Photo by David Richfield/Slashme, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Wikimania—an annual conference where volunteer editors from around the globe gather to celebrate, discuss, and plan for the future of the Wikimedia projectsis typically attended by up to a thousand people, with a portion of them being subsidized by scholarships that cover travel and lodging.

The scholarships are overseen, and recipients chosen, by a committee of volunteer editors. Applications were accepted in January and February for last year’s Wikimania. To find out more about how the process works, community member Syed Muzammiluddin interviewed committee member David Richfield (User:Slashme). Richfield, a native of South Africa, is also actively helping to plan for Wikimania 2018, which will be held in Cape Town, the country’s legislative capital.

Syed: How did you get introduced into the Wikimedia movement?

David: My first edit was to create and upload an image in 2005, then adding it to an article. Amazingly, this edit is still current in the encyclopedia, although the image has since been moved to Wikimedia Commons. I never became an administrator, and I’m not a top contributor, but I’ve made over 25 thousand edits to Wikimedia projects, and uploaded almost a thousand files. I’ve also written a tool that’s in continual use to create parliament diagrams for political Wikipedia articles.

I got involved with the broader movement when I was invited to take part in the founding of Wikimedia South Africa. I was the secretary of the chapter until I moved to Germany, and I remained a member even afterwards. I’m also an active member of Wikimedia Deutschland.

I’ve served on the scholarship committee for the London, Mexico, Esino Lario and Montréal Wikimanias. For Esino Lario I also served on the Wikimedia Deutschland scholarship committee.

Why does South Africa want to host Wikimania?

Since the founding meetings of Wikimedia South Africa, we dreamed of hosting the conference. Initially many of us (including me) were very naïve. We had no idea of the scale of the event, or the level of burnout and exhaustion that would come about just from setting up a chapter, let alone hosting a massive conference. Since then, Wikimedia South Africa has successfully run Wiki Loves Monuments and hosted the regional African conference (WikiIndaba), and we have matured significantly as a chapter.

Our motivation to host the conference is that Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, is a linguistically and culturally rich region with much to contribute to Wikimedia, but most content about Africa has been contributed from outside the continent. This state of affairs highlights the barriers to participation faced within our continent.

This background of inequality of coverage and participation led to the development of our theme: “Knowledge gaps: the Ubuntu way forward.” Ubuntu is the African philosophy that says that a person is a person through other people. We will use the conference as a platform to bridge all types of knowledge gaps, and in particular to make our movement accessible to potential African wikimedians.

Why were scholarships introduced for Wikimania events?

Wikimania is the one event that brings Wikimedians from all around the world, and from all parts of the movement, into one place. The Wikimedia Foundation realised that this vision would be greatly weakened if only those Wikimedians with the financial means to travel were able to attend, so they took the bold step of creating a scholarship program which uses donor funds to bring this opportunity to Wikimedians who would not otherwise be able to take part.

What does a good scholarship application look like?

A good scholarship application paints a complete picture of what the applicant brings to Wikimania, and what they will take back and share after the conference.

A good application firstly shows their commitment to our movement: how much effort they have put into the the work of growing free knowledge, bringing it to the people who need it, and convincing others of the importance of free knowledge. This can be through their contributions to Wikimedia projects and through their work in their local Wikimedia affiliate organisations, but it can also be work that is done with other organisations that share our goals, for example Creative Commons.

Secondly, it needs to convince us that the experiences that the recipient will have at WIkimania will be shared with the community.

All of these things need to be verifiable: either through edits on Wikimedia projects or blog posts or news coverage or some other way that the scholarship committee can be sure that the donor funds are really going to the people who will make the most of the experience.

What are the common pitfalls that a scholarship applicant should avoid?

Don’t leave things out that we need to know! Tell us everything that’s relevant to your application, starting with the most important facts.

I have seen an application fail because the applicant didn’t remember to include the fact that they had consistently created positive press coverage of the movement’s activity. The application even said that most of the applicant’s work was on the wiki, giving the false impression that this person would not be spreading the experiences gained at Wikimania beyond the inner circle of existing editors.

