Wikimedia and the free knowledge ecosystem

This story was originally written in Spanish, for “Observatorio de Redes”.

Sixteen years after the creation of Wikipedia — the largest free encyclopedia in the world — the movement behind this collaborative project, Wikimedia, is asking a very important question: what do we want to build together in the next fifteen years?

How does this conversation start? What is an international movement? How can we articulate conversations that transcend linguistic and cultural barriers? How can we put everyone on the same page? With the specific goal of facilitating conversations, and offer a starting point to imagine the future, I designed a graphic that would allow people to understand who are the different actors at play, connected to their worlds, and how these, in turn, are connected to Wikimedia. I called it “Movement strategy — Ecosystem and Actors”.

The Wikimedia movement

Most people know Wikipedia, but very few persons actually know what Wikimedia is. Wikimedia is a global movement, whose mission is to bring free educational content to the world. The movement is formed by 12 active projects (the most popular one, Wikipedia, though there are others, like the free image repository, Wikimedia Commons, Wiktionary, Wikisource, Wikidata, etc.), over 120 affiliates* all over the world, volunteer editors and volunteer developers, and the Wikimedia Foundation [1]. The Wikimedia Foundation was founded in 2003 by Jimmy Wales, to fundraise for Wikipedia and its sister projects; it is located in San Francisco, California, and in 2017 the non-profit embarked on the development of a movement strategy, a project that — for the first time in fourteen years — is open and participatory for all communities affiliated to Wikimedia.

What do we understand, then, as a movement? This term can have different definitions, depending on the focus area. To fit the goal of this article, we are using the social movement definition: a network of informal interactions between a plurality of individuals, groups or organizations, engaged in a political or cultural conflict, who have a limited sense of themselves as connected to others in common purpose, and who come together across an extended period of time to affect social change in the name of that purpose. Wikimedia communities all over the world work to free educational content using Wikimedia projects. This could go from a simple edit to an article, to the creation of a Wikiproject, or working in partnership with a museum that wants to share its archive on Wikimedia Commons. Wikipedians work countless hours to grow content on Wikipedia, to diversify it, and improve its quality.

Further, Wikimedia is a movement because it is constantly changing. There are more affiliates, more content, more organizations that add to the Wikimedia projects month to month. And above all things, Wikimedia is a grassroots movement, which means that those who are a part of it can directly influence the allocation of funds, strategic planning, and the direction of the movement in the next thirty years. On top of this, all activities and programs developed within Wikimedia communities take place only due to the genuine interest of those communities, and not due to any mandate or external instruction.

A good example of this is the program Wikipedian in Residence. In 2010, Wikipedian Lyam Wyatt suggested this role at the closing speech of GLAM-Wiki congress: a person that would be in charge of training the staff group in a museum, archive, library, or gallery (GLAM) on how to use the Wikimedia projects to promote their collection or archive. Following up on that, he sent letters to dozens of museums, and one took up the challenge: the British Museum in London incorporated Lyam as a Wikipedian in Residence between June and July 2010. During that time, articles about the museum’s archive were improved, the museum donated dozens of high quality images, and there were special museum passes for Wikipedians. The idea of this program was so attractive that other Wikimedia communities took to imitating the model. To this day, there are more than 125 Wikipedians in Residence all over the world [2]. In Latin America, the first Wikipedian in Residence program was stablished in the Soumaya Museum, in Mexico City, starting in 2016 [3].

Why do we need a graphic to visualize the ecosystem and its actors?

The context described for GLAM programs (or Promotion of Cultural Institutions, as it is called in Spanish) is similar to that of education programs. A pilot in 2010 [4], carried out only in the United States, was the trigger to a powerful idea: that students contribute to Wikipedia as part of their learning process. To this day, there are 90 education programs all over the world, implemented in 50 different languages [5].

The scene is clear: collaborations and partnerships with actors from outside the movement have been going on for over a decade. The question, then, about what we want to build together in the next fifteen years as a movement starts by understanding where we are now, and what other actors exist that we may share values and mission with.

The graphic I designed had as a goal to offer some clarity around these relationships, so that when the time comes to imagine possible scenarios in the context of strategy conversations, all participants could be on the same page about the past, the present and the future. With this graphic, we strived for one thing: that different community members could see their work represented, and could understand what other actors could be a part of this, even though they haven’t met them yet in their local context.

