Friday, May 25, 2007

Behind the screens at Wikipedia

Brussels, 24 May 2007. The Club of Rome in Brussels hosted Wikipedia last night as Florence Devouard, the chair of the Wikimedia Foundation, gave a glimpse behind the service that now totals 6 million articles in 200 languages, 150 times the size of any print equivalent and all for free. It thrives, she points out, because "nobody knows everything but everyone knows something". The read-write Internet is possible because of four elements in the Wikipedia equation: software, community, neutrality and freedom.

Florence has a particular interest this year in bringing Wikipedia to developing countries, or rather bringing people to the service. African language content, for example, is used in Wikipedia, but as she puts it: only 350 articles have been posted by the 17.5 million people in the world that speak Amharic. As local subset copies of Wikipedia become available, the content is becoming accessible even where connectivity may be poor.

A vast array of projects is linked with Wikipedia: the children's encyclopedia produced by SOS children on CD, the virtual Wikibooks, a shared multimedia database, Wikimedia Commons, a quotation library, and Wikispecies - a directory of all life on the planet.

The core organisation is very small, 11 at present. The rest of the world works for Wikipedia for free, with local associations providing a face to face component to this virtual space. Managing the site is a challenge and dealing with issues of censorship, libel and grafitti doesn't fall just to the Wikimedia staff, the scale of participation means there are no shortage of people volunteering solutions.

The goals for the Wikimedia Foundation in 2007 are ensuring quality of content, raising awareness in developing countries, being recognised as a charity and ensuring sustainability.

The two last goals are closely linked. 98% of income comes from donation, with the foundation raising twice its $611,000 core costs last year. Perhaps this figure really shows the scale of what is going on at Wikipedia, it helps to keep the budget down when you have a voluntary workforce the size of a small country.

by Chris Addison