Many applicants also fail to give a clear idea of what they plan to do at the conference. If you say that your goal for attending Wikimania is to meet other Wikimedians and have fun, we will be hesitant to fund your trip. Yes, you will meet other Wikimedians, and yes, you will hopefully have fun, but you need to be concrete and specific about what you want to get out of the conference and what you intend to do with the experience when you get home.

What are your specific suggestions for first-time scholarship applicants?

Read the application form carefully, and take time to think about your answers. Collect evidence to support your application, such as links to off-wiki material, and never stretch the truth! If you are not completely honest, and this comes out, it will reflect extremely badly on you.

What is your advice to candidates whose applications are not approved?

Every year we have extremely well-qualified, highly engaged, high-impact Wikimedians who do not get scholarships. Some of them see other Wikimedians getting scholarships to travel to Wikimania, and feel that their work, commitment and impact is not valued. They are disappointed and angry, sometimes publicly so.

Please remember that we’re just Wikimedians trying our best to weigh up very different, very special applications from people who contribute in different ways to the movement, and doing what we can to bring different voices to the conference. We can only judge based on the information that’s presented to us, and sometimes the difference between an application that gets accepted and one that doesn’t is very minor.

How good are the chances of the scholarship application being accepted for a candidate whose application was not approved in the past?

This depends very much on why your previous application was not accepted. Every year there are many applications which are excellent, but just don’t make it onto the final list, and there are other applications which are incomplete or simply unconvincing. Some contributors had massive levels of contribution in previous years, but have had changes in life circumstances that mean that they have not contributed significantly online or offline for a year or more. Others might not have shown that they have the necessary level of skill in the language(s) of the conference: a Wikimedian who speaks neither English nor French to a reasonable level would not have been able to participate effectively in Wikimania 2017, for example.

This year, I intend to put more emphasis on getting new attendees to the conference, so applications from people who received scholarships in recent years will be weighted less heavily than those who did not. That’s not to say that no-one who got a scholarship in recent years will get one this year, but if you narrowly missed out on a scholarship last time, this rule might make all the difference to you.

Why are some candidates’ travel scholarships approved more often?

There are people in our movement who have ongoing tracks of work that are of broad interest to the community. For example, people who are developing the infrastructure of our websites always have new results to present and can often make a convincing case to attend in consecutive years. We also have applicants who develop new partnerships with GLAM institutions over multiple years and who have exciting new projects to discuss with the community. There are also some Wikimedians who maintain extremely high levels of impact in their online and offline communities over multiple years, and consistently show evidence of taking the learnings from Wikimania back to their communities.

Sometimes you will see someone attending Wikimania a few years in a row and assume they got a scholarship, while actually their travel costs were paid by another organisation, or by themselves.

In 2017, a number of candidates could not attend the Wikimania because their visa applications were refused. The Wikimedia Foundation has stated that these individuals will receive scholarships to Wikimania 2018—can you explain more?

We greatly welcome this decision. We know that these individuals have valuable contributions to make at the conference, which is why their scholarships were approved for 2017. Through no fault of their own, almost half of the delegates who needed a visa to travel to Canada were not granted visas in time. To show solidarity with the affected candidates, and to avoid needlessly repeating the work of the applicants and the committee, the Foundation decided to approve these applications for 2018 without further review.

Do you have any concluding remarks?

If your application is accepted, please don’t post about it on social media. The people who were applying alongside you will see those posts, because we’re all in the same network, and it makes it harder on them to see you being congratulated on your successful application while they deserve the opportunity just as much as you do.

If you would like to serve your community by investing about two weeks worth of evenings and weekends into detailed reviews of the best of your peers’ work, please volunteer for the scholarship committee. It is hard work, but it’s immensely inspiring to see the work that is being done across the globe by our movement. I’m also specifically extending this invitation to those of you who have criticised the neutrality or diligence of the process in the past: we know that you care about getting it right, so join us and make a difference!

Interview by Syed Muzammiluddin, Wikimedia community volunteer