A report from the Wikimedia Diversity Conference by Kwaku BBM

Kwaku BBM at the Wikimedia Diversity Conference
Kwaku BBM at the Wikimedia Diversity Conference

This report was written by Kwaku BBM, a Wikimedia UK volunteer

I clearly remember when I saw an email announcing an upcoming Wikimedia Diversity Conference (#DivCon) in Berlin. Although I’m a Wikimedia newbie, I was intrigued. Because I’m driven by two areas which have marginal representation – African British history and British black music. So newbie or not, I was very keen to know what would take place at such a conference.

It would be good, I thought, to see how diversity strategies and arguments play out, as that can only help in my quest to see better representation of my interest areas.

Whilst I love Wikipedia, and use it regularly as an initial research resource, I also believe I should be contributing to its content. My only problem is extreme lack of time. Hence I see my role as editor in the traditional sense of not necessarily just writing, but rather, empowering my communities to be interested in and contribute to the content.

To this end, as part of this year’s British Black Music Month, I co-organised with Wikimedia UK an edit-a-thon in July. I was most disappointed that many of those who booked didn’t turn up. I however took heart at the conference when I heard the attendance problems at other edit-a-thons organised by other chapters.

I heard that edit-a-thons work better, in getting participants to write/edit pages, as on-going or series of programmes, as opposed to a one-off. So I’ve resolved to investigate creating a series of events that take participants from understanding Wikipedia to contributing content, particularly around my interest areas, plus having some form of mentoring/support structure to help with queries and encourage posting of new content and editing questionable or incorrect content.

So what happened over the weekend? After getting my head round the Berlin train system – yes, I know we were sent a very helpful guide in advance by Wikimedia Deutschland, but I still had to ask for help, and from that experience, I’ve resolved to be better disposed to helping foreign tourists in London – I rounded off Friday evening with a dinner with Wikipedians, though it really wasn’t an opportunity for me to network.

Saturday was an early start – had to be in for breakfast around 7.30am, in order to get to the conference for 8.30am start. It was great joining a group to the venue. What was so amusing to me, as someone who hasn’t yet joined the mobile phone age, was that when we got out of the station, the group leaders went old school – by using paper maps to find our way – what happened to smartphones with GPS, I wondered?

With so much to learn, I had my laptop on hand to make notes. Sometimes it was a struggle as to which of the two simultaneous talks to sit in on. As a newbie, I felt like the “other” in a room full of supposedly expert Wikipedians.

Perhaps, not set in my ways, I was rather open to new experiences. I enjoyed one of the earliest sessions: ‘Promoting gender diversity through open innovation’. What I remember from the presentation given by an academic called Ilona Buchem, was that besides the disproportionate representation of women, “bees pollinate about 70% of the food crop,” so we ought to go forth and pollinate and increase the yield of the wikisphere!

Hearing about “poor retention” of new editors (or should that be contributors?), which meant putting a “high demand” on stalwart editors, was a surprise. I had merely assumed the wikisphere was full of enthusiastic, nerdy, right-on types who couldn’t get enough of putting information on Wikipedia – if not, then how come almost any subject I search in Wikipedia has some form of hit? The depth and quality may not always be great, but more often than not, some human (though I now believe robots too) has posted some information on almost anything one can think of.

Oh, since this conference was about diversity, then it’s worth reiterating the often-repeated issues – women are not covered much or properly – indeed on Sunday, I sat in on Emily Temple-Wood’s presentation. She’s very passionate about redressing the lack of women scientist and philosophers. I discovered that there is much prejudice as to whether a woman has the gravitas which warrants coverage as a scientist or philosopher. Hence an entry can be deleted if a woman scientist’s profile is under the radar of the majority male editors – no, no, no, I don’t understand why I’m gripped by an image of the Witchfinder General!

Geo-issues also cropped up – Wikipedia was said to be very Western-focused, and the rest of the world not as well represented. Some felt the term “Global South” was “racist” or offensive. Having just checked Wikipedia, it may be a mouthful, but perhaps “Africa, Latin America, and developing Asia” might suffice?

Very much linked to geography is language. Although Wikipedia allows for several languages, there are thousands of languages that don’t have a look in on the ‘wikisphere’.

This is a complex issue, and T Vishnu Vardhan did his best to break it down, by explaining what is happening in India, and what to do when dozens of languages are predicted to disappear within the next few generations.

Of the international collection of delegates, besides me, the only other African was electrical engineer Dumisani Ndubane, from South Africa. There was another South African, though he was European and works as, I believe a “candy engineer” – I took that to mean food science, which he said didn’t have great Wikipedia coverage.

As gender, age, geography, faith, sexuality, class, language and other marginalised issues were dealt with, but not race (ethnicity may have been mentioned vaguely in passing), Dumisani’s presentation was the nearest that alluded to the subject.

