wikipedia - open knowledge for all

If you spend any time at all online and want to know something in a hurry, where do you go? The chances are that you'll log on to Wikipedia, even if you get there via Google, but how much do you know about this vast knowledge base?

by GUEST EDITOR Stevie Benton

Founded in 2001, Wikipedia is the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Its mission? To share the sum total of all human knowledge with everyone on the planet, for free. That's a lofty ambition and one that can never be fulfilled. But that isn't stopping Wikipedia contributors – Wikipedians – from having a real go at making it happen.

With over 4.3 million articles in the English language alone (without mentioning the more than 18 million articles in over 275 other languages) the scale of Wikipedia is enormous and ambitious – and it's written entirely by volunteers. But Wikipedia is only one of several Wikimedia projects – openly licensed free knowledge projects that all contribute to that goal of sharing human knowledge. These projects include Wikimedia Commons, the repository of openly licensed images, video and sound files. Commons hosts over 20 million files that you are free to reuse, remix and distribute for any purpose including, in most cases, commercial. (By the way, Commons is great for comms people in a rush and on a budget – there's tons of material for you to make use of, simply at the cost of an attribution. Imagine - no more expensive image libraries!)

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons and the other Wikimedia projects are supported by the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), a non-profit based in San Francisco. The WMF looks after the servers that host the content, supports technical development and manages fundraising – you may not be aware, but Wikipedia is supported almost entirely by voluntary donations.

Wikimedia UK, the charity for which I work, is the local chapter of the global Wikimedia movement. We're an independent organisation, affiliated with the WMF and trusted by them to support and promote the Wikimedia projects locally, provide support to volunteers, to encourage contributors, develop partnerships with educational and cultural institutions, promote open licences and develop innovative ways to increase the impact and value of the projects.

I applied for this role because, put simply, I love Wikipedia and what it represents. My only forays into editing have been to remove vandalism when I encountered it, or correcting the odd typo or obvious mistake. But this huge and ongoing collective effort of people all over the world really speaks to me. That people come together to share their knowledge, for no other reason than to help, gives me great hope. Anyone with an internet connection can access, for free, information on pretty much anything.

One of the features of my job is to explore new ways for Wikipedia to deliver impact as well as just information. We're working on making an offline version of Wikipedia available to children in Uganda and to others with no internet access, such as prisoners. We're supporting universities in efforts to teach important skills through editing Wikipedia. We're researching its potential as a tool to teach key digital literacy skills to schoolchildren and the value of Wikipedia programmes in public libraries. We're building closer relationships with other organisations that are working in the world of open knowledge and open licences.

Wikimania is the annual conference of the global Wikimedia movement and we are fortunate that London is the host for this year's event. Wikipedians and those who love the site will be taking over the Barbican Centre in the City of London for a few days in August.

Some of the most innovative ideas come from volunteers. Recently Andy Mabbett, one of our volunteers (and who I note has previously featured in these pages) created a project called WikiVIP. This involves the subjects of Wikipedia biographies recording openly licensed samples of their voice for sharing on Wikimedia Commons and within their Wikipedia articles. It's been a great success with contributors including a Peer, a lunar astronaut and Stephen Fry.

Perhaps my favourite initiative is Wikipedia Zero, delivered by the Wikimedia Foundation. The programme is a series of partnerships between the WMF and mobile phone companies in the developing world to give access to Wikipedia without any airtime cost. In countries where many young people have phones but no libraries this access can be life-changing. Let's finish with a video that illustrates this point and shows why those involved with Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia projects do what we do.

In part two of this piece Stevie will outline some important hints and tips about Wikipedia for comms professionals

Stevie Benton is Head of External Relations at Wikimedia UK

image via wikimedia