Methodology and graphic system

To approach this immense project, I found a good foundation in Outcome Mapping, an evaluation method in social sciences that I learned about through Jaime Anstee. This is a system designed by the International Development Research Center (IDRC) in Canada, and it is useful to measure the reach of a program or project, without focusing in the immediate or mid-term outputs, but rather, in behavioral changes or the impact that a program has for the actors in the periphery (not directly involved in the program in an active way). Outcome Mapping is useful to our movement in that it allows us to capture qualitative outcomes and stories of Wikimedia programs, at the same time that it helps us to better visualize our impact in the world. This methodology allows us to identify mid-term qualitative outcomes that influence change systems at a higher level [6].

Simplifying the diagram to two spheres allowed me to reduce the color palette to three options, where the second color serves to identify the existing partnerships.

This work frame offers a diagram that represents the sphere of control (the implemented program), the sphere of influence (the partners we work with), and the sphere of interest (where we find the people that benefit from the implementation of the program, which, again, can be an audience group that is not directly involved in the program). I simplified this diagram to have only two spheres: the sphere of influence and the sphere of interest, each one represented with a different color. I used a third color to identify the partnerships that already existed in each sphere.

I applied this graphic system to a draft outline created with the actors identified by the core team in the strategy process (formed by Wikimedia Foundation employees, and members of Williamsworks, among others). In order to start, it was key to understand what where the big contexts to be represented in the graphic:

  • Free Knowledge World, which groups the actors that work to promote the promotion and distribution of free educational content;
  • Knowledge stewards, which groups the actors that can influence the educational system, be that in the creation of policies (Ministry of Education), or programs in the non-profit world;
  • Human Rights organizations;
  • Social development organizations;
  • Creative communities, which groups poets, visual artists, photographers, and more recently, also maker spaces, among others; and
  • Tech companies.

By connecting actors to one another, establishing relations, and identifying ecosystems, everything started to make sense. The network was formed, and the graphic started to grow. Going through the exercise of visualizing these relationships allowed us to understand which is the context in which these partners are working, what other components or actors exist in that context, and how does everyone contribute to the larger ecosystem.

I sued different opacity layers to describe the complexity of different general contexts that are articulated in the free knowledge ecosystem.

To build the graphic system I used circles, for their integrating characteristic, and set three different opacity levels for the concentric circles; where the general context — for example, “Tech companies” — had the lowest opacity level, and the individual component (or actor) — for example, “WhatsApp” — had the highest opacity level. Although in the beginning I designed the graphic with three spheres, this implied I needed four different colors (an extra one to show the current partners). Simplifying to two spheres allowed us to preserve a maximum of three colors, and reduce complexity. In this way, one can see the complexity of certain contexts, that are divided, in turn, in different markets or areas of the non-profit sector. Once I started to have drafts of the graphic, and paying attention to details, one can see that some actors could be better represented. A good example of this comes up when comparing the actor “Libraries” in the first version, and the second version of the graphic. I created the graphic using Adobe Illustrator, although any vector software would be useful for this kind of design (for example, Inkscape).

Conclusions and next steps

The graphic was very welcomed in different communities. While there have been, in the past, different attempts to visualize the work of the Wikimedia movement, this graphic was the piece that had the most acceptance, and also the less criticized of them all. I took that as a compliment, considering the level of detail that lays in the eyes of our community members, and the widespread cultural diversity that characterizes our movement. The graphic was also used to work on the strategy of a sister movement, Creative Commons, in the context of their international conference in April this year.

As I said on social networks when I discovered that the editors were at the heart of all this magic, I enjoy making visualizations that help others to think and imagine possible worlds. And I think this graphic has worked like that, as a starting point.

Network visualization and network theory in times of big data help to design strategies that question more and more actors every day. The conversation about strategy for the Wikimedia movement is now about to start its third phase (**). In the second cycle, five central themes were identified to define the strategy: healthy and inclusive communities, the augmented age, a truly global movement, the most respected source of knowledge, engaging the knowledge ecosystem [7]. This collaboration with Wikimedia communities has been, to this day, one of the largest and long lasting that has ever existed. The project to define the strategic direction involved participatory conversations on all levels: generative, sense-making, and debate.

The future can have many shapes, and the method will always consist of including, diversifying, and participating.