Thoughts on Wikipedia in India

Wikipedia turned ten on the 15th of January 2011 and its history is both well known and fairly well documented. Globally, Wikipedia is the fifth most popular website with the English Wikipedia being the most popular destination. What is far more interesting to note, however, is that close to 98% of the traffic from India was to the English language Wikipedia with the remainder travelling to an Indic language Wikipedia which raises a question of interest  – what is the history of Wikipedia in India? 

Wikipedia is popular in India – current data shows that it is the seventh most popular site in the country and comes out ahead of many popular sites including Twitter and Orkut. While it is well nigh impossible to pinpoint the first edit or the first person who read or edited Wikipedia in India, it is possible to use proxies for this investigation. 

The article on India on English Wikipedia was first created on 26th of October 2001 and languished for many years – between 2001 and 2003 it saw only 199 edits. 2004 saw 1700 edits to the page, 2005 had 2311 edits and contributions peaked in 2006 with 6752 edits. From 2007, the number of edits have steadily dropped and the period from 2007 to 2011 have seen a total of 6925 edits. This page is watched by 2329 people who maintain a constant vigil over changes made, was viewed 1,313,608 times in December 2010 and was the 39th most viewed page on the English Wikipedia. 

The India page is now available in 216 languages, has been a featured article in 9 languages and is linked to from over 1500 other pages. A reasonable inference to make is that interest in Wikipedia in India broadly corresponded with the time-line for the evolution of the India page and Wikipedia is now available in over 20 Indian languages with a further 20 Indic languages in incubation. 

However, India and Indian language Wikipedias seem woefully under-represented when one compares the size of the pool of native language speakers with the number of articles on each respective language Wikipedia. Further, it is worth noting that the Wikipedia community in India is necessarily very different from similar communities across the world because of the diverse languages that are a part of the Indian identity. In terms of size, Hindi is the largest Indian language Wikipedia with Telugu, Marathi, Bishnupriya Manipuri and Tamil making up the top five Indian languages Wikipedias, though none of them have over 100,000 articles; Hindi being the biggest with around 67,221 articles. The first Hindi article was begun in July 2003 and the Hindi Wikipedia crossed 1000 articles in September 2005, the first Telugu article in December 2003 and Telugu Wikipedia crossed 1000 articles in October 2005, the first Marathi article in May 2003 and Marathi Wikipedia crossed 1000 articles in May 2005, the first Bishnupriya Manipuri article in August  2006 and Bishnupriya Manipuri Wikipedia crossed 1000 articles in November 2006  and the first Tamil article in September 2003 and Tamil Wikipedia crossed 1000 articles in August 2005. However, Oriya, Punjabi, Assamese and Malayalam were the first Indian language Wikipedias and were all started in 2002.  

Writing in the September 2010 edition of the Wikimedia India Newsletter, Shiju Alex and Achal Prabhala opine that:

“Indians working on English Wikipedia form perhaps the most active Wikimedia community in the country. This might be surprising for many people outside India, but within, it is fairly obvious that English is an important Indian language (it is one of India’s “official” languages) and also the most significant bridging language between different language groups. Indeed, English is the language that connects Wikimedians from various language groups in India. What we call the “mother tongue” (i.e. the native Indian language of one’s parents) is usually not English, and yet for a number of people, English remains the preferred operating language in educational, professional and online life.”

Given the varied language communities in India, it is worth noting that several language communities have been very active and have been a primary factor in driving editorship in their respective languages. Common to all these language communities are outreach activities with a growing number of regular meet-ups across the country (Bangalore has had 23 consecutive community meet-ups since July 2009 with one being held every month.), Wiki Academies (hands on tutorial sessions on how to edit Wikipedia) and other such outreach processes that are very important to evangelize Wikipedia projects and bring new editors in to the fold. In parallel, there has slowly been traction from Governments as well. The Malayalam Wikipedia community recently released an offline version of Malayalam Wikipedia containing 500 selected articles and was distributed by the Kerala government to thousands of schools in the State. The Tamil Nadu government recently released a glossary of thousands of technical terms that were collected by the Tamil Virtual University for use in the Tamil Wiktionary project and also organized an article competition across the State covering over 3000 universities and colleges, which has introduced Wikipedia to a very large new audience and brought new editors into the fold. It is also worth noting that the National Knowledge Commission recognizing the importance of free, easy and open access to knowledge had in its recommendations on Open Educational Resources noted that:

“Our success in the knowledge economy hinges to a large extent on upgrading the quality of, and enhancing the access to, education. One of the most effective ways of achieving this would be to stimulate the development and dissemination of quality Open Access (OA) materials and Open Educational Resources (OER) through broadband internet connectivity. This would facilitate easy and widespread access to high quality educational resources and drastically improve the teaching paradigm for all our students.”

This is important because Wikipedia and its sister projects are some of the largest repositories of  Open Educational Resources in the world.  

