Why, after twelve years, I still write about hurricanes and tropical cyclones on Wikipedia

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Photo by NOAA/Satellite and Information Service, public domain.

In April 2002, I was listening to Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” while on a car ride. Up until that point, my 13-year-old mind was convinced that I was going to be a meteorologist one day. This obsession could stem back to August 1992, when I would have heard the name Hurricane Andrew a lot on the news. It was also around age four when I started playing piano.

The earliest storm I remember was Hurricane Erin in July 1995, part of the busy 1995 Atlantic hurricane season. In the path of Erin was where my grandparents and cousins lived, so I followed the storm closely, just like all 297 named storms since then. But during that fateful car ride, my Dad and I listened to Billy Joel’s Millennium Concert. I was enthralled by the complexity of “Scenes,” and for the first time in my life, I considered a career as a musician. Today in 2017, most of what I do is related to music. Still, as my burgeoning piano interest continued, so did my passion for hurricanes.

I came to find that I needed a balance of artistic expression and the cathartic power of nature.

In the days before I knew about Wikipedia, I grew annoyed at the primitive World Wide Web. There were websites on practically everything, but no way to organize the information. I poured through what sources I could find, reading the National Hurricane Center‘s tropical cyclone reports for leisure. I noticed that there were a lot of older storms that I couldn’t find almost any information on. The Atlantic hurricane best track went back to 1851, but the tropical cyclone reports only went back to 1997. I eventually discovered Wikipedia in December 2004 in one of my hurricane research projects. I was surprised the website had coverage on hurricanes back to 1950, but I knew of storms before the start of the naming era. As an anonymous user, I started creating articles on hurricane articles and seasons. In August 1995, I formally joined Wikipedia due to my increasing edits to the record-breaking 2005 Atlantic hurricane season. Within a few months, I worked with other Wikipedians to extend Wikipedia’s coverage on Atlantic hurricanes as far back as records went, and we later extended our efforts worldwide as Wikipedia:WikiProject Tropical cyclones (the WPTC). It was that community of fellow editors that hooked me from the beginning—users who I could talk about storms with and who supported my work. Even today, I talk almost daily with fellow users on Facebook or IRC, a more regular relationship than I have with some of my offline friends.

I’ve had several close calls with hurricanes in real life. The first was in September 2003, when Hurricane Isabel had an outside chance of affecting us as a hurricane. For perspective, New Jersey hadn’t been hit by a hurricane since September 1903, so there was a little whysteria (a portmanteau of weather+hysteria, coined by my brother). We had another close call with Hurricane Irene. I evacuated to my brother’s house, and worried of the potential destruction after we lost power, but it ended up affecting us little. We weren’t so lucky when Hurricane Sandy came ashore in October 2012. I again evacuated to my brother’s house, but we didn’t lose power, so we watched in real time as lower New York flooded, wondering what was happening at home. With $30 billion in damage to my state, I’m still reminded of the destructive power of nature at a local level. It would do no good to lament about the destruction, and instead it inspires me to keep writing.

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All that said, it was Isabel that consumed my online attention during my first college winter break in December 2006. Five months later, I’d written four featured articles and four good articles—both being markers of high quality—on the hurricane and its effects. This allowed me to successfully nominate Hurricane Isabel as a featured topic. Working on a collection of articles, rather than researching randomly, meant that I would find sources that could be used for multiple articles, and it was quicker to edit because I knew the time period/area better. In fact, I know a lot about the culture, politics, and to an extent even language about a lot of areas around the world.

Tropical cyclones can form in most of the major bodies of water on Planet Earth, as long as the waters are warm enough, including the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean, the waters around Oceania (and Australia), and most of the Pacific Ocean. Curiously, this excludes the waters west of South America; perhaps the lack of tropical cyclones gave the Inca Empire a leg up to become the largest empire in pre-Columbian America. As I’ve studied and written on Wikipedia more, I learned about how tropical cyclones have altered our history. In 1970, a cyclone killed 500,000 people when it struck the province of East Pakistan, now known as Bangladesh. The government’s poor response fueled the country’s independence movement. A near repeat occurred in 1991, when 138,000 people died in Bangladesh. I was alive in 1991, and in the days of satellite and warning, that many people should not die because of a natural disaster that is moving at 28 mph (slightly slower than Usain Bolt‘s record speed in 2009). With proper planning and evacuations, a similar cyclone in 1994 had a death toll just 0.17% of the 1991 storm. Sadly, though, 1970 was not the last time that such a death toll would be seen. At least 138,000 people died in May 2008 when neighboring Myanmar/Burma was hit by Cyclone Nargis. I created the English Wikipedia article on that tropical cyclone, but my edits largely stopped once I realized how big of a disaster it was. At a certain point, other editors came in and filled the article, which allowed me to disengage and recover from the tales of human suffering.

As an example why I still edit, a 10 kilobyte chunk of data was removed from the Nargis article in 2010 and wasn’t restored for three years. Unfortunately, these things happen, but that’s what impresses about the WPTC editors. They are global in their writing, and several of them write for other meteorology WikiProjects, such as tornadoes and non-tropical cyclones. I am immensely proud of the other WPTC editors for their dedication into researching these storms of nature’s fury. Several of them are studying meteorology in college or are even experts in their field. I felt this dedication strongly in 2011, when I participated in and won the annual WikiCup. The experience pit me against many other Wikipedians, several of which were members in WPTC. I was surprised just how many Wikipedians felt passionate about improving articles.

Over the years, I have added to my featured and good article count, but looking back now at my earliest work, I find myself disappointed. There are far too many projects I need to go back and improve, whether that’s due to having access to newer sources or simple things like wording differently. But I have plenty of time and I don’t intend to retire soon.

During my college years, I learned how Wikipedia provided a balance for me, an escape to the stressful studies of being a musician at University of the Arts. A few times, I walked away from Wikipedia, but my breaks would inevitably come to an end as I rediscovered that yearning for learning. I do wonder if my work on Wikipedia might help researchers now or one day. At minimum, I hope the random free time I’ve spent on this website will help someone else looking up the topic.

Oh, and to few people’s surprise, I’ve written a song called “Hurricane,” and I’m writing a musical that features a hurricane in the plot. Thank you, Jimmy Wales, for starting this experimental website way back in 2001. As the digital world spreads across the globe, we need free access to information to empower all 7.5 billion or so people on this one beautiful planet.

Andrew Hink (User:Hurricanehink), Wikipedia editor

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Wikimedia Research Newsletter, March 2017

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“Wikipedia, work, and capitalism. A realm of freedom?”

Review by Dorothy Howard

Arwid Lund
(Photo by LittleGun, CC BY-SA 4.0)

In his first book, Wikipedia, Work, and Capitalism. A Realm of Freedom?,[1] Arwid Lund, lecturer in the program of Information Studies (ALM: Archives, Libraries and Museums) at Uppsala Universitet, Sweden investigates the ideologies that he believes are shared by participants in peer-production projects like Wikipedia. The author typologizes the ways that Wikipedians understand their activities, including “playing v. gaming” and “working v. labouring,” (113-115) to explore his hypothesis that “there is a link between how Wikipedians look upon their activities and how they look upon capitalism.” (117) Lund characterizes peer-production projects by their shared resistance to information capitalism—things like copyright and pay-walled publishing, which they see as limiting creativity and innovation. His thesis is provocative. He claims that the anti-corporatist ideologies intrinsic to peer production and to Wikipedia are unrealistic because capitalism always finds a way to monetize free content. Overall, the book touches on many issues not usually discussed within the Wikipedia community, but which might be a useful entry point for those who want to consider the social impacts of the project.

