Wikimedia blog

News from the Wikimedia Foundation and about the Wikimedia movement

Posts by Kul Wadhwa

Wikipedia Zero wins 2013 SXSW Interactive “Activism” award

Several months ago I learned that Wikipedia Zero was nominated as a finalist for the SXSW 2013 Interactive Awards. I was obviously thrilled, since we were one of only five projects to receive this honor in the Education category. We’ve always thought of Wikipedia as an educational resource, because learning starts by providing people with knowledge and it was great to be recognized for that.


My thinking changed earlier this year when I got an email from Andrew A. McNeill, the Festival Coordinator at SXSW Interactive. He asked what I thought about switching award categories from Education to Activism. I was initially surprised by the suggestion. We focus on knowledge and education, right? Isn’t that what Wikipedia’s all about? I was so mired in day-to-day operations I never had the chance to reflect back on what we were really doing.

Activism? Really? I just had my head down, along with the rest of my team, moving our work along and doing what needed to be done.

But getting this program up and running was no easy task. We rely heavily on partners to eliminate the data cost to users to access Wikipedia on mobile devices. This involves weeks, if not months, of negotiations with mobile operators, along with various technical changes to make the program a reality. We had to educate everyone we work with about what Wikipedia is and isn’t: we do not and will not filter or censor content, and the site is maintained and improved by the community of volunteer contributors. There is no up-sell or compelling business proposition that we can really offer. This is about changing the mindset of partners, and ultimately users and the entire public. We’re working to convince people that everyone on the planet should have access to free knowledge, that this should be a fundamental human right.

That’s when I realized we weren’t just selling a program, we’re trying to shift a paradigm. In order to fulfill our mission, we had to change the way people thought about what’s important in life. We really were activists. I didn’t realize that because this is just what we needed to do.

True activism, however, must be driven at the grass-roots level and we’re beginning to see that develop. People are demanding free access to knowledge, but we need to see much more of it. Much more.

In some ways, Wikipedia Zero is different from what we’ve done in the past at the Wikimedia Foundation. Wikipedia and its sisters sites are the number five most visited website in the world (comScore Mediamatrix), and we’ve experienced phenomenal growth. However, we have never spent any resources on marketing, SEO, or other web traffic driving techniques. It has all been organic growth.

Wikipedia Zero, however, is about reaching the people who need access to knowledge  and who aren’t getting it. Therefore, we have to proactively get to users, which is something we hadn’t done before. It takes enormous time, effort and will-power; it is a tremendous task to reach people in the developing world who face barriers such as cost, poor infrastructure, low-end mobile phones that aren’t data-enabled, and even those who are illiterate. We also have to invest in campaigns that drive awareness and understanding of Wikipedia, because we are trying to reach people that have had little or no exposure to it’s benefits.

I’m happy to say we are making great inroads. Wikipedia Zero is now available to 330 million mobile users around the world and we’ll be announcing more partnerships soon. We are honored that Wikipedia Zero won at SXSW and we appreciate the validation the award conveys to our efforts. But this is only the beginning. Activism is step one. Next stop, accelerating this program so it becomes a movement to benefit all of humankind.

As I said in our acceptance speech, “Thank you for keeping knowledge free,” and we need to continue to do that. Lobby your mobile operator and your government. Tell your friends. Help us make free knowledge accessible to everyone.

Kul Takanao Wadhwa, Head of Mobile, Wikimedia Foundation

Getting Wikipedia to the people who need it most

This post has also been published on the blog of the Knight Foundation.

Cellphone user in Mumbai, India

We’re in the middle of an information revolution that’s changing the way billions of people in developing countries obtain news and knowledge. With a $10 cell phone, a high school student in New Delhi or a cab driver in Dakar can access the Internet and — through Wikipedia and other websites — learn volumes about virtually any subject. If knowledge is power, then the developing world, with almost five billion cell-phone subscriptions, is poised to make amazing changes.

There’s just one catch: An overwhelming percentage of new mobile users in India, Senegal and other developing countries can’t afford data charges, so they’re effectively excluded from sites like Wikipedia. It’s a de facto blackout, a kind of information segregation that shunts potential Internet users to the side of a very important road.

