Wikimedia blog

News from the Wikimedia Foundation and about the Wikimedia movement

Posts by Erik Moeller

Google experiments with new ways to search Wikipedia

The good folks at Google Custom Search, in cooperation with experienced Wikipedian Mathias Schindler, have developed a “Google Custom Search skin” for Wikipedia that can be activated by following these instructions. In addition to using Google to search for Wikipedia articles, it makes it possible to search linked Wikipedia articles, as well as the content of linked external websites, using a simple tabbed interface. See the post at the Google Blog for more information.

This is a community initiative, not an official new feature developed by the Wikimedia Foundation, so we make no guarantees of any kind for its operation. It does show how much bottom-up innovation is possible thanks to Wikimedia’s open APIs and scripting interfaces. We’re very happy that Google has built this alternative new way to search Wikipedia. Please provide feedback below, or to the Google Custom Search team here.

Erik Moeller
Deputy Director, Wikimedia Foundation

OpenMoko Launches WikiReader

OpenMoko (Om), a company that previously created an open source smartphone, has just launched The WikiReader, a dedicated reader device with an offline copy of the entire English Wikipedia (without images) stored on a small chip. With two AAA batteries, the WikiReader will run for several months, as it’s been optimized for low power consumption. The device has a simple LCD touchscreen and three buttons for searching, viewing random pages, and looking up previously viewed pages.

Building such a device is possible because, unlike most information on the web, Wikipedia content is freely licensed, allowing anyone to copy, modify, and re-use it for any purpose, including commercial uses. We’ve played with the device and given feedback during the development phase, but it’s not a Wikimedia Foundation product, and we make no guarantees of any kind for its operation.

The device showcases a great opportunity that free educational content creates: information from Wikipedia and similarly licensed projects can be packed into self-contained devices, including purpose-built ones like the WikiReader, without requiring any kind of Internet connectivity. In other words, it is very much possible to get a copy of the most comprehensive encyclopedia in human history to every person on the planet who would benefit from it.

While this device is targeted at least initially at users in the developed world, the software running on the WikiReader is open source, so that other projects can re-use it in whole or in part. (Information about that will go up on their website soon.) We welcome it as a creative new distribution method for Wikipedia content. Congratulations to Om for launching this product; we wish them the best of luck in the marketplace.

Erik Moeller
Deputy Director, Wikimedia Foundation

Supporting is a core part of the MediaWiki ecosystem. While not a Wikimedia Foundation project, it’s used by hundreds of volunteers to improve the localization of MediaWiki and its extensions, alongside other open source projects, which has led to MediaWiki being one of the most internationalized software packages available.

We’re very pleased to be able to recognize the incredible volunteer efforts behind at least in a small way. Starting tomorrow, Siebrand Mazeland will be able to devote one day a week to the support of the project on a contract with the Wikimedia Foundation. We’ve identified core priorities for the next year as an increase in the number of volunteer developers supporting the infrastructure, and the number of volunteer translators working on localization for the most widely spoken languages.

Welcome, Siebrand, and a big thank you to the entire community for their work. :-)

Erik Moeller
Deputy Director, Wikimedia Foundation

A quick update on Flagged Revisions

One of the wonderful characteristics of Wikimedia’s wikis, including Wikipedia, is that every change ever made to a page is recorded, back to the very first version (compare, for example, the first version of the article about chess with the most recent version of the same article). This characteristic also makes it possible to assign quality assessments to specific versions, thereby giving our readers greater transparency about the perceived current or past quality of an article.

A very powerful software feature called Flagged Revisions makes it possible to systematize such quality assessments.  It’s been in production use in many of our wikis for more than a year now, including the second-largest Wikipedia, the German language edition. Fundamentally it’s a very flexible feature, and different project communities (the German Wikipedia, the English Wikibooks, etc.) can come up with configurations that suit their needs. By means of our public issue tracker, they can then request from the Wikimedia Foundation that such configurations be turned on.

