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Milan conference a mixed bag

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By Tony1 and The ed17
Group photograph of the 2013 Wikimedia Conference

The Wikimedia Conference is an annual meeting of the chapters to discuss their status and the organisational development of the Wikimedia movement. Held first in the Netherlands in 2008 and then in Berlin from 2009 to 2012, this year the conference was in the northern Italian city of Milan. For the first time it included groups that wish to be considered for WMF affiliation as thematic organisations (the Wiki Education Foundation, the Catalan-language-based Friends of Wikipedia, and Wiki Project Med) and one of the three groups that was recently affiliated as a user group (Esperanto and Free Knowledge). The conference was also attended by members of the Wikimedia Foundation's Board of Trustees, the Funds Dissemination Committee (FDC), the Affiliations Committee, and a representative of the Wikivoyage Association, the German non-profit that is the former host of the new Wikivoyage travel-guide wiki, which moved to the WMF last November after considerable controversy.

The conference was hosted by the Italian Wikimedia chapter, with funding of US$120,000 from the Foundation's Wikimedia Grants Program, following a much-discussed application for $157,000 that assumed 250 participants (about 130 attended), including $78,000 for the conference venue and catering for light lunches and a coffee station. The German chapter donated up to a further $65,000 to make the event possible.

"Open Thursday"
State of the chapters session
The WMF Board of Trustees at the question-and-answer session
The Education Workshop

The event began last Thursday with three parallel meetings:


The main conference began in the morning with a State of the movement session, in which 18 entities were each allocated three minutes to present a "lightning" talk about their most important activities, plans, or problems. This format was repeated on Saturday (19 presentations) and Sunday (seven presentations). The presentations varied widely in content and approach. Christophe Henner, for example, used humorous slides in his presentation for Wikimédia France, including a photograph of a prison corridor to embellish his reference to the recent bullying of a chapter member by the French intelligence agents. The proposed chapter from Nepal, which hopes to gain WMF affiliation, spoke of how the country has 123 languages, with seven existing WMF sites. Among these, the Nepali Wikipedia was started as early as 2002 and now has 23,000 articles and 78 active users; a further seven Wikipedias for languages in Nepal are in incubation. Wikimedia Macedonia, recognised in 2010, has 15 members and no budget. It has made progress in an education program at four universities and a number of secondary schools and citizen "internet clubs", and has signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Library and National Archives. The group has already established collaborative links with Wikimedia Ukraine. Links to slides for all presentations in which they were used are included at the schedule pages.

After lunch, participants broke up into three parallel tracks, comprising a total of nine one-hour sessions. Resources sharing and standardization was presented by the South African and Swiss chapters, exploring ways of developing secure web hosting and document editing among entities. Small offices examined the advantages and disadvantages of establishing and running a physical chapter office. Chris Keating, chair of Wikimedia UK, presented a talk on the recent governance review of the chapter, recommending "Executive Summary and the Characteristics on pages 9 to 12" of the report, which was jointly commissioned by the Foundation and the chapter. The minutes for most of the parallel sessions currently exist only in the form of raw Etherpads.

Saturday – meeting with the WMF Board of Trustees
Jimmy and chair of the WMF Board, Kat Walsh
Chapter-selected trustees Alice Wiegand and Patricio Lorente
Trustee Bishakha Datta
A pensive moment at the Grand Visconti Palace ... trustee Samuel Klein
The Saturday dinner, paid for by the conference, was attended by 81 people.
Sweet rewards for hard-working Wikimedians

One of the highlights of the conference was the meeting with the Board. All current Board members were present, and each gave brief opening remarks. Jimmy Wales pointed out that last month was the first in which more than half a billion people visited WMF websites. A question-and-answer session followed. Among interesting questions were:

Saturday morning had involved 75-minute sessions on Chapter peer review; How to keep volunteers active; and Seven cool projects, including the French chapter's Kiwix wifi software to give offline access to Wikipedia in places in Africa with unstable internet connections. After the joint WMF Board–chapter meeting there were 45-minute sessions on the European Policy Working Group, Chapters in the Global South and lessons that can be learned, and Evaluating programs, presented by the WMF's senior director of programs, Frank Schulenberg.

Sunday – the FDC feedback session

Sunday, the last day, included another WCA meeting (no minutes yet available), and a feedback session on the Foundation's grantmaking agency that has forged a major change in finance and accountability in the movement – the FDC – which was described by one participant at the meeting as "a huge culture shock". In attendance were Dariusz Jemielniak, Anders Wennersten, Ali Haidar Khan, Sydney Poore, Yuri Perohanych, Arjuna Rao Chavala, and Mike Peel from the FDC; Patricio Lorente (one of the two chapter-selected WMF Trustees); and Foundation staff members Anasuya Sengupta (senior director of grantmaking), Winifred Olliff, Katy Love, Adele Vrana, Garfield Byrd (chief financial officer), and Jessie Wild. Representatives were present from 15 chapters that have applied to the FDC and three that have not.

