Katherine Maher on Wikimedia’s evolving strategic priorities: Reflections on her WikiCite 2018 talk

Katherine Maher. Portrait by Gerald Shields, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0.

I relished the opportunity to hear Katherine Maher, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, speak about strategic priorities at the November 2018 WikiCite conference. The organization has had its ups and downs in strategic planning over the years. This was my first glimpse of the products of recent strategic planning efforts; an opportunity to learn how the organization’s thinking and approach are evolving. Some of it was encouraging; some, less so.

The foundation hosts and supports Wikipedia, one of the world’s top websites, and up-and-comers like Wikidata and Wikimedia Commons. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers, however, build and own the sites’ contents, and have no formal affiliation with the organization. The foundation’s annual budget has grown tenfold over ten years; it now approaches $100 million. But there are things money can’t buy. The organization has often struggled to maintain strategic and tactical alignment with the values that drive its volunteer contributors; and those challenges have frequently come to a head around partnerships with other organizations, and around software development. Maher addressed both areas in her talk.

WikiCite, a conference that attracts both Wikimedia experts and library and data professionals, and that focuses heavily on technology and planning for the future, was a natural venue for Maher to debut a talk like this. Below, I’ll recap the major themes, interspersed with my own reflections.

Thanks to Andrew Lih, a video of the full talk, entitled “Essential Infrastructure of the Ecosystem of Free Knowledge,” and the Q&A session is available under a free license at YouTube.” The commentary below contains time markers throughout.

Katherine Maher on the foundation’s strategy

Early on, Maher commented on the Wikimedia vision statement: “Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That’s our commitment.”  One element is absent, by design, from the statement: the Wikimedia platform is not specified, suggesting that fulfilling the vision includes sharing beyond the Wikimedia-run sites themselves. Refreshing words, especially from an organization that at times has been bullish about its software and platform priorities. But what, in practical terms, does this mean for the organization’s future plans? Later parts of the talk grazed this theme, but did not address it head-on. (5:33)

Maher pointed to the existing platform’s success to date, and the Wikimedia sites’ impact. She noted that Wikimedia operates the world’s most heavily-consulted sources of medical information. She demonstrated the kind of tangible difference that can make: during the West African Ebola outbreak of 2014, the English Wikipedia’s article on Ebola was accessed 17 million times, rivaling the reach of more traditional institutions like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control. (8:00)

I appreciated the next topic, which aligned well with my recent blog series (“How Wikipedia dodged public outcry plaguing social media platforms“). Maher emphasized the significance of Wikimedia sites as a source of linked open data. After an initial focus on Wikipedia, the nod to Wikidata suited the audience well, since Wikidata is more relevant to WikiCite’s goals. Alluding to widespread concern about “fake news” and the trustworthiness of information, she suggested that Wikimedia’s great strides in linking open data might make its sites the “epistemic backbone of the Internet.” Maher observed how much trust in Wikipedia has grown in recent years, and suggested it might result from Wikipedia contributors’ basic premise that it is not trusted. In this sequence, I especially appreciated the focus on medical content, which has long been a focus of Dr. James Heilman, a friend and a valued member of the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees. (9:00)

Maher then turned her attention to the bias present in Wikimedia content, an area where she has proven an effective and nuanced advocate. A slide (derived from Wikidata) showed Wikimedia’s strong bias in favor of the trans-Atlantic global north. She noted how individual editors’ personal interests can lead to biased content. (12:00)

The results of Wikimedia’s strategic planning process then took center stage. The talk’s title, it was revealed, reflected a strategic goal that by 2030, Wikimedia should become the “essential infrastructure of the ecosystem of free knowledge.” If Maher sees any tension between this goal and her earlier observation that Wikimedia’s vision does not tie us to Wikimedia’s own sites, she did not explicitly discuss it. Perhaps the goal of “building tools for allies and partners” in the open knowledge world is meant to address that. I appreciated her explicit acknowledgment of the central importance of the community of volunteers who build Wikimedia content. But I found it difficult to discern a clear logical thread connecting these various broad themes. (17:00)

WikiCite came back to the fore, as Maher suggested that it (along with Wikidata more broadly) presents a strategic opportunity to tie knowledge together through citations. She spoke of a general need on the Internet for “a common way of pointing to a work.” She suggested that an implementation of the Wikibase software, separate from Wikidata, might be necessary to realize this opportunity, and suggested that Wikidata could serve as a “hub of hubs” of information. I think, though I’m not certain, that she was suggesting that empowering librarians to collect and curate information outside of Wikimedia’s own sites could be an effective way to sidestep some of the content bias that emerges within the Wikimedia world. Her emphasis on the need to work with “like-minded organizations” continued, and she urged that we ensure tools and data produced by Wikimedia feed an open knowledge ecosystem. (18:00)

She then highlighted the danger of licensing “enclosure” that comes along with Wikidata’s CC0 copyright dedication. (CC0 differs in important ways from the licenses of other Wikimedia projects; specifically, it contains no requirement that content republishers attribute authors, or re-apply any kind of free license.) The concept of enclosure posits that large swathes of data could be appropriated by private interests, and republished in ways that fall short of Wikimedia’s vision for free knowledge sharing. She presented enclosure as a potential existential threat, and offered a compelling quote: “open is open for appropriation” How, she asked, can we “lock our data open” for future use and reuse? (24:30)

