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Washington diary

Wikimania, the International Wikimedia Conference, Washington D.C., July 2012

GWU, the Marvin Center

See also: Berlin diary

Monday, July 9th, 2012

Walking through Manhattan, July 6th. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. (Abraham Lincoln)

Early at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan. About 30-40 Wikimedians entered a bus from New York to Washington. A couple of days in the 'city that never sleeps' were behind us, or the city where 'I'm melting away'. In spite of the extraordinary heat in this summer we saw a lot of notable places, though we also spent quite some time in museums. 'Wikimania takes Manhattan' gave us the opportunity to learn about each other, to know and talk about Wikimedia business such as cultural heritage cooperation, grant requests and the overall organization of the movement. I already met some of the elected WCA Council Members, for example Charles Gregory from Australia. Because of the enormous distances, it will be always difficult for Australians to have real life encounters with their friends from abroad, or even within the same country.

The heat was supreme those days in the North East, but at the first preconference evening we were welcomed by rain. There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing. (Andrew Jackson)

The landscape between 'NYC' and 'DC' is not especially interesting; so instead I enjoyed talking to the Arabian Wikipedian sitting next to me. He struggles to combine the traditions of his culture with the modern world he experiences via the Internet. I talked to my fellow Dutch board member on the bus about the WCA and what it might mean for our chapter.

New York has already introduced me to America, it was my first visit to the US, but honestly - I had the feeling that there wasn't much new for me. For all my life I have consumed American TV and cinema, and certainly since the Internet age we Europeans swallop up everything coming from the other side of the Atlantic.

It was, still, a visit in a special year, an election year. The first US presidential elections I remember was the Bush-Dukakis race of 1988; a friend had video-taped the presidential debate for me from the Austrian channel he had on the cable. In that year I visited London, where I bought English language newspapers and saw a movie in the original English language. Today – there is no reason to do so; also, staying in contact with people at home is the easiest thing to do ever. Talking to people, seeing original artefacts, feeling the city's atmosphere, that's what you are travelling for nowadays.

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012 (Preconference)

Morning session with a chapters meeting. It is infinitely better to have a few good men than many indifferent ones. (George Washington)

The two days before the actual Wikimania are called 'preconference', or 'Hackathon' for the developers (software producing volunteers) who have sessions of their own. Traditionally, the chapters have a meeting on one of these days. This Tuesday saw a session of the Chapters Committee, which since Berlin is the Affiliations Committee, as it will deal in future about national organizations ('chapters') but also thematic organizations and other kinds of 'entities' in the movement. In the afternoon I led a meeting about the WCA, with an explanation of the background and structure, and enquiries about the opinions with regard to a Secretary General, a budget etc. The session seemed to be useful, though not all issues had enough time to be discussed.

There were several possible ways to proceed with the WCA according to the Charter, such as waiting for the election of a Secretary General or to install a special official. Some people said there shouldn't be a Council meeting at all, or only an informal one (called a 'meeting zero'). This would have prolonged the mandate of the steering committee automatically because it was installed under a special provision of the Charter (for the time until the first Council meeting). I, though, was determined to make the first Council meeting happen, in order to make the WCA more and more 'real' and capable of taking action.

Hackathon, in the large hall, of course. I had rather be shut up in a very modest cottage with my books, my family and a few old friends, dining on simple bacon, and letting the world roll on as it liked, than to occupy the most splendid post, which any human power can give. (Thomas Jefferson)

Later I talked to several CMs about the first positions that will have to be filled in, name the Chair and the Deputy Chair of the Council. Nobody had presented himself the previous weeks. One declined because he could be a CM only for a couple of months. For the Secretary-General we had an official candidate proposed a couple of days earlier, Sebastian Moleski, who announced that he would resign from the German chapter chair if chosen. Tomer Ashur and Delphine Menard had presented themselves as candidates for an interim leadership; both wanted to keep their positions in chapters which made them not eligible for the Secretariat according to the Charter. I was worried that there were concerns among the Council Members about all three candidates.