Lund uses a combination of social critique and qualitative interviews conducted in 2012 to provide supporting evidence for his thesis. One recurrent theme is that Wikipedia is part of a larger trend in gamification—a design technique developed in Human–computer interaction (HCI) to describe the process of using features associated with “play” to motivate interaction and engagement with an interface. One example he gives is that editors report that they find Wikipedia’s competitive and confrontational elements to be game-like. (143-144) He also claims that Wikipedians’ descriptions of their work and play balance changes as they take on more levels of responsibility and professionalism in the community, such as adminship. Still, it’s highly questionable whether the 8 interviews, which mainly focus on the Swedish Wikipedia, are a sufficient sample size to make his claims scalable.

The culture of Wikipedia valorizes altruism in its embrace of volunteering for the project to produce information for the greater good. Lund argues that Wikipedians’ belief in the altruistic aspect of the project, makes it easy for them to depoliticize their work and to ignore the how Wikipedia participates in the corporate, information economy. To him, Wikipedia is symptomatic of the devaluation of digital work, when in past generations, making an encyclopedia might be a source of income and employment opportunities for contributors.

So, he argues, contributors believe that peer production represents a space of increased autonomy, democracy, and creativity in the production of ideas. But from his view, attempts at a “counter-economy,” “hacker communism,” or “gift economies” (239, 303) are prone to manipulation, because we can’t create utopian bubbles within capitalism that aren’t privy to its influence. Still, peer production projects operate as if creation of value outside of the capitalist system is possible. Lund argues that Wikipedia cannot avoid competition with proprietary companies which see Wikipedia as a threat, and have an interest in harvesting its content for their own benefit. (218) Yet it would be nice if he brought in more examples to make this claim. The reader is left wondering who these corporate interests are, and what exactly they derive from Wikipedia. Having this information would help us understand where Lund is coming from.

Marxist linguist V.N. Volosinov, one of the references for Lund’s analysis

Although the word “work” in the title might suggest that Lund focuses on wage labour, the author’s aims are more broad, and he uses the word to connote a variety of aspects of social, value-producing activities. (20) Namely, the production of “use-value,” the Marxist term for the productive social activity of creating things which are deemed useful and thus of value to be bought and sold in the market (even if producers don’t consider their work to be commodities). He draws from Marxist thinkers and semioticians, among them V.N. Volosinov, Terry Eagleton, and Louis Althusser, to unpack different approaches to describing why Wikipedians might feel like they are playing when they are really working. (107-108) Marxists call such assumptions “false consciousness,” but the concept is difficult because it requires us to analyze manifest and latent (discursive and non-discursive) awareness. It would have been useful for Lund to look at how the fields of anthropology or psychology talk about ideology. Both fields have extensively researched the topic. More stringent ethnographic or qualitative methods might have also made his argument more convincing. But, based on the references he provides, it seems that the book’s target audience may be media theorists and social scientists, people who already familiar with Marxist political economy.

Lund makes a compelling case that capitalism instrumentalizes freely-produced knowledge for its own monetary gains. Meanwhile, he says, Wikipedia’s design and its heavily ideological agenda, make it difficult for the community to address the issue. The book is an interesting contribution to ongoing conversations about how Wikipedia and projects motivated by copyleft principles can be defined from a social perspective.

How does unemployment affect reading and editing Wikipedia ? The impact of the Great Recession

Review by Tilman Bayer

A discussion paper titled “Economic Downturn and Volunteering: Do Economic Crises Affect Content Generation on Wikipedia?”[2] investigates how “drastically increased unemployment” affects contribution to and readership of Wikipedia. To study this question statistically, the authors (three economists from the Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW) in Mannheim, Germany) regarded the Great Recession that began in 2008 as an “exogeneous shock” that affected unemployment rates in different European countries differently and at different times. They relate these rates to five metrics for the language version of Wikipedia that corresponds to each country:

“(1) aggregate views per month, (2) the number of active Wikipedians with a modest number of monthly edits ranging from 5 to 100, (3) the number of active Wikipedians with more than 100 monthly edits, (4) edits per article, and (5) the content growth of a corresponding language edition of Wikipedia in terms of words”

For each of these, the Wikimedia Foundation publishes monthly numbers. Since the researchers did not have access to country-level breakdowns of this data (which is not published for every country/language combination due to privacy reasons, except for some monthly or quarterly overviews which the authors may have overlooked, but only start in 2009 anyway), “to study the relationship of country level unemployment on an entire Wikipedia, we need to focus on countries which have an (ideally) unique language”. This excluded some of the European countries that were most heavily affected by the 2008 crisis, e.g. the UK, Spain or Portugal, but still left them with 22 different language versions of Wikipedia to study.

An additional analysis focuses on district-level (Kreise) employment data from Germany and the German Wikipedia, respectively. None of the five metrics are available with that geographical resolution, so the authors resorted to the geolocation data for the (public) IP addresses of anonymous edits (which for several large German ISPs is usually more precise than in many other countries).

In both parts of the analysis, the economic data is related to the Wikipedia participation metrics using a relatively simple statistical approach (difference in differences), whose robustness is however vetted using various means. Still, since in some cases the comparison only included 9 months before and after the start of the crisis (instead of an entire year or several years), this leaves open the question of seasonality (e.g. it is well-known that Wikipedia pageviews are generally down in the summer, possibly due to factors like vacationing that might differ depending on the economic situation).

Summarizing their results, the authors write:

“we find that increased unemployment is associated with higher participation of volunteers in Wikipedia and an increased rate of content generation. With higher unemployment, articles are read more frequently and the number of highly active users increases, suggesting that existing editors also increase their activity. Moreover, we find robust evidence that the number of edits per article increases, and slightly weaker support for an increased overall content growth. We find the overall effect to be rather positive than negative, which is reassuring news if the encyclopedia functions as an important knowledge base for the economy.”

While leaving open the precise mechanism of these effects, the researchers speculate that “it seems that new editors begin to acquire new capabilities and devote their time to producing public goods. While we observe overall content growth, we could not find robust evidence for an increase in the number of new articles per day […]. This suggests that the increased participation is focused on adding to the existing knowledge, rather than providing new topics or pages. Doing so requires less experience than creating new articles, which may be interpreted as a sign of learning by the new contributors.”

The paper also includes an informative literature review summarizing interesting research results on unemployment, leisure time and volunteering in general. (For example, that “conditional on having Internet access, poorer people spend more time online than wealthy people as they have a lower opportunity cost of time.” Also some gender-specific results that, combined with Wikipedia’s well-known gender gap, might have suggested a negative effect of rising unemployment on editing activity: “Among men, working more hours is even positively correlated with participation in volunteering” and on the other hand “unemployment has a negative effect on men’s volunteering, which is not the case for women.”)

It has long been observed how Wikipedia relies on the leisure time of educated people, in particular by Clay Shirky, who coined the term “cognitive surplus” for it, the title of his 2010 book. The present study provides important insights into a particular aspect of this (although the authors caution that economic crises do not uniformly increase spare time, e.g. “employed people may face larger pressure in their paid job”, reducing their available time for editing Wikipedia). The paper might have benefited from including a look at the available demographic data about the life situations of Wikipedia editors (e.g. in the 2012 Wikipedia Editor survey, 60% of respondents were working full-time or part-time, and 39% were school or university students, with some overlap).

Briefly

How complete are Wikidata entries?

Author’s summary by Simon Razniewski

While human-created knowledge bases (KBs) such as Wikidata provide usually high-quality data (precision), it is generally hard to understand their completeness. A conference paper titled “Assessing the Completeness of Entities in Knowledge Bases”[3] proposes to assess the relative completeness of entities in knowledge bases, based on comparing the extent of information with other similar entities. It outlines building blocks of this approach, and present a prototypical implementation, which is available on Wikidata as Recoin (http://ift.tt/2sB0ySl).

