People First: Wikimedia’s Response to COVID-19

Katherine Maher
Mar 15 · 6 min read

Katherine Maher is the CEO of the Wikimedia Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @krmaher.

A computer generated representation of COVID-19 virions (SARS-CoV-2) under electron microscope. Image by Felipe Esquivel Reed, (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The Wikimedia Foundation is the non-profit organization that operates Wikipedia.

As you can imagine, our colleagues have a bit of a proud obsession with making the best possible decisions using the best possible information. When it became clear that SARS-CoV-2, or simply, the latest coronavirus, was spreading globally and likely to become a pandemic, we took it seriously. Our responsibility is to keep Wikipedia online and available for the world, especially in moments of crisis. A world that is changing requires changing how we work.

Two weeks ago, we shut down the Wikimedia Foundation’s San Francisco office and put a stop on all non-essential travel. Last week, we cancelled all planned near-term global events, and asked the Wikimedia volunteer editing community to do the same. Yesterday, we went to half-time work for all staff and contractors — 20 hours a week.

“ A world that is changing requires changing how we work.”

A month ago, we were planning for the future. Today, we still are — just a different future than any of us expected. We are adjusting for a future in which our global volunteer editing communities need to focus on their local communities; where our staff need time to care for family members and loved ones; where people need space to work through the challenges of isolation, uncertainty, and loss. We’re preparing for the potential of a global economic slowdown.

We’re doing our part to #StopTheSpread and #FlattenTheCurve. We’re all in the midst of a whole different world.

And yet, it’s the same world. We’re running one of the world’s most popular and beloved websites, visited by more than a billion people every month. The Coronavirus article on Wikipedia has seen more than 13,000 edits by over 2,000 editors since the start of the pandemic.

“A month ago, we were planning for the future. Today, we still are — just a different future than any of us expected.”

Our volunteer editing communities are passionate — even ferocious — in their vigilance against misinformation and rumor. The volunteers at WikiProject Medicine are hard at work curating the accuracy and comprehensiveness of articles about this global pandemic, but so are the editors covering the U.S. presidential race, the current cholera outbreak in Bengaluru, and Nollywood’s latest film release.

At Wikimedia, we live by a mantra: everything that happens in the world happens on Wikipedia. And when things happen, the world looks our way. In February, the sudden death of former NBA star Kobe Bryant shocked the world and staggered our servers, nearly knocking us offline. Today, we see millions of people reading articles about COVID-19 and its global impact. It’s our mission, and responsibility, to keep this critical resource available in moments of crisis.

(And let’s be real for a moment: this is a global crisis. It’s every person’s responsibility to do everything in their power to reduce the impact of this pandemic. Our families, our lives, and our collective global well-being depend on each of us and the actions we take — and choose not to take — today, tomorrow, and for weeks to come. Stay home, stop touching your face, and wash your hands.)

So, what are we doing?

1. We are accepting that change is the new normal. The old normal is gone, and trying to make reality conform to last week or last month is not helpful or productive. We are filing away our careful annual planning, OKRs, and roadmaps. Trying to keep up with them is a recipe for stress and uncertainty, none of which help right now.

2. We are clearing the decks. Wikipedia is a website, but Wikimedia is a community. There’s a saying, “come for the articles, stay for the people.” We thrive on meeting in person, haggling over our future, hugging it out, and closing down every social venue in sight. We have cancelled all near-term, in-person gatherings until WHO declares this pandemic over. These were painful decisions, but essential for public health and to give everyone certainty and clarity. No need to worry if that Hyderabad summit will be on in four months, and what visa needs people might have — we can all focus on more immediate concerns.

3. We are protecting our health. The Foundation has been a distributed-work organization for years, with 70 percent of our colleagues working outside of our main office in San Francisco. As soon as we became aware of community transmission in California, we instituted a full work-from-home protocol. Our Washington, DC, office followed within a week. Our goal was to reduce staff exposure and improve health outcomes for the communities in which we work and live.

4. We are lightening the load. Work is not the only thing on people’s minds right now. Their families, their bills, childcare and school closures, the economy… we are all trying to manage a lot. We want to reduce the cognitive strain on our colleagues so that people could take care of themselves and stay healthy. To do that:

  • We are guaranteeing all contract and hourly workers full compensation for planned hours worked.
  • We are waiving all sick days, so staff do not have to count or use PTO.
  • We have moved to a halftime work expectation.

What? Half-time work?

Yes.

We’re only asking people to commit to working 50 percent of their normal hours. This isn’t a holiday. If people are able to work more normal hours, our mission needs them. But we are not tracking their time.

Why? We knew schools would be closing around the world, and a childcare stipend won’t help when caregivers are unable to leave their homes. It is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect someone to be fully present, eight hours a day, when they have a three-year-old with crayons drawing on the wall, or an elderly parent who needs help navigating the stairs. We all have loved ones who need care, groceries that need purchasing, doctor’s appointments to keep, neighbors who need a phone call. And you know what? We trust our colleagues. People will work when they can, and when they can’t, we trust they’ll be right.

5. We are focusing on the essentials. There will be a lot going on over the coming weeks and months, and many things we’d planned will no longer be the most essential. What will be essential is keeping Wikipedia up, misinformation at bay, our communities healthy and supported, and the world informed.

We are redirecting all resources to shoring up these essential aspects of our work. Our events team will be investigating the opportunity for remote conferences. Our sustainability committee is thrilled by how we might reimagine our convenings. And our travel team may not be booking flights, but they’re keeping an eye on the changing conditions for staff and communities all over the globe.

“We trust our colleagues. People will work when they can, and when they can’t, we trust they’ll be right.”

We operate Wikipedia as a public trust. Our vision statement says: “Imagine a world in which every single human can freely share in the sum of all human knowledge. That’s our commitment.” At best, this is an aspiration; in reality it is a beautiful, if slightly mad, ambition. But even knowing the challenges, we forge onwards because we believe in people — the contribution every human can make, and the things humanity can do together. After all, you’ve already made us possible — what will you do next?

I am asking you to take bold actions to prevent further harm.

We believe in every human, and we believe in what we as humanity can do together. We’re taking every step we can to protect our communities, our colleagues, our families, while meeting our vision’s commitment. You can take these steps too. We’re asking you to join us.

With love and free knowledge, and wash your dang hands!

P.S. Here’s the email we sent to all of our colleagues. It’s CC-0. Share freely, borrow liberally, go forth, and be good.

Down the rabbit hole

Facts, stories, and people from across the Wikimedia movement

Katherine Maher

Written by

Chief @Wikipedia enthusiast. Free knowledge booster. Believer in human generosity. Opinions mine, likely [citation needed]. She/her. 🤔

Down the rabbit hole

Facts, stories, and people from across the Wikimedia movement

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