A wikimedian explorer in south of India

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By Lionel Scheepmans

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Sarasvati, goddess of knowledge
Sarasvati, goddess of knowledge

Welcome to this report of a Wikimedia ambassador experience in south of India. This article will speak about 3 different "off line Wikipedian volunteer initiatives" in the state of Tamil Nadu in India. The first experience was a Wikipedia work-shop in Pondicherry during the month of French contribution in October 2014 and the others was various teaching sessions about Wikipedia and Wikimedia in two different secondary schools in Kuilappalayam a village on the road of Auroville. All of this experiences give some interesting information about the use and the visibility of Wikipedia in south of India. This article was written by Lionel Scheepmans a French native speaker. Apologies for all language mistakes. You are welcome to turn it into better English.

Why Pondicherry?[edit]

The choice of Pondicherry arose thanks to different opportunities. In first place was the opportunity to rent a friend's apartment in Pondicherry's suburban. The second reason was the presence, very near Pondicherry, of an experimental city called Auroville, a very interesting place in term of alternative society. In third place was the presence of a French-speaking community in Pondicherry, which made possible to replicate a Wikipedia workshop already done in Belgium.

Wikipedia in south of India[edit]

In the beginning of my stay in India, I spend two weeks on an apartment in the district of Nainarmandappam. During this time I've had some contact with my neighbor, a 70-year-old retired man and his son, 42 years old. This first contact with local people gave me some useful information about Wikipedia in India.

The father, like his son, didn't know of Wikipedia's existence. The father never uses the Internet. His son consulted Wikipedia pages but without knowing anything about the project. He just visited the site after finding links in Google. To go to Internet, he shares the connection with my Belgium friend, which costs 1600 rupees (Rs) per month.

In term of comparison, here are the prices for several things in Pondicherry:

  • One € = ± 75 Rs and 1 $ = ± 65 Rs
  • Correct salary for a Indian teacher: 22500 RS per month
  • Rent the 50 m² luxurious and comfortable apartment in Nainarmandappam: ± 7700 Rs
  • Vegetarian street food for a lunch: ± 40 Rs
  • A bicycle that was made in India: 11000 Rs
  • One hour in Internet shop: between 15 and 50 Rs
  • Cheapest new smartphone: 2500 ₨
  • Sim card Aircel start kit: 25 Rs
  • Cheapest recharge cost: 50 Rs with Local call for 0,01 Rs per second and local sms for 1,5 Rs.
  • Tomatoes, 1 kg: 20 Rs

From these different prices, we can realize than the access to the Wikipedia free knowledge is not really free, even with help of Wikipedia Zero and Aircel company. During more than one month, I've tried to buy a second-hand smartphone without success. The cheapest new one, with the worst reputation, costs more or less 2500 ₨ (10% of an Indian teacher salary).

The French Wikipedia workshop in the French alliance[edit]

Few time after my arrival in Pondicherry, I meet the director of French alliance of Pondicherry during my research of infrastructure for organize my French Wikipedia workshop. Two days was booked, a first one for a general presentation about Wikipedia in particular and Wikimedia in general, and a second one to assist people to use and edit Wikipedia It wasn't a real collaboration. The use off rooms wasn't for free and the price with various spending was payed with a Wikimedia France micro funding. During the second day, eight computers was available in the media center of the association, but we got various Internet access problem and low velocity when the connection was possible. That's experience teach me to always provide a PDF and video file in rescue on a pen drive for any presentation.

During few days before this organisation, I was expecting a French alliance's support through social networks, but it was a mistake. The date of the workshop was take only one week before the activity. It was to late to add information on media support and nobody in French alliance share any the information. The only information was send by e-mail through a local worker of France Volontariat. Only three persons was present for the talk. The France Volontariat worker and two employees of the French alliance who left the place after few minutes to assist the director on a unsuspected emergency task.

To the practical Workshop went three Indian men and two other people present in the media center, joined us spontaneously. When all workshop meeting was finished, I still kept in touch with three participants more motivated than the others. I was thinking about create a user group, but time after time, I realized than people was more motivated to practice French than contribute on Wikipedia ... I've finally stopped our meeting to invest more time to collect information on the benefit of Wikipedia Zero.