A summary was presented of the findings of the survey of participating chapters after Round 1 of the FDC funding process last October (n = 8): the process is satisfactory, and deemed fair, transparent, and not overly time-consuming, and is not inhibiting the ability to reach the goals, though there are areas that should be improved. There is a need to strengthen communication between FDC/staff and applying entities, and to tighten application requirements. And the “open question” is if the FDC is a good mechanism for achieving impact. Applicants said they spent from three to 150 hours on their application (a median of 70 hours), and that it was hard to use the portal and forms, although "survey participants largely saw the process as fair and transparent". Three questions seemed to emerge: Are the movement entities evolving their program plans to have the most impact? Is the overhead required for the FDC process greater than the value (both impact and compliance) it provides? Is the process stifling innovation and/or limiting new participation in the movement?

The survey brought up negative feelings about the critical feedback given to chapters on their applications: that assessments were "too violent" and "insulting", that non-specific comments can be "de-motivating for volunteers", and thus that "more details are needed" in feedback. There were complaints that the FDC process is in English, is difficult to understand, and that comments arise from existing opinions on an entity. The etherpad records the comment that "The FDC proposal form is horrible for the community, even for those who are used to reviewing annual plans and budget. They wouldn't understand from the form what their own chapter is doing. [The current process is] designed to make comparisons and nothing else, [to] redesign it from scratch. [The] proposal form is not easy for entity staff and is extremely hard for editors and community members to review."

The response from the FDC was that "Comparing proposals is critical for the FDC, especially as the volume of proposals and amounts of funds requested increases and to force people defining goals." The FDC chair, Dariusz Jemielniak, referred to the importance of cultivating goal-setting abilities among applicants, and pointed out that the Foundation itself did not fully satisfy the FDC's requirements in Round 1. Since the FDC is making large grants, he said, it sets higher expectations in terms of communicating entities' plans and filling in forms. The Foundation's chief financial officer, Garfield Byrd, said that the level of detail required in the FDC form for the annual plan and budget is clearly not detailed enough, and that it is difficult for readers to understand the financials from budgets and annual plans alone. FDC member Anders said that about half of FDC applications are not sound. Among other statements by FDC members were that there is a limited number of dollars to give out in the FDC, and it's not going to be possible to staff up all chapters.

Sunday finished with a series of meetings known as Barcamps.

Comments from outside the chapter world

Biophysicist Daniel Mietchen attended the conference for WikiProject Med. He told the Signpost that in his opinion "there's a tendency for many wheels to be invented independently, so coordination across chapters has strong potential to improve efficiency and impact. For example, several chapters are now in discussions with their respective ministries of culture/education/science about how open licensing and Wikimedia projects can be included in curricula from high school to graduate courses, yet there has so far been next to no coordination of these efforts."

He specified the lack of coordination related to attendance at events, for example in Commons documentation and recurring visa problems; the Signpost has been informed that intending participants from two developing-world countries were refused visas for travel to Italy.

Mietchen pointed out that the three issues identified as the focus of the newly forming EU policy project also require coordination across chapters: "freedom of panorama (which exists in most but not all EU countries), orphan works, and PD-Gov (a concept alien to most European jurisdictions). Other issues, such as how to handle the paper work in running a chapter, have traditionally not been tackled in a very coordinated way either; nor have initiatives involving many chapters, such as Wiki Loves Monuments or the FDC process. However, a number of attempts along these lines are becoming more visible, e.g. the Chapters Association's discussions on the 'Chapters Exchange."

Participants generally praised the atmosphere at the conference. On the downside, it appears that most of the detailed planning was left until the last minute. Just one week before the start, no schedule was available. A basic draft appeared on Meta a day after the Signpost made enquiries of the organisers; we know of at least one chapter for which this lack of planning weighed in the decision not to send representatives. The Signpost notes another matter that may be of interest to the organisers of future Wikimedia events: one participant commented that the connectivity at the venue and in the hotels was "crappy".

Editor's note: the author of this article is a member of the Grants Advisory Committee, which recommended the approval of a US$120,000 grant to Wikimedia Italy to host the conference, but he was inactive at the time of the application for conference funding.

