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    South Asia
     Nov 19, 2011


Wiki-world targets India
By Raja Murthy

MUMBAI - Wikipedia, the world's leading free reference site, is hosting a first of its kind WikiConference India 2011 in Mumbai starting November 18. Over 600 regular contributors are expected to participate in a country the San Francisco-based Wikipedia Foundation (WMF) says is crucial to its global growth strategy.

The three-day meeting earns clout given the Indian government's hopes of India having the world's largest Internet population of 600 million by 2016 and Wikipedia being the world's biggest collaborative information project ever in history. The known downside is it also being the largest collection of anonymous and therefore often credibility-challenging content.

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has said India would be the focus this year for the multilingual reference site. A decade old

 
since Wales, Larry Sanger and others started Wikipedia in January 2001, it has hosted articles in 268 languages, has 450 million readers, with nearly three billion monthly page views from the United States alone [1].

In comparison, the great Library of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, had accumulated about 400,000 scrolls in approximately 300 years before it was burnt down circa 48 BC. Wikipedia has accumulated 20 million articles in 10 years. Such is the marvel of our Internet-enriched times. Though unlike with Wikipedia, where anyone can contribute articles, it is unlikely anyone could have walked in and unloaded their manuscripts in the Library of Alexandria.

Nearly 2,000 years later, and created by thousands of volunteers worldwide as a non-profit website, the words "Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia" are what researchers, journalists and web searchers see popping up top of almost every Internet search, including, as I saw to my non-amazement, for "‘abbledy gabbledy" or "gobbledygook" (the en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gobbledygook).

Gobbledygook, according to Wikipedia, meaning "any text containing jargon or especially convoluted English that results in it being excessively hard ..." may well apply to itself, with quality issues of clarity and accuracy that will be further compounded with more Indian languages being added to the Wiki world.

India and its 27 leading languages and hundreds of dialects deepen the big Wikipedia challenge to balance the global community-contributed information with accountability of information providers.

In the media world, journalists, editors and publishers are legally accountable for information served to the world. But in the Wiki-world, a pastry cook can feel free to add his insights to an article on nuclear physics. Yet the Wiki trust in human nature is such that one is not too likely to find a recipe for plum pudding in the Wiki article on nuclear physicist Richard Feynman, or of Jimmy Wales being drowned with libel cases.

The three-day India conference, hosted at the beautiful 154-year-old heritage building of Mumbai University, will have quality as a silently core issue with Wikimedia. Wikimedia includes Wikibooks, Wiktionary, Wikiquote, Wikisource, Wikispecies, Wikinews, Wikiversity, Wikimedia Commons and MediaWiki. Julian Assange's WikiLeaks is not part of this basket as is commonly assumed. No one holds the copyright for the word "Wiki" that is supposed to mean "quick" in the Hawaiian language. [2]

A scathing Wikipedia critic, Andrew Orlowski, wrote in 2005 about the quality challenges in this democracy of anyone-can-contribute medium where information is digested at the user's risk. "Its [Wikipedia's] philosophical approach deters subjective judgements about quality, and its political mindset deters outside experts from helping," grumbled Orlowski.

Orlowksi compared Wikipedia's quality issues with sitting in a restaurant where complaints about the food are countered by the management with "You can cook it yourself, then."

Yet Wikipedia is not the equivalent of a commercial restaurant, but more like a volunteer-serviced community kitchen where the reader, contributor, editor and owners all meet in the same information cooking space. If one finds errors, the user can correct the dish - after registering oneself as a Wikipedia editor - or add to the flavor with additional input. The key, though, as with food, is Wikipedia information tasting better when taken with a pinch of salt.

Discretionary use of the world's largest multiple contributor reference source is what moved a Harvard Law textbook, Legal Research in a Nutshell (2011), to note that Wikipedia - as "while not authoritative, can provide basic facts as well as leads to more in-depth resources".

Which is why the conference agenda for Saturday November 19 in Mumbai includes discussion on "Wikipedia as a reference tool for post-graduate study" and "How Wiki changed learning experience of students".

Just as Wikipedia serves as a quick general outline or base, and not the final destination for information, the Wikipedia foundation hopes to use the Mumbai meeting as a foundation for its India expansion. Of the 100,000 worldwide Wikimedia contributors, only 3,000 are Indian.

The conference is open to other nations, say the local organizers, but it will have a "very distinct Indian flavor" to primarily deal with issues relating to India on Wikipedia, English and Indian languages. Much of the conference is on how to contribute to Wikipedia in Indian languages such as Hindi, Tamil, Bengali and Malayalam.

More expansion in India would also mean more donations from India, with revenue a recurring need for Wikipedia.

Wales, who delivers the keynote address, says Wikipedia itself has focused on keeping itself lean in cutting costs to a fraction of Google or Yahoo. "Google might have close to a million servers, Yahoo has something like 13,000 staff," Wales says in his latest appeal for donations for Wikipedia. "We have 679 servers and 95 staff."

The lean Wiki team, though, has found time to rustle up an official anthem, based on the Eagles' classic Hotel California. The Wikipedia version goes:
Welcome to the Hotel Wikipedia
Such a lovely place, so much empty space
They're typing it in at the Hotel Wikipedia
Things that you can do - revert vandals, too.
[3]
A "Wiki Hotel" actually exists in Hamburg, Germany, with German language having the largest Wikipedia following after English. The humbler Wiki India invitees will be staying in the impressively titled Chateau Windsor in south Mumbai and Hotel Sea Green, both medium-budget lodgings opposite the Arabian Sea along Marine Drive.

From here, delegates can walk in 10 minutes to Mumbai University, via the green cricket fields of Cross Maidan. The conference agenda includes improving visually impaired users' experience of using Wikipedia and encouraging more female participation. Only 13% of Wikipedians are women.

New Delhi-based Hisham Mundol heads the new Wikipedia India mission. A former marketing man with his previous job working with India's Health Ministry at the National AIDS Control Organization, Mundol is forming a team of independent consultants on how to develop growth of the Wikimedia editing community in India, with supporting funds from the WMF.

"Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge," says Mundol, who has set an initial target of 100,000 quality articles for India as a base for the Wikipedia expansion in the sub-continent - the question left unanswered is who takes accountability for accuracy and credibility of that knowledge.

Notes
1. Wikipedia language statistics as of October 31, 2011.
2. 62-year old American computer programmer Howard "Ward" Cunningham who created the first Wiki Web software, says "Wiki wiki is the first Hawaiian term I learned on my first visit to the islands. The airport counter agent directed me to take the wiki wiki bus between terminals. I said what? He explained that wiki wiki meant quick. I was to find the quick bus. I did pick up a book about the language before my return home. I learned many things from this but wiki wiki is the word that sticks the most."
3. Official Wikipedia theme song.

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