Thursday, 21 August 2014

Wikimania 2014 Highlights



Sampo Viiri from the Finnish Institute blogs about Wikimania, the annual event of the Wikimedia movement, which was held in London this year.


Wikimania, the official annual event of the Wikimedia movement, took place in London 8–10 August 2014. The event was an interesting mix between a conference and a festival, including over 200 speakers in 8 simultaneous spaces inside the Barbican Centre, with fringe events and hackathons running during the event and preceding it. Most participants seemed to be active Wikipedia editors, as Wikipedia is obviously the most well known Wikimedia product. The British have been active Wikipedians, the UK producing about 20% of all English language Wikipedia articles.


Wikipedia is now the world’s sixth most visited website and the British people trust it more than the BBC News. Despite the success of Wikipedia, the project faces a number of challenges. The majority of  Wikipedians are tech-savvy western men, which may impose a bias to the selection and style of articles, despite an ethos of neutrality. Wikimedia has so far “failed miserably” in fixing the gender imbalance, which requires new measures.


The English language encyclopedia also thrives compared to smaller languages. During the conference I met Finnish Wikimedia representatives and activists. It seems that in conjunction with the overall trend, Finnish Wikipedia is also struggling with declining editor numbers. Nevertheless, it was very interesting to hear about the development of different local Wiki projects, and for example about the slightly bizarre situation between Wikimedia and the Finnish fundraising law and its interpretation.


Image by: Sampo Viiri, CC BY-SA 4.0
I can admit that I’m not (yet) an active Wikipedia editor, and was mainly interested in the numerous sessions on open data and open scholarship, especially from a cultural heritage sector perspective. Wikimania demonstrated that Wikimedia projects are very much connected with the open knowledge ethos, manifested for example by the strong presence of Open Knowledge (Foundation) and the Open Data Institute. There were lots of relevant sessions and a whole programme track about the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) sector. The sessions demonstrated how open cultural heritage data can be used improving Wiki projects and also how active Wikimedians can be a huge asset for these organisations.


The Wikimedian in Residence programme is particularly interesting. Participants in the programme dedicate time to working in-house at an organisation, usually financially compensated by the institution or by a Wikimedia chapter. Besides editing Wikipedia, they enable the host organisation to continue a productive relationship with the encyclopedia and its community after the residency. The Wikimedian in Residence model was first piloted by the GLAM initiative of Wikimedia, but has since been adopted by other types of organisations too. Wikimedia UK has recently released a review of the programme and a video documentary about the project.


Another noteworthy GLAM project was the German project Coding da Vinci, where the local Wikimedia chapter teamed up with Open Knowledge Foundation Deutschland, digiS – Service Center Digitization Berlin and Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek, organising a hackathon to make innovative use of open cultural data. The results included for example an iOS app that visualises the historical development of Berlin as an interactive map.


Wikimedian in Residence is quite similar to the Finnish Institute’s Mobius programme, a fellowship program for museum and archive professionals in the UK, Ireland and Finland. As open data and knowledge are some of the Institute’s focus areas, perhaps in the future there could be collaboration for open data fellowships too.


Some other interesting projects visible in Wikimania were Wikimedia’s own Wikidata and the Wikipedia Library, and the UK based projects ContentMine and Histropedia. It has to be noted that these are just some highlights from a variety of interesting initiatives.


Wikidata is a blooming project, a free centralised knowledge base for structured data that can be read and edited by humans and machines alike. While Wikimedia Commons is for storing images, sound, video and other media files, Wikidata is a similar service for machine-readable data. Wikidata could benefit all kinds of projects but in my opinion one important possible use would be to become a repository for academic researchers who need infrastructure for storing their digital research data.


In the United Kingdom the copyright law was altered in June 2014 so that it allows non-commercial researchers to legally copy material for a text and data mining analysis. ContentMine is a new initiative that exploits this new possibility. They use machine-reading to liberate 100 million facts from the scientific literature and make them free for everyone in Wikidata. This can enable new and exciting research, technology developments such as in artificial intelligence, and opportunities for wealth creation.


Histropedia is a new UK based project that made its public debut at the conference. It is an interactive tool to display historical events and described as “a combination of maps, timelines, and trends”. The site pulls data from Wikidata and Wikipedia plotting events on a timeline which is navigated with simple interface. (Demonstration in Guardian website.)


Open publishing is an important topic for Wikimedia and the whole academic community.  The publishing industry naturally wants to make money in their playground, and can be a bulwark against reform. Jonathan Gray from Open Knowledge argued that innovation in open publishing needs to come from the researchers, not publishers. Wikimedia has the Wikipedia Library project to fund active Wikipedians getting access to paywalled databases. Researchers could also be more active in editing Wikipedia, like the American historian Stephen W. Campbell has argued.


Open data and open knowledge may sound like an ideal state of affairs but the Wikimania conference reminded that these are controversial concepts and constantly being fought over. Both Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia and Lila Tretikov, the new executive director of Wikimedia Foundation made a strong argument against the new “right to be forgotten” EU legislation that gives people power to remove irrelevant or outdated information about themselves. They argued that the legislation is immoral and would lead to censorship and appearance of “memory holes” in Internet. Quoting Wales: "History is a human right and one of the worst things that a person can do is attempt to use force to silence another.” This is certainly an interesting topic that provokes different opinions, like the Jimmy Wales’ interview on BBC Newsnight perfectly demonstrates.

Participants gathered on the Barbican courtyard. Adam Novak CC BY-SA 4.0

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