In brief

Ting Chen, former chair and current member of the Foundation's Board of Trustees, has announced his intention to resign.
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  • The National Library of Scotland story has spread beyond the BBC - as of this morning, it was in the Times, Scotsman, Daily Record and Scottish Daily Mail (no web version, I think). JISC in the UK is also looking for a "Wikimedia Ambassador" to run a training program for researchers.
I've pulled together a list of everyone currently looking for a WiR - seven in total that I know about, in the UK, US, Germany and Switzerland - and posted it here, if it's of interest. Andrew Gray (talk) 11:55, 25 April 2013 (UTC)[reply]
Thanks Andrew, I've added the latter link to the article. Ed [talk] [majestic titan] 11:59, 25 April 2013 (UTC)[reply]
Great - I had worried it was too late to get in this time around :-). Andrew Gray (talk) 12:03, 25 April 2013 (UTC)[reply]
I take a pretty fluid approach to adding minor things after our nominal publication time—this is a wiki, after all. ;-) Ed [talk] [majestic titan] 12:05, 25 April 2013 (UTC)[reply]
  • The main story on the Milan Conference seems to be very critical. I guess this is the old question of whether the glass is half full or half empty. It does seem that they could have been more organized and accomplished more. On the other hand, IMHO we do need to have people interacting face-to-face in an effort to grow the movement. Comparing the face-to-face interaction that we have now to, say, that of 3 years ago, we have made great strides forward.
I'd like to bring up a related question that seems to be ignored in the general conversation. Probably 98% of Wikipedia editors never attend a face-to-face meeting, probably the majority of editors fit the stereotype of guys typing alone at their computers (at night, in their underwear) who are perfectly happy interacting only online. In fact, the easy and mostly impersonal access by internet has to be viewed as a main strength of Wikipedia. I'll recommend that these folks check out some of the various types of meetings that go on - they can be fun and informative. But if folks don't want to meet, that's ok too.
Probably the biggest potential disagreement along these lines will be the money involved. Did I notice some implied complaints in the story about $200,000+ being spent? Budgeting always needs to be carried out carefully - sloppiness in this regards will just invite problems - but with the WMF's resources being in the multiple $10s of millions, we can afford a conference like this if it is done well. The guys typing in their underwear at night don't need to have this type of money spent on them, except for pure technical support. So while the face-to-face organizers and conference attenders need to understand that they are in a distinct minority around here, the "lone typers" should also understand that it does make some sense to support these meetings. Smallbones(smalltalk) 15:28, 25 April 2013 (UTC)[reply]
I'm one of those lone typers, and I'd revel in the chance to attend conferences like this. Sadly, nobody's offering to send me to them, and I sure can't afford to pay my own way. (In all fairness, I have been brought in for two much tinier Wikimedia events here in my own country at Foundation expense, which undoubtedly puts me ahead of many Wiki eds.) --Orange Mike | Talk 16:30, 25 April 2013 (UTC)[reply]
I don't believe that the story is overly critical. Giving flattering or purely positive coverage is of little use; true, critical, and comprehensive feedback, which we strive to provide each week, should always be welcomed. Ed [talk] [majestic titan] 17:00, 25 April 2013 (UTC)[reply]
No complaints about Tony's reporting - as usual. Smallbones(smalltalk) 20:36, 25 April 2013 (UTC)[reply]
Orangemike, I'm trying not to imagine you dressed in underpants! Smallbones, I'm unsure about the characterisation of online participation as "impersonal". This second conference in the yearly calendar does raise the issue of value for money. I'm not passing judgement here, but who disagrees that the movement needs to keep tally of value of money in an endeavour that will always be essentially online? In reporting on the conference, I didn't find it easy to encapsulate just where the areas of progress were, but admittedly that's never easy after a big and complex meetup. And to be mercenary in this age of turbo-capitalism, the $120,000 plus $78,000 in direct funding didn't include the cost of flying in and out, and incidentals, for nine Board members, 13 WMF staff and the contractor, and the cost of foregoing their normal work input; and the chapter and individual funding of transportation for another 80 or so participants, and where applicable their work leave. All up, from all sources, $350,000? Could we at least have guidelines on best-practice organisation and online documentation both before and after the event? Just sayin'. Tony (talk) 03:52, 26 April 2013 (UTC)[reply]


I've boldly corrected the statements that had the Milan conference co-funded by the GAC to correctly state the funding was provided by the Wikimedia Grants Program, which is advised by the GAC. Ijon (talk) 21:12, 25 April 2013 (UTC)[reply]

Additionally, I would like to remind The Signpost that despite people's tendency to abuse the trademark by prematurely referring to proto-chapter groups as Wikimedia XX, there is no such entity as Wikimedia Nepal just yet, and The Signpost would do well to not propagate this informal usage in writing aiming to be factual. Ijon (talk) 21:12, 25 April 2013 (UTC)[reply]

Rather than blame the messengers, please take a look at the official program schedule, which specifies Wikimedia Nepal – State of Chapter, and its slides, where the group is publicly described at the beginning as Wikimedia Nepal Chapter. Not to denigrate the group: although it looks like an almost entirely male affair (like education and literacy generally in Nepal), they've started a Wiki-Women Initiative Nepal that would do some of the funded chapters proud. And they have a big, complex linguistic and cultural challenge.

If the Foundation cares a penny about its trademark, why does it not liaise with the organisers of international WM meetings to ensure that the trademark is not "abused". Why does it target this small developing-country group while turning a blind eye to the widespread use of Wikimedia Chapters Association in the conference documentation, orally at the meetings, and in the etherpad minutes? How are third parties, like us, meant to tell the difference? Tony (talk) 03:52, 26 April 2013 (UTC)[reply]


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