In the evening, we read an email from Tomer Ashur. It had became public that he was unable to come to Washington, due to visa problems. Tomer presented a 'draft budget' for the WCA, written by Delphine Ménard. The draft budget immediately received a lot of strong reactions: it was high, talking about the spending of nearly half a million Euros. Possible incomes were not included.

I think that the draft budget did not deserve such heated debate: as a basis for discussions, it has its merits. But many chapter people were afraid that they had to vote about it, creating a tremendous financial commitment for the young Association – and the member chapters. Tomer and Delphine wanted to have it ready before Wikimania, to have simply a basis for discussions, but many people I talked to thought that the short release before Wikimania was a means to trick the Council Members into something that they could not examine sufficiently before a vote. I can't totally blame them: tactically, the draft budget was a catastrophe.

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012 (preconference)

The WCA Council Meeting. Love of order, ability to fight well and breed well, capacity to subordinate the interests of the individual to the interests of the community, these and similar rather humdrum qualities go to make up the sum of social efficiency. (Theodore Rosevelt)

In the morning, Lodewijk from the Affiliations Committee wanted to lead a general discussion about chapters. He was a annoyed at me because I had already the seats rearranged for the first Council meeting later – but well, I announced that on the Meta page and unfortunately he didn't announce his meeting there.

During that session, I talked at the coffee table to Frieda Brioschi who was going to represent the WCA steering committee, and to others, about the first Council meeting starting at 13.00h. Ashley van Haeften from Britain and I noticed in a conversation that we had very similar ideas about the chairmanship of the Council. With Frieda we made last arrangements for the agenda that I had altered boldly the previous night. Damian Finol, the other member of the steering committee on Wikimania, could come only later.

A new Association

Live from Israel, Tomer Ashur. We are so proud of our guarantees of freedom in thought and speech and worship, that, unconsciously, we are guilty of one of the greatest errors that ignorance can make — we assume our standard of values is shared by all other humans in the world. (Dwight D. Eisenhower)

The first meeting of the WCA Council started with an introduction by Frieda. She then let Tomer report via Skype to the Wikimanians about his past works and his plans for the future. The connection was good, but not perfect, and I found it difficult to follow Tomer's words. Frieda finally asked him to come to a conclusion, and a 'roll call' was the next item on the agenda.

This means that it was finally determined who of the people in the room were Council Members. I had asked the selected persons to sit at the tables, and made a list for Frieda and Damian. Nearly all of them were already on a Meta Wiki page, but at the meeting we heard e.g. that Sergey Vladimirov was the Council Member elected by the Russian chapter. We considered the present persons to be officially Council Members, being appointed by chapters that actually joined the WCA.

Later the day I talked to Itzik Edri from Israel and Chantal Ebongué from Switzerland who both couldn't make it to Washington in time, and we considered them to be Council Members as well. Twenty chapters became members of the Wikimedia Chapters Association, thus. For chapters that join later, a more formal confirmation should be necessary than only a notification on a Meta Wiki page. There must not be a confusion about the status of a chapter and the person appointed as a Council Member.

The Charter said that the Association will come into existence, after at least nine chapters have joined it. With the confirmation of that and of the Council Members, the final step was made: July 11th, 2012, became the birthday of a new NGO.

Elections, successful and others

Ashley van Haeften from Britain, Chair of the Council. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. (Thomas Jefferson)

The meeting accepted the agenda, and elected a Chair and a Deputy Chair. I stood up to nominate Ashley, and after a couple of words by the nominee, he was elected. He took over the lead of the meeting and thanked Frieda. He called for candidates to become Deputy Chair. Raul Veede nominated himself, Ashley nominated me. Raul presented himself shortly, so did I, and the meeting elected me Deputy Chair.

Later an author in the Signpost complained that there was no 'substantial discussion' about the Chair's candidacy, but I believe that it is common in parliaments and associations not to have a discussion about such a position. Even without formal standing orders, the Council meeting worked well, thanks to the leadership of Ashley.