Even though we’ve made no official announcements about this, you may have seen media reports that Flagged Revisions will soon be enabled in the English Wikipedia. Indeed, there is a specific proposal that was developed by the English Wikipedia community, entitled Flagged protection and patrolled revisions. It’s a very thoughtful proposal that attempts to balance the desire for higher quality, and more systematic assessment thereof, with the immediacy of Wikipedia as it exists today, and was supported by a large majority of interested Wikipedia editors. The idea behind this proposal is to allow regular contributors to systematize a first, basic assessment of all edits by new contributors. However, this assessment will be purely for informational purposes to the reader: a reader will see whether or not the version of an article they look at has been patrolled, and if not, whether a prior patrolled version is available.

Only in a small percentage of cases, we would require changes to be patrolled before becoming the default view for readers. The proposal is to do so initially in the case of articles at high risk of vandalism, including high risk biographies of living people, where false information can do the most serious harm to an individual.

A popular media narrative of this proposal (in the cases where it has been reported roughly correctly to begin with) is that it represents a “clamping down” on Wikipedia’s open editing process. That is nonsense. It is presently the case that many high-risk articles are completely uneditable by new contributors, which is referred to as page protection. For example, as a completely new user, you are not able to alter the article about Barack Obama. These kinds of protections of high-risk articles have been common for many years now. If the proposed model works as intended, it will actually allow us to open up many articles for editing which are currently protected from being edited. Edits will have to be patrolled, which is clearly a step up from edits not being possible at all.

It is true that some implementations of Flagged Revisions are more conservative than that. Any edit in the German Wikipedia by a new or unregistered user has to be patrolled before becoming visible to readers. This is definitely not the case in the proposed English Wikipedia configuration. We believe in letting our communities experiment with different approaches in an attempt to find the right balance.

A test wiki for the English Wikipedia configuration has just been set up in the Wikimedia Labs, and we’ll be importing articles from Wikipedia soon and make a broad call for testing. It’s important for us to get this right – we want to make sure that we don’t make Wikipedia harder to use, for our readers or our editors, in the process of deploying this functionality. That said, we hope to be able to deploy Flagged Revisions in production use on the English Wikipedia within 2-3 months.

From Wikimania in lovely Buenos Aires,
Erik Moeller
Deputy Director, Wikimedia Foundation

[UPDATE 8/26] This post originally said that all biographies of living people would be “flagged protected”. This is not correct. The current proposal is for for articles that are currently under normal mechanisms of protection (where new and unregistered users cannot edit) to be eligible for the new protection model, which allows for more open editing. I apologize for the confusion; thanks to Sage Ross for the quick correction.

Protecting the public domain and sharing our cultural heritage

Last week, the National Portrait Gallery in London, UK sent a threatening letter to a Wikimedia volunteer regarding the upload of public domain paintings to Wikimedia’s media repository, Wikimedia Commons.

The fact that a publicly funded institution sent a threatening letter to a volunteer working to improve a non-profit encyclopedia may strike you as odd. After all, the National Portrait Gallery was founded in 1856, with the stated aim of using portraits “to promote appreciation and understanding of the men and women who have made and are making British history and culture.” [source] It seems obvious that a public benefit organization and a volunteer community promoting free access to education and culture should be allies rather than adversaries.

It seems especially odd if seen in the context of the many successful partnerships between the Wikimedia community and other galleries, libraries, archives and museums. For example, two German photographic archives, the Bundesarchiv and the Deutsche Fotothek, together donated 350,000 copyrighted images under a free content license to Wikimedia Commons, the Wikimedia Foundation’s multimedia repository. These photographic donations were the successful outcome of thoughtful negotiations between Mathias Schindler, a Wikimedia volunteer, and representatives of the archives. (Information about the Bundesarchiv donation ; Information about the Fotothek donation)

Everybody ended up winning. Wikimedia helped the archives by working to identify errors in the descriptions of the donated images, and by linking the subjects of the photographs to accepted metadata standards. Wikipedia has driven new traffic to the archives. And the more than 300 million monthly visitors to Wikipedia have been given free access to amazing photographs of historic value they would otherwise never have seen.

