Wait, what? The fairies that fooled Arthur Conan Doyle



Photo by Elsie Wright, public domain in the United States.

One hundred years ago, two young cousins took a camera down to a stream in northern England and came back with a controversy that lingered almost magically in the air for decades. Five photographs taken by the girls appeared to show them engaging with fairies, the mythical small, graceful female creatures with wings.

This might seem like a prank that—no matter how well-executed—would be only briefly considered before being decisively and permanently dismissed. Not in this case. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, one of the most popular authors of his (or any other) time due to his detective Sherlock Holmes, wrote about the fairies: “The recognition of their existence will jolt the material twentieth century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life.”  Experts examined the photos and toured the site. (One clairvoyant who visited the scene “saw them [fairies] everywhere”.) The world, it seemed, wanted to know more.

Photo by Elsie Wright, public domain in the United States.

Media including the British Broadcasting Corp. interviewed the photographer cousins, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. Eighty years after the girls’ photo shoot, two movies were made about the events, and they were not cheap productions: one featured Harvey Keitel and Peter O’Toole, and another Ben Kingsley.

Why did the Cottingley Fairies photos—which were actually of cardboard cutouts—impress so mightily? The relatively recent novelty of photography fueled curiosity, according to the Wikipedia article about the photos. Doyle consulted experts at Kodak, which helped to popularize photography when it introduced the Brownie box camera in 1900. The photos were enhanced and transported around the United Kingdom by their admirers on lecture tours. “Spirit photography” was becoming a fad, and Doyle posed for a double-exposure photo with a supposed ghost in 1922. (Doyle’s friend and later foe, Harry Houdini, mocked the fad and created a photo of himself with the supposed ghost of Abraham Lincoln as part of his debunking of spiritualism.)

Photo by Elsie Wright, public domain in the United States.

In 1983, 66 years after their prank went viral, Elsie and Frances admitted they copied illustrations of dancing girls from a  children’s book and drew wings on them. They posed with the cardboard cutouts, producing the fairy effect.

But even then Frances insisted that one of the photos—which shows only misty images of the fairy figures without the girls—was real. “It was a wet Saturday afternoon and we were just mooching about with our cameras and Elsie had nothing prepared. I saw these fairies building up in the grasses and just aimed the camera and took a photograph.”

Elsie at times said the fairy figures were figments of her imagination that was able to photograph. The photographers themselves had a hard time letting go of the fairies, despite some discomfort that came with their faked photos fame.

In 1985 Elsie said that she and Frances were too embarrassed to admit the truth after fooling Doyle. “Two village kids and a brilliant man like Conan Doyle—well, we could only keep quiet.” In the same interview Frances said: “I never even thought of it as being a fraud—it was just Elsie and I having a bit of fun and I can’t understand to this day why they were taken in—they wanted to be taken in.”

Jeff Elder, Digital Communications Manager
Wikimedia Foundation

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Alangi Derick: Wikimedia’s first African contributor to Google Summer of Code



Photo by Zack McCune, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Alangi Derick comes from Buea, Cameroon. He joined the Wikimedia movement to develop his skills in coding, and was quickly hooked by the movement’s values and its community culture, eventually becoming a staunch advocate for it in his university.

As a computer science student at the time, he joined the movement a year and a half ago, and his work booked him a place at the 2016 Google Summer of Code as one of the Wikimedia Foundation’s students. Derick passed the program, helped mentor teenage participants in Google Code-in for two consecutive years, and has helped fix bugs in the MediaWiki software. He is now trying to pass this experience onto other potential contributors in his country.

In 2015, Derick was looking for an extracurricular activity where he could practice and boost his coding skills. That’s when he learned about the Wikimedia Foundation projects and their participation in Google Summer of Code (GSoC), an annual project where students spend the summer working on a free open-source project of their choice mentored by one of the participating organizations.

“I felt like I was lagging behind and wanted to explore a little bit by working on a project that will be used by millions of people,” Derick said. “With this idea in mind, I searched for open source organizations with active projects and a strong community that would be willing to help me out if I faced problems. I found that the Wikimedia Foundation and its MediaWiki project perfectly matched my skill set, so I decided to join them.”

Every year, students who wish to join GSoC can apply to participating organizations proposing a new project idea or claiming one of their ready-to-pick-up tasks. When their project is approved, they spend a whole month learning about and integrating into the community they will be working with. Starting in June, students start working on their coding projects and are mentored by the participating organization and its community.

To prepare for the GSoC, Derick talked to Wikimedia developers on their IRC channel, where they directed him to areas of need that he could work on. In a few months, Derick was able to create over 25 patches (codes that fix bugs in software) on the MediaWiki code base and its extensions.

Derick has been one of the six students to complete the program in his GSoC round and was the first African GSoC student for Wikimedia.

In addition to GSoC, and even prior to joining it, Derick was a mentor to Google Code-In Wikimedia participants in 2015 and 2016. Participants in Google Code-In are pre-university students aged 13 to 17, who are introduced to the world of free and open-source coding as they practice on very small coding tasks. Like in the GSoC, participants in the Google Code-in are mentored by the participating community members.

“I wanted to share what I learned,” Derick explained. “I found myself trying to build a Wikimedia community in Cameroon, but there was an active group supporting the activities there already. The group helps both writers and developers.”

Last January, Derick attended WikiIndaba, the regional conference of Wikipedians from the African region. The conference was another opportunity to share his thoughts on “contributing to open-source communities,” learning about “capacity building, Wikimedia grants, improving Wikipedia’s content,” and many other topics.

For the future, Derick is planning to expand his efforts to support the Wikimedia movement and its community in his country.

“Wikimedia’s goal is to make knowledge free to everyone, and this is what I want to do in my community,” he said. “I’m trying to get the knowledge to people free of charge, and this allowed me to work on software that proliferates free content.”