Wikipedia Zero and attempt collaboration with an NGO[edit]

In the beginning of my stay in India, I established a telephonic conversation with Smriti the Partner Manager of Wikipedia Zero responsible for Asian Region. The geographic distance between us was too big and the absence of budget made impossible a face to face meeting. India is a very big country.

During this conversation we spoke about the actual situation of Wikipedia Zero in India, with only one mobile phone provider collaboration. An other topic was about the difficulty to establish a contact with the poorest Indian population for collect information about their need and detect how to help them to reach and use Wikipedia by the easiest way possible. Finally, Smriti and me concluded on the fact than I will probably need help from a national non-governmental organization to permit my investigation about necessity and impact of Wikipedia Zero in the region of Pondicherry.

That's what I did. With the intermediary of France Volontariat association, I've established contact with Mister Arasu, Director of Prime Trust a local NGO in Pondicherry. The day after this first meeting, I've start to be present in Prime Trust office visiting the organization and expecting to start contact with precarious children groups for testing the feasibility to use of Aircel company to connect and use Wikipedia as cheap as possible.

Unfortunately, after a couple of weeks, no one contact was made with children groups and the organization wasn't able to provide me a mobile phone equipped with an Aicel Sim card. After fixed an ultimatum to the association, I finally left the place.

Even if I didn't manage to establish a contact with precarious population group, this experience gives me the opportunity to learn a bit about the Aircel company and the deal with Wikipedia Zero.

By India SIM card sellers Aircel is considered a low cost company which is very good in terms of connexion velocity (3G) but not in terms of network coverage. Only local people can buy a SIM card in a street shop. For non Indian people like me, an Aircel SIM card is only purchasable in official desks with a local people reference (mobile phone number and copy of an official papers).

On Aircel company website, terms of use explain certain restrictions about free access to Wikipedia.

The connection is free:

  • Only to m.wikipedia.org (mobile phone skin).
  • Only repaid customers on Aircel network.
  • Only for user with sufficient balance.
  • Not for Blackberry customers.
  • And not for 3rd party browsers like Opera, UC Browser

I've tested only one time the access to Wikipedia with a mobile phone equipped with a Aircel SIM card. During this experience, I didn't see no headband indication about the free access to the encyclopedia. The credit balance seems to me the only way to control the free of access. In this context, I was thinking there is a risk to leave m.wikipedia.org by consulting an article in a different language or clicking on an external link without realize than the Internet use is not free any more. That's can create confusion a waste of money for poorest people who want use a mobile phone only to have a free access to Wikipedia.

Workshop in Kuilappalayam secondary schools[edit]

After two weeks and the collaboration failure with the Prime trust NGO, I've left Pondicherry suburban to stay two month in the village of Kuilappalayam. During this time I've took contact with all schools around. The first one was New creation school a bilingual primary school for village children. I've met the director and informatics responsible and started to give a first workshop with a 11 year old class. But children was to young and not really interested about Wikipedia stuff. In Internet, they was more attracted by image and video than text. A workshop was also proposed for teachers but after waiting one week for a date, the responsible tell me that Teachers are to busy. Witch should be also a polite way of saying they are not interested.

During this new cooperation attempt, the informatics teacher tell me a very interested story. One day he ask to his student to make a small presentation about the subject informatics on a sheet of paper. The day after, more than 50 % of student bring to him a copy of the Wikipedia article in English ... This information tell me that for a specific need, Wikipedia can be use by young India student probably with parents help.

Few days after, I've established contact with two different secondary schools in Kuilappalayam: the Last school and the Higher Secondary School. Both of these experiences are reported below separately.

Last school[edit]

Last school is an alternative pedagogy English school with organized by small classes of more or less 30 students.

The school was created and is still supported by the Auroville community.

In this school was organized 7 workshops in my approximated English. The first one was a general presentation only more or less ten teachers. The next was three hours of workshop for two different classes. First hour was the general presentation, second hour explanations about how to use Wikipedia as a reader and the third hour explanation about how to edit on Wikipedia.

During the last workshop day, I've collect some information from 16 ans 18 year old present students: On the total of 26 students, 5 have Internet access at home by computer, 8 with mobile phone and 7 know Wikipedia like a site and project.