Maher offered several suggestions for how to address the danger of enclosure. In several instances, she emphasized that the key was not so much in establishing strict requirements, but in establishing norms. While this approach doesn’t quite meet the high bar of “locking” anything open, I strongly agree that it’s the best approach in many situations. One specific point that I found highly encouraging was her emphasis on openness in contracts and governance. This is an area where the Wikimedia Foundation has, in the past, set a poor example—perhaps most notably with its famously opaque (and long since scuttled) plans for a “Knowledge Engine,” but running through many other past efforts of the foundation. I wrote about the value of “open philanthropy,” a concept I associate primarily with Wayne Mackintosh and Mark Surman, in 2016. (26:30)

Closing the talk, Maher emphasized the importance of sustainable funding in the open knowledge space; reminded the audience that the Wikimedia Foundation does not own its sites’ content, but that it’s owned collectively by its authors; and closed with an invitation to “join us” in working toward the goals outlined in the talk. (27:30)

Questions: Net neutrality, funding strategy, wiki culture 101

Audience members asked about the Wikimedia Foundation’s disposition toward net neutrality. There was some worthwhile discussion; one important point that had previously escaped my notice was that the Wikipedia Zero partnership program, in which mobile data providers in the developing world offered free access to Wikipedia (but to the Internet as a whole) would be discontinued at the end of 2018. Though the intentions behind Wikipedia Zero were admirable, it was also a distraction from Wikimedia’s more central focus on building content and communities of practice, so I was glad to learn the program will be retired.

Katherine Maher presents at the WikiCite 2018 conference.

Katherine Maher presenting at WikiCite 2018. Photo by Dario Taraborelli, CC0.

I then asked what turned out to be the final question. I asked about the Wikimedia Foundation’s current disposition toward being a central “hub” of funding in the open knowledge space, as opposed to a more decentralized model (for projects like Wikipedians in Residence) in which various institutions directly seek out and fund Wikimedia experts to inform their work. Noting that it was a rather “advanced-level” question, Maher offered a good crash course on the history of the topic. Her answer was interesting, but left me wanting more in a couple of ways—especially in a room full of organizations plotting their approach to funding Wikimedia-related projects. First, she emphasized that the opinion she expressed was her “personal” view, which suggests to me that the Wikimedia Foundation has no established view on the matter. This is worth knowing, but somewhat surprising at this stage of the organization’s development. Second, she seemed to interpret my question as concerning Wikimedia’s formally-recognized affiliate groups (chapters and thematic organizations). This was not my intention; but the disconnect suggests that the current iteration of the Wikimedia Foundation does not foresee a world in which expertise about Wikipedia and open knowledge practices exist and thrive independently of formal management by the foundation or its affiliate groups. (35:30)

Another question at WikiCite, separate from Maher’s talk, touched on similar themes, and deserves a listen. WikiCite’s second day featured group consideration of strategic questions. Megan Wacha, a Wikimedian and librarian, asked a group presenting on WikiCite strategy: “In mapping out a product vision, what was your take on the role of Wikimedia volunteers and the Wikimedia Foundation in the context of this work?” (Question lightly paraphrased.) This insightful question highlighted an area of disconnect that seemed to crop up at various times during the conference. The group’s answer(s) focused almost entirely on the Wikimedia Foundation, suggesting that there wasn’t much understanding of the volunteers of Wikimedia as a distinct entity. Although there was a great deal of technical learning and individual networking at the conference, and good strategic work (Day 2) and technical work (Day 3), I’m not sure that the librarians and professionals in attendance had many opportunities to learn about the Wikimedia movement’s culture, values, and social norms. Nor, apparently, have their conversations with Wikimedia Foundation staff given them much insight in this area. Wacha’s question highlighted the point concisely, and I find myself hoping that future conferences might find ways to make cultural learning a more central component.

My overall impression

On the whole, I found Katherine Maher’s talk, and conversations throughout the conference with the numerous Wikimedia Foundation staff in attendance, illuminating.

The foundation has clearly evolved in the last couple years, and I’m glad to learn about newly-defined strategic priorities. The organization has certainly made strides in professionalism, and in defining values and processes; but I saw little indication that it has advanced in its understanding of the volunteers who build Wikimedia sites, or in its general approach to communicating with them. There have been tweaks to the organization’s approach to partnerships and to software development, and I think things have generally moved in the right direction; but it seems to me that the Wikimedia Foundation still struggles with the core problem it’s faced since its launch in 2003: it lacks a sophisticated understanding of Wikimedia’s base of volunteers, and how to engage with them.

The foundation’s relatively clear articulation of the goals driving its actions, however, should make it easier for various individuals and partner organizations to interface with the organization in the years to come. It’s clear, if nothing else, that that is part of the point; and clearer communication is undoubtedly a strong basis for further growth and improvement.

About Pete Forsyth

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, and a Wikipedia expert. Full bio here: wikistrategies.net/pete-forsyth
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