October 31, 2013

Expanding Women’s Participation for Wikipedia in India: Access to Knowledge

Category: Equity
classroom full of students sitting at desks in india

In the past DMLcentral has covered efforts to recruit more women to edit Wikipedia and to produce more women’s studies content.  As a blogger, I have presented this story as a relatively uncontroversial initiative to improve the accuracy and coverage of the sprawling online encyclopedia (See my interview with Wikipedia’s Adrianne Wadewitz here).  Working with the Project Feminism Wikipedia community to produce digital material, students trained in classes involved in Dialogues on Feminism and Technology have worked to improve the rigor of Wikipedia entries on topics that range from Afrofuturism to disability art.

Recently, Fox News has tried to generate public outrage in hyperbolic news broadcasts about “corrupting Wikipedia for course credit.”  Pundits charged professors with making feminist “wikistorming” class projects efforts to “inject” a “liberal bias” into the site and to privilege being “politically correct” over being “factually correct.”  Soon, Christian bloggers objected that religious groups would likely be blocked by Wikipedians from launching similarly organized storming efforts to advance their own agendas.

As tech evangelist Robert Tercek noted, FemTechNet could unintentionally “encourage copycat campaigns” that would be difficult for the free and open site to control and that the group’s messaging might make the effort sound “militaristic and combative” rather than reasoned and collaborative.  My feminist scholarly colleagues have scrambled to counter the negative coverage by emphasizing their project’s compliance with Wikipedia’s neutral point of view, verifiability, and no original research policies.  Using carefully cited sources, these editing efforts are often designed to clarify the facts about “great man” stories of innovation and to provide information about attributing credit to more participants, as well as to acknowledge the importance of failures and conflicts in the intersections of culture and technology.

In an interview for DMLcentral, T. Vishnu Vardhan chuckled about the possibility that his own initiative could become so newsworthy.  Vishnu leads the Access to Knowledge project, which is housed at the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India.  A2K is also funded by the Wikimedia Foundation, which has been working to diversify the sum of human knowledge presented on the site, particularly knowledge from the Global South.  Recruiting more women to edit Wikipedia is an important part of the A2K mission to address three areas of concern: 1) growing the open knowledge community in India; 2) growing the depth and breadth of entries on Wikipedia in diverse Indian languages; and 3) growing high-quality contributions about India in the English language Wikipedia.  Seventy percent of Indians are not firmly grounded in English-language literacy and do not feel comfortable accessing knowledge and information over the Internet in a foreign language.  Vishnu’s multilingual team has a core focus on five regional languages, among the twenty-three officially recognized languages spoken in the country, but their attention to diversity doesn’t end there.  After all, Vishnu insists that it is impossible to create accurate entries and vibrant editing communities with a “single theorization of the ‘Indian woman’” and “focusing on diverse fields like history, arts, culture, cinema, and science can be extremely productive in knowledge building.”

Vishnu is trying to learn from female Wikipedian activists, such as Netha Hussain, who has argued for closing the “gender gap” on the site.  His organization is also trying to harness the energy of distributed groups of women, which might have particularly productive clusters, such as a group of 30 women students actively editing in Goa.  One problem he noted that contributes to the gender gap in editing is the burden of domestic labor that falls to women in India.  Career women have many responsibilities at home and lack the free time for Wikipedia editing during the weekend, when most Indian volunteers give their time to the site.  He is hoping that the many tech companies based in Bangalore would consider contributing some employee time during the workday to write on Wikipedia as a form of in-kind donation.

Students are also important actors in improving the coverage of Wikipedia, and Vishnu and his team are planning to do more outreach to India’s many top-flight women’s studies programs to facilitate contributions.  Unfortunately Wikimedia Foundation’s earlier initiatives in India have a tarnished history of an unsuccessful partnership with institutions of higher education, which is a difficult inheritance for Access to Knowledge.  The India Education Program Pune Pilot Project, which took place at three universities in India, included 1,014 students spanning 24 courses.  Students eager for course credit submitted entries with massive copyright violations, and the IP addresses of entire schools were blocked from Wikipedia editing as a result.  Wikimedia Foundation’s money invested in the project did little to produce community engagement or high-quality work.  A damning independent report by Tory Read detailed where Vishnu’s predecessors failed.

Under the new leadership, the A2K project has already had some notable successes.  In honor of International Women’s Day, A2K supported the women Wikimedians in India in successfully organizing a month long pan-Indian edit-a-thon to celebrate Women’s History Month.  In collaboration with Wikimedians in India, A2K has used an open access publication from the Indian Academy of Sciences, Lilivati’s Daughters: The Women Scientists of India, as a source text and is producing over fifty entries on Indian women Scientists in English and ten Indian Language Wikipedias.  The progress of this project can be seen here.  Vishnu has been amazed by the productivity of some language-specific editing groups in refining entries on regional celebrities, such as the group working on Telugu noteworthies.

Of course, more women writing on Wikipedia is only one of the goals of Access to Knowledge.  As Vishnu explained, A2K also works towards creating a policy framework with infrastructural resources that promote openness and equitable access to knowledge, because only 9% of Indians have access to the Internet on desktops, laptops, or tablets.  In contrast, 79% have access to a mobile phone, in a country with a high ownership penetration of cellular devices.  He showed samples from the CIS Pervasive Technologies Project, which is advocating a patent license pool that can legally support the sub $100 “smart” phone market in India.  Such low cost phones can take the Internet to vast populations at the bottom-of-the-pyramid and make access to knowledge more equitable.  According to Vishnu, the problems of access to knowledge in India are also compounded by state institutions that do not have the open access mandate that are becoming increasingly common in scientific and technological projects funded by U.S. taxpayers.

Banner image credit: The Centre for Internet and Society http://cis-india.org/openness/kannada-wiki-workshop-tumkur-university?searchterm=kannada