Samir Elsharbaty, Digital Content Intern
Wikimedia Foundation

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Community digest: Tunis’ ancient city center finds a home on Wikipedia; Three years of weekly editathons in Sweden; news in brief



Musical event at Dar Lasram, Medina of Tunis. Photo by TAKOUTI, CC BY-SA 4.0.

MedinaPedia is a project in Tunisia that aims at documenting the monuments of Tunis’ ancient city center on Wikipedia. Their passion for that historical part of their country encouraged the participants to add over 400 articles to Wikipedia in five languages over the past three years. The organizing group is currently planning to extend their efforts to include other cities and towns in Tunisia.

The idea of MedinaPedia started at Carthagina, a local movement concerned with preserving the heritage of Tunisia, in 2014. Three Wikimedians (Émna Mizouni, Yamen Bousrih and Brahim Bouganmi) had a vision and took the lead on making it a reality. In 2015, Carthagina partnered with The Association of Preservation of the Medina of Tunis (ASM Tunis) to start the project.

At that time, MedinaPedia planned to document 150 selected historical monuments in the Medina of Tunis, the city’s ancient core, for people to have easy access to information about them. The Medina of Tunis is a particularly apt place to start; Wikipedia states that “it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979 … [containing] some 700 monuments, including palaces, mosques, mausoleums, madrasas and fountains dating from the Almohad and the Hafsid periods.”

The first part of the MedinaPedia project was to write articles about these monuments on Wikipedia. The second, called QRpedia, was to attach QR codes to the monuments so that tourists and locals could easily access the articles.

The project was kicked off in September 2015 with a group of motivated volunteers who had been selected through an open application process. They were students from different fields, young doctors and engineers who all had one thing in common: curiosity and passion for the Medina.

We met on the first Sunday of every month in Dar Lasram, the office of our partner: ASM Tunis. We would discuss what we had achieved in the previous month, write some more articles, and make plans for the following month.

Throughout the year, we had a lot of help from our partners in Wikimedia Tunisia Yassine, Mounir, and Wael, who guided us through the process of writing, editing, and publishing the articles on Wikipedia. Jamel Ben Saidane (Wild Tunis) helped us with anything related to the Medina.

The first workshops were very interesting for us. We left each one having learned something new about the Medina and the world of Wikimedia. However, as time went on, knowledge and discovery were not the only things we looked forward to from our workshops. We wanted to see each other. The strictly professional environment turned into a monthly reunion of friends.

Brahim, the project coordinator and one of the authors of this post, kept track of what we achieved at the end of every set of workshops. On the one hand, he was aware of the large amount of articles we would write, translate, or edit within a certain timeframe. On the other hand, he (like every member of the team) was so busy planning meetings, writing more articles, and setting the next steps that none of us realized the amount of work we had done until the first part of the project came to end.

Our goal at the beginning was to cover about 150 monuments. We thought it was a long shot but we were hopeful nonetheless. Now, as the project is coming to an end, we are proud to say that our team has written over 400 articles in 5 languages. According to the team members, Yamen Bousrih and Sami Mlouhi who counted the results, we have uploaded over 5000 pictures so far on Wikimedia Commons. More than half of the articles that were created in French about Tunisia in 2016 were written by MedinaPedia members. Moreover, we are going to attach the first set of QRpedia codes by the end of April.

Even though we have not reached the end of the MedinaPedia Tunis project, we have already started expanding to other cities and towns. By the end of February we held the first workshop of MedinaPedia BeniKhalled, in partnership with ASM Beni Khalled, and now we are getting ready to start MedinaPedia Sfax. This is just the beginning as we are planning to cover other places across the country.

We hope that what used to be a small project in the beginning will inspire people to start a series of successful global projects.

Youssef Ben Haj Yahia, member
Brahim Bouganmi, coordinator
MedinaPedia project of Wikimedia Tunisie user group


Three years of weekly editathons

Photo by Hannibal, CC BY-SA 4.0.

In 2014, a small group of Swedish Wikipedians started holding weekly editathons in Gothenburg, Sweden. There are many other Wikimedia meetups and regular editathons around the world, but this group has been at it each week for over three years.

Litteraturhuset (The House of Literature) in Gothenburg, is where the Wikipedians gather every week for a simple but fun program: Participants meet, edit Wikipedia articles, and have some coffee.

We have met nearly 150 times, edited several hundred articles about female authors and literary figures, and improved the quality of 20 of these articles, two of which became featured articles, the highest quality level determined by the Wikipedia community. The editathons attracted great female participation, which inspired male Wikipedians to edit female profiles on Wikipedia.

Some of the participants shared their thoughts about this experience:

  • “Thanks to the editathons, I’ve become bolder in writing long entries and creating my first article! It was a good opportunity for me to keep editing Wikipedia along with other nice and interesting people.”
  • “I always had a good time when I was there. Everyone is helpful and pleasant. I’ve learned so much more than before attending the weekly editathons.”
  • “I came into contact with the Wikimedia group during the Gothenburg Book Fair in 2016. I got help writing an article about my father, Viktor Tesser (an artist). Since then, I’ve written about a science fiction trilogy, expanded the definition section of the article about families, and now I’m writing an article about a female scientist who’s researching girls with autism. We talked about symbols, female warriors, the early photographs, manga artists, ghost nets, famous female TV personalities, manors in the Bohuslän area, and much more.”

Different media outlets featured the project and the small group behind it, which encouraged other Wikipedians to host a similar activity. Over the past three years, a few other regular editathons have cropped up in Stockholm, Jönköping, and another one has recently started in Gothenburg.

We are not done yet

In 2016, two organizers of the weekly editathons hosted a Wikipedia camp. Inspired by the Armenian Wikicamps, the Swedish camp helped increase female participation on the Swedish Wikipedia as the newcomers were all women. They were invited by Wikimedia Sweden (Sverige) to attend a free week at a folk high school. The new participants continued editing for long time after the event.

