Wikimania 2015 in Mexico City took place officially from July 15th to July 19th. This main conference of the Wikimedia movement attracted ca. 800 participants.
Earlier I have collected my Wikimania and Wikimedia Conference thoughts in one English language piece of text. This year 2015 I go on with this tradition and present you, after the Berlin, Washington and Hong Kong diaries a Mexican diary.
Country and people
There is a lot of suffering in Mexico, yes. It is not necessary to repeat here what we read in the news. On my trip I saw quite some poverty, even without leaving the inner city and other touristic places that are considered to be 'safe'. Police everywhere – even on the top of a pyramid. For many Europeans this is an unusual sight, e.g. a roll call of three rows of policemen and policewomen in a public park in the early morning. In the bus from the airport to the hotel a screen showed profiles of local people obducted or missing.
I also heard that Mexico City is such a grand place because it sucks resources out from the rest of the country. The United States of Mexico are named after the city, not the other way 'round. A third of the country's economy is concentrated in the capital.
In the educational system in Mexico it is extremely important whether you come from ordinary public schools and universities, or from private, costly ones. We learned about the cooperation with Tec de Monterrey, for example, and some of the excellent students were at the conference. Leigh, who teaches there, mentioned some Wikimedia efforts to reach out also to other kinds of universities, but it seems not to be easy.
I was stunned how few people spoke English. Even in the centre of the capital, in places certainly visited also by (non Spanish speaking) foreigners, it was hard to find a waiter or waitress with some working knowledge of English (or, e.g., French or German). This is actually unthinkable even in small cities in the Netherlands. I imagine what that means for the economy of the country in general.
And for Wikipedia. Many sources of information in this world are in English. Certainly, Wikipedians are not representative for anything, but I am interested in having a closer look at Wikipedia in Spanish. Some conversations in Mexico City taught me about its problems. Although there is something called 'Neutral Spanish', in Wikipedia in Spanish they use the Latin names for plants and animals, for example. The Spanish names can differ considerably from country to country. Sometimes a historical political conflict has repercussions to the present day.
For me personally, the pluricentric character of the Spanish language had some less pleasant effects. If someone tells you to take a 'camion', how could you know that a bus is meant? If you learnt that 'straightforward' is 'todo recto' in Spanish, how could you know that the Mexicans say 'derecho' (which also very similar to 'derecha', 'right')? There were several occasions that I had to remind me that I was the foreigner who should adapt, and that there are much more Mexicans than inhabitants of Spain.
Enough! People live their lives in Mexico, even with fewer resources than I am accustomed to. Mexico City is a global city, the Spanish language connects continents, Mexicans are rightfully proud of their history and achievements (and don't deserve the often derogative way they are presented in Hollywood movies). I felt privileged in many ways and I tried to make the most of my trip, to understand more and more where I actually am.
Wikimania in general
How useful is Wikimania? Is it worth, for the Wikimedia movement, to spend so much money to gather a few hundred people in one place of the world, for a couple of days? These questions came up in conversations also during this Wikimania.
One of the concerns is the 'Wikimania demography'. More than once I heard someone complaining about another participant, that 'going to Wikimania' was understood by some to be a reward for Wikipedia edits, or as a cheap holiday. If you as a movement support the participation of one specific person, you don't have the resources left for another. Is it more important to have someone from a poor country in Africa at Wikimania, or someone with a very concrete specialisation? How important is the quota of women?
The Wikimedia Foundation tends to give scholarships especially to people from the 'Global South'. As there are also chapters, usually in Europe, that provide people with scholarships, this seems to make sense. But several people pointed out to me that while they welcomed the presence of some 'Global South' participants, they were unhappy with the presence of others, of people who are not much communicating with others. Would it not be better to invite someone from Europe or North America instead? 'What is wisdom', as the Dutch proverbially say.
This Wikimania was special in so far that the Spanish language was represented prominently even in the programme. The last couple of years we visited countries where English was the primary language or at least deeply embedded (2011 Haifa, 2012 Washington, 2013 Hong Kong, 2014 London). Personally, I sometimes have doubts whether one specific language other than English should play a larger role, because the character of the conference is a global one. Then again, English is not the only important language in our movement.
