As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, a small group of editors under Project SWASTHA has been working to make sure that Wikipedia articles in Indian languages are updated with accurate and up-to-date information on the pandemic. Abhishek Suryawanshi, director of SWASTHA and Wikipedia Ambassador, spoke to us from Miami on how the team is facing the challenge. SWASTHA was started late last year to update medical articles in Indian languages, but has now shifted its focus on the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • SWASTHA stands for Special Wikipedia Awareness for the Healthcare Affiliates
  • The project has 20 volunteers, 20 healthcare experts, and three universities registered
  • COVID-19 related articles on Wikipedia get over 100,000 views in Indian languages per day

Edited excerpts from the conversation follow.

MediaNama: What is SWASTHA? How did it start?

Abhishek Suryawanshi: Last October, we started gathering people to work on healthcare content on Wikipedia in Indian languages. We realised that there are not many healthcare related resources available to Indian communities. We conducted a survey on what stops users from editing healthcare content on Wikipedia. The answers were quite obvious — people didn’t feel confident about writing about healthcare content. They were unsure of medical terminology. They also lacked guidance. SWASTHA came into the picture to bridge this gap

Medical professors and doctors have lots of knowledge, but not much time. Students have a lot of time but they don’t have information. Average Wikipedia users do want to edit healthcare content, but don’t know medical terminology. That’s how SWASTHA came into the picture; it stands for Special Wikipedia Awareness for the Healthcare Affiliates. It’s a platform to connect Wikipedia editors who want to help with healthcare professionals who can help them.

MediaNama: On print and digital news media in India, regional languages get way more eyeballs than English media does. Is there a similar trend in regional language Wikipedia?

Abhishek Suryawanshi: Google and KPMG did a survey where they found that nine out of ten people believe healthcare content when it is delivered to them in their own mother tongue. That was an interesting point because of which we started this project. If you ask smart speakers like Amazon Echo or Google Home a health-related question in Hindi, they’ll pull up answers from Hindi Wikipedia articles. Wikipedia is copyright free and so Google, Facebook and YouTube rely on it — so we therefore have a responsibility to make sure that content is accurate and reliable.

COVID-19 pages on Hindi Wikipedia get over 1 lakh views everyday at the moment.

MediaNama: How many volunteers are you working with? How are you training them?

Abhishek Suryawanshi: We have twenty volunteers, twenty medical professionals, and three universities. Healthcare professionals are paired up with local editors.

We conducted workshops where our ideal plan was to have a few doctors, medical translators and volunteers in the room, going article to article. Right now, it’s all virtual though.

MediaNama: You had to switch gears pretty quickly from healthcare in general to the COVID-19 pandemic. How has that been?

Abhishek Suryawanshi: That was quite interesting, it was a quirk of fate and a big coincidence. We had a lot of Skype and Zoom calls and started working on it right away. The biggest thing we brought to the table was authenticity to the content — people usually say, oh, anyone can edit Wikipedia so you can’t trust it. Whenever volunteers edit something, we send it to healthcare experts, and ask us to let us know if something is wrong, and we get volunteers to edit it if needed.

Statistics show that more people come to Wikipedia than to any other site, whether it’s the WHO or the Health Ministry’s site. Wikipedia gets 300 times more traffic than any of the Indian government’s official portals.

MediaNama: How are you dealing with misinformation and rapidly emerging updates?

Abhishek Suryawanshi: We have fifteen dedicated editors constantly monitoring pages, and ten experts monitoring accuracy. Our responsibility is making sure that people are adding well-cited information. Articles on COVID-19 in regional languages have been limited to established editors to prevent misinformation.

We go with what the WHO, CDC and the Ministry of Health’s websites say. That is our standard for Wikipedia in indic languages as well as for the English Wikipedia. Volunteers are updating every minute there are edits on the page. So even if Wikipedia is not in top searches, Google will feature that information, because people are used to getting information in a certain format, with the infobox, references, and so on. WIkipedia pages are pretty simple to load too, even on slow connections.

We have three aspects to focus on: the disease itself, the pandemic in India, and the virus. And within that pandemic, we have articles for specific states, like the pandemic in Uttar Pradesh or Maharashtra, so we have multiple articles within the same topic.

MediaNama: Which languages do you still need volunteers for?

Abhishek Suryawanshi: We have volunteers in pretty much all major languages, but we need more volunteers for Maithili and Bhojpuri. 

MediaNama: How else do you want to work with colleges?

Abhishek Suryawanshi: We want to start Wikipedia clubs within different medical schools and colleges, where they will get certificates from Wikipedia for editing articles. For teachers, it’s good because their biggest complaint is that students copy from Wikipedia. But if content is not on Wikipedia, they have to do the research to find it elsewhere while contributing to Wikipedia.