“Cardinal Virtues: Extracting Relation Cardinalities from Text”

Author’s summary by Simon Razniewski

Information extraction (IE) from text has largely focused on relations between individual entities, such as who has won which award. However, some facts are never fully mentioned, and no IE method has perfect recall. Thus, it is beneficial to also tap contents about the cardinalities of these relations, for example, how many awards someone has won. This paper[4] introduces this novel problem of extracting cardinalities and discusses the specific challenges that set it apart from standard IE. It present a distant supervision method using conditional random fields. A preliminary evaluation that compares information extracted from Wikipedia with that available on Wikidata shows a precision between 3% and 55%, depending on the difficulty of relations.

Conferences and events

See the research events page on Meta-wiki for upcoming conferences and events, including submission deadlines.

Other recent publications

Other recent publications that could not be covered in time for this issue include the items listed below. contributions are always welcome for reviewing or summarizing newly published research.

Compiled by Tilman Bayer
  • “Learning by comparing with Wikipedia: the value to students’ learning”[5] From the paper: “The main purpose of this research work is to describe and evaluate a learning technique that actively uses Wikipedia in an online master’s degree course in Statistics. It is based on the comparison between Wikipedia content and standard academic learning materials. We define this technique as ‘learning by comparing’. […] The main result of the paper shows that […] active use of Wikipedia in the learning process, through the learning-by-comparing technique, improves the students’ academic performance. […] The main findings on the students’ perceived quality of Wikipedia indicate that they agree with the idea that the encyclopaedia is complete, reliable, current and useful. Although there is a positive perception of quality, there are some quality factors that obtain better scores than others. The most valued quality aspect was the currentness of the content, and the least valued was its completeness.”
  • “Use and awareness of Wikipedia among the M.C.A students of C. D. Jain college of commerce, Shrirampur : A Study”[6]
  • “Comparative assessment of three quality frameworks for statistics derived from big data: the cases of Wikipedia page views and Automatic Identification Systems”[7] From the abstract: ” We apply these three quality frameworks in the context of ‘experimental’ cultural statistics based on Wikipedia page views”
  • “Discovery and efficient reuse of technology pictures using Wikimedia infrastructures. A proposal”[8] From the abstract: “With our proposal, we hope to serve a broad audience which looks up a scientific or technical term in a web search portal first. Until now, this audience has little chance to find an openly accessible and reusable image narrowly matching their search term on first try ..”
  • “Extracting scientists from Wikipedia”[9] From the abstract: “… we describe a system that gathers information from Wikipedia articles and existing data from Wikidata, which is then combined and put in a searchable database. This system is dedicated to making the process of finding scientists both quicker and easier.”
  • “Where the streets have known names”[10] From the abstract: “We present (1) a technique to establish a correspondence between street names and the entities that they refer to. The method is based on Wikidata, a knowledge base derived from Wikipedia. The accuracy of this mapping is evaluated on a sample of streets in Rome. As this approach reaches limited coverage, we propose to tap local knowledge with (2) a simple web platform. … As a result, we design (3) an enriched OpenStreetMap web map where each street name can be explored in terms of the properties of its associated entity.”

References

  1. Lund, Arwid (2017). Wikipedia, Work, and Capitalism. Springer: Dynamics of Virtual Work. ISBN 9783319506890. 
  2. Kummer, Michael E.; Slivko, Olga; Zhang, Xiaoquan (Michael) (2015-11-01). Economic Downturn and Volunteering: Do Economic Crises Affect Content Generation on Wikipedia?. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network. 
  3. Ahmeti, Albin; Razniewski, Simon; Polleres, Axel (2017). Assessing the Completeness of Entities in Knowledge Bases. ESWC. 
  4. Mirza, Paramita; Razniewski, Simon; Darari, Fariz; Weikum, Gerhard (2017). Cardinal Virtues: Extracting Relation Cardinalities from Text. ACL. 
  5. Meseguer-Artola, Antoni (2014-05-26). “Aprenent mitjançant la comparació amb la Wikipedia: la seva importància en l’aprenentatge dels estudiants”. RUSC. Universities and Knowledge Society Journal 11 (2): 57–69. ISSN 1698-580X. doi:10.7238/rusc.v11i2.2042.  (“Learning by comparing with Wikipedia: the value to students’ learning”, in English with Catalan abstract)
  6. Pathade, Prasad R. “Use and awareness of Wikipedia among the M.C.A students of C. D. Jain college of commerce, Shrirampur : A Study” (PDF). International Multidisciplinary e-Journal. ISSN 2277-4262. 
  7. Reis, Fernando; di Consiglio, Loredana; Kovachev, Bogomil; Wirthmann, Albrecht; Skaliotis, Michail (June 2016). Comparative assessment of three quality frameworks for statistics derived from big data: the cases of Wikipedia page views and Automatic Identification Systems (PDF). European Conference on Quality in Official Statistics (Q2016). Madrid. p. 16. 
  8. Heller; Blümel; Cartellieri; Wartena. “Discovery and efficient reuse of technology pictures using Wikimedia infrastructures. A proposal”. Zenodo. doi:10.5281/zenodo.51562. 
  9. Ekenstierna, Gustaf Harari; Lam, Victor Shu-Ming (2016). “Extracting Scientists from Wikipedia”. From Digitization to Knowledge 2016. p. 8. 
  10. Almeida, Paulo Dias; Rocha, Jorge Gustavo; Ballatore, Andrea; Zipf, Alexander (2016-07-04). “Where the Streets Have Known Names”. In Osvaldo Gervasi, Beniamino Murgante, Sanjay Misra, Ana Maria A. C. Rocha, Carmelo M. Torre, David Taniar, Bernady O. Apduhan, Elena Stankova, Shangguang Wang (eds.). Computational Science and Its Applications — ICCSA 2016. Lecture Notes in Computer Science. Springer International Publishing. pp. 1–12. ISBN 9783319420882.  Closed access

Wikimedia Research Newsletter
Vol: 7 • Issue: 3 • March 2017
This newsletter is brought to you by the Wikimedia Research Committee and The Signpost
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Wikimedia Foundation v. NSA: Why we’re here and where we’re going

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The National Security Agency’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. Photo by Trevor Paglen/Creative Time Reports, public domain.

For the last two years, the Wikimedia Foundation has been fighting in the United States federal courts to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of Wikimedia users from overly-broad government  surveillance. We challenged the U.S. National Security Agency’s (NSA) “Upstream” mass surveillance of the internet, which vacuums up international text-based online communications without individualized warrants or suspicion. Now, in the wake of an important court ruling in our favor, we take a closer look at Wikimedia Foundation v. NSA.

On May 23, 2017, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Wikimedia Foundation has adequately alleged standing to challenge the NSA’s Upstream surveillance of internet traffic and may proceed to the next stage of the case. Specifically, the court found that the Foundation has adequately alleged the suspicionless seizure and searching of its internet communications through Upstream surveillance.  The Fourth Circuit’s decision is an important, but still intermediate, victory for online privacy and free expression.  In this blog post, we’ll provide some background on the case and the practices it challenges, look at the most recent ruling, and discuss our next steps.

How we got here

In March 2015, we joined eight other co-plaintiffs (represented pro bono by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)) to file a lawsuit challenging the NSA’s Upstream surveillance practices. However, the events that precipitated our case began much earlier.

In 1978, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which regulates the collection of communications that fall into the category of “foreign intelligence information” on U.S. soil. FISA required the government to show probable cause to a court that a particular surveillance target was a “foreign power” or an agent thereof.

However, in 2008, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments Act (FAA) amended FISA to authorize the government to monitor communications of non-U.S. persons for “foreign intelligence information” without establishing probable cause or making any individualized showing to a court. And in 2013, public disclosures of NSA documents revealed the massive scope of the surveillance practices allegedly authorized by the FAA, including “Upstream” surveillance.