The impact of our 2016 camp encouraged us to host a new one in 2017. Applications for the new camp are now open. More information about the camp is available on the Swedish Wikipedia and photos from the camp can be found on Commons.

In the meantime, the weekly editathons are being held on a regular weekly basis and new people join this effort every time. One of our participants comments on this saying:

“For me, the editathons are now a weekly habit, with nice people, interesting discoveries and much to learn. What started with the goal of “20 recommended articles” has grown to much more. We meet new faces nearly every week. We had annual meetings with the Swedish Wikimedia chapter and celebrated Wikipedia’s 15th anniversary, organized the Gothenburg Book Fair and wikicamps, made plans for International Women’s Day, and some attendees joined us from Svenshögen (quite far for weekly trips) as well as British Columbia. Our group doesn’t consist of females only and we don’t only write about women, but a clear focus has its own value. Our Tuesdays at Litteraturhuset are probably like Wikipedia—not perfect, but fantastic.”

Photos from the weekly editathons are available on Wikimedia Commons.

Lennart Guldbrandsson, Swedish Wikipedian

In brief

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Ghana user group.

Art + feminism workshop in Ghana: Last weekend, Wikimedia Ghana user group hosted an Art + feminism workshop in Accra Ghana where the participants edited African women profiles on Wikipedia. Photos from the event on their Facebook page.

2016 picture of the year competition is now open: Hundreds of images that have been rated Featured Pictures by the international Wikimedia Commons community will run for 2016’s picture of the year competition. Two rounds of voting will be held: In the first round, users can vote for as many images as they want. The first round category winners and the top ten overall will then make it to the final. In the final round, each voter needs to pick one image only. The image with highest votes becomes the picture of the year. More about the competition and voting are on Wikimedia Commons.

Workshop on fake news and new journalism by Amical Wikimedia: Amical Wikimedia, the independent thematic organization supporting Wikimedia in the Catalan-speaking countries, is holding a workshop on new journalism. The workshop will be held between 15 and 30 May 2017, where the journalist participants will be informed about the human rights related to access to information, how to maintain and encourage critical thinking, and more. The workshop will be organized in collaboration with Faber, the Arts, Sciences, and Humanities residency of Catalonia in Olot. More information and how to apply on Faber’s website.

Hindi Wikipedia presentation at Rashtriya Sangoshthi: The Bhabha Atomic Research Center, Mumbai (BARC) and the directorate of culture and archaeology in the governorate of Chhattisgarh, India organized a presentation at the Rashtriya Sangoshthi (national event) to share their editing experience with the event attendees.

WikiJournal user group getting ready for piloting a new platform: WikiJournal is an idea for an open peer-reviewed academic journal where the participants can publish research, peer-reviewed Wikipedia articles (such as the featured articles), etc with the main author’s name. The organizers are now getting ready for their website pilot. More about WikiJournal on Wikimedia-l.

The Netherlands and the world exchange platform kicks off: Wikimedia Netherlands, the independent chapter supporting Wikimedia in the Netherlands, has launched this platform to encourage global use of Dutch collections on non-European cultural heritage. The platform will particularly encourage sharing collections from countries with historical ties with the Netherlands including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Ghana, Suriname, South Africa, and others. More about the new website on Wikimedia-l.

Bay Area WikiSalon meets next week: San Francisco Bay Area’s WikiSalon will be held on Wednesday 29 March at 6 PM local time. The meetup will be held at Noisebridge makerspace/hackerspace followed by guided tours of Noisebridge. More about the event on Wikipedia.

Conflict of interest confusion on the English Wikipedia: A request for comment on the future of the conflict of interest policy and investigations related to it is ongoing on the English Wikipedia after an attempted close, which would have established “a task force of trusted editors to act as referees in matters related to conflict of interest and outing,” was reversed.

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

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Looking back on the 2017 Wikimedia Developer Summit



Photo by ArielGlenn, CC BY-SA 4.0.

The 2017 Wikimedia Developer Summit took place on January 9–11 at the Golden Gate Club in San Francisco, California. Coordinated with support from the organization team, around 179 participants from 30 countries participated in the summit, out of which 29% were from outside of the Wikimedia Foundation.

The summit provides a platform to developers both volunteer contributors and staff members to meet and have conversations around projects and technologies supporting the Wikimedia movement. Developers come together to gather feedback on current approaches from the technical community and have an in-depth discussion on problems that are technically challenging, and identifying practical solutions for them. The overall goal of this meetup was to push the evolution of technologies that falls under the umbrella of Wikimedia, thereby addressing the high-level needs of the movement.

The program consisted of two days of pre-scheduled and unconference sessions, and an unscheduled day for people to self-organize and get stuff done for their projects. At this year’s event, some of the topics focused on were planning for the Community Wishlist 2016 top results, brainstorming ideas to managing our technical debt and growing our developer community. The highlight was the keynote from Ward Cunningham, the inventor of the wiki, titled: “Has our success made it hard to see your own contribution?

Photo by Ckoerner, CC BY-SA 4.0.

There was a Questions & Answers (Q&A) session about Wikimedia Foundation’s Technology and Product department, with Victoria Coleman (Chief Technology Officer) and Wes Moran (now-former Vice President of Product). For the Q&A, 40 questions were collected before the event that got a total of 1840 votes. In parallel to the pre-scheduled sessions, there were unconference tracks for which participants were invited to submit topics on the fly on a physical wall using sticky-notes.

For each session, there were 1 or 2 note-takers(s) collaboratively taking notes, moving them onto a Wiki page, and copying the action items into the Wikimedia’s Phabricator later. Some selected sessions were streamed live for remote participants who also joined the discussion via IRC. The full program schedule was updated all throughout the event by organizers, participants, and session hosts!