More examples:

  • During the past few months, Wikimedia volunteers have worked with cultural institutions in the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands to take thousands of photographs of paintings and objects for Wikimedia Commons. This project is called “Wikipedia Loves Art.” Again, everybody wins: the museums and galleries gain greater exposure for the images, Wikipedia is better able to serve its audience, and people around the world are able to see cultural treasures they might otherwise never have had access to. (See the English Wikipedia page about the project and the Dutch project portal.)

  • Individual Wikimedia volunteers work with museums and archives to restore digital versions of old images by removing visible marks such as stains and scratches. The work is painstaking and difficult, but the results are terrific: the work is returned to its original glory, with its full informational value restored. Audiences can appreciate it once again. (Restoration work is coordinated through the “Potential restorations” page, and many examples of restoration can be found among Wikimedia’s featured pictures.)

Three Wikimedia volunteers have summarized these opportunities in an open letter: Working with, not against, cultural institutions. On August 6-7, Wikimedia Australia is organizing an event to explore these and other models of partnership with galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAM).

Why do Wikimedia volunteers donate their time to painstaking restoration work, the photographing of art, and the negotiation of partnerships with cultural institutions? Because Wikimedia volunteers are dedicated to making information – including images of historic or informational importance – freely available to people around the world. Cultural institutions should not condemn Wikimedia volunteers: they should join forces with them in a shared mission.

We believe there are many wonderful opportunities for Wikimedia to work together with cultural institutions to educate, inform, and enlighten, and to share our cultural heritage. If you would like to get involved in the discussion, we invite you to join the Wikimedia Commons mailing list. Subscribe and introduce yourself – the list is read by many Wikimedia volunteers and by some volunteers associated with Wikimedia chapters as well as some Wikimedia Foundation staff. Alternatively, if there is a chapter in your country, you may want to get in touch with them directly. You can also contact the Wikimedia Foundation. Please feel free to send me your first thoughts at erik(at)wikimedia(dot)org, and I will connect you as appropriate.

The NPG is angry that a Wikimedia volunteer seems to have uploaded to Commons photographs of public domain paintings that are owned by the NPG. Intitially it sent threatening letters to the Wikimedia Foundation, asking us to “destroy all the images”. (Contrary to public claims, these letters did not include an offer for compromise. The NPG is possibly confusing its correspondence with a letter exchange in 2006 with a Wikimedia volunteer, which the user published here.) The NPG’s position seems to be that the user has violated copyright law in posting the images.

Both the NPG and Wikimedia agree that the paintings depicted in these images are in the public domain – many of these portraits are hundreds of years old, all long out of copyright. However, the NPG claims that it holds a copyright to the reproduction of these images (while also controlling access to the physical objects). In other words, the NPG believes that the slavish reproduction of a public domain painting without any added originality conveys a new full copyright to the digital copy, creating the opportunity to monetize this digital copy for many decades. The NPG is therefore effectively asserting full control over these public domain paintings.

The Wikimedia Foundation has no reason to believe that the user in question has violated any applicable law, and we are exploring ways to support the user in the event that NPG follows up on its original threat. We are open to a compromise around the specific images, but our position on the legal status of these images is unlikely to change. Our position is shared by legal scholars and by many in the community of galleries, libraries, archives, and museums. In 2003, Peter Hirtle, 58th president of the Society of American Archivists, wrote:

“The conclusion we must draw is inescapable. Efforts to try to monopolize our holdings and generate revenue by exploiting our physical ownership of public domain works should not succeed. Such efforts make a mockery of the copyright balance between the interests of the copyright creator and the public.” [source]

Some in the international GLAM community have taken the opposite approach, and even gone so far to suggest that GLAM institutions should employ digitial watermarking and other Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) technologies to protect their alleged rights over public domain objects, and to enforce those rights aggressively.