In a case study on the history of the Tamil Wikipedia L.BalaSundaraRaman traces the history of the Tamil Wikipedia:

“Tamil Wikipedia was started on September 30, 2003 by an anonymous person by posting a link to their Yahoo! Group and the text manitha maembaadu, fittingly, a phrase that means human development, on the main page. However, for several weeks after that, the site had an all-English interface with little activity. Mayooranathan, in response to a request posted in a mailing list, completed 95% of the localisation between November 4, 2003 and November 22, 2003. He made some anonymous edits alongside. On November 12, 2003 Amala Singh from the United Kingdom wrote the first article in Tamil, but with an English title Shirin Ebadi.The earliest editor who continues to edit actively, Mayooranathan, has written more than 2760 articles and has kept the project alive during an intervening period when practically nobody else was editing. Around five active editors including the author joined the project in the second half of 2004. Some occasional editors turned out to become regular editors and the Wiki started growing steadily. Bugs were reported to fix the interface, policies partially deriving from the English Wikipedia were initiated, and editors started to specialise in tasks like stub sorting, creating templates, copyediting, wikifying, translation, original writing etc. Even at this early stage, the Tamil Wikipedia had a global editorial team representing almost every continent. After registering a period of high linear growth in several metrics on a lower base, the Tamil Wikipedia started witnessing, around April 2007, a low linear growth on a higher base in several quantitative
metrics. This period, however, also showed a perceivably super-linear growth in article quality aspects like length, standard of prose, image use, inline citation usage, etc. Late 2008 to early 2009 was a period characterised by a near constant number of active and very active editors, a steady influx of new and occasional editors, a healthy, enthusiastic and continuity-preserving churn, and, above all, optimism for a promising future.”

There have also been some technical challenges around the historical lack of growth in Indic language Wikipedias, in particular in the area of openly licensed and freely available Indic fonts, difficulties with the cross-platform display of Indic text and the lack of standardised cross platform Indic language text entry tools. There have been and continue to be many approaches to working on these problems – it is a focus of the Wikimedia Foundation, of language communities and private organisations. Google and Microsoft have both released tools to help solve these challenges and assist in translation efforts. 

This inequitable distribution of content by languages, skewed towards English and languages of the traditional geographies of the Global North, has been a frequent point of discussion and has been a point of focus for the Wikimedia Foundation. Among other things, the Foundation’s strategy plan aims to foster the growth of smaller Wikipedias – by 2015, the aim is to have 100 Wikipedia language versions with more than a 120,000 “significant articles” each. To this end, the Foundation also aims to bootstrap community programs in key geographies: India, Brazil, the Middle East/North Africa. In particular, Achal Prabhala, a member of the Wikimedia Advisory Board, has spoken about the need for local representative bodies of the Wikimedia projects, or Chapters, in countries which are linguistically under-represented. He argues that that there is a distinct relationship between local growth and the existence of local Chapters and that geographies in the South present an enormous opportunity for growth. 

Wikimedia Foundation’s India Chapter has had a long history. First efforts to set up a Chapter began in September 2004 with an Internet Relay Chat meeting and efforts continued through to November 2007 when there was another round of discussions on the India mailing list and draft bye-laws were drawn up. However, the efforts to set up an India Chapter received a huge boost with two things – Sue Gardner and Jimmy Wales visiting Bangalore in December 2008 and  regular Wiki-meetups in Bangalore that were made possible by the Centre for Internet and Society. In July 2009, renewed discussions and activity commenced in connection with the setting up of the India Chapter and this culminated with India becoming the 29th chapter of the Wikimedia Foundation in July 2010. The Wikimedia India Chapter was granted registration (registered name: Wikimedia Chapter) by the Registrar of Societies, Bangalore Urban District on the 3rd of January 2011. 

The Chapter’s fundamental mission is to catalyse the usage and editorship of Wikipedia in India, as well as foster Indic language content. To this end, there are multiple tracks the Chapter will need to take – Content, Technology, Outreach, Collaborations, Offline Work, creating Special Interest Groups and Projects.  

The Wikimedia Foundation, recognizing the importance of India to its growth strategy and understanding the potential in this relatively under-represented and untapped market, recently appointed Bishakha Datta as a member of its board of trustees and has announced that it will soon open its first office outside of the United States in India. As a testament to the growing popularity of Wikipedia in India, the 15th of January 2011 saw over 90 concurrent events celebrating the tenth anniversary of Wikipedia across India, many of them being organized spontaneously by small groups of interested community volunteers, with large local participation and substantial media coverage. 

Aside from the organic growth of Wikipedia and local language communities, the development of Wikipeda in India would appear to be only just entering its active growth phase. With the continued growth of the Indian economy, the expected growth of Indian internet users, the advent of cheap and ubiquitous wireless internet access, an active Chapter, a Foundation office in India and the support of India’s relatively free media, the future of Wikipedia in India looks bright and well set for the decade ahead.  

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(The author would like to thank the team that put together the Wikimedia India Community Newsletter in September, 2010, which is available here: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wikimedia_India_Community_Newsletter_2010_September.pdf. This is the best overview of the state of Wikimedia and Wikipedia projects in India and is well worth reading. This current piece would not have been possible without this Newsletter. The case study on the Tamil Wikipedia can be read in its entirety here: http://ta.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E0%AE%B5%E0%AE%BF%E0%AE%95%E0%AF%8D%E0%AE%95%E0%AE%BF%E0%AE%AA%E0%AF%8D%E0%AE%AA%E0%AF%80%E0%AE%9F%E0%AE%BF%E0%AE%AF%E0%AE%BE:Tamil_Wikipedia:_A_Case_Study)

 

 

 

 

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About gkjohn

Recovering lawyer, erstwhile entrepreneur, pretend polymath, hopeful zookeeper and future dilettante and farmer of organic strawberries. Work at @aksharadotorg and @klpdotorg. Previously at @prathambooks. Was a @tedfellow.
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