Wikimania challenge for Hong Kong as conference comes to town

Hosting the annual Wikimania conference marks a step forward for the local chapter of volunteers. The challenge now is to retain talent as team members move into full-time jobs

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 July, 2013, 9:49am

Millions of people use Wikipedia every day, yet many locals don't know what the collaborative web-based encyclopaedia project is about. People here seem confused about the site and often ask Wikipedia's local volunteer administrators questions like, "Do you have anything to do with WikiLeaks?" (Answer: nothing.)

That's one reason the volunteer administrator group is looking forward to Wikimania, the site's annual international conference held in Hong Kong next week. Hosting the event presents some opportunities to help improve public understanding about how the site operates.

Perhaps no one is more eager than 23-year-old Simon Shek Chiu-yin. Shek had two goals when he set up the Hong Kong chapter of Wikimedia, the outreach and administrative arm for the site, in 2006. One was to recruit more volunteers, and the other was to bring Wikimania to Hong Kong. His dreams are now being realised.

"We established a chapter, and we are about to host the conference - we feel that's pretty good. We really want people to know what Wikipedia is," he says. "Open data, open knowledge, open culture - those are big things in Hong Kong."

Run by the US-based non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia has grown beyond the expectations of its founders Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger since they spun off the free, open-content site in 2001 from an earlier project.

It now assembles some 22 million entries in 285 languages, written, fact-checked and corrected through the collective effort of a global community of volunteer contributors, or Wikipedians.

The organisers of Wikimedia Hong Kong are a geeky bunch - not entirely surprising, since it requires some familiarity with coding to upload and edit entries in the online encyclopaedia - and many have grown up with the site.

A chemistry graduate from UCLA, Shek was 14 when he first came across Wikipedia on the internet. Drawn to the idea of freely sharing knowledge online, he started to contribute regular articles (his tally has since swelled to about 8,000). Meeting fellow users, including Deryck Chan Yick-kiu and Jeromy Chan Yu at regional Chinese-language get-togethers prompted him to set up the site.

Similarly, Deryck Chan began contributing to Wikipedia when he was 15. "Maybe it's something in my blood, maybe I was born as a nerd," says the 22-year-old, who recently completed a master's in civil engineering at Cambridge.

Wikimania 2013 will be Deryck Chan's last project with the local chapter for some time, as he will be leaving in the autumn to work for a charity in London. And with a full-time lab job, Shek can only help in his spare time. So the task of organising Wikimania 2013 has fallen largely on chief co-ordinator Jeromy Chan, a polyglot who speaks six languages, and its general manager Kris Cheng Lok-chit, the only paid member of the team.

It took some juggling two years ago to win the bid to host the 2013 conference. But Hong Kong was the only candidate with a venue ready. The Polytechnic University had been secured with the help of Gino Yiu, an associate professor who specialises in digital media.

Another plus was the city's position as an international hub. That is why next week's conference is expected to draw the most diverse participation in Wiki history.

Deryck Chan says: "Hong Kong is easier to get to [compared with other host cities]. It offers the biggest range of visa-free entry. The past two years' Wikimania were held in Haifa, Israel, and Washington. It was really hard for Africans, Asians and Muslims to get there.

"We wanted it to be far away from the previous host cities so that travel costs and distance for attendees were more even."

Although Wikipedia's Chinese-language portal is largely edited in Taiwan and Hong Kong (curbs on meet-ups and censorship are big hurdles for its development on the mainland), Chan says the city is a gateway to China that Wikimedia wants to tap.

The choice of Hong Kong "shows the [Wikimedia] foundation recognises the importance of China in terms of ideas and thought", Yiu says. "The Chinese-speaking world is centred around here."

Conscious of the gender gap in the community, organisers have scheduled a special women's luncheon where female Wikimedians can discuss their successes and struggles for respect and equality. Only 12 per cent of the estimated 1,000 participants are women, reflecting a recent study in PLoS ONE, the online journal the Public Library of Science in the US, which estimated that women made up about 16 per cent of editors in Wikipedia.

The overriding theme of the global confab is on the future of Wikipedia as an institution that seeks to share knowledge with people the world over.

An important feature will be the introduction of a more user-friendly interface for the site called Visual Editor, which works like a conventional word-processing function. The existing platform, which Wales has described as "primitive", puts off less tech-oriented people because it has HTML code settings. The foundation hopes the initiative will help attract new editors to the site.

Wales has described the Hong Kong team as the youngest group of Wikipedians in the world, people who joined because they wanted to do something cool, and who did not worry about the business side of the operation.

But hosting Wikimania has brought them face-to-face with the practical realities of funding the event. It has been a challenge trying to secure much-needed business sponsorship.

"We now have this love-hate relationship with Wikimedia. Not because we are not getting paid but because there is no funding," says Jeromy Chan. "Hong Kong is so commercial, we must rely on people's sympathy rather than the establishment of a good [funding] system."

Most companies initially welcome their overtures to sponsor Wikimania as an advertising opportunity, he says, but quickly shut the door when they realise the site will not carry ads. The major sponsors secured have mainly been long-time supporters such as Google and although some new internet businesses pitched in.

Wikipedia does not accept advertising on its pages, but it has been estimated that if the site included banner or video ads, it could be worth US$5 billion.

In the long term, Wikimedia Hong Kong's major concern is retaining talent. While the pool of volunteers has swelled to about 30 people from the initial seven, and secondary students show increasing interest, most core members are at university or work part time. As they graduate and start work, they will have less time to help with outreach and managing the Hong Kong entries.

"You can't do outreach during the day if you have a job. You can't always take calls while working. I don't want to get fired because of that," says Jeromy Chan.

Meanwhile, they have learned to manage editing conflicts, such as when a staffer at the Urban Renewal Authority deleted criticism of the redevelopment of a heritage pawn shop in Wan Chai into to a high-end restaurant, and turned disapproval of top officials into praise.

The chapter quickly deleted the false content and issued a declaration that the government cannot use Wikipedia as a propaganda tool.

As in life, balancing conflicting demands in Wikimedia is part of growing up.

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Wikimania 2013; August 9-11; Jockey Club Auditorium, Polytechnic University, Hung Hom. Visit Registration US$125 for non-Wikimedia project users, US$79 for Wiki volunteers)