The Wikimedia Foundation sympathizes with cultural institutions’ desire for revenue streams to help them maintain services for their audiences. And yet, if that revenue stream requires an institution to lock up and severely limit access to its educational materials, rather than allowing the materials to be freely available to everyone, that strikes us as counter to those institutions’ educational mission. It is hard to see a plausible argument that excluding public domain content from a free, non-profit encyclopedia serves any public interest whatsoever.

Erik Moeller
Deputy Director, Wikimedia Foundation

Ford Foundation Awards $300K Grant for Wikimedia Commons

I’m very happy to announce that the Ford Foundation has awarded a USD 300,000 grant to the Wikimedia Foundation to improve our interfaces and workflows for multimedia uploading. See the press release and the grant proposal as submitted (PDF).

This should give you a good idea about what we can do within the scope of this project. Wikimedia Commons , the multimedia repository shared by Wikipedia and all other projects operated by the Wikimedia Foundation, has been a wonderful success story, having grown to more than 4.5 million educational, freely usable media files since its inception in 2004. But the combination of the complexity of free content licensing and the integration of Commons into the experience of contributing to a project like Wikipedia or Wikibooks can make for a very daunting experience for new contributors.

We want to begin to change that, and make sure that everyone who has useful educational media to share can do so easily. As part of our partnership with Kaltura, Michael Dale has already done some great work on external repository searches and transfers, and on integration of uploading into the editing interface, so we’re hoping to build on top of this to really get the workflow for licensing/upload/review/embedding of media files nailed.

We’ve also been having initial discussions with some of the Wikimedia chapters about possible models for working together on the execution of this project. For example, we want to make sure that we can facilitate fruitful face-to-face meetings with Commons practitioners, and there is plenty of technical work to be done that can be decentralized and shared. Exciting projects like Wikimedia Germany’s investment in multilingual search (German link; see Google Translation) are already underway, so hopefully over the next year, we’ll see lots of useful activity culminating in genuine improvements for Commons and beyond.

Big thanks to Sara Crouse and Naoko Komura for their work on this grant proposal, and of course we’re enormously grateful to the Ford Foundation for funding it. Wikimedia Commons deserves to grow to many more millions of free educational media files, and hopefully this strategic investment will help us to get there.

Erik Moeller
Deputy Director, Wikimedia Foundation

Licensing update rolled out in all Wikimedia wikis

On June 15, the site-footer and various other messages in the English Wikipedia were changed to reflect the licensing change that the Wikimedia community overwhelmingly approved last month: from the GNU Free Documentation License as the primary content license to the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License (CC-BY-SA). Creative Commons founder Larry Lessig tweeted that it was the “first copyright message ever to bring tears” to his eyes, and Mike Linksvayer called it a “free culture win” in the Creative Commons blog.

A few other Wikimedia wikis and projects have followed in a bottom-up manner, but today we standardized the site language to ensure that all our projects in all languages reflect the new terms (see this message for some more internals about the process). Want to translate text from the Italian to the Spanish Wikipedia? Both are CC-BY-SA. Use content from Wiktionary? It’s CC-BY-SA. A textbook from the French Wikibooks? CC-BY-SA.

Perhaps the most significant reason to choose CC-BY-SA as our primary content license was to be compatible with many of the other admirable endeavors out there to share and develop free knowledge: projects like Citizendium (CC-BY-SA), Google Knol (a mix of CC licenses, including CC-BY and CC-BY-SA), WikiEducator (CC-BY-SA), the Encylcopedia of Earth (CC-BY-SA), the Encyclopedia of the Cosmos (CC-BY-SA), the Encyclopedia of Life (a mix of CC licenses), and many others. These communities have come up with their own rules of engagement, their own models for sharing and aggregating knowledge, but they’re committed to the free dissemination of information. Now this information can flow freely to and from Wikimedia projects, without unnecessary legal boundaries.