After a break, the meeting talked about other positions within the WCA: a paid Secretary General (SG), or, as a substitute, the volunteer team Tomer/Delphine. It became clear that the CMs considered the situation not mature enough to install a SG now. Sebastian chose withdraw his candidacy. At this moment, certainly the right decision. We didn't even have a budget. I hoped that Tomer/Delphine could get a majority in the Council, but only me and two other CMs voted for their proposal to do a lot of unpaid work for the WCA. Obviously, many CMs were disappointed by Tomer's results from the past weeks, although they understood that his work plan was very ambitious. I also know that the movement not always gave Tomer full support. Delphine was linked to the draft budget from the day before. In general, many CMs were unhappy about proposals and candidacies presented only 1-2 days before the meeting, and I agree that essentially more time in advance is necessary to examine and finally support proposals.

Who should build up the Association now? The Council gave the Chair the authority to create committees, naming one for the budget and one for finding a SG. After some final points, the meeting was closed.

In the evening, we all headed quickly to our hotels or hostels to dress up for Google. Together with the Internet search engine, Wikimania had a reception at the Library of Congress right behind Capitol Hill. A great opportunity to meet and greet, although I think that not very many job offers have been made. After the event I went with a smaller group to a restaurant, where Asaf and I discussed on Hebrew and Esperanto lyrics. Later a woman working at the Library walked me home to my hostel. How would she come home? Naturally, she called a taxi. I am just too accustomed to European public transport.

Thursday, July 12th, 2012 (Day 1)

Opening audience of Wikimania. ...the educated citizen has an obligation to serve the public. He may be a precinct worker or President. He may give his talents at the courthouse, the State house, the White House. He may be a civil servant or a Senator, a candidate or a campaign worker, a winner or a loser. But he must be a participant and not a spectator. (John F. Kennedy)

Thursday saw the big opening sessions in the auditory of our host, the George Washington University. We heard a keynote speech by feminist Internet activist and Wikipedian Mary Gardiner, and Jimmy Wales' State of the Wiki; inspiring and funny again. He presented not only a new 'Global Wikipedian of the Year' but also an employee of the year, Internet rock star and Wikimedia developer Brandon Harris. Brandon's face was the first to 'beat' Jimmy's in the previous fundraiser.

In a press conference, some of the WMF board members, Mary Gardiner, Washington Wikimedian Nicholas Bashour and WMF director Sue Gardner answered questions. As Jimmy Wales had announced at the end of his State of the Wiki, Ting Chen had resigned as chair of the WMF board. He remains in the board, which will be chaired from now on by Kate Walsh. Via Alice Wiegand, new WMF board member (and, by the way, as a person member of WMNL), we hear that the WMF thinks positive of the WCA.

Later I attended, among other sessions, the WikiData presentation by Lydia Pintscher and her colleagues. In future times, one will talk about Wikipedia before and after WikiData, I thought. Still I had, and have, concerns whether WikiData will not make editing more difficult.

At the evening I attended the WMDE booth, where Elly Köpf and Denis Barthel presented the German Educational Programs. Being a Referent myself, I shared some experiences from our collaborations with schools and universities. Our general concern was that going to schools does not provide us with new editors or are beneficial to us in other ways; WMDE is going to concentrate more on senior citizens and universities.

Friday, July 13th, 2012 (Day 2)

Katie provided all elevations of the youth hostel with wifi. Determine that the thing can and shall be done, and then we shall find the way. (Abraham Lincoln)

Some people questioned Ashley's position in the WCA because of a case in English Wikipedia (that ultimately led to his edit ban, shortly after). I talked to Ashley that day and to other British chapter members. My opinion is that the WCA or the Wikimedia movement is not identical to English Wikipedia, Ashley should be judged by his actions for the WCA.

Board members and executives of some chapters seem to be very sympathetic to the WCA, they are offering resources for the young Association. Especially in the period before the WCA is incorporated and has a Secretary General that will be more than useful.