Upstream surveillance involves installing devices at major “chokepoints” along the internet backbone. The NSA then seizes international text-based communications passing through these chokepoints and combs through those communications for so-called “selectors” associated with tens of thousands of targets. Although the NSA claims that Section 702 of FISA authorizes Upstream surveillance, we believe that its scope exceeds what is actually allowed by the statute. This broad surveillance also infringes several provisions of the U.S. Constitution, including: the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech and association; the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures; and Article III, which grants specific powers to the judicial branch of government.

At the District Court, the government asserted that the Wikimedia Foundation and our co-plaintiffs lacked standing. Standing is a legal concept that determines whether a party has alleged a specific injury and has a right to bring a claim in court. The government argued that we lacked standing because we had not plausibly alleged that the NSA actually intercepted and searched our communications. The District Court considered only the standing issue, agreed with the government, and granted its motion to dismiss. We then appealed to the Fourth Circuit, explaining how and why we have standing in this case.   

Why we’re here

Privacy and free expression rights are fundamental to the Wikimedia Foundation’s vision of empowering everyone to share in the sum of all human knowledge.  Our mission depends on maintaining the privacy and confidentiality of user communications and activities, so as to encourage trust among community members and foster the creation and dissemination of free educational content.

In supporting Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia projects, we communicate with hundreds of millions of individuals who read or contribute to the repository of human knowledge. These communications often contain personally identifying, sensitive, or confidential information about users, our staff, and the Foundation. Suspicionless searches of these communications are like searching the patron records of the largest library in the world.

We strive to keep this information confidential, and always put user privacy first. The Wikimedia Foundation privacy policy limits what data we collect, how much we share, and how long we retain it. We never sell user information or share it with third parties for marketing purposes. In June 2015, we implemented HTTPS across the projects, which permit anonymous and pseudonymous participation as one of their key principles of operation.

We filed this lawsuit as another step in our efforts to stand up for Wikimedia users, and protect their ability to read and share knowledge freely and confidentially.

Where we’re going

The Fourth Circuit’s recent decision is a major step in the fight against mass surveillance. Notably, all three judges on the panel found that the Wikimedia Foundation had established standing, by alleging sufficient facts to defeat the government’s motion to dismiss. By a 2-1 vote, however, the panel upheld the lower court’s finding that our eight co-plaintiffs did not have standing. The third judge on the panel would have found that all nine plaintiffs had standing.

This important ruling is the most recent in a series of cases in which U.S. courts have permitted challenges to mass surveillance to go forward. This past October, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that an individual plaintiff had standing to challenge the NSA’s PRISM program, which collects internet communications directly from service providers. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)’s Jewel v. NSA case has also scored some legal victories, most recently when a District Court allowed EFF to conduct discovery from the government. Two other courts ruled against the U.S. government’s bulk collection of call records, which helped prompt the U.S. Congress to enact some positive reforms.  

These cases partially reverse a previous trend in which courts were less skeptical of government snooping. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the plaintiffs in Clapper v. Amnesty International did not have did not have standing to challenge mass surveillance on the ground that their claims were too speculative. However, the global surveillance disclosures following the Clapper decision have revealed a great deal about the true scope and scale of the U.S. government’s suspicionless surveillance practices. This information has prompted courts to conclude that Clapper doesn’t foreclose every challenge to government surveillance in the name of national security. Encouragingly, some plaintiffs—like the Foundation in this case—are increasingly afforded the opportunity to reach the merits of their claims, though many continue to face an uphill battle.  

These victories come as Section 702 of FISA is scheduled to sunset in December 2017. Section 702 sets out the process the U.S. government must follow for obtaining authorization to target non-U.S. persons reasonably believed to be abroad, including their communications with persons in the U.S. It also broadened the scope of surveillance beyond foreign powers and their agents to, for example, any information the government believes relates to the “foreign affairs” of the United States. No particularity or probable cause is necessary.  

Regardless of the outcome in the courts, this year’s reauthorization debate represents an important opportunity for reform. Upstream’s many statutory and constitutional deficiencies must be fixed, and we welcome a public conversation about the importance of protecting internet users’ privacy and expressive freedoms.

Even though we have won this appeal, our fight against the NSA’s overbroad surveillance practices is far from over. We are closely reviewing the opinion with our counsel at the ACLU and our co-plaintiffs to determine the next steps, and we will continue to publish updates to keep Wikimedia users informed.

Want to learn even more about Wikimedia Foundation v. NSA?

An updated timeline, frequently asked questions, and more resources about this case can be found at our Wikimedia Foundation v. NSA resources page.  To view any of the legal documents or decisions in this case, check out the ACLU’s page.  Finally, if you want to add your voice to the cause, consider talking about your support on social media, or sharing the ACLU’s infographic about the case.

Jim Buatti, Legal Counsel
Aeryn Palmer, Legal Counsel

Thanks to Allison Davenport and Nick Gross for their assistance in preparing this blog post. Special thanks to all who have supported us in this litigation, including the ACLU’s Patrick Toomey and Ashley Gorski; the Knight Institute’s Jameel Jaffer and Alex Abdo; Aarti Reddy, Patrick Gunn, and Ben Kleine of our pro bono counsel Cooley, LLP; and the Wikimedia Foundation’s Zhou Zhou.

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Why does Venezuelan photographer Wilfredo Rodríguez donate his work to the world?

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Photo by User:The Photographer (Wilfredo Rodríguez), public domain.

Wilfredo Rodríguez was born in a modest Venezuelan house, not unlike the one seen above, on the small Caribbean island of Margarita. Its size, however, does not measure up to its beauty and cultural heritage—and that’s something Rodríguez, better known on Wikimedia projects by his username “The Photographer,” helps the world understand.

Rodríguez joined the Wikimedia movement over a decade ago, during which time he has contributed over 40,000 images to Wikimedia Commons, the free educational media repository. Unlike many others, he has actively decided to release many of his photos into the public domain, giving up the right to be credited when his work is shared.

His photos have been displayed in some of the world’s largest exhibitions, and hundreds of his photos are promoted by the Wikimedia community as featured photos and quality images, the highest quality markers on the project.

Rodríguez’ early childhood gives us a clue as to what he would eventually bring to that open movement.

Head of an Iguana in Venezuela. Photo by The Photographer (Wilfredo Rodríguez), public domain.

Photo by The Photographer (Wilfredo Rodríguez), public domain.

When Rodríguez was growing up, a spring would continually bubble up from a hill near his house, creating a small river. He found himself fascinated by the natural phenomenon and the animals nearby that depended on it for survival, so much so that he took to carrying a notebook to sketch the trees and iguanas that lived there. In fact, his interest was so keen that his childhood nickname was ‘iguana’.

His childhood was, however, not entirely spent underneath these trees: “I do not remember feeling any lack or need during my childhood,” he says, “but in my adulthood I discovered that my parents sometimes didn’t eat to feed me and my sister during the 1980s crisis in Venezuela. It was a very difficult period for my country, in which I managed to continue studying.”

Photo by The Photographer (Wilfredo Rodríguez), public domain.

Despite the ongoing crisis, Rodríguez was able to attend a local university and chose to specialize in systems engineering, a less preferred yet promising field of study when considering the best job opportunities. Rodríguez excelled in the field and graduated with the second highest scores in his class. Given his photographic interests today, it does not take a rocket scientist to guess what his family graduation gift to him was.

“My first camera was a great financial burden for my family,” he says, “but it was a graduation gift. I remember that it was a generic Chinese brand and could only take three-megapixel photos. Still, it allowed me to do incredible things when using it in combination with magnifying loupes and some improvised binoculars.”

Photo by The Photographer (Wilfredo Rodríguez), public domain.

Though he contributes mostly as a photographer today, Rodríguez’s first steps in the Wikimedia movement displayed a decidedly different area of interest. Rodríguez had first volunteered for Kiwix, the free software that allows searching and reading Wikipedia without an internet connection.