This is beginning to happen. A group of English Wikipedia volunteers have created a WikiProject Citizendium Porting, for example, to ensure that high quality information developed by the Citizendium community can be made available through Wikipedia as well, with proper attribution.

The world of free knowledge doesn’t end with Wikipedia, and it shouldn’t. Indeed, license compatibility is just one part of a functioning, decentralized free knowledge ecosystem. Incidentally, with the exception of Google Knol and EOL, all of the aforementioned projects use MediaWiki, the open source collaboration software developed and maintained by the Wikimedia Foundation – so, we are well-positioned to help further develop this ecosystem of knowledge in the future.

Erik Moeller
Deputy Director, Wikimedia Foundation

Welcome to Steve Kent

On Monday, Steve Kent will be joining the Wikimedia Foundation team as the Head of Office IT Support. Steve will take the IT support torch from Ariel as well as incorporating some new responsibilities that were previously shared by other staff. Ariel’s responsibilities will shift to software development work.

Steve comes to us with more than 20 years of IT systems management experience. He has been in similar roles with several organizations including; RR Donnelley, Charrette LLC, Communicomp and CMP Media. Steve was most recently the Director of Information Technology for Sandbox Studios located here in San Francisco.

Welcome, Steve, to the Wikimedia Foundation team.

Erik Moeller

Scholarly community gives feedback regarding Wikipedia

In February, the Wikimedia Foundation ran a survey with support from the Public Library of Science to explore the attitudes and beliefs of the open access scientific community with regard to Wikipedia. The open access movement is dedicated to the free dissemination of scientific knowledge. PLoS and other open access journals publish scientific papers under permissive Creative Commons licenses that allow anyone to download and re-use content. The Wikipedia article about open access, which itself could use some improvement, goes into more detail.

At Wikimedia, we’ve been thinking for a while about ways to directly work with scientists and open access journals. While scientists already contribute to Wikipedia in a self-organized manner (an example being the Gene Wiki effort), we have never made a systematic, large-scale effort to invite them to participate. Our exploratory survey indicates that such an invitation would be welcomed with open arms.

The survey was published on the PLoS website, blog, newsletter and Twitter feed, and the link to the survey was also more widely circulated, most notably in Peter Suber’s open access newsletter. 1,743 self-selected respondents completed the survey. Out of the respondents, 225 identified as PLoS authors. The subsample of authors did not differ remarkably from the general response. In general, respondents expressed a very favorable (58.98%) and somewhat favorable (32.19%) opinion of Wikipedia, and 87.73% indicated they used Wikipedia frequently or occasionally as part of their professional work.

71.03% of respondents supported some form of hyperlinks from open access publications to Wikipedia, and 91.51% supported links from Wikipedia to open access publications. 67.93% of respondents indicated support for large scale efforts to invite scientists to become Wikipedia contributors, and 24.73% indicated support for limited experiments. 81.82% responded they would participate in such an effort to improve Wikipedia, with roughly half of the respondents indicating they would only do so as part of their professional work.

While the survey is by no means scientific (in spite of the subject of study, it wasn’t intended to be), it indicates that efforts to reach out to more scientists as potential contributors to Wikipedia would be met with enthusiasm and support, particularly in the open access scholarly community. We’ve had some initial conversations specifically with the Public Library of Science, and are looking forward to continuing them, specifically with an eye to scalable approaches to future collaboration.