During the last years, Wikimania grew, and some traditions enrooted. Maybe it is time to question some of these traditions. I don't think that many people regretted that the (announced) mayor of Mexico City didn't address the conference. Of course it is nice if a representant of the city or country pays respect to the foreign visitors, on the other hand he does not really have much to add in a short speech. Or maybe we want to introduce some new traditions, e.g. a day nursery. I also think that an extra wiki for each Wikimania is not necessary.
As 'usual,' I travelled on the ticket of Wikimedia Nederland, the official Dutch organisation that supports Wikipedia and free knowledge in the Netherlands. Until 2014 I was the chair of WMNL and was responsible for the international relations. This time I had a scholarship and saw it as my primary task to represent my chapter and to report about the conference.
Also, I had submitted a presentation about the 'Klexikon'. This new wiki is a childrens' encyclopedia, which came to existence with the support of Wikimedia Deutschland. I was looking forward to present our concept and compare our wiki to other, similiar 'childrens' wikis'.
At Amsterdam Schiphol airport, I bought a tin with stroopwafels. There will be a specific Wikimania participant to whom I still owe something, I thought. Also I planned to by a writing pad to take up Fabrice Florin's tradition: Ask people to write down how to improve Wikipedia. Instead, I thought that many participants might want to send Fabrice, who left the Foundation in June, best wishes or a thank you.
The flight took ten to eleven hours. The girl sitting next to me was coughing when I first saw her – not a good start to come back in health, I thought. But she explained to me that she had run fast from her other flight to get this one. During the flight I prepared mentally my Wikimania talk again and again, to keep it under 20 minutes and have enough time for questions.
Education Pre Conference
The Education Pre Conference is a two day event prior to the actual Wikimania. London, 2014, had seen the first one. It had not been a peticular success. It was ill prepared and when I asked the organizers, both organizing parties showed with the finger to the other one.
In Mexico City, the challenges sounded differently. While in London many speakers talked too quickly and colloquially, without regard to the many non native speakers of English, in Mexico City the programme suffered especially from its bilingualism. In theory half of the time, in reality ca. 80 percent, was in Spanish. The organizers tried to make it a conference suitable both for Mexicans and other Latin Americans on the one hand, and a conference for a global audience on the other.
Usually, someone would present a topic from the Wikimedia world of education, in Spanish, and then translate him- or herself to English. The English part was merely a short summary of what had been said in Spanish. It was all well meant, but this made it necessary to also listen to the Spanish part in order not to miss the English one. A rather exhausting experience.
Most of the content presented was very general and already well known to most of the (global) audience: what the Wikimedia movement does on the field of education, how schools and students profit, that the experience is to great for everyone etc. Also the show cases from Latin American countries were... to be honest and direct, in the line of what we heard before.
More action happened in the conversational meetings, divided in a Spanish speaking group and an Anglophone one. In our group, which we called 'Gringopedia', we exchanged our experiences and tried to gather good practices. Jokingly, I proposed that our 'spokesperson' should be the one with the highest academic rank, but possibly a misunderstanding occurred around the word 'professor' and its meaning in the world of the Romance languages.
As for the afternoon of the second day a Spanish language session was announced, I went to the Explainer Videos. Maybe I am, as much as I love text and sometimes music, also a very visual person, with all the pictures I take. But when I came to the room with ca. 20 people, I did not have much of an idea what would expect me.
Waldemar Solotowizki and Igor Kompasov are two Germans originally coming from Russia. They represent the Simpleshow Foundation, the not for profit branch of a company that makes videos for business clients. If you have something to explain, the Simpleshow people convert it into a three minute video with rather limited, but effectful graphic and audio means.
'What did you see', asked Waldemar after an examplary video about the Nobel Prize. We saw pieces of paper shoved over the screen by visible hands, with simple, but professional ligne claire drawings of people, symbols or objects. Audio? Just a 'voice over' (or, actually, voice from the 'off'). Find out what are the things you talk about, explained Waldemar, and then make the connections between. First the Why, then the How. Explain, not just describe. Use known pattern and pictures, and put away every unnecessary. Tell a story.