“I believe that something needs to be done to bring this knowledge to the remote areas of my country,” says Rodríguez, as he hopes to mitigate the impact of government censorship and what Human Rights Watch has called the “humanitarian crisis” happening in his country. “Those areas without the internet are in dire need of help,” he believes.

As part of the Kiwix project, Rodríguez installed the software in hundreds of information centers in Venezuela with the support of Emmanuel Engelhart, the developer behind Kiwix, and César Wilfredo, a fellow Wikipedian from Venezuela.

Rodríguez then began to turn his efforts to taking photos of his country and uploading them to Wikimedia Commons. This step was, in his words, “a way to protest” by finding a way to show the challenges of daily life there. “I always thought,” he says, “that what I was trying to show was more important than my life, because what I was doing was going to remain for future generations.” This sometimes included rather dangerous journeys:

I remember climbing the Bolivar and Humboldt peaks at 5000 meters (16,400 ft) above sea level to capture the melting of the mountains’ remaining glaciers. … It took eight days of hiking and climbing with 60-kilogram (130 lb) backpacks. The trip was very difficult and extreme. I had prepared for almost a year, but we still had serious issues with food after one of the members of the team left the group leaving us without food. We continued for 3 more days practically without eating.

I took some good shots; however, above 5000 meters, it is difficult to take pictures because of the lack of oxygen.

The most dangerous thing I did was to travel to ranches in Caracas, though, which was potentially fatal because of crime and anti-government protests taking place at the time of my trip.”

Photo by The Photographer (Wilfredo Rodríguez), public domain.

It is not an easy decision for a photographer to give up their rights in a photo by sharing it in the public domain, especially when there is a long and arduous adventure behind it, but Rodríguez had a different view about this: “I think the message is more important than the author. I know that for some photographers it is important that they receive credit for the photo, and I respect that opinion, but I don’t think about my work this way.”

As a result, Rodríguez had his photos exhibited at the French National Museum of Natural History, Encyclopedia Britannica, local galleries in Maracaibo, and many other places.

Photo by The Photographer (Wilfredo Rodríguez), public domain.

Photo by The Photographer (Wilfredo Rodríguez), public domain.

Photo by The Photographer (Wilfredo Rodríguez), CC BY-SA 4.0.

Wilfredo Rodríguez. Photo by The Photographer (Wilfredo Rodríguez), CC BY-SA 4.0.

Samir Elsharbaty, Digital Content Intern
Wikimedia Foundation

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Community digest: ‘Faras in Wikipedia’ project scoops the Sybilla Museum Event of the Year prize; news in brief

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Photo by Natalia Szafran-Kozakowska/Wikimedia Poland, CC BY-SA 4.0.

In Greek mythology, sibyls were oracle women with divine inspiration who could prophesy future events and were symbols for wisdom and insightfulness.

They are also the namesake for the ‘Sybillas’, annual national awards for the most innovative and valuable work by museum professionals across Poland, presented by the National Institute of Museology and the Ministry of Culture.

This year’s prize for Digitization and New Media went to the National Museum in Warsaw and their Faras in Wikipedia project. Faras in Wikipedia was one of two candidates in the Digitization and New Media category. The runner-up was the National Maritime Museum in Gdańsk, with their effort to contribute the museum’s digitized collection on Wikimedia Commons.

The winners, and up to four shortlisted candidates, are selected in 10 categories like exhibitions, conservation and restoration, and education. Over 250 projects were submitted to the competition.

Faras in Wikipedia was coordinated by Wikipedians, volunteers, and National Museum staff. The museum uploaded a wide range of images to Wikimedia Commons that display the newly renovated Faras Gallery, individual wall paintings and artifacts from the Faras Cathedral, and documentary photos of the archaeological excavation work conducted in Faras in the 1960s.

The images were used to illustrate several dozen new Wikipedia articles about the Gallery, the treasures it hosts, and the achievements of Polish archaeologists. They were written by a group of volunteers—students and specialists in archaeology, cultural studies and art history.

The participating volunteers got to know more about the history of the gallery and its artworks. Maria Drozdek, the Wikipedian in residence at the National Museum, taught them basic editing skills on Wikipedia at the same time.

The project has significantly improved the quality of Wikipedia articles about the Faras Gallery at the National Museum in Warsaw, Polish archeologist Kazimierz Michałowski, artworks from the Faras Cathedral, such as Saint Anne or Bishop Petros with Saint Peter the Apostle and many others. Contributions were added in Polish, English, Russian, Belarusian, and other languages and Aleksandra Sulikowska-Bełczowska, curator of the Nubian Collection at the NMW, helped proofread the material added by volunteers.

The project concluded with the ‘Digital Museum’ conference, which discussed the Faras project, a bilingual publication, and other open GLAM projects.

The Sybillas acknowledges equal participation in the project by both the museum and the participating Wikipedians. Drozdek was the first Wikipedian-in-residence to be hired by a Polish museum. The success of projects at the National Museum was surprising for the GLAM Wikipedia community, which is looking forward to future projects that can share knowledge about the treasures of Polish art and culture.

Marta Malina Moraczewska,
Wojciech Pędzich
Wikimedia Poland

In brief

Photo by Elitre, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Bologna hosts an editathon on videogames and science-fiction movies: Last month, the Cineteca di Bologna, a movie and videogame archive in Italy hosted an editathon (editing workshop), where the participants worked on improving Wikipedia articles about science-fiction movies and videogames. The event was attended by experienced Wikipedia editors in addition to gamers and film enthusiasts. The event resulted in improving many Wikipedia articles.

Wikimedians in Poland get together for their annual meeting: Nearly 70 wikimedians gathered in Bydgoszcz, Poland for the annual Wikimedia Poland (Polska) conference. The conference took place from 2nd till 4th June. Participants attended a variety of workshops, presentations and panel discussions. Some part of the program focused on practical editing workshops, while, the largest part was focused on organizing live events. Wikimedia Poland’s general assembly saw volunteers, board members and staff discussing achievements, challenges, projects and future plans of the chapter.

Photo by Nevenka Mancheva, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Macedonian Wikipedians hold a series of architecture editathons: Last year, Wikimedians in Macedonia partnered with the architectural design center in Macedonia on organizing editing workshops with a special focus on architecture. The workshops aim at improving the content on Macedonian Wikipedia about architecture. The most recent event in this series was a two-day editathon on 23 and 24 May 2017, where the attendees spent the first day learning the editing basics while the second day was dedicated to improving Wikipedia pages.

Wikimania 2017: The annual conference of the Wikimedia movement will be held this year on 9-13 August at Le Centre Sheraton Montréal in Canada. The venue will host most of the conference, hackathon, meetups, and pre-events. Most of the foundation staff and scholarship recipients will be housed there as well. Early bird discounted registration for the conference is now open until 10 July and the draft program for the conference has been posted on Wikimania 2017 website.

Wikimedia Affiliations Committee is open to candidates: The Affiliations Committee, the committee responsible for guiding volunteers in establishing Wikimedia chapters, thematic organizations, and user groups, is looking for new members.

The Committee members help review applications from new groups, answer questions and provide advice about the different Wikimedia affiliation models and processes, review affiliate bylaws for compliance with requirements and best practices, and advise the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees on issues connected to chapters, thematic organizations and Wikimedia user groups. More information about the Committee, membership requirements and how to apply can be found on Wikimedia-l.