On the third day of the summit, which had a pretty flexible agenda, participants got some stuff done: programming, project-planning, and meetings! This day was utilized for making concrete plans on the topics that emerged from the day 1 and 2 of the summit. Folks spent the day writing code with people who they normally communicate with online, getting their code reviewed by peers present in the room, and submitting patches for ideas that were brought up in their session. There was a project showcase at the end, in which some participants demoed the projects they built and shared the action items for which they took responsibility. Ward Cunningham exhibited a plugin that he developed for tabular data and presented it being fetched on the federated wiki. The full showcase is available on Commons.

Photo by Ckoerner, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Besides three full days of productive discussions with actionable items on various topics, one immediate outcome from an unconference session lead by Gergő Tisza, was the announcement of the Developer Wishlist Survey at the summit. The Developer Wishlist is an effort to seek input from developers for developers, to create a high-profile list of desired improvements for MediaWiki platform, Wikimedia server infrastructure, contribution process, documentation, etc. The survey was concluded in February with 76 proposals that received a total of 952 votes from 144 editors. The proposals that received most votes are are now ready to be promoted to our volunteer developers, teams within the foundation, and through our various outreach and hackathon events.

The exploration has begun for investigating potential directions for addressing questions that were brought up in the Q&A session with Victoria and Wes. Hopefully, there will be more tangible updates to share from this discussion in a few months from now. A feedback survey was conducted for both in-person and remote participants, results of which are summarized on Mediawiki.org. One of the participants said “Keep doing this, if you can, for it opens up possibilities that would not otherwise be open.”

It is a great boost for the developer community that events like these provide a space for long-term contributors to meet with each other and reflect on their collaborations.

Srishti Sethi, Developer Advocate, Technical Collaboration team
Wikimedia Foundation

Our next developer event is the Wikimedia Hackathon, held from May 19–21, 2017, in Austria. If you’re interested in attending, please register on Mediawiki.org.

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The Wikipedia community in Iraq is looking for volunteers



Video by Victor Grigas, CC BY-SA 3.0. You can also view it on Vimeo or Youtube.

Last January, Iraqi Wikimedians held a Wikipedia meetup in Baghdad where they helped attendees understand how Wikipedia works and taught them basic editing skills. “Iraqis’ participation on Wikipedia is limited,” said Mahmoud Alrawi, one of the workshop organizers. Consequently, “there is a lack of coverage about Iraqi topics on Wikipedia.”

Alrawi and his fellows in the Iraqi Wikimedians user group wanted to share their experience on Wikipedia with new users. They used their Facebook page to invite interested followers to join the workshop. Many people from Baghdad and other places in Iraq registered to attend the workshop, but the number of interested users greatly exceeded the number of spots available in the workshop. Participants included educators, students, senior citizens, and others from different backgrounds.

“Our priority in the near future will be to follow up with those newbies who need attention,” Alrawi explained. “For example, the concept of notability was not very clear to everyone. We had to address this first. After that, we may want to hold similar workshops in other cities and towns in Iraq, so that attendees don’t need to travel far to learn about Wikipedia.”

You can get in contact with them on the Iraqi Wikimedians meta page.

Samir Elsharbaty, Digital Content Intern
Wikimedia Foundation

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Announcing Keyholder: Secure, shared shell access



Photo by LoggaWiggler, public domain/CC0.

Suppose there is an alternate reality in which you own an apartment building and your biggest worries are the security of your apartments and the well-being of goldfish, respectively.

In this reality, that of apartment building ownership without profit motive, there exists a startup, “GLDFSH,®” that allows tenants to summon others to feed their goldfish. Sometimes folks will set up a trust with GLDFSH to take care of their goldfish after they pass away.

As you care about security (even more than goldfish), if a tenant no longer inhabits one of your apartments, you change the locks as a matter of course—regardless of circumstance. There have been times (dark times) when a goldfish being cared for in trust has missed a meal because you didn’t get GLDFSH an updated copy of a key in a timely manner.

So what if you made a special GLDFSH-only key that opened all the apartments where there were goldfish?  You could keep that key under the watchful eye of a security minion 24/7/365.  That minion wouldn’t allow anyone to use the key, but would allow anyone with an active and valid GLDFSH employee ID (very secure) to enter an goldfish-containing apartment by using that single special key.


Keyholder, a newly open-sourced project from the Wikimedia Foundation, is a bit like that ever-watchful security minion. For us, it allows authorized developers to access remote servers using an ssh key, to which it is the only user that has access. More specifically, Keyholder is an ssh-agent proxy that allows a group of trusted users to share an SSH identity without exposing the contents of that identity’s private key.

We have been using Keyholder for several years, and we’re now releasing it as a standalone project.

Wikimedia and SSH

Secure Shell (SSH) is a cryptographic network protocol and client-server architecture that is used to provide a secure communication tunnel over an insecure network. The SSH protocol is defined across a series of requests for comments, an Internet standards-setting publication, and its OpenSSH implementation is broadly used wherever you find Linux on a server.

Over here at Wikimedia, we use SSH everywhere! If you interact with a shell account, chances are you authenticate yourself (and the server to which you’re connecting) via SSH.

SSH is also the tool we turn to for deployments of MediaWiki and other software. Our deployment software, stripped to its nuts and bolts, sends a command over SSH to all of our application servers to tell them that new code is available and that they should fetch it.

Secure secure shell

SSH is not a perfect technology; there are various means by which malicious actors may exploit SSH, and we do our best to mitigate the ability of those malicious actors to do harm to our infrastructure.

For instance, there are several ways in which SSH may authenticate a client – passwords and public keys being the most common. Using password-based authentication is insecure for all the normal reasons that passwords may be compromised – everything from using easy-to-guess passwords to rubber-hose cryptanalysis.