His ‘Wiki Indaba and the African agenda’ presentation was an eye-opener. Whilst a slide from someone else’s presentation showed that the most active wiki activity in Africa was in South Africa and across pockets on north Africa, Dumisani showed that far from giving the illusion of a barren wasteland, there was a lot of wikispheric activities across other parts of Africa. Indeed several countries, including the likes of my homeland, Ghana, are trying to acquire Wikimedia chapter status.

With Africa bring the fastest growing market for mobile phones, infrastructural issues such as poor penetration of computers, or unreliable or lack of electricity, should not be reason to dismiss Africa’s capacity to engage. Wikipedia Zero (WZ), a new concept to me, was put forward as one of the solutions.

Being a newbie, I was not afraid to ask for explanation. As it turns out, WZ is a Wikimedia Foundation partnership initiative with mobile service providers to offer Wikipedia content free of charge to subscribers in developing countries. As my better half always questions the “developing” terminology by asking, “what are they developing to?”, I’d be specific and say Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and parts of Asia. Phew!

Talking about asking questions, it turned out, not everyone was a geek, nerd, or on top of every technological point. It was a relief to hear questions being asked by those I had assumed were experienced Wikipedians. This is an important point that needs to be highlighted in future, so that potential conference attendees are not put off, because they assume they have to techno-wizards to be at a Wikimedia conference.

Another buzzword and concept which I discovered was Wikidata. Gerard Meijssen, who presented ‘Wikidata as a tool to bring initial information’, is such a fanatical evangelist that his enthusiasm falls short of claiming Wikidata will bring world peace! His presentation was rather technical, and although some delegates suggested perhaps he offered some demonstration instead of merely talking about the subject, time did not allow this.

His enthusiasm is infectious – Wikidata is one thing I plan to learn about, as from what I got from Gerard, it enhances the accessibility of Wikimedia content. Thankfully, some of us were able to see Emily try her hand at inputting some female scientist Wikidata, including the African British space scientist Maggie Aderin-Pocock, whom I suggested. Although there’s already a Wikipedia entry on her, from what I gather, the Wikidata content makes it easier interrogating across different platforms and languages.

Let me end on languages, as that was the topic of our last activity on Sunday afternoon. Some of the interesting practices we heard about included Somalis learning Swedish being encouraged to post articles on life in Sweden in Somali aimed at Somalis back home and the diaspora. And getting students in South Africa to post articles translated from English into Xhosa.

I learnt that each language has a code, which helps language translations across the wikisphere. I first suggested the Ghanaian language Twi, which thankfully it has a code, as does my Ghanaian mother tongue Ga (code: gaa). Now, there’s an expectation that me and my better half help get some action on these languages. What I can commit to here is that, I will target some Twi and Ga speakers and writers to put some content on Wikipedia before the end of the year.

Going forward, although we’re winding down African History Season in London, I’ve just committed to Xtra History & Reasoning Sessions to be hosted by Harrow Mayor Nana Asante from next month onwards. I’d like a Wikimedia UK rep to attend a meeting made up of African British historians and enthusiasts, in order to raise awareness about how they can engage with Wiki, besides searching for information.

Finally, two things that struck me, which I’ve blogged/tweeted on, but would like to expand on here. At the conference, the fact that the internationally-drawn delegation spoke English, made me realise how lucky I was to live within an Anglophone regime. Secondly, the abundance of food and drink (I mean water and fruit juices, not alcohol), made me realise how blessed we are in the West, and how we can so easily take our relatively good fortune for granted. It seemed somewhat ironical from the context of sitting in a diversity conference, which is essentially about redressing global disadvantage.

Oh, I must say, the delegates were also very nice, warm, engaging, and everyone I spoke to about my two interest areas responded encouragingly. Although there was one rather techy person who seemed to be impatient with those not of the same interest or on the same level. Anna from Wikipedia Foundation HQ is certainly a good PR person for her organisation!

Sadly, getting out of Berlin almost ended badly. A jobsworth security personnel at Schönefeld Airport would not allow me to through security, having decided either my hand luggage was either too big or too heavy – he spoke no English but OK, he’s in Germany so why should I expect him to speak English? – all he did was to point for me to go outside.

Luckily, the chap I went to see not only spoke English, but kindly offered to come over to help, provided my luggage fitted into that size cage. Thankfully, it did, so he had a word in German with Mr Jobsworth, who was not at all happy to see me go through security without having to submit to his dictatorial bidding!

So that almost disastrous encounter hasn’t tainted the generally helpful view I had of the many other encounters with Berliners!

I must thank our hosts Wikimedia Deutschland. Their programme, hosting, facilities, and friendly help must be commended. And I took advantage of one of their guided tours through Berlin on November 9, which we discovered is an important date in Germany on many counts, most poignantly because of the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

I’m looking forward to Wikimania conference in my home ground London August 8–10 August 2014, by which time I’m sure me and some of by community would have added appreciably to African British history and British Black Music on the wikisphere!

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