Compiled and edited by Samir Elsharbaty, Digital Content Intern
Wikimedia Foundation

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Writing Wikipedia articles teaches information literacy skills, study finds

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Photo by Jami Mathewson/Wiki Education Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Instructors in more than 90 countries worldwide assign their students to edit Wikipedia as a class assignment. Today, the Wiki Education Foundation (Wiki Ed) is releasing the results from the most comprehensive study ever undertaken to evaluate student learning outcomes from Wikipedia assignments. The study concludes that Wikipedia assignments provide students valuable digital/information literacy, critical research, teamwork, and technology skills, and students are more motivated by these assignments than they are by traditional writing assignments.

Wiki Ed is an independent nonprofit organization that supports college and university faculty in the United States and Canada to assign their students to edit Wikipedia articles. In 2016–17, Wiki Ed sponsored Dr. Zachary McDowell at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (now at the University of Illinois at Chicago) to conduct a research study on the student learning outcomes for students in Wiki Ed’s program. With approval from the University of Massachusetts Amherst Human Research Protection Office, Dr. McDowell conducted a mixed-methods research study using surveys and focus groups on students and instructors participating in Wiki Ed’s program in the fall 2016 term. That term, more than 6,000 students in more than 270 courses edited Wikipedia as a class assignment.

See the full report on Wikimedia Commons..

Among the study’s findings:

  • 96% of instructors thought the Wikipedia assignment was more or much more valuable for teaching students digital literacy than traditional assignments are
  • 85% of instructors thought the Wikipedia assignment was more or much more valuable for teaching students the reliability of online sources
  • 79% of instructors thought the Wikipedia assignment was more or much more valuable for teaching students to write clearly for the general public
  • Wikipedia assignments shift students’ perceptions of Wikipedia’s reliability to show more trust in Wikipedia
  • Students are more motivated to complete Wikipedia assignments, particularly because they perceived work to be useful beyond the classroom
  • Students’ skill development from Wikipedia assignments maps well to the Association of College and Research Libraries’ Information Literacy Framework, particularly:
    • Authority is constructed and contextual
    • Information creation as a process
    • Information has value
    • Scholarship as conversation

These findings demonstrate the value that comes from learning to edit Wikipedia for the first time, something critical for program leaders within the Wikimedia movement. A large student learning outcomes study provides program leaders trying to convince new instructors, administrators, or organizations the data behind the skills that can come from learning to edit Wikipedia articles.

The full research report and all of the data, codebooks, and other documentation from the study are freely licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. We encourage others to conduct additional analysis on the data, and hope to continue to advance our understanding of student learning outcomes from Wikipedia-based assignments with future research.

LiAnna Davis, Director of Programs and Deputy Director
Wiki Education Foundation

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Discussing fake news and the NSA lawsuit at Yale

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Photo by Nick Allen, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Over the years, the Wikimedia Foundation and Yale Law School have established an ongoing research and educational affiliation and collaboration during which both Yale students and faculty and the Foundation have participated in symposia, presentations, and conferences, hosted by either Yale or Wikimedia. Furthermore, students and new graduates from Yale have held internships and fellowships at Wikimedia and Yale researchers have engaged in collaborative research with Wikimedia.

Given Wikimedia’s mission and interests, one of Wikimedia’s fundamental activities is to directly contribute to the research and education mission of Yale and other institutions of higher education. The ongoing affiliation and collaboration between the parties has benefited both sides by allowing for the advancement of public policy research, the exchange of new ideas about the regulations and laws of online platforms, and mentorship opportunities for promising students and new graduates from Yale to better understand the Wiki-model of knowledge creation.

As a continuation of this affiliation, members of the Wikimedia legal team visited Yale for two events this past spring.

On March 7, Jacob Rogers, an attorney from the Wikimedia Foundation, attended a panel at Yale Law School on addressing the topic of fake news and false information online. The panel brought together a number of academics, news publishers, and online platforms to discuss the nature of the problem and look into proposed solutions. The discussion focused on the complexity of the problem, with falsehoods potentially arising from misunderstandings and honest attempts to get things right in a complex world as well as from intentionally malicious misleading information. One solution discussed was the use of crowdsourcing, and the panelists looked at Wikipedia’s model to try and understand how some crowdsourced projects succeed with motivated, empowered volunteers. The panel also discussed different approaches to automation and the idea of combining automated tools with human review to reach a better result than either can accomplish alone.

On March 21, James Buatti and Zhou Zhou, attorneys at the Wikimedia Foundation, delivered a presentation on the Wikimedia v. NSA lawsuit to the Yale community. The presentation provided background for some of the known U.S. government surveillance programs, information about the history of litigation against these programs, the ongoing status of Wikimedia v. NSA lawsuit, and previewed possible new changes and implications for the government surveillance under the new administration. The Foundation attorneys had an extended discussion with audience members afterwards, who, among other things, expressed appreciation for the presentation’s explanation of the differences and similarities of the various government surveillance programs. The audience also provided their own valuable insights on how surveillance power might be balanced with the need to protect civil liberties within a proper and practical legal and policy framework.

Events like these recent ones at Yale help the Wikimedia Foundation share our unique values and processes with the outside world and build support, by educating prominent members of the legal and policy community, for the causes we believe in and fight for. As such, we look forward to continuing our affiliation and collaboration with Yale for many years to come.

Jacob Rodgers, Legal Counsel
Zhou Zhou, Legal Counsel
Wikimedia Foundation

For more information about Wikimedia’s perspective on public policy issues and to stay engaged, please visit the Foundation’s public policy page and join the Wikimedia movement’s mailing list. Academic and research institutions who wish to connect with members of the Wikimedia legal and public policy team about these topics are also welcome to email the team at policy@wikimedia.org.

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Investigating a mysterious performance improvement

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Photo by USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab, public domain.

Late last month, Jon Robson, a software developer at the Wikimedia Foundation, pinged me about a performance improvement that his team had noticed. On our mobile site, large wiki articles appeared to load faster in our testing environment, according to WebPageTest, a web performance tool that we use to measure how fast above-the-fold content is displayed.

You can see the way the improvement looked in the image below, which shows a sudden drop in page load time. (This is called the SpeedIndex, where a lower number indicates a faster load time.)

Pat Meenan, the author of WebPageTest, describes SpeedIndex as the “average time at which visible parts of the page are displayed. It is expressed in milliseconds and dependent on size of the view port.”

The actual mathematical definition is a bit more complicated, but essentially it captures how fast an end user sees content above-the-fold for a given screen size and internet connection speed. We run different profiles in WebPageTest representing different kinds of devices and internet speeds, because sometimes performance changes only affect some devices or some types of connection speeds or some types of wiki pages, even.

In the case of the WebPageTest test spotted by Robson, the drop in page load time was taking place on mobile phone-sized screens using a simulated 3G network.

It was time for an internal investigation: why was this happening? What was the root cause?

As we do for every suspected performance improvement or regression from an unknown cause, we filed a task for it, tagged the Performance-Team, and began digging a little deeper. (If you ever come across something odd related to performance, you can create a task directly and tag the Performance-Team—which will get our attention.)

Comparing synthetic testing and real user metrics

When a change like this happens in a testing environment, we first verify whether or not a similar change can be seen in our real user metrics. Specifically, we look at Navigation Timing in Grafana, which indicates the loading milestones the browser reports.

This is because we can’t use SpeedIndex to measure the page load time of real users. Our real user metrics are limited by the JavaScript APIs available in browser to measure page load speed, which are very basic compared to what WepPageTest can do in a testing environment. There’s no way for us to tell, for example, when people can see all images and text above the fold from the client-side code.

We are able, however, to understand when a web browser starts publishing anything on a page. To do this, we use firstPaint, a simple metric reported by some browsers that tells us the point in time when the browser starts painting the page. Though firstPaint measures a different metric than SpeedIndex, there’s an important overlap in the way they measure page statuses: they use the same timeline. In other words, they start measuring what happens on a page at the same start time. This also means it’s common for any  a SpeedIndex change in the testing environment to come with a simultaneous variation in real user metrics like firstPaint. When this happens, it makes our investigation easier because we know it’s not an issue in our telemetry, but a real effect. (When there’s no correlation between synthetic testing metrics and real user metrics, we try different tactics.)