Alternatively, public key cryptography is a technology that is indistinguishable from magic (a.k.a, “math”) that enables a server to authenticate you by validating that you have some secret (a private key) based on a public piece of information (a public key).

Public key cryptography is awesome; however, there are ways in which you can be bad at public key authentication.

Photo by bastique, CC BY-SA 2.0.

ssh-agent forwarding considered harmful™

ssh-agent is a program that allows a user to hold unencrypted private keys in memory for use in public key authentication. ssh-agent is neat – it means you only need to enter the password for your private keys once per login session. ssh-agent is also a way you can be bad at public key authentication.

A common use of the ssh-agent is to “forward” your agent to a remote machine (using the -A flag in the OpenSSH client). After you’ve forwarded your ssh-agent, you can use the socket that that agent creates to access any of your many (now unencrypted) keys, and login to any other machines for which you may have keys in your ssh-agent. So, too, potentially, can all the other folks that have root access to the machine to which you’ve forwarded your ssh-agent.

While some folks may pick-and-choose keys to keep in one of many ssh-agents, it’s entirely possible to keep your Wikimedia production SSH key in the same ssh-agent that you forward to your second-cousin’s friend-of-a-friend’s shared-hosting provider. For this reason, forwarding your ssh-agent is Considered Harmful™.

And even though we know no one would ever be reckless enough to try to forward SSH keys, we discourage bad practice by not allowing anyone to forward their ssh-agent to production.

Deployment hosts considered useful™

Keeping track of the two deployed versions of MediaWiki, the nearly 2000 files in the MediaWiki configuration repository, and the correct version of the other 169 extensions we branch every week is a heavy burden.

To lighten the load on our deployers, we use a handful of deployment hosts from which we are able to easily script deployments.

This means you can login to a deployment host, pull in the latest updates, and get new code running on the Wikimedia sites in under a minute (if you’re a quick-draw with git).

A perfect storm

So let’s review.

  1. Publickey SSH authentication is magic, let’s use that!
  2. To keep access to our production machines secure and to encourage best practice, we won’t allow anyone to forward their ssh-agent to production.
  3. For ease of use, we’ll deploy from a special host in production.
  4. We’ll use SSH to deploy from our special deployment host.

But how do we grant deployers SSH access from the deployment host without using passwords, without allowing agent forwarding, without having to manage SSH keys for every. single. deployer, and without creating the administrative mess of every deployer sharing a single deployment key?

With Keyholder, of course!

Several years ago there were some folks around here who pondered this exact problem and came up with a pretty novel solution that we’ve finally made into a standalone project!

Keyholder began life as a gleam in the eye of principal operations engineer Faidon Liambotis, who conceived of its core requirements and gave a basic operational sketch. From there, Ori Livneh did the hard work of reading the source and RFCs that make ssh-agent work and turned that into the initial version of Keyholder. Tyler Cipriani added support for multiple keys and separate user groups. Riccardo Coccioli added support for OpenSSH SHA256 fingerprints. And, finally, Mukunda Modell liberated Keyholder from the depths of our Puppet repository where it was previously languishing in obscurity.

Keyholder makes it possible for deployers to share a key without complicated administrative overhead. When a user needs to use SSH to connect to an application server from our deployment host they point ssh-agent requests to a UNIX domain socket created by Keyholder. If a user’s group membership allows them to use a particular key protected by Keyholder, then Keyholder will sign an application server’s authentication request, otherwise authentication will fail and they will not be able to login to the remote machine.

The actual SSH private keys are encrypted on disk and only readable by root users. When a user’s shell account is removed from the deployment host there is no need to rotate the SSH public/private keypair because the user has never had direct access to it, rather they’ve simply been using the mystical magic of Keyholder.

The magic of Keyholder is in its ability to proxy the ssh-agent socket as a privileged user. Keyholder creates a UNIX domain socket that is a readable and writable by anyone with shell access; however, Keyholder will only respond to requests to list identities and sign requests – users cannot add new keys or accidentally remove keys from the agent. Keyholder will only sign requests after verifying that the requesting user is authorized to make a signing request using a particular key.

We’ve been using Keyholder for several years at this point, and it’s a solution that works well for us. Still, it’s not a perfect approach. The increase in security comes at a price of increased complexity both for users and administrators. When the need to add new keys arises, the means by which those keys are generated and stored can be opaque for end-users. Further, utilizing and troubleshooting Keyholder as an end-user is not obvious. Many of our uses of Keyholder are scripted, so that Keyholder’s use on our servers is largely (hopefully) transparent. On the administrative side, storing separate keys and passwords for every group using Keyholder has its own difficulties.  Also, the need to add keys to the ssh-agent being proxied by keyholder means that the servers on which Keyholder are running require some kind of manual intervention on reboot to ensure that Keyholder is, in fact, holding all the necessary keys.

Despite the added complexity, we’ve found that Keyholder is a very useful tool. We’re excited to unlock its potential on the world! We hope that it will be useful to other organizations faced with similar challenges, of managing many servers that a large number of users are accessing via ssh. It’s a small step towards improving the security of our shared online infrastructure.

Tyler Cipriani, Software Engineer, Release Engineering
Mukunda Modell, Software Engineer, Release Engineering
Wikimedia Foundation

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Why I write about the elements on Wikipedia



Photo by Alchemist-hp, Free Art License 1.3.

In the eighth grade, I was introduced to the new subject of chemistry. Most my classmates found it incredibly difficult, while I found it easy. My problem was that the next step up were university textbooks, which I couldn’t handle at the moment.

Instead, I gradually turned to Wikipedia to obtain the knowledge I wanted. Eventually, I realized that I could write Wikipedia articles, to give back to the site I’d taken so much from. I’d still be learning, but I’d also be helping anyone in a similar position to where I was.