That’s why the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that operates Wikipedia, has established Wikipedia Zero, a program where we partner with mobile operators to give their mobile users free-of-charge access to Wikipedia and its growing trove of 24 million articles.

In 2012, the Wikimedia Foundation signed Wikipedia Zero partnerships with three mobile operators, which is bringing free Wikipedia access to 230 million mobile users in 31 countries. In January of 2013, we signed a fourth partnership that extends Wikipedia Zero to at least 100 million more mobile users in five more countries.

And with the recent support of the Knight News Challenge grant, designed to accelerate media innovation by funding breakthrough ideas in news and information, a series of exciting new developments is on the horizon. We are: speeding up the development of Wikipedia Zero; hastening the development of the software that lets a simple feature phone (the dominant phone in developing countries) connect easily to Wikipedia’s mobile site; augmenting the development of the engineering that, on Wikipedia, makes hundreds of native languages readable from mobile devices; and pioneering a program to give mobile users USSD & SMS access to Wikipedia.

We’re very excited about delivering Wikipedia via text, which we expect to roll out within the next few months. With the program, users will send a text request to Wikipedia and, within seconds, they will get the article to their phone. To deliver this innovative technology, we’re partnering with the Praekelt Foundation, a nonprofit based in Johannesburg, South Africa. It’s another example of the tremendous collaborative spirit that has always driven Wikipedia and always will.

The number of mobile users who can get free access to Wikipedia is increasing rapidly, and so is its usage. In the countries where Wikipedia Zero has already been deployed, Wikipedia readership of local, non-English languages grew upwards of 400 percent in six months. On our partner’s network in Niger, Wikipedia’s mobile traffic increased by 77 percent in the first four months of Wikipedia Zero, compared to 7 percent growth on Niger’s mobile networks that don’t have Wikipedia Zero. In Kenya, the growth from Wikipedia Zero was even higher – 88 percent. The demand is there for much more growth, and word-of-mouth is spreading.

And the movement for access to knowledge is coming from all sides. Last December, a group of 11th-graders at Sinenjongo High School in Cape Town, South Africa, wrote a heartfelt letter to four mobile operators, imploring them to give their South African customers free-of-charge mobile access to Wikipedia. They had learned about Wikipedia Zero, even though the service is not yet available in South Africa. The Cape Town students have the technology in their hands, but they lack the money to pay for data charges. In their letter, which was published in Gadget, an online South Africa magazine that covers consumer technology, the 24 students wrote:

    “We recently heard that in some other African countries like Kenya and Uganda certain cell phone providers are offering their customers free access to Wikipedia. We think this is a wonderful idea and would really like to encourage you also to make the same offer here in South Africa. It would be totally amazing to be able to access information on our cell phones which would be affordable to us.

    Our school does not have a library at all so when we need to do research we have to walk a long way to the local library.  When we get there we have to wait in a queue to use the one or two computers which have the internet.  At school we do have 25 computers but we struggle to get to use them because they are mainly for the learners who do CAT (Computer Application Technology) as a subject. Going to an internet cafe is also not an easy option because you have to pay per half hour. 90% of us have cellphones but it is expensive for us to buy airtime so if we could get free access to Wikipedia it would make a huge difference to us…Our education system needs help and having access to Wikipedia would make a very positive difference. Just think of the boost that it will give us as students and to the whole education system of South Africa.”

Their letter is a reminder that the human spirit craves access to free information. Indeed, I firmly believe that access to free knowledge should be a universal human right. News and knowledge change lives for the better. They always have.

From the beginning of the Wikimedia movement, and more broadly across the free knowledge movement, the goal has been to break down the digital divide, and render barriers to knowledge obsolete. There’s no better time than now to make gigantic inroads in that quest. Eighty percent of all new mobile phone subscribers are in developing countries, according to the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union. For now, of the 25 countries that have the highest rate of mobile traffic on Wikipedia, 22 are developing countries. The top eight countries are all in Africa.

We will do what it takes to get free knowledge into the hands of students like those in South Africa who are clamoring for it. We will continue partnering with mobile operators who donate their resources to the service of Wikipedia Zero. In the next two years, we will write more blog posts that detail the progress we make in the developing world.

