Wikimania is the annual international conference for Wikimedia contributors. About a thousand people convene for the three-day main conference, in which five conference tracks are ongoing for eight hours. Conference tracks cover such topics as presenting individuals’ projects, reviewing community organizing plans, promoting access to information sources, developing tutorial infrastructure, legal issues, software demonstrations, regional outreach, metrics reporting, and reviewing research. Before the main conference there is a two-day preconference, termed a hackathon, in which people meet in small groups for meetings, workshops, training, and more personal discussion. I went to the conference in DC in 2012, Hong Kong in 2013, London in 2014, and Mexico City in 2015.
Unfortunate change of venue
The Mexico City conference was supposed to be held at a the Vasconcelos Library but instead was held at a Hilton Hotel. Wikipedians love libraries and in the election process which chose Mexico as the host city, a major factor persuading the community to choose Mexico was the organizing team’s enthusiasm for the library. Two months before the conference happened the venue was changed. I'd not noticed the announcement of that change, and was surprised to learn of it quite close to the event. Reasons cited for the change were the inability to secure hotel accommodation close enough for attendees, and uncertainty about the library's Wi-Fi capacity.
These things may be so, and perhaps the library was always an inappropriate choice of venue; but I regret that so many volunteers did so much work for about a year planning an event at this library only to suddenly change. How much volunteer work was expended in the original plan? Why was that venue not sooner identified as inappropriate? Considering that volunteers are supposed to organize things like venue location—was there some way that volunteer labor was insufficient to accomplish the task, and could the paid staff which did the emergency moving of the event have been diligent in the original assessment and saved volunteer time?
Gradually changing circumstances
The mythology around the Wikimedia movement is that volunteers do everything. In reality, paid staff do a lot and serve in the most essential roles. The mythology partly developed because from 2001 to 2008, the Foundation and the community had almost no money, and no external organizations were funding Wikimedia contributors. Since about 2008 the situation has changed a lot, but there are few evaluations of the changes, and still fewer publications about the changes. From the WMF's perspective, their funding has gone from nothing in 2001 to more than US$65 million this year. I mention this in my “Value of a Wikipedian” post.
Another change is that more organizations are willing to hire their own Wikipedians. I was the first person hired to do Wikipedia work full-time indefinitely. It was a crazy concept at the time, and many would still say that it's a strange idea; but nowadays a lot of organizations are doing it. Since moving to New York I've come to realize that a lot of editing in television- and movie-related articles is done by paid editors, and this is especially taboo. Still, on Wikipedia there is a lot of demand for good information on popular television shows, and people seem to appreciate Wikipedia’s coverage of this. For many shows there are enough fans to appreciate reading the content on Wikipedia if paid staff put it there. In a lot of ways, paid contributions are creeping into Wikipedia without there being any history of community discussion to address the implications.
What roles are appropriate for volunteers?
I say this to give some context to what in any other nonprofit movement wouldn't be an issue. Wikimania is imagined to be a community-run event, but leaving a conference entirely to volunteers is too burdensome for the volunteers and too risky for the community movement. There is a community memory that in 2010 in Poland, the volunteers managing the Wikimania conference became overwhelmed. As the story goes, the Wikimedia Foundation stepped in and had staff take over some essential roles during the conference and hired local event coordinators to make it go well. In 2011 the conference in Israel went well because the Israeli chapter is known for good business sense, having an office with good fundraising and management practices, and otherwise being a volunteer organization with effective staff support. In 2012 the Wikimania coordinators in DC paid US$30,000 to hire an event consultant, and the WMF granted that because event consultant is a role that was available for hire in the US, and because they actually managed finance, legal contracts, and event coordination while giving volunteers final sign-off on everything without having a cozy relationship with them.
In 2013 the volunteers in Hong Kong came in for a lot criticism for not reporting the finances of the conference—see for example the Signpost report “Hong Kong’s Wikimania 2013—failure to produce financial statement raises questions of probity“. I know that Hong Kong didn't hire an event planner in the way that one was hired for DC, and in my opinion if they had, and if their event planner had managed their accounting, then there would have been no community objection to their reporting of the event. Based on my incomplete information, had the Hong Kong team not depended on volunteers to do accounting—which can be tedious and time-consuming for a volunteer to undertake for such a large event—and instead asked for funding for a consultant to produce the report and accounting, they would have secured the money and high praise for their management of the event.