This fundamental difference also means that some performance improvements can improve the site loading time on SpeedIndex, while not changing any metrics on firstPaint or any Navigation Timing metrics. In these cases, we know performance has improved, but we can’t measure how much site load time improved in the real world for people browsing Wikipedia.

This is exactly what happened in this mysterious incident: SpeedIndex metrics improved, but real user metrics didn’t. That doesn’t mean that the site didn’t load faster for our real users—but it’s necessary to understand that Navigation Timing, which measures some milestones in the page load, is only a partial view of performance, and that we can’t always measure performance changes using real user data.

Comparing WebPageTest runs

The next logical step in our investigation was to compare how the page performed on WebPageTest both before and after the performance change. You can see our synthetic tests, which run continuously on our public WebPageTest instance. Here are the steps:

First you want to click on the test history section, which brings you to this view:

Next, click on the show tests from all users checkbox. You should now see all our test runs:

We continuously test a number of pages for the desktop and mobile site, using various simulated internet connection speeds and other metrics. Finding the tests you’re interested with in this historical view requires some manual labour, because you need to manually search for the labels you’re interested in, as the search box only applies to the URL.

WebPageTest does supports a great feature to compare different runs from the history view, but won’t get into that here, though, as the difference in speed is visible from the screenshot of the runs alone. After combing through the history view, I found two runs of the same test. It was for loading the Sweden article on the English Wikipedia, while browsing the mobile site on Chrome with a simulated 3G connection before and after the SpeedIndex drop.

Here’s how it looked before:

And here’s how it looked after:

Notice any difference?

It’s obvious that the content above the fold has changed. The new version displays mostly text above the fold, whereas the old version also contains images. This explains the SpeedIndex improvement: it’s faster to load text than an image, which means that users get content they can consume above-the-fold faster. This is more dramatic on slow connections, which is why this performance improvement showed up on our synthetic testing that simulated a 3G connection.

But was this a deliberate or accidental change?

The next part of the investigation was to determine whether that was an accidental change, or a deliberate one. The first place we examined was the Wikimedia Server Admin Log. Whenever changes are deployed to Wikimedia’s production servers, log entries are added there. Deployments can be individual patches or our weekly deployment train. This part of the investigation is simple: we simply went through the log, looking for anything that happened around the time the performance change happened.

And sure enough, we found this log entry around the time of the performance change:

18:31 thcipriani@tin: Synchronized wmf-config/InitialiseSettings.php: SWAT: mobileFrontend: Move first paragraph before infobox T150325 (duration: 00m 41s)

The task quoted in that log entry, T150325: Move first paragraph before infobox on stable, is a deliberate change to improve the user experience by showing the first section of an article at the top rather than the infobox. While making this change, Foundation engineer Sam Smith (@phuedx) also improved the performance for users on slow internet connections. They will now see the first section of an article above the fold, which they can start reading, instead of a mostly empty infobox whose images are still loading.

So our mystery has been solved, and users on slower connections saw a performance improvement, as well. As for me, well, I put down my deerstalker, calabash pipe, and magnifying glass until the next whodunit and headed back to improving performance on Wikimedia projects.

Gilles Dubuc, Senior Software Engineer (Contractor), Performance
Wikimedia Foundation

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How will external forces hinder or help the future of the Wikimedia movement?

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Photo by Thomas Bresson, CC BY-SA 3.0.

What are the key trends and ideas that will influence the success of the Wikimedia movement in the coming 15 years? This is the question we are delving into as we work alongside the Wikimedia Foundation in its strategic planning process.

We started the work by honing in on the five topics we think are most important to consider for Wikimedia 2030. We offer them here for your consideration and input. Besides researching these themes over the coming weeks, we will also be talking to dozens of nonprofit organizers, tech field leaders, journalists, and researchers to hear their thoughts and speculations about the world Wikimedia projects and participants will inhabit in 2030, and how best to prepare.

This post is the first of several invitations to learn about and get involved in our research project. Future posts will share the information and ideas we are synthesizing, offer the opportunity for dialogue, and provide links to key research and readings we find useful. Aggregate trends and insights will be offered at Wikimania 2017 and will be shared afterwards in a final report.

The five research themes we are exploring:

  • Demographics: Who is in the world in 2030?  What places will the most people call home? Will there be more people over or under the age of 30? Will bots outnumber people? We will give a satellite-high overview of global population trends, focusing on how the biggest growth may be happening within places where Wikimedia has significant headroom for participation and expansion. We will cover trends in technology, literacy, open society, educational attainment, and other key factors as they pertain to our central research themes and to the Wikimedia’s movement’s future.
  • Future of the commons:  What are threats–and what are hopes–for the free flow of knowledge? Many forces are at play that could lead to the contraction or expansion of the open web—from people inhabiting ever-smaller, disconnected filter bubbles online, to at the other extreme, demanding a more open, free, and interconnected information commons. We will sketch out different scenarios around the issues most important to the Wikimedia community: access, censorship, privacy, copyright, and intermediary liability. We will also identify some of the most powerful actors that might shape these futures, from governments to nonprofit standard-setters to corporate agents to malicious individuals.
  • Platforms and content: How will people’s media consumption change, who will be producing that media, and how will they do it? New technologies for communication and information sharing continue to emerge daily. By 2030, what will users expect in terms of the nature of their media consumption and production experiences? Media prognosticators promise inventions that will engage all five senses and turn our brains into a joystick in the process. What interfaces will people regularly use to access and create content? Where will they go to find information, entertainment, distraction or connections, and how will they expect to interact with these activities? How widely available will new tools be? We will consider a range of hardware, software, and content possibilities, from the imminent to the speculative, and examine what these might mean for ways the Wikimedia community evolves.
  • Future of reference and reading: What new information-seeking and creation behaviors are going to emerge? If we used to go to the shelf for the encyclopedia, and now we reach for the phone, what will we be doing in 2030? We’ll take a look at new forms of literacy beyond text and images, the transformation of formal and informal education settings, and problems related to verification. How will people collaborate around complex topics and come to shared understandings in an immersive and densely networked future? How will students employ technology for school work, and who will be creating content, as technology makes it possible for non-experts to create animation, or design games? What skills will adults need to continue to learn in a rapidly transforming world?
  • Misinformation: What can be done to make the knowledge we seek more trustworthy? And what is the next fake news frontier? Traditionally, Wikimedians have relied on transparency of the editing process and hyperlinks to sources to help readers decide if a given entry is comprehensive and fact-based. What would a hyper-transparency look like, where more layers are revealed, showing not just a link to a source but allowing ways to see the context of that source, including its provenance, and how it fits within the universe of sources? How will corporate or government censorship or algorithmic models shape public conversation, for bad, and for good? ..what will the bots be up to?

We welcome your comments and your contributions of links to relevant readings and research we can consider. In the meantime, we are honing our interview list, reading a lot and getting started on sourcing these critical questions.

Our perspective? As a service and a movement that millions rely on every day, Wikimedia’s future vitality is important to everyone on the planet. We are energized by our involvement in futures-facing research that can help guide Wikimedia strategy.

Jessica Clark, Dot Connector Studios
Sarah Lutman, Lutman & Associates

Dot Connector Studios is a Philadelphia-based media research and strategy firm focused on how emerging platforms can be used for social impact.

Lutman & Associates is a St. Paul-based strategy, planning, and evaluation firm focused on the intersections of culture, media, and philanthropy.

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Ten community-led projects awarded Project Grants

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The tomb of Bibi Jawindi in Uch Sharif, Punjab, Pakistan, captured for Wiki Loves Monuments 2016. Photo by Usamashahid433, CC BY-SA 4.0.

