#WikiHerStory: It “gets addictive quickly.” How a developer found her passion in Wikipedia.

A series showcasing the women behind Wikipedia and other free knowledge projects.

Wikimedia
Wikimedia
Mar 27, 2020 · 4 min read
Over the last decade, volunteer Vera de Kok has uploaded nearly 70,000 media files to Wikimedia Commons.

Netherlands-based volunteer Vera de Kok has been a Wikimedian for almost a decade. Her participation started after hearing Jimmy Wales’ TED Talk about the birth of the online encyclopedia.

Vera participates in the Wikimedia movement in a variety of ways: With a background as a developer, she helps develop scripts and tools that improve Wikipedia’s functionality. She also has a passion for enhancing the visual aspects of Wikipedia — whether that’s transferring photo collections from Flickr, digging through archives for public domain works, or even going out to take photos herself to add to articles.

Photography is a powerful medium for making people, cultures, and communities visible, but it can also perpetuate stereotypes. Numerous studies have found that stock photos and Google Image results often depict highly gendered pictures of different categories of work, for example.

In her work, Vera seeks to counteract the possibility of exclusion, saying: “Being aware of systemic biases means that you have to try and correct to compensate for them.” At events, she does portrait photography and tries to prioritize photographing women and non-Western speakers.

We spoke to Vera as part of our new #WikiHerStory initiative, launched this month for Women’s History Month. #WikiHerStory seeks to raise awareness of and generate solutions for closing the gender gap on Wikipedia and other free knowledge projects. It also aims to showcase the inspiring people — such as Vera — and projects working toward gender equity on the platforms.

Here are some highlights from our conversation with Vera:*

Q: What has made you stay involved in the Wikimedia movement?

Wikipedia makes a big impact on the world, and it’s very interesting to see it be created from the inside. People are usually very appreciative when you tell them what bits you’ve created. There’s more novelty in my life now because I go to places I would not otherwise be if I wasn’t seeking out spots to photograph for Wikipedia. I’ve also found friendship among my fellow Wikipedians.

Q: Can you tell us more about how you use your skills as a developer to volunteer with the Wikimedia movement?

When the MediaWiki/Wikibase UI isn’t doing what I want it to do, I can write a few lines of code to make it more amenable. When I was preparing to take pictures at conferences for Wikipedia, I wanted to know who already had an article and if that article had a picture. My tool, the Orator Matcher, can take a conference schedule and then tries to give you an overview of the names that match to Wikipedia articles of living people. With a few lines of JavaScript, I was able to change the file overview on Commons to reflect how thoroughly the files are categorized by color coding the captions. Putting in identifiers in Wikidata was a bit finicky, as you have to strip the identifier out of the URL. I wrote another JavaScript that does that for me as well.

Q: What advice would you give women who are interested in getting involved in Wikimedia projects?

Start! Try writing about dead people first; they have obituaries you can use as a jumping off point. We want pictures of every church, memorial, and town hall; go out and take them!

Q: What advice would you give to men who would like to support more gender equity across Wikimedia projects?

When you have an inkling a woman is missing from Wikipedia, add her to Wikidata so that she’s at least on the list.

Q: What’s your perspective on the gender gap and Wikimedia projects?

It’s bigger than just Wikimedia: Western society labels “creating stuff” as very male, even though women have always done crafts. The precision needed for embroidery used to be referenced when programming was still a secretarial job, for example. This is now a forgotten history.

Q: What is your greatest hope for the future of the Wikimedia movement?

That people feel more empowered to change and improve Wikipedia’s content instead of seeing Wikipedians as something other than themselves.

Q: In three words, how would you describe your experience as a Wikimedia volunteer?

Gets addictive quickly

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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