If a Wikipedian or Wikimedian has something to explain, the Simpleshow Foundation likes to help. You tell your story via a storyboard, and Waldemar and Igor make happen the rest to get a video in 'cut-out animation'.
At the end of this day, the Wikimedians from the Netherlands and Belgium met in a Mexican restaurant. Some of the more daring eaters ordered the 'Aztec Mosaic', with worms, grashoppers and ant eggs. Some even more daring participants called it a 'Diets' evening, in the tradition of political (often right wing) movements that want to merge the Netherlands with Flanders. No need to fear – the rather new Wikimedia Belgium will remain an independent chapter, but if it asks for help from the northern neighbour it certainly will find an open ear.
Wikimania, day one
The actual Wikimania started on Friday, 'day one', with Iván from the organizing committee. He presented his team of yellow T-shirt
minionsvoluntarios (or a part of it). Soon he left the stage to Lila Tretikov. She is now director of the Foundation for more than a year.
In her key note she used tree metaphors (and thrice the 'sum of all human knowledge' prayer) to describe the movement. After a long more general part she came to some specific topics such as the Visual Editor which has now a larger team. Another goal is it to take a lot of annoying work from the human contributors to let it be done more and more by intelligent machines.
For all that, said Lila, we must be bold and break the rules. Failure happens, but it must be understand as the result of necessary experiments and tests. This is the only way how we learn, she emphasized. 'Let's make that we have this wonderful garden for another 1000 years.'
Her slide 'Technology + community = innovation' triggered something unpleasant in my mind, and I twittered: 'sounds like Electricity [actually, Eletrification] plus Soviet power equals to Communism'. 'That's dark', someone commented, and its true. Was it technology that I don't trust much, was it the community, with its lighter and darker elements, or the buzz word 'innovation'? Last year on the German Conference of Historians I heard that our work should be decent and in the line of our good traditions. If everything has to be 'innovative', how to base your work on the achievements already obtained?
Some Germans behind me commented her speech like Waldorf and Statler; another German blogged quite sympathetically. I guess that Lila's speech was directed largely to the general audience. She did not want to come over too negatively on the one hand, but make some serious points on the other. Obviously, she is mostly concerned with the 'change aversion' in the community that we have seen so violently last year.
The Legal Department of the WMF was guest of the first session I visited after the Opening (which lacked, by the way, the mayor of the city, announced in the program, but never mentioned again). The Legals came up with some examples and stressed out that there are hardly any 'take downs', meaning cases in which the WMF deletes content after a complaint. This is so because of an active community on Wikimedia Commons, the media collection of the movement. The community already deletes what is in conflict with copyright law or privacy rules. That is very different, they say, at Facebook or Google.
In another session I learned that it is quite difficult to tell how many files we have under which license model. For about 30 percent of the files in the movement is Public Domain, but they use a lot of different licenses.
In an education block, a large number of Wikimedians told about their experiences in education. They had the nice idea to show their group affiliation with a T-shirt. After that, I had the privilege to present some ideas on 'childrens' wikis', including our new born 'Klexikon'. The response was positive, and I am looking forward to make use of the many new contacts.
At the evening I went with a rather small group by bus to the Biblioteca Vasconcelos. It was named after a minister of education and serves as the library of Mexico City. We were guided through the house and the collections by the director of the library, who features a certain similarity to Professor Tournesol, but without the beard. It was originally the idea to hold the Wikimania conference in this library, but as I heard, the Internet connection was not fast enough for us fantazillion-byte-hungry community. We saw a little part of a guitar concerto and were amazed by the 'open architecture' – would something like this receive admission in the Netherlands? At least, you should not be afraid of height, and maybe you don't want your offspring to leave the childrens' section the zero level floor.