I chose to take a narrow scope to my contributing: the elements of the periodic table. These form a set of articles that can be reasonably taken on—not finished by just one person, of course, but some tangible progress could be made by one.

And, of course, elements are the building blocks that, when combined, constitute the full diversity of chemistry. That made the choice clear.

Photo by Alchemist-hp, Free Art License 1.3.

I’m from Russia, so I first tried to break into the Russian Wikipedia, but I found it difficult to collaborate with the editors there. So I instead decided to move to the English Wikipedia, as I’d been wanting to improve my English anyway. Moreover, the English site had an entire “wikiproject” dedicated just to the elements.

I chose fluorine as my first article-project because I thought it would be the easiest one. It only assumes only one oxidation state in its compounds, was not a major influence on history or industry (like, say, iron or oxygen), and was in pretty bad condition.

I finished the article in January 2011, and nominated it for “featured article” (FA)—a quality marker reserved for Wikipedia’s best work—status in April. As it turned out, I was wrong about how easy it would be, as the nomination failed. Still, it wasn’t all bad: the article had gained some support, and I gained a lot of knowledge about how to write Wikipedia articles. A lot of that came from TCO.

TCO was a great editor to get in contact with. I can’t thank him enough for giving so much of his time. He certainly delayed my attempts to get the article featured, but he also offered a lot—and that turned out to be a far better thing. Part of what he had for me was a new understanding of the importance of things and how I needed to do work beyond was needed for that “featured” status. This would allow to to have the star and  enjoy the great article I’ve produced. That’s not to say I didn’t want to write great articles, but there were moments when you think, “aah, it’ll pass the FA review anyway, they won’t notice.”

Nowadays, I’ve become my own measure of quality. It was that that mattered most, not the stars. This didn’t happen too quickly. I nominated fluorine for featured article again, albeit somewhat prematurely, in September. More and more work was being put into it, and I was becoming more and more disillusioned with it, so I’ve decided to diversify my work.

Photo by Tmv23 and Dblay, CC BY-SA 3.0.

I produced a number of GAs, two of which became so complete by the time I submitted them that I decided keep going and aim for FA as well. I had dove into the interesting topics of heavy and superheavy elements, producing a good, detailed, and Soviet-styled (as I based it on a Soviet book) article on astatine, plus a nice short beautiful article on ununseptium (now tennessine), which only lacked one thing—prose quality. Had it not been for this, we would’ve gotten it on the first try; but it had, and we didn’t.

But soon enough I entered university in 2013 and immediately lost most of my free time. This made rewriting Wikipedia articles rather difficult. Eventually, with lots of work put into them, all three articles ended up as FAs in late 2014 and 2015. But this happened only after TCO’s influence hit me one more time.

Back in 2011, TCO wrote a report titled “Improving Wikipedia’s Important Articles,” which advocated for focusing Wikipedia’s editors on vital topics, ones read by the most people. While panned by other editors at the time, I discovered it in 2014 and believe that it’s an absolutely great masterpiece. When writing ununseptium back in 2011–12, I tried to write it in a way that was fascinating but accessible. This challenge helped hook me into editing Wikipedia. You need to be immerse yourself in the topic, but you also need to make sure you’re delivering the information you’ve learned in a way that others can understand. Reading TCO’s report helped galvanize just how important this is.

Sadly, TCO left Wikipedia a few months before fluorine got its featured article star. The article would’ve gotten the star far earlier if it wasn’t for him, but it wouldn’t be as good, either. Besides, this taught me about writing articles in general and changed my perception of the topics I write about.

Photo by Alchemist-hp and Richard Bartz, CC BY-SA 3.0.

I was mostly inactive in 2015–16, though able to help with a few other projects like thorium, with User:Double sharp. In 2016, I decided to go for an important article once again. Wikipedia’s readers have been the top priority for a long time for me now, and after all I’ve been through, it didn’t only matter how I serve the information on the topic I’ve chosen, but also how I choose the topic.

So, I started work on lead, a good choice indeed. Never would I think an element could be so interesting in human life and so important in history. I’ve absolutely enjoyed that and want to go on. After it’s done, it will be aluminium, iron, and—if I ever to get to it—gold.

I may even go further after that, picking an even more important article, not even necessarily about chemistry. I’m currently considering rewriting the article on the continent of Europe, but it’s still so far away I can’t tell if this will ever happen.

But I definitely want it to.

Mikhail Boldyrev (User:R8R Gtrs), Wikipedian

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Get live updates to Wikimedia projects with EventStreams



Photo by Mikey Tnasuttimonkol, CC BY-SA 4.0.

We are happy to announce EventStreams, a new public service that exposes live streams of Wikimedia events.  And we don’t mean the next big calendar event like the Winter Olympics or Wikimania.  Here, an ‘event’ is defined to be a small piece of data usually representing a state change. An edit of a Wikipedia page that adds some new information is an ‘event’, and could be described like the following:

'event-type': 'edit',
'page': 'Special Olympics',
'project': 'English Wikipedia',
'time': '2017-03-07 09:31',
'user': 'TheBestEditor'

This means: “a user named ‘TheBestEditor’ added some content to the English Wikipedia’s Special Olympics page on March 7, 2017 at 9:31am”.

While composing this blog post, we sought visualizations that use EventStreams, and found some awesome examples.

Open now in Los Angeles, DataWaltz is a physical installation that “creates a spatial feedback system for engaging with Wikipedia live updates, allowing visitors to follow and produce content from their interactions with the gallery’s physical environment.” You can see a photo of it at the top, and a 360 video of it over on Vimeo.

Sacha Saint-Leger sent us this display of real-time edits on a rotating globe, showing off where they are made.

Ethan Jewett created a really nice continuously updating chart of edit statistics.

A little background—why EventStreams?

