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Erik Moeller, VP Engineering & Product Development, Wikimedia Foundation On Mobile, Data & Other Developments

In a talk organised by the Centre for Information and Society on November 12, 2012, Erik Moeller, Vice President of Engineering and Product Development, Wikimedia Foundation, discussed the new developments with Wikipedia, and the immediate roadmap for the organisation.

Moeller set the context for the talk, by saying that the progress on the usability front of Wikipedia has been rather slow in the last ten years of its existence. Like other digital content providers world over, Wikipedia has also turned its focus more towards enhancing the user experience, making its interface more user-friendly and social. Currently, the Wiki team has noticed that users and the organisation face challenges in the following areas – editing, mobile and data. Some notes from his talk:

On Editing: At present, registered users who want to edit a wiki page need to wade through lines of code before they can make the changes that they’d like to. By requiring a basic understanding of coding, Wiki, currently keeps several other users who could contribute, at bay. To address this issue, Wiki plans to introduce a visual editor – an easy to use text editor. According to the foundation, it is being built to provide a Google Docs like experience for the users and will be launched in English, this December. Along with the new visual editor, the old code based editor will continue to be available for old users.

Universal language input is another feature that will enable a better editing experience. Users will be able to choose the language and font of their preference, before they start editing with or without the keyboard, depending on the language they choose.

Wiki is also providing help to editors on the editing process, once they sign up on the Wikipedia website. In way to help the editors, real time feedback has also been enabled on Wikipedia, he informed. Similar to notifications on social networking sites like Facebook, editors on wiki will receive notifications on messages from other editors, latest updates on an article they had edited etc. once they sign into their account. However, in a way to keep its focus on the content and editing, making Wikipedia social shall be kept at a minimal.

Mobile: With the advent of the mobile, Wiki can now reach to a few hundred million people who did not have access to internet through a computer, till now. Wikimedia is currently working with mobile service providers across the globe especially in  developing countries to make Wikipedia accessible to the people in these countries. The service is already available in several countries in Africa including South Africa. (We had the opportunity to try Wikizero on one of the Wiki developer’s phone that was working on a South African SIM card even in India.)

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Wikizero: Currently, 230 million users have access to Wikizero, SMS+USSD based mobile information service of Wikimedia. The current system uses USSD and SMS. A complete SMS based system is still under the works. The structure of the SMS system is quite simple. The user sends the search term in a text message. The different headings under the wiki page for the term are sent as an SMS. The user then has to send the specific number corresponding to the heading that would contain the exact result for the search, as an SMS. This process would continue till the user gets the exact information required.

Although a mobile based system has been introduced, it is still a challenge for them to make the mobile experience interactive across the different models of mobile phones especially entry level mobile phones. Wikipedia still majorly witnesses content consumption and not content interaction among users.

Yet, Wikipedia continues to make efforts in turning mobile into an interactive medium. ‘Wiki Loves Monuments’ was one of their successful mobile based projects that also entered the Guinness Book of World Record by becoming the world’s largest photo contest. It intends to make this photo experience more interactive. According to Moeller, different users are working on adding different features related to editing and comments, to make the 10,000+ photos more useful to the users of Wiki. Further, Wikipedia is also experimenting with mobile editing for smart phones, along with simple and small copy edits, since editing between the code on the phone is cumbersome.

On introducing audio based information service for Wikipedia on mobile, Moeller clarified that an audio service had already been piloted in South Africa in partnership with Nokia about 5 years ago. The results of the pilot were not positive enough to scale the initiative.

On Data: Being one of the world’s largest databases, the possibilities to play with data on Wiki are endless. Google has extracted data from wiki to provide relevant results for Google searches. For every search on Google, the search engine throws up the wiki results for the term on the right hand side of the page. However, this result does not currently provide the link to the page or more information on the topic.

Wikidata.org is an initiative started by Wikipedia’s Chapter Partner organisation in Germany to make Wikipedia a more integral part of search results. Wikidata is working on integrating the list of all articles in all languages pertaining to a particular topic in one page. They are also looking to provide language independent numeric data like GDP, national income, population etc where the result would be neutral to all languages and only labels would require translation.

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Other advancements on Wiki: The feature to upload videos limited to open/free video formats on Wikipedia was launched earlier this year. The uploader in its launch version, retains the video in the original resolution that the video was uploaded in. Wiki is now working on changes to accommodate a wider range of resolutions and formats in a bid to support different browsers and internet bandwidth. The video feature also offers subtitling options in different languages.

Our Take

The social project which is in the pipeline, might lead to some interesting advancements. With Wiki’s seamless integration of multimedia to enhance user experience and engagement, Wikipedia could become the single most accessed information/content platform in the world. With the introduction of internet enabled TVs, Wiki can enter living rooms of households and with that, the possibilities to provide free information becomes endless.

Will this technological advancement, make Wiki, (a non-profit organisation) a serious threat to the other profit oriented content players in the market? While we contemplate on answering this question, Erik Moeller clarified that Wiki should not be considered an authoritative source on any subject. “Check Wiki’s sources and citation, they determine the accuracy,” he said. And probably, that is going to be the single most important aspect that would keep the other content providers in business making profit for long. Nevertheless, the mobile integration of wiki and its increasing presence in developing countries could really change the way information is accessed and consumed in the time to come.

Photo credit: By Lane Hartwell [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Updates: the post has been update to correctly attribute Lane Hartwell for the photo. Our apologies for no doing so earlier.

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