Wikimania, day two
At the beginning of Saturday, 'day two', Luis Villa gathered his people from the Community department at the WMF. I enjoyed peticularly listening to Floor Koudijs from the Netherlands – she speaks a good standard English, articulates well, speaks not too quickly and does everything right to be understood by a global audience. She already was part of the Education Pre Conference and explained now that like the Wiki Ed Foundation, the WMF helps people to support teachers. Both foundations are no strangers to each other, but the WMF concentrates on the 'Global South'.
James Forrester explaned that he usually avoids the term 'troll' and still can't help calling sometimes a particular behavior that. Often it is the best to get into conversation. The problem is that we have 900 wikis. It is difficult to get feedback from everywhere, while people often don't know about Meta Wiki. Asaf Bartov: When we are asked to help a community, we try to do so. But sometimes we are asked to come in like a hammer, to solve social problems from outside. We don't do that, but we might be able to facilitate when policies must be reformed or when exhaustion caused failure.
(I cannot report about the whole panel. In my notes I often have an 'xxx' where I did not get it.)
Another session dealt with content translation. This was tried already earlier, e.g. by the Google Translation Kit. Google wanted 1:1 translations from Wikipedia to Wikipedia. That is not the way Wikipedians work. So the WMF team asked Wikipedians how they do translate, and created its design principles based on the feedback. It is possible with the new tool to translate only parts of an article, to be flexible with the paragraphs. I myself have tried the tool, and it does work quite well. In some cases, Pau Giner admitted, it is already very useful, in others not so much. How to find out which article still does not exist, someone asked, e.g. in 'Mexican Wikipedia'. There will be a feature for that problem, the tool presenters announced.
After that, two other gentlemen talked about the technical background of the translation tool. As it got very technical, I allowed myself to skip the rest for me personally. Maybe in a future Wikimania programme one might indicate clearer which talks are suitable for which audience. This is obviously a well prepared and fact loaded presentation – perfect for computer experts.
During a break, Jimmy Wales got caught by selfie photographers. He then fled into a lift, saying 'I can't miss that elevator.' I quickly gave him a Klexikon sticker and said, before the doors shut: 'Are you still interested in a childrens' Wikipedia?' Shortest elevator pitch ever.
In a workshop related to Wikidata, we are asked to deal with some inconsistencies between similar but different items. E.g. the Wikipedia articles 'contemporary art' and 'modern art' of some language versions are connected to the wrong Wikidata item. The person next to me corrects the links of the Russian articles. Another problem suggest to solve by user:Kvardek_du are articles about 'sex' and 'gender'. Let's say, we saw a little bit of gender confusion.
The official programme of day two was concluded by a 'plenary talk': Luis von Ahn introduces himself as the inventor of the Captcha. When a website has to find out whether someone who registers is human being, the Captcha asks you to read blurry letters. He later regretted the Captcha, which is annoying to many people or even impossible to use by some. Nowadays the Captcha words help to understand old texts from unperfect OCR scans. (I believe that the WMF once tried to replace the Captcha at the Wikipedia registration by the Turing test. Alas, too many Wikipedians failed it.)
Von Ahn's main topic was Duolingo. This free (gratis) app helps people to learn a language. He and his Swiss partner are no language teachers, but they learned languages, and consulted teaching methods in books, and tried the different methods in their software. The click rates show that people from poor countries who learn English are eager to go continue, with an incredible retention rate of 50 percent. Americans who learn other languages, usually as a hobby, drop off much sooner. Anyway: Duolingo is an effort to make use of the techniques in computer games, in order to get people addicted to learn.
In the evening, buses took the Wikimania participants to the Museo Soumaya. A rich Mexican created an amazing building with an amazing art collection. For those of us who got only in the second group of buses, leaving the hotel rather late, we did not see much of the collection. The guards asked us soon to return to the big gathering hall, where the group photo of Wikimania was taken. A Beatles revival band entertained a part of the participants. The other part fled as soon as possible as the music was extremely loud and echoed in the hall that was not really ideal for a concert. To talk to each other was hardly possible in this noise.
Wikimania, day three
Sunday started for me with some personal talks and then a 'featured talk' by Edward N. Zalta. The professor of philosophy is the main editor of the 'Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy'. He explained his publishing model that differs very much from Wikipedia. At the SEP, the two 'administrative editors' don't edit but revise and organise content. They are looking for article writers and make sure that everything works well.