EventStreams is not the first service from Wikimedia to expose RecentChange events as a stream. irc.wikimedia.org and RCStream have existed for years.  These all serve the same data: RecentChange events.  So why add a third stream service?

Both irc.wikimedia.org and RCStream suffer from similar design flaws.  Neither service can be restarted without interrupting client subscriptions.  This makes it difficult to build comprehensive tools that might not want to miss an event, and hard for WMF engineers to maintain. They are not easy to use, as services require several programming setup steps just to start subscribing to the stream.  Perhaps more importantly, these services are RecentChanges specific, meaning that they are not able to serve different types of events. EventStreams addresses all of these issues.

EventStreams is built on the w3c standard Server Sent Events (SSE).  SSE is simply a streaming HTTP connection with event data in a particular text format.  Client libraries, usually called EventSource, assist with building responsive tools, but because SSE is really just HTTP, you can use any HTTP client (even curl!) to consume it.

The SSE standard defines a Last-Event-ID HTTP header, which allows clients to tell servers about the last event that they’ve consumed.  EventStreams uses this header to begin streaming to a client from a point in the past.  If EventSource clients are disconnected from servers (due to network issues or EventStreams service restarts), they will send this header to the server and automatically reconnect and begin from where they left off.

EventStreams can be used to expose any useful streams of events, not just RecentChanges.  If there’s a stream you’d like to have, we want to know about it.  For example, soon ORES revision score events may be exposed in their own stream.  The service API docs have an up to date list of the (currently limited) available stream endpoints.

We’d like all RecentChange stream clients to switch to EventStreams, but we recognize that there are valuable bots out there running on irc.wikimedia.org that we might not be able to find the maintainers of.  We commit to supporting irc.wikimedia.org for the foreseeable future.

However, we believe the list of (really important) RCStream clients is small enough that we can convince or help folks switch to EventStreams.  We’ve chosen an official RCStream decommission date of July 7 this year.  If you run an RCStream client and are reading this and want help migrating, please reach out to us!


EventStreams is really easy to use, as shown by this quickstart example in JavaScript.  Navigate to http://wikimedia.org in your browser and open the development console (for Google Chrome: More Tools > Developer Tools, and click ‘console’ on the bottom screen, which should open on the browser below the page you are visiting). Then paste the following:

// This is the EventStreams RecentChange stream endpoint
var url = 'http://ift.tt/2mys7qb';

// Use EventSource (available in most browsers, or as an
// npm module: http://ift.tt/1G1Qn9j)
// to subscribe to the stream.
var recentChangeStream = new EventSource(url);

// Print each event to the console
recentChangeStream.onmessage = function(message) {

//Parse the message.data string as JSON.
var event = JSON.parse(message.data);


You should see RecentChange events fly by in your console.

That’s it!   The EventStreams documentation has in depth information and usage examples in other languages.

If you build something, please tell us, or add yourself to the Powered By EventStreams wiki page.  There are already some amazing uses there!

Andrew Otto, Senior Operations Engineer, Analytics
Wikimedia Foundation

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Community digest: New tool eases reuse of Creative Commons-licensed photos, news in brief



What is Creative Commons? Video by Victor Grigas, CC BY-SA 3.0. You can also view it on Vimeo or Youtube.

One of the simplest requirements for using freely-licensed photos from Wikimedia Commons is to give credit to whoever created the material. But even this is not easy for users to comply with if they aren’t familiar with Creative Commons licenses and the right wording for license labels.

As opposed to those under copyright, freely-licensed photos on Wikimedia Commons are available to the world. Anyone can use them, for free, in printed material, blogs, social media channels, etc., without getting permission from the photographer—but with some stipulations, including attribution.

Wikimedia Germany (Deutschland), the independent chapter that supports Wikimedia in Germany, wants to show you how easy it is to re-use these freely licensed works. We have created a web tool to simplify these stipulations—and it’s as simple as copy and paste.

This license notice should include the author’s name and the license type. Creative Commons licenses have clear legal requirements, but they’re not always easy to interpret when the photos are being reused. Attribution requirements for the license notices can be hidden in “legalese,” which can be a challenge for the layman to decipher even with the best of intentions. Moreover, missing information can have serious legal repercussions! Even accidental non-compliance with license requirements can lead to copyright infringement.

An easy way to follow the rules with a ready-to-copy license label

The attribution generator is a new tool by Wikimedia Germany. The tool automatically compiles the license information. The user just needs to answer a few simple questions: Do you want to use the image digitally or in print materials? Have you modified the photo? Is it going to be used alone or with multiple images? The correct license notice is then generated after the user answers these questions.

Video by Benjamin Wüst/Wikimedia Germany (Deutschland), CC BY-SA 4.0

This short video, available in German (with English subtitles on Commons), shows how easy it is to create the license notice for an image with the Attribution Generator. In addition, Dr. Till Jaeger, a specialist attorney in copyright and media law, briefly explains the benefits of Creative Commons licenses. Dr. Jaeger collaborated with Wikimedia Germany in developing the Attribution Generator.

At the time of this writing, the Attribution Generator is only available in German and English. To get the word out about the Attribution Generator internationally, we need your help! Our goal for the tool is to make it available in as many languages as possible so that everyone can easily use freely-licensed images. Help us translate the Attribution Generator into your language. You can find details on how it works on Wikimedia Commons. You can also contact us via email.

Katja Ullrich, Project Manager for the Attribution Generator
Wikimedia Germany (Deutschland)

In photos

Photo by Sailesh Patnaik, CC BY-SA 4.0.

A Wikidatathon was organised during the 7th WikiTungi Puri meetup. The goal of the Wikidatathon was to translate labels and descriptions of the articles created so far on Women’s History Month Editathon on Odia Wikipedia. Eight Wikimedians joined the event, where they translated nearly 220 labels and descriptions.