More information:

Erik Moeller
Deputy Director, Wikimedia Foundation

First preliminary results from UNU-Merit Survey of Wikipedia Readers and Contributors available

From late October to early November 2008, the Wikimedia Foundation and UNU-Merit conducted the first multilingual survey of Wikipedia readers and contributors in 20 languages. In total, more than 130,000 Wikipedia readers and contributors completed the extensive survey questionnaire (out of more than 300,000 people total who took at least part of the questionnaire).* This level of response far exceeded our expectations, and the data that was collected provides a wealth of information about the Wikipedia community. English, German and Spanish were the most responsive Wikipedia editions and together make up two thirds of the responses.

The UNU-Merit team has spent the previous months cleaning and preparing the data, and is now making available first results for some of our priority questions. Key outcomes of this first analysis include:

  • 65% of respondents self-described as readers, and 35% as (mostly occasional) contributors. Former contributors are analysed separately.
  • Respondents came from over 200 countries, ranging from 10 to 85 years completed the survey; their average age is 26 years, and 25% of the respondents are younger than 18 years. Female respondents are a bit younger than the average (24 years)
  • Among these, readers and contributors are on average in their mid-twenties, and predominantly male (75%)
  • Women, with a share of 25% in all respondents, are more strongly represented among readers (32%) and less strongly represented among contributors (13%).
  • Both educational levels and age are slightly higher among contributors than among readers.
  • Regarding their motivations to contribute, respondents mentioned as their top two reasons that (1) they liked the idea of sharing knowledge, and (2) that they had come across an error and wanted to fix it.
  • The concern that they might not have enough information to contribute is the main reason holding back potential contributors, mentioned by 51% of this group. Fourty-eight percent mentioned they were happy readers of Wikipedia, and saw no reason to get involved as contributors.
  • The most common reason why respondents have not donated money to the Wikimedia Foundation, mentioned by more than 42% of respondents, is that they don’t know how. (If you happen to be one of them, we suggest you go to ;-) )

Ruediger Glott and Philipp Schmidt from UNU-Merit have made available additional data in the online workbook of their analysis (PDF file), and we’re planning to give you regular updates with new data every couple of weeks from now on. The survey team also maintains its own website at

This is a landmark moment in the history of Wikipedia and the Wikimedia movement. These and future findings that will result from this data will help to shape our efforts to reach new contributors and new readers.  The Wikimedia Foundation wishes to thank everyone who has made this survey possible, especially the UNU-Merit Team and the community of translators.

Erik Moeller
Deputy Director, Wikimedia Foundation

* In addition to the 130,000 responses overall, we’ve received 40,000 responses from the Russian Wikipedia, which very significantly overrepresents this group in the total response set. The survey team has excluded this group from the data until the possible causes for this overrepresentation can be fully understood.

[UPDATE 4/16] Naoko Komura, who project-managed the survey translation and launch on the Wikimedia Foundation side, sent a list of translators who helped us to run this survey in 20 languages. They are: Jeandré du Toit, Mohamed Magdy, Meno25, Toni Pulido, Jordi Roqué Figuls, Xavier SMP, Zirland, MF-Warburg, Tim Landscheidt, Michael Bimmler, Arno Lagrange, Ariel T. Glenn, Ziko van Dijk, Verónica Rivero, Salvador Espada, Sébastien Beyou, Plyd, Delphine Ménard, Philippe Verdy, Daniel U. Thibault, Maximilian Hasler, Rex Alberto, Morris Mastini, Federico Leva, Hatukanezumi, Henrdrik Maryns, Robin P., Wojciech Pędzich, McMonster, Jennifer Hobbs, Thomas Buckup, Aleksandr Sigachov, Ilya Haykinson, Mayooranathan Ratnavelupillai, BalaSundaraRaman, C.R. Selvakumar, Manop Kaewmoracharoen, Nguyễn Thanh Quang, Trần Vĩnh Tân, Ting Chen, Andrew Leung. Thanks to all of them for their help — it’s wonderful to have so much volunteer support in a project like this. Thanks also to Naoko herself, who helped to create the Japanese translation, and to the UNU-Merit webmasters, Herman Pijpers and Mourik Jan Heupink. :-)<