We are excited to announce the successful grantees from the third round of the Wikimedia Foundation’s Project Grants program.

Project Grants support individuals, groups and organizations to implement new experiments and proven ideas, whether focused on building a new tool or gadget, organizing a better process on your wiki, researching an important issue, coordinating an editathon series or providing other support for community-building.

We launched the Project Grants program in 2016 to pilot new program designs created in response to community feedback. In early 2017, after two rounds of funding, we conducted a community survey to understand how the changes have impacted our grantees. Our report on the results of that survey are now available on Meta.

Project Grants are reviewed by a volunteer committee currently made up of 17 Wikimedians who come from over 13 different wikis and collectively speak over 15 languages. Outside of our Project Grant committee work, members edit, review, and translate content; help govern local chapters; write software; organize off-wiki events; facilitate workshops; work as sysops and bureaucrats; verify copyright and licensing permissions; draft and discuss project policies; and recruit and welcome new users to Wikimedia projects. Many members also serve as advisors to new grantees, helping to answer questions, connect them to relevant resources, and comment on monthly and midpoint reports.

In this latest round, 32 eligible proposals were submitted for the committee’s review. The committee has recommended that ten projects be funded to receive $224,900, divided into three themes: online organizing, offline outreach, and software. Here is what we are funding:

Online organizing: two projects funded

The ceiling in the Sioni Cathedral in Tbilisi, seen from Wiki Loves Monuments 2016. Photo by Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0.

  • Wiki Loves Monuments 2017 coordination: This year, the Wiki Loves Monuments International Team will continue to encourage content on diverse cultural heritage sites in this annually-run contest. By addressing the need for partnerships and development of tools to support participants, this project hopes to bolster local communities to contribute and collaborate on the Wikimedia projects, with a focus on Commons and Wikidata.
  • Contest toolkits and prize funds: Led by a prolific English Wikipedian, Dr.Blofeld, this project aims to equip prospective contester organizers with toolkits and design ideas, enabling them to customize their own campaigns. In addition, the project will include a large contest to boost the geographic diversity of representation of women on English Wikipedia.

Offline outreach: seven projects funded

  • Wiki Loves Monuments in Perú: Recently-recognized affiliate Wikimedians of Peru User Group will organize a Wiki Loves Monuments contest through outreach efforts with the Ministry of Culture in Peru as well as with newer participants outside of Lima to contribute national and cultural heritage to the movement.
  • Multimedia Documentation of Traditional Trades and Crafts of Eastern, Northern and Up-Country Sri Lanka: Through extensive outreach in underrepresented regions in Sri Lanka, this project plans to expand knowledge of the traditional industries, agricultural trades, and crafts of Sri Lanka. With integrated support from the Noolaham Foundation, engagement with local communities through their livelihoods will be a significant step toward documenting cultural heritage in Tamil Wikipedia, Commons, Wiktionary, and Wikibooks.
  • Wikimedian in Residence at UNESCO 2017–18: As a follow-up to a previous Foundation grant with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), John_Cummings and Navino Evans will facilitate long-term infrastructure to support ongoing content donations, including media and text for Wikipedia and Commons, and structured data for Wikidata.  Using the UNESCO partnership as a model, they will educate and encourage other scientific and cultural institutions to contribute open license material.
  • Engaging with Academic Librarians and Sororities to Address the Gender Gap: A returning grantee from the Inspire Campaign, West Virginia University Libraries’ Wikipedian in Residence for Gender Equality will foster partnerships with three other academic institutions. The project will develop a scalable model for cross training student life and university library staff to promote Wikipedia editing as an option for sororities to meet their community service requirements.
  • UG GLAM Macedonia/Wikipedian in Residence: Through education and training, two Wikipedians in Residence will enable GLAM institutions in Skopje to produce public domain material to Macedonian Wikimedia projects. This will be an opportunity for the Macedonian community to collaborate with the State Archives in the Republic of Macedonia and City Library “Braka Miladinovci,” and to target areas for volunteers to explore and release new content to the movement.

Software: one project funded

EveryPolitician will populate Wikidata with structured data reflecting interrelationships of heads of government. Such information has many applications, including empowering citizen activists who fight corruption in leadership around the world. Screenshot, public domain/CC0.

  • EveryPolitician: UK-based organization mySociety aims to populate Wikidata with well-structured, consistent data on elected officials from around the world. EveryPolitician combines data from multiple primary and secondary sources from over 3.6 million data points on almost 73,000 politicians in 233 countries and territories. Through technical infrastructure and volunteer workflows, the project will establish ongoing updates to Wikidata about political leadership around the world, providing access to crucial information for citizens seeking to engage and advocate with their elected representatives.

Analysis of trends

Wikimedians in Residence

Wikimedians in Residence (WiRs) play an important role in our movement.   They serve as critical liaisons between mission-aligned partner organizations and our extensive community of volunteer contributors.  Through these partnerships, high quality content curated and maintained by the hosting organization becomes accessible online through the Wikimedia projects.  Ideally, the hosting organization funds the WiR’s work, though the Wikimedia Foundation occasionally offers supplemental funding support when the hosting organization is not able to fully cover costs and the specific opportunity is strategically valuable for the Wikimedia movement.  Foundation-funded WiRs do not directly create content; instead, they organize and empower volunteers with the resources available through the hosting organization in order to generate meaningful new content on our projects.  The goal is to leverage the partnership to build a platform that assures sustainable outcomes long after the WiR has completed their service.  WiRs might do this in many ways, including training organizational staff to upload content, implementing infrastructure to enable ongoing content donations, and creating online and offline opportunities for volunteers to engage in content creation and curation using those donations.

This year, we received six requests for Wikipedians in Residence and we have funded five of them.  Two veteran WiRs will continuing their existing work: John Cummings (now working with Navino Evans, will solidify workflows that will make Wikimedia projects ongoing recipients of UNESCO’s extensive data and collections; Kelly Doyle, based in the West Virginia University Libraries, will extend her reach to three more campuses, establishing a model to make editing Wikipedia a standardized component of sorority life across the United States.  In addition, several new WiRs will serve at El Colegio de México, Goge Africa, the State Archives in the Republic of Macedonia and City Library “Braka Miladinovci”.

Wiki Loves Monuments

The oldest and perhaps best-known international photo contest in the Wikimedia movement, Wiki Loves Monuments (WLM) has been inspiring and galvanizing volunteers since its origin in 2010.  Every year, it drives widespread photo-documentation of the world’s built cultural heritage.  In addition to attracting jaw-droppingly beautiful photo contributions to our projects, the contest serves an important role in supporting Wikimedian communities.  Because it provides a clear, accessible procedure that volunteer groups with widely varying levels of experience can follow, WLM supports national-scale contests in more countries each year.  This offers both new and veteran groups a relatively simple opportunity to participate in an international activity with richly diverse cultural results.  Cumulatively, these results are significant:  according to the international organizing team, WLM has now brought together the largest collection of monument data in the world.

This year, we funded two requests for WLM activities:  The international coordinating team will support the umbrella infrastructure that makes the contest as a whole possible.  In addition, we will welcome a national contest in Perú.

We received many compelling proposals this year that the committee decided not to fund. We encourage applicants who were not successful in this round of funding to refine and resubmit their proposals in upcoming rounds or to pilot a smaller project in Rapid Grants. Return proposals that have been revised in response to community and committee feedback are warmly welcomed. The open call for Project Grants 2017 Round Two will launch on August 28, 2017, with applications due September 26, 2017.

We look forward to reviewing your suggestions and future submissions, but for now we say congratulations to the successful grantees and encourage you to follow their progress as they begin work in the coming weeks.

Marti Johnson, Program Officer, Individual Grants
Morgan Jue, Community Resources Contractor
Wikimedia Foundation

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