The evening I spend partially with our Dutch director, Sandra Rientjes, who works for WMNL since May 1st. We are very fond of her and wanted her to learn more about the international movement. Later the evening I met Jan-Bart de Vreede and Nicholas Bashour. The latter came just from cleaning up a mess caused by a presenter who used pictures deleted from Wikimedia Commons for inappropriateness. They had breached the friendly space policy, Nicholas explained.

Saturday, July 14th, 2012 (Day 3)

Sue Gardner at her Wikimania speech. The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally — not a 20 percent traitor. (Ronald Reagan)
Our men in Hong Kong inviting us to visit them next year. There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. (John F. Kennedy)

Saturday was already the day of the official closing, with Sue Gardner's presentation as director of the WMF, followed by a thank you from board members Kate and Jan-Baart: Sue has now been Chief Executive for five years. Over five years we will do that for you, I said jokingly to my director. Sue Gardner stressed out the importance to make Wikipedia a more welcoming place, and explained what 'we' (the Foundation) can do, name providing a better user interface, and what the community can do, name reconsider its behaviour.

How will the future of the WCA look like, an executive of a Wikimedia chapter asked me at the coffee table. How many employees will it have in a couple of years? Nobody knows, but it will depend on the scope. Maybe we'll have to define together with the WMF the fields of activity, maybe we'll accept also thematic organizations and individuals as members. The WCA could do everything what the WMF cannot, and vice versa.

The Washingtonians have selected a nice place for the closing party, a restaurant (?) with large TV screens to follow sport news. The noise level, however, is detrimental to conversations. I managed, with some hard work, to have lengthy talks to people from four different continents, but my ears and my throat will later remind me of it.

The good balance in a volunteer driven organization with professional support, this is what many of the 'bigger' chapters are now occupied with. Is it better to hire a director who builds up the professional part of the organization, or a kind of assistant to the board? This partly depends on your funds, but also on your general view of the chapter. It seems that some chapter boards tend to underestimate the work load of hiring a staff member and make the best use of the employment. But we all experience a phase of transition, and will only later see what would have been the best practices.

Sunday, July 15th, 2012 (Day 4, unconference)

WCA presentation at the unconference. Our differences are policies; our agreements, principles. (William McKinley)

The 'unconference' is the last day of Wikimania, giving the activists the opportunity to wrap up their business. Early that day Ashley and I presented the WCA and its situation; though the 'WCA presentation' was misunderstood by some as another meeting.

In a plenary, the attendees presented each other with their names and three important words. I mentioned the last package of stroopwafels I got; at the end of the day, I passed them to Katie from the Washington chapter. The WCA had three tables, one for recruitment of staff, one about the budget and one about governance issues of the chapters. Our 'hiring' table produced a long list of ideas which I forwarded later to Ashley.

We agreed on that for the WCA we need a Secretary General who speaks more than one language, just to know what it means to be a foreigner in a language. That 'non profit experience' is important, with a multicultural awareness and at least two years in a leading position.

Wikimedians and the Capitol. To be true to ourselves, we must be true to others. (Jimmy Carter)

We were less unanimous about the nationality. Some wanted to rule out a German because of 'concerns that the Germans have their fingers everywhere'; for the same reason a Brit would be less preferable. Small chapters might protest. I disagree; a person should be judged on his or her talents and not the nationality. Someone from a big country is as valuable as someone from a small one, and vice versa.

An Australian said that for political reasons, 'someone from outside the movement would have the advantage of being more neutral'. On the other hand, a background in the Wikimedia movement is more than helpful for someone who has to deal with chapters, other movement entities and also support new chapters.

With Chantal, Rahem and Manuel I discover the Federal Triangle; passing the Washington Monument we visit Smithsonian museums and have dinner later. I learn more about the different challenges the chapters meet now, growing bigger and having staff, and cooperating with partners from outside the movement. We live in a time of change, I think, looking forward to some private days in Philadelphia and New York. On July, 21th, I will be back at Amsterdam airport.