UK, the host of the next year’s Wikimania in London, also considers the relevant public policy issues for the upcoming British election next year. Local chapters from several EU member states also come together to outline the agenda for EU policy advocacy, including Freedom of Panorama, open public sector information, etc. (See "Giving Free Knowledge a Voice" at Wikimedia’s meta:EU_Policy page.)

Summary

Wikimania 2013 highlights the global Wikimedia movement’s efforts in user engagement, organization and advocacy for digital politics at both global and regional levels, demonstrating a rare case of a public medium that is governed by a non-government organization. From the different perspectives of measurement metrics, organizational development and advocacy alliances, the movement has become more self-conscious and articulate about public values. It remains to be seen whether and how far these efforts in metrics, organization and alliances can realize these public values in the future performance of the Foundation itself and of the broader movement.