The Knight News Challenge mobile grant is an important milestone in our movement to make free knowledge available to everyone, including every person in the developing world. We see 2013 as a year of significant transition as we make our vision a long-term reality. As I said, access to knowledge should be a human right. And the Wikimedia Foundation is thrilled to be part of the Information Revolution that is bringing free knowledge around the world. We want others to join us, and as the 11th-graders in South Africa have shown us, to also be leaders in this movement. With hard work and true partnership, this dream will become a reality for the students in South Africa, and indeed, everyone, everywhere.

Kul Takanao Wadhwa, head of mobile for Wikimedia Foundation

Wikipedia Zero reaches 230 million mobile users with Saudi Telecom partnership

We are proud to announce our newest Wikipedia Zero partnership, which moves us another step closer to giving every person on the planet access to the free knowledge on Wikipedia. On Sunday, Saudi Telecom Company (STC) joined with the Wikimedia Foundation to offer free access to Wikipedia on mobile for STC customers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain.

The partnership is part of the Wikimedia Foundation’s Wikipedia Zero program, which focuses on reaching billions of people around the world whose primary opportunity to access the Internet is via a mobile device. 25 million STC subscribers can now access Wikipedia, in both Arabic and English, without incurring data fees by pointing their mobile browsers to A lightweight, text-only version optimized for slower connections is also available at

Improving access to the Wikimedia projects in the Arabic speaking world is a strategic priority for the Wikimedia Foundation, and Saudi Arabia is a central part of that. The most edits to Arabic Wikipedia come from within Saudi Arabia and 43 percent of Wikipedia page views within Saudi Arabia are to the Arabic version. More significantly, 29.5 percent of Wikipedia page views in Saudi Arabia are from mobile devices as of September. That’s the second-highest of any large readership country (defined as greater than 5 million page views per month) in the world, and more than twice the rate of Europe.[1] Therefore, with STC removing the cost barrier, millions more people will have access to free knowledge, not only English, but in their native language.

STC is the third parent company to join Wikipedia Zero, which altogether allows 230 million mobile users in 31 countries to access Wikipedia free of data charges. Ten of those countries have already launched the program.

For more information about this partnership and Wikipedia Zero, please read the Q&A:

Kul Takanao Wadhwa, Head of Mobile

1. Nigeria has the highest rate of mobile penetration, with 59 percent of its 12.5 million Wikipedia page views coming from mobile devices. Europe’s combined rate is 13 percent.

Telenor partnership makes Wikipedia free on mobile

Kul Wadhwa, Wikimedia Foundation Head of Mobile, and Jon Fredrik Baksaas, Telenor CEO, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain.

Logging on to Wikimedia projects seems routine for many of us, but we can forget that for much of the world accessing the free information on Wikipedia is a financial burden. For the billions of people whose primary opportunity to access the Internet is via a mobile device, data charges for sites like Wikipedia are too prohibitive and prevent them from enjoying the educational benefits of the largest repository of knowledge in history.

So we are proud to announce a new partnership today between the Wikimedia Foundation and Telenor Group to provide access to Wikipedia and the Wikimedia sites free of traffic charges on mobile devices to Telenor customers in Asia and Southeastern Europe. The partnership, an important piece of the Wikimedia Foundation’s mobile strategy and the first deal like this in Asia, will potentially reach 135 million mobile users through Telenor affiliates in Thailand, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Montenegro, and Serbia.

Telenor is the second mobile carrier to join with the Wikimedia Foundation to increase access to the free and open knowledge available on Wikipedia, following an announcement with Orange in January. The 3-year partnership with Telenor will be implemented throughout 2012, with the first markets launching in the spring. Each local Telenor affiliate will establish technical solutions together with the Wikimedia Foundation. Customers with a Telenor SIM will be able to access a version of the encyclopedia for as many times as they like in a given period, at no charge, as long as they stay within Wikipedia’s pages.

Our mobile team has been working tirelessly to forge new partnerships with mobile carriers throughout the world. I would like to offer my thanks to all the Foundation staff members who have dedicated their time to this endeavor. We’d also like to thank the dozens of volunteers from around the world who have contributed to making this partnership successful.

Please join me in thanking Telenor for demonstrating their shared commitment to making access to Wikipedia available to their customers for free. We’re happy to support this partnership and we look forward to similar announcements in the future.

Kul Takanao Wadhwa
Head of Mobile Development

For more information, please read our Q&A here.