When Wikipedians at Wikimania tried to point out the advantages of free licenses and spontaneous edits, Zalta evenly desperatedly tried to explain why the SEP and Wikipedia are different and should remain so. They go along fine and complement each other. The copyright (or, authorship) model of the SEP keeps the number of contributors small and professional, he stressed out. The contributors know the process and communicate with respect for each other.
Other talks I visited included pluricentric languages, Wikipedia's health from a socio-technical point of view, and opinions about quality in different Wikipedia language versions. Dariusz compared 'Good Articles' and 'Featured' articles in several larger Wikipedias in 'European' languages. He found out that the articles in Wikipedia in French have much more 'references' (footnotes) than in German Wikipedia, and that Italian Wikipedia has more than twice as many pictures in those articles than other Wikipedias.
I noted that it might be interesting to make a list of the factors involved. For example, in German Wikiedia it is more common to put several references in one footnote. Also the point of time when many articles received their Good or Featured status might differ. The comparison compares different groups of articles: a 'Good Article' is possibly not absolutely the same as a 'Lesenswerter Article' in German (literally, an 'article good to read'). But nevertheless some findings are absolutely stunning and deserve more attention.
In my rucksack I still had a tin of stroopwafels, remember? As I have not met the person I wanted to give it, I turned it over to the team of the voluntarios (one tin with 10 stroopwafels for a big team sounds very Dutch, I know). There was a tendency with team members that they apologized all the time for some shortcomings and chaos, but I assured them that their work was great and the few inconveniences minor.
Shortly after that, I did meet the person. He already had forgotten the reason for the stroopwafels. He was eager to learn more about the Klexikon and is interested how to employ one (in English) in the educational system.
The last programme item: Jimmy Wales' traditional speech 'State of the Wiki'. It was short in comparison. When asked who edits Wikipedia since 2003, I was one of rather few people who still stood. Jimmy commented the Erasmus Award in the Netherlands ironically with a conspiracy theory: Jan-Bart, the leaving WMF chair, is Dutch and likes to wear Orange. Patricio, the new chair, is Argentinian like Maxima. Conclusion: The Dutch monarchy controls Wikipedia.
A year ago Jimmy asked for input on his user talk page about a good procedure for the Wikipedian of the year. As there is only one entry, he asks for more input. He does not want it to be a popularity contest, in which an English Wikipedia might receive most of the voices. So Jimmy for 2015 nominated a Wikipedian in secret, because naming him in public would be dangerous. Jimmy had three honorable mentions, among them Susanna Mkrtchyan from Armenia. She is behind the highly praised WikiCamp for young people.
And next Wikimania? Iolanda from the Italian team started her presentation with an appropriate 'Why Esino Lario.' It is a village in Northern Italy with 700 inhabitants. To Iolanda, Wikimania is 'our conference', it belongs to 'us', not to the 'WMF with a big team'. So, 'bring some comfortable shoes and see you in Esino Lario!'
Later I heard some participants finding the idea very interesting, at least it is not 'more of the same'. The village Wikimania will be distinctive in the memory of the Wikimaniacs. Others wondered whether the Internet facilities will be ready really at least three months prior to the conference. Because it will be already in June 2016, when school holidays will not have started, some Wikimedians will find it difficult to come.
At the dinner came, as a surprise, a Mexican music and dance group. It was the largest and acustically most violent one I had to suffer at a dinner in Mexico City. At least many voluntarios had their fun and joined in the traditional songs. In my mind a new text version of one of the songs emerged, for the Esperanto speakers:
- -aj, -aj, -aj, -aj – jen adjektivo!
- Plurala kaj certe sen akuzativ'
- Vi gluu ghin tuj al radiko!
- (-aj, -aj, -aj, -aj – this is [a suffix that indicates] an adjective! / In plural and certainly without accusative / Attach it immediately to the word root!)
This was the end of Wikimania 2015. I hope you enjoyed my report and look forward to see you in future at Wikimania or somewhere else.