Kuilappalayam Higher Secondary School[edit]

Higher Secondary School is an governmental Indian school in Tamil with a classic pedagogy and ±60 students by classes.

All my workshop was translated in Tamil by a teacher.

Two different workshops in two different groups of student was organized exactly by the same way than Last School.

Classes was constituted by a majority of boy around 16 year old what can be normal for a classes specialized in informatics science.

Like in Last School, I did a small and quick survey during the last meeting and keep this information: In all students no one of the ± 15 % girl had Internet connection at home, ± 70 % of the class have an access, 20 % with a computer, 50 % with smart phone and 10% with Aircel company. In this last group, nobody seems knowing Wikipedia name or project, probably, I suppose, because they don't speaker for the big majority.

What can we learn from this south Indian exploration?[edit]

Increase the use of Wikimedia project is not only a technical affair[edit]

Wikipedia Zero project and the focus on technical and economical issues isn't for me to only way to increase Wikipedia access and edit in south of Indian. Behind technical and economical barriers stay also strong cultural constrains. With or without the help of Wikipedia zero, south Indian people already use Wikipedia. If we trust a recent Wikimedia Research, they do it more than other countries of the global south. And if we trust this other recent Wikimedia Research even more by mobile network and phone.

But my short and limited experience seems to tell me that most of Indian people don't know Wikipedia project. They use it probably by following indication gift by their research engine. This means than few people aren't really aware about the use and quality of Wikipedia information in term of neutrality, verifiability and so on. In this perspective, if the technique can help people to access to Wikipedia, it's still not a guaranty the use and the good use of the site. The gap between Indian user and non user is for sure an economic affair but this aspect of the problem must not hide other question about level of education and gender inequality.

Wikipedia or YouTube, what's the most sexy?[edit]

Like western people, south Indian people are not all interested about the contain of Wikipedia. Younger people who still have difficulty to read, like probably less educated adult people, are more attracted by picture and video than boring text with few picture. In spite of growing in audiovisual environment Wikipedia is still poor in video resources. In this aspect, increasing video, fix speak engine system or improve the visibility of good pictures can be also a good way to increase the use of Wikimedia projects.

The complexity of use of Tamil in digital text mode[edit]

Tamil language even if it's one of the oldest written language of the world is still use by poorest and few educated people mainly in verbal exchange. With the thirty-one specific independent letters form for a total of 247 combinations of a consonant and a vowel, writing Tamil with a western key board is very difficult. During my stay, I've meet very few people able to use all short necessary to write in Tamil. The difficulty already increase with the use of mobile phone. Also translation tools are frequently used for writing Tamil from a English text like in this Tamil Wikipedia tutorial video.

In the other hand, Indian education system give opportunity for students to choose between local language or English school. When Tamil people know sufficiently English, they usually use them as often than possible writing communication or during conversation in public space. That's a kind of social distinction. All of this explain probably partially why the Tamil language presence should stay rare on the net.


What I've learn for my next ambassador experience[edit]

  • Bring good equipment to organize workshop or demonstration without Internet access.
  • Search and contact local editors or user groups to organize activities and try to fix some of them permanent.
  • Search and contact before the departure other Wikimedia project interested by the ambassador project like local chapter or local project like Wikipedia Zero or WikiAfrica, etc. and fix with them eventual collaboration.

Wikimedian Ambassador, a pleasant and useful activity[edit]

This experimental Wikimedia Ambassador experience was for me extremely pleasant. It was a very good way for me to integrated the Indian social network with a very strong feeling to be useful for other people. Even when I was loosing my targets, it was always good for me to meet nice people and learn from my mistake. All mistake are useful if we learn to avoid them next time and even more when we share our experience with other people.

This two month of my live was completely free, no contract, no exchange of money, no subordination, no stress, no proud, no interest conflict and nothing of these all things that can sometime make our daily live so said and so empty. All I did during this experience was done with the same spirit of my online contribution.

I'm convinced than Wikipedia can have a largest impact in our live if people start to bring into their daily live values and ethics in use in Wikimedia projects. For sure, organizations an ethics in Wikimedia projects are not perfect, but for me, that's still the best human organization never observed all over the world. As great, as altruistic, as cosmopolitan. Let's make from on line to off line, a better world.