Free mobile for Wikipedia starts with Orange

The Wikimedia Foundation is working to make knowledge freely available to every person in the world, but for many potential readers in developing countries, the only way to access the Internet is by paying for data on a mobile phone. Cost is a barrier that prevents data usage and makes access to a vast repository of knowledge like Wikipedia impossible. In some developing countries, the poorest fifth of the population already spends over 20 percent of their income on mobile phone services [1]. We don’t want people sacrificing their basic human needs to spend money on data, so we decided to do something about it.

Today we are proud to announce [2] a significant step in breaking down barriers to free knowledge: the Wikimedia Foundation and Orange are partnering to offer access to Wikipedia for Orange mobile customers free of charge. Orange has committed to provide this service in twenty countries across Africa and the Middle East, for three years, and has included access to all of Wikipedia’s enormous store of images. We have worked with Orange over the last few years and they have really come to understand the value of our mission. Thanks to their leadership, we will reach tens of millions of people that wouldn’t otherwise have access to Wikipedia — and all for free.

Over the past year, we’ve been urging mobile operators around the world to consider waiving data charges to access Wikipedia, even when we didn’t have the internal capacity to support such an endeavor. Despite not having a full-time mobile developer on staff until eight months ago, we operated in the mode of “if we build it, they will come.” I’ve focused our mobile team to help in developing countries, as we’ve fostered negotiations with operator partners.  And over the last six months we’ve grown our mobile team to six people, with additional contractors (and more hires on the way). Many people on our mobile team have been critical to making this happen including Amit Kapoor, Patrick Reilly, Phil Chang and Tomasz Finc, with special help from tech ops including CT Woo and Asher Feldman – and dozens of volunteers from around the world.

The Orange rollout will begin over the next several months, starting in Tunisia and the Ivory Coast, with four to six more countries including Mauritius and Cameroon and others shortly after.  The first countries will require a lot of testing and if you’re an Orange customer in one of the regions where the rollouts are happening, we’d love your comments. You can read more about this partnership via our Q&A [3]. We’ll keep you updated on our progress in future blog posts.

Orange has helped us get one step closer to making it possible to give everyone free access to the sum of all knowledge. We sincerely thank them for that. This is a really important precedent. Now we need more operators around the world to join in offering Wikipedia to their customers free of data charges. The movement for free mobile for Wikipedia has just begun.

Kul Takanao Wadhwa
Head of Mobile

Hola, Telefónica – Welcome to Wikimedia

Today we’re excited to announce a new partnership with Telefónica, one of the largest telecommunications companies in the world.  Telefónica will be working with the Wikimedia Foundation to increase the reach and accessibility of free knowledge for millions of their customers.  Through their mobile, IPtv, broadband, and other platforms they will soon begin to provide fast and innovative access to educational information from Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects.

Telefónica has a particularly strong presence in Latin America, a part of the world experiencing an incredible rise in access to the internet, and a place where we hope to see considerable increases to our free knowledge materials.

Over the course of this three-year partnership we plan to jointly develop new approaches to sharing Wikimedia project information, particularly through Telefónica’s very large base of mobile subscribers. Telefónica has also expressed a strong interest in working with local chapters to support local outreach and education activities.  Last year they supported Wikimania in Buenos Aires.

Telefónica also runs a non-profit Foundation that supports non-business activities to promote education in Spanish and Portuguese languages and, with good faith efforts, will find ways to help us with the development of content in those languages (via our chapter activities, etc). Telefónica will also explore the development of offline readers for Wikimedia content to increase distribution.
I’m looking forward to sharing more developments about this partnership in the coming months.  Until then, we’re pleased to welcome Telefónica to the Wikimedia mission.
Viva el conocimiento libre!
Kul Wadhwa
Head of Business Development

Bonjour Orange! Wikimedia Partners with Orange to Spread Knowledge

It’s my pleasure to announce that the Wikimedia Foundation has signed a strategic mobile and web partnership with Orange. Orange is one of the leading wireless and broadband internet providers in the world, and with this agreement we’ll begin integrating trademarked Wikipedia content onto their mobile and web channels. This is not just a way for me to improve my French (although that does need a lot of work. . .) – we’re also working with Orange to co-develop content channels and think about new ways to innovate and expand access to free knowledge. We’ve developed a QA as well dealing with aspects of the partnerships.

