Future Tense

Wikimania to the Rescue

At its annual convention, the international Wikimedia community has adopted ambitious human rights goals.

Photo illustration: Badge and Shirt Wikimania 2019 with Dala-Horse
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Rlbberlin/Wikipedia.

Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s knowledge ecosystem.

At the Wikimania conference this weekend in Stockholm, the Wikimedia Foundation signed a first-of-its-kind partnership with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. According to an announcement by foundation Executive Director Katherine Maher, the partnership involves increasing the quality and quantity of human rights content on the encyclopedia as well as mobilizing the global Wikimedia community on human rights. While many people might not associate Wikipedia with the United Nations, the partnership is in keeping with the overall theme of the conference—how the Wikimedia movement can support the U.N.’s 17 sustainable development goals.

Now in its 15th year, Wikimania is the annual conference for the many free knowledge projects hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation, including the Wikipedia’s multiple language editions of the encyclopedia and sister projects like Wikidata and Wikimedia Commons, which hosts photos and videos. Stockholm beat out options like Perth, Australia, and Prague to be selected as the candidate city, and more than 800 Wikimedia enthusiasts have arrived from around the world for this weekend’s activities.

Even before the U.N. announcement, I was struck by the sense of international camaraderie at the event. (Unlike other “maniacs,” this is my first Wikimania.) On the train from the hotel to the conference venue at Stockholm University, I chatted with a Ghanaian Wikipedian involved in Open Foundation West Africa, which seeks to preserve and make the region’s cultural heritage digitally accessible. Later, in one of the conference’s many breakout sessions, an Indonesian Wikipedia editor asked a peer from Argentina if she could offer experience-based advice on truthfully covering a nation’s history of brutal dictatorship on the encyclopedia.

I was a bit skeptical when I first heard that Wikimania 2019 was adopting the U.N.’s sustainable development goals as the theme. After all, these 17 goals require the mobilization of billions of people. The list begins with two whammies: no poverty and zero hunger.

But I was pleasantly surprised with how some speakers successfully bridged the gap between aspirational goals and practical action. German Wikipedian Lukas Mezger, who is co-leading the environmental sustainability track of the conference, spoke about allowing remote participation to reduce the carbon footprint of events like Wikimania. He’s also working to transition the Wikimedia Foundation’s data servers so they will be powered by renewable energy. (Because Wikipedia does not host much video, nor does it track user activity, the fifth most-trafficked website in the world uses far less power than other leading sites.)

Some of the ideas proposed so far at the conference have involved small changes in behavior. Stuart Ray, a physician and professor at Johns Hopkins who has contributed to several medical textbooks, argued that before submitting medical figures to a publisher, experts should first submit those figures to Wikimedia Commons, so that those illustrations could be used by the public under a Creative Commons license. Ray also noted that research sponsors like the National Institutes of Health have begun to require publicly sharing data results, and that NIH should consider giving credit for making that data available on Wikipedia. Each of these proposals relates to a U.N. goal, such as No. 3, good health and well-being; or No. 4, quality education.

Critics might say that Wikipedia should get its own house in order before making such idealistic attempts to save the world. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported on the Wikipedia community’s ongoing challenges with respect to the harassment and incivility of some members. Indeed, several sessions at this year’s Wikimania are focused on improving community health and reducing toxicity.

The Swedish Wikipedia community has been undergoing a similar exercise in critical self-reflection. The Equal Edit is a new initiative geared toward making Swedish history on the encyclopedia more gender equal. And when presenters at the conference note the rise of populism and far-right nationalism across the world, they make clear that Sweden is experiencing similar challenges.

Yet our Swedish hosts have been quite friendly and the event has been carefully managed. Besides the classroom sessions at Stockholm University, the program schedule includes a welcome reception at Stockholm’s opulent City Hall, which also hosts the annual Nobel Banquet.

Stockholm is delightful, but the most enjoyable part of Wikimania are the conversations, where people are prone to light up when they talk about projects that they are working on—whether that’s adding more 360-degree photos to the encyclopedia, digitally saving a museum that had burned down, or boosting a small language online. There’s an old saying about the greater part of happiness being to have found a sense of purpose, and these “maniacs” seem to have hit the mark.

Correction, Aug. 16, 2019: An earlier version of this article misspelled Stuart Ray’s last name.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.