Photo by Fjmustak, CC BY-SA 4.0.

On March 10, 2017, Zwolle, Netherland hosted an introductory workshop to Wikipedia. The Workshop was attended by a group of fourteen Syrian refugees and migrants to the Netherlands. The workshop was held in Arabic.

Photo by Francesca Lissoni, CC BY-SA 4.0.

This month, Wikimedia Italy organized six Art+Feminism Wikipedia edit-a-thons in Milan, Florence, Rome, Battipaglia, Venice and Potenza. More than 100 participants attended the events and more than 80 articles on female artists and their productions were created or improved.

In brief

Arabic book about Wikipedia: Wikipedian Abbad Diraneyya has published a new book about Wikipedia. This book discusses how Wikipedia works, how to edit on the website, and the author’s personal experience with it. It took Diraneyya over three years to compile the the book. However, the book is free to download and is available under CC BY-SA 3.0, the same free license used for Wikipedia’s content.

WikiLesa encourages Argentinian students to edit about human rights: Over the past two years, Wikimedia Argentina held four editing events for the project WikiLesa. The project aims at improving Wikipedia’s content on human rights violations during the (1976–1983) military dictatorship. Wikimedia Argentina worked in partnership with a local media agency specialized in human rights where they worked together on training students, educators and researchers on Wikipedia editing. 54 Wikipedia articles have been improved while 21 new ones were created as part of this project. More about the project on the This Month in Education newsletter.

DARM challenge helps with nearly 2,200 photo uploads on Wikimedia Commons: Between 25 December 2016 and 25 January 2017, the Wikipedian in Residence at DARM (National Archive of the Republic of Macedonia), in collaboration with the State Archive, helped coordinate the DARM challenge. As part of this challenge, 2,190 files were uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by sixteen Wikipedians. The photos have been used on nearly 1,400 pages on Wikipedia in 33 different languages. More about the project on Wikimedia’s GLAM newsletter.

Wikipedia Education Program kicks off in Finland: The Finnish Wikipedia community and Wikimedia Finland (Suomi), the local chapter, are getting ready to support the first regular Wikipedia courses in their country. The courses will be hosted by the University of Helsinki and the University of Jyväskylä starting in the next academic year. More about the courses in the This Month in Education newsletter.

Embassy of Sweden in New Delhi hosts a ‘women in science’ editathon: On 4 March, the Embassy of Sweden in New Delhi hosted an editathon on Indian women in science. Participants were a mix of new and experienced Wikipedia editors who worked on creating and improving relevant articles to commemorate the women’s history month on Wikipedia.

New hardware donation program: Asaf Bartov has announced that the Wikimedia Foundation will begin donating fully-functional but depreciated laptops to community members who apply for them. The pilot year for the program begins with twenty laptops, subject to several conditions; you can apply for one over on Meta. Similarly, a community-driven equipment exchange program has been started for Wikimania 2017. If you are looking for or have equipment that could be donated, navigate to the official wiki for more.


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

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“I will never be quite as proud of something as my writing about women”



Video by Victor Grigas, CC BY-SA 3.0. You can also view it on Vimeo or Youtube, or without burned-in English subtitles on Commons.

During a workshop for a Wikipedia Education Program course at her Cairo university in spring 2013, May Hachem created her account on Wikipedia and quickly made her first edit, creating an Arabic Wikipedia article about Princess Alice of Battenberg (en).

Before that day, there was no article on the Arabic-language encyclopedia about Alice, the granddaughter of Queen Victoria and mother-in-law of Elizabeth II, the current queen of the United Kingdom. Hachem quickly became hooked on writing about women like Alice. “I felt that women should be remembered in history,” she said. “I will never be quite as proud of something as my writing about women.”

Since then, May has made efforts to document the lives of women on Wikipedia by creating 450 articles and made over 10,000 edits on Wikipedia, many about women—and she has devoted an even larger part of her time to encourage others to do the same.

Photo by Ruby Mizrahi/Wikimedia Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Although it is uncommon for students to continue editing after completing a Wikipedia-centered education course, the education program was just a starting point in Hachem’s journey advocating for something she believes in. It was “the message behind Wikipedia,” she explains. “Knowledge should be free and everyone has the right to get the knowledge they need.”

Her success and productivity in that course, along with her eagerness to help others, drove her to enroll as a Campus Ambassador, a volunteer role that was designed to mentor fellow student editors.

“I worked with a group of 100 students, including Turkish and English department students,” Hachem recalls, and it was more successful than they realized at the time: “When we worked on the WikiWomen contest, the Turkish department students translated all the articles about women on the Turkish Wikipedia. So when we ran the contest again, we couldn’t find any articles left.”

The WikiWomen contest is a writing competition on the Arabic Wikipedia that started in late 2014. Hachem led the competition which helped the students achieve the highest contributions in the Arab World education program since its inception, during the summer 2014 term. As a program leader, Hachem helped the program get adopted by Alexandria University and Al Azhar University, both located in Egypt.

And national borders have not stopped her. May can be found at many Wikipedia editing events across the Middle East, raising awareness about gender diversity on the internet, and has established successful partnerships between the Wikipedia community and international organizations, including UN Women.

On International Youth Day in 2016, Hachem was one of the organizers of an international edit-a-thon (editing workshop) that took place in different locations around the world, including the United Nations’ headquarters in New York City, American University in Cairo, and several other venues. May also led events during the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign to promote the importance of writing about women.

Hachem is looking forward to doing more on Wikipedia, even though her time has diminished since graduating from university. “I think it’s kind of an addiction … really, I can’t define it. I’ve thought about that a lot—what makes me keep doing this?”

But she had answered that question earlier in the interview: “It is my passion.”

Interview by Ruby Mizrahi, Interviewer
Profile by Samir Elsharbaty, Digital Content Intern

Wikimedia Foundation

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