This is great news for Orange’s 175 million mobile customers and web users, as they’ll get better access to Wikipedia’s trove of knowledge throughout their daily lives. We’re starting out in the UK, Poland, Spain and France with plans to work together throughout Orange’s European footprint. This gets Wikipedia knowledge in front of more people in new ways, which helps us in our mission to expand knowledge to more people in more places. I especially want to praise all the volunteers who’ve made Wikipedia the world’s leading information resource. This partnership will help showcase their important work in front of more people than ever before.

I’ve been negotiating with Orange for a while, and I have been consistently impressed by their dedication to the Foundation’s mission of spreading free knowledge. They appreciate the importance of our community in everything we do, they’re committed to supporting neutral point-of-view, and they have an increasing interest in open source technology. The Foundation is always interested in business partnerships which understand our culture and help expand our mission, and Orange is an ideal partner for us.

This is an important new revenue stream to build on our successful fundraising campaigns. All the proceeds will go toward Wikimedia Foundation projects, with an emphasis on organizational sustainability and new services to make Wikipedia and our other projects better and easier to use. We’re a very lean nonprofit organization—just 27 of us help maintain the fourth-biggest website in the world—and this partnership will help us better support the vibrant community that makes Wikipedia possible.

Please join me in welcoming Orange as a new partner supporting the Wikimedia community!

Kul Wadhwa, Business Development<

Mobile Asia Congress, The Kul Way

Wikipedia Affiliate Button

No, it’s not democracy on wheels… Mobile Asia Congress, or MAC, is the top annual fiesta for the GSM Association in (you guessed it) Asia. GSMA is a global trade group representing more than 750 mobile operators across 218 countries and territories-more than 86% of the world’s mobile phone connections.

I was honored to be invited to speak at a panel at MAC last month in Macau, China. You might be asking yourself why a busy guy like me would sit on a plane for 15 hours, surrounded by screaming babies, to fly half way around the world to talk to executives of the mobile communications industry. Well, it wasn’t for the frequent flier miles (though those were nice too). The Wikimedia Foundation is committed to spreading knowledge to more people in more ways. If you look at how people are connecting with information these days, mobile devices are becoming more and more important. In developing countries, a lack of infrastructure and internet access means mobile devices are sometimes the only way that people can access information online.

My panel was on Monetising the assets of mobile for a new Internet – location, charging and demographics. That may sound strange, seeing as we don’t charge anyone to use or edit Wikipedia or any of our other projects. However, all the terrific content on Wikipedia can add a lot of value to the mobile experience.
*    Imagine GPS-powered software automatically offering up Wikipedia content based on your trip to London or Tokyo
*    Or photo-recognition software providing the Wikipedia article based on your mobile-phone picture at the Golden Gate Bridge.

We’re exploring partnerships with prominent mobile carriers, device makers, application developers, etc., to make these kinds of dynamic experiences a reality. It’s all about giving people the most relevant knowledge, whenever and wherever they need it.

While I was in Asia, I also had the opportunity to visit dedicated Wikipedians in Hong Kong, Macau and Japan. We already have a chapter in Hong Kong, and Macau is on it’s way to forming one. The Japanese Wikipedians are thinking about starting up a chapter and I was able to help them out with some Dos and Dont’s (such as DO buy the Head of Business Development a round of Kirin; DON’T stop at one round). We’re excited to expand the Wikipedia presence in Asia, where it’s growing faster than monkeyweed on Miracle Grow (also known as Japanese knotweed).

It was a lot of fun to meet all the smart, committed people working to make Wikipedia bigger and better. Wikipedia is currently accessible by people in mainland China and it growing at a rapid rate due to all the Chinese speaking contributors from every corner of the world. Japanese Wikipedia is our sixth-biggest language, with more than 540,000 articles. I want to thank all the Wikipedians that took the time to meet with me: Jerry (Hong Kong); Agostinho and Albert (Macau); and, Shun, Kotaro, Kazuhiro, and Tomoaki (Japan).

Also, a special thanks to Simone Craig, Lisa West, Andy McGuire, and everyone at GSMA for making me part of their great event.

Kul Wadhwa, Business Development