In other respects, I think it was the best-managed Wikimania I've attended. They managed to have volunteers everywhere greeting everyone at so many parts of the process, and the volunteers collectively seemed to me like a trained army that was on the edge of all activity continually directing me into the experience they had designed and kept on a tight schedule. The London conference was great, but then also, the London Wikimedia chapter is the second-best funded after Germany and has about 10 staff. They also managed the conference in an expensive conference venue that required its own staff be funded to coordinate the event, in contrast to for example the DC and Hong Kong events in universities, which depended heavily on volunteers to complement the few staff services and the complete Hilton services in Mexico.
In 2014 I helped organize WikiConference USA in New York with other volunteers. Organizing conference programming was a fun activity for volunteers—doing event management was tedious. For us volunteers, we liked advertising the event in some channels, reviewing program submissions, soliciting for scholarship applications and reviewing them, and recruiting volunteers to be on hand for the day of the event. Some of the duties we didn't enjoy, and which we would have preferred to turn over to paid staff, included negotiating the event with the venue and caterers; managing the written agreements about finance and safety; coordinating a travel team to dispense money for scholarship recipients; the accounting; the metrics part of the grant-reporting to the Foundation; comprehensive communication in the manner of communications professionals as opposed to the style of grassroots volunteers; and responding to harassment (a stalker during that event managed to spoil the mood of the attendees). We managed the conference for about US$30,000 because the venue was a school, which donated what elsewhere would have cost some $60,000. About $10,000 of the $30,000 was the food and incidentals, and the other $20,000 was for travel scholarships. There were about 10 of us on the organizing team and I suppose we met in person about 30 hours each to plan the event plus maybe as much time alone doing things online. This was for a three-day conference for about 300–500 people. Wikimania is no doubt on the same or larger scale.
Is it worth having volunteers spend their time in this way? The money is less of an object these days. Volunteer time is scarce, and anyone who would consider volunteering to convene a Wikimedia conference is likely to also be a person whose time could be spent where expertise is scarce, like actually presenting Wikimedia culture instead of only creating a space for others to do this. Professional event coordinators are at least two to three times more efficient in organizing events than a volunteer team would be, and will anticipate bureaucratic reporting standards intuitively when volunteers might not anticipate the need at all.
Until now, Wikimania conferences have been held based on an Olympic-style bidding process in which groups of volunteers in different cities around the world bid for the right to host the conference. The outcome of the bid is that they get something like $300,000 to host the conference, with more money coming for special needs on request and constituting maybe $100,000 more. The restriction is that volunteers are discouraged from hiring paid staff to present the conference, and the event is expected to be as volunteer-run as possible. I wonder if the Foundation might consider the history of difficulties, and rethink the idea that volunteers should present conferences.
I think it would be more reasonable for the WMF to hire event staff to manage almost all parts of the event, if only to free the volunteers’ time for more personal engagement. A local Wikipedia team should coordinate some hospitality functions, like staffing the registration desk, having volunteers around to answer questions about the neighborhood, in selecting the keynote speakers and scheduling programming, and in recruiting Wikipedians to participate. Historically an online volunteer committee has selected the program submissions to be featured and has selected scholarship recipients. I want those roles to continue, but as for event coordination—paid staff ought to be used.
Multinational hotel accommodation
I worry about two side issues.
One is that the Hilton Hotel is an expensive American hotel with uncompromising business ethics. They charge about $300 a night for rooms, so for the ~100 scholarship recipients and some 100 WMF staff who attended the conference, this was about the rate paid for five nights. $300 × 200 people × five nights is $300,000, which is the typical conference scale and probably about the price including venue space, catering, and the negotiation of rate. It bothers me that this money went to an American company and not to a local business. It also bothers me that this rate is so far removed from the local economy. A recent economic report says 46% of people in Mexico made less than $157 per month, so one night in this hotel costs the equivalent of about two months' wages. In Mexico City, 76% of people make $157 or less. How did the local Wikipedia contributors feel about hosting a conference in a venue so far removed from local culture and norms? How would the international guests have felt to stay in a local hotel instead of an American one?
Paid vs. volunteer presentations
The other issue is that almost all of the conference presentations were showcasing the work of paid staff, when many people think of the Wikimedia movement as a volunteer initiative. There were five days of conference. The first two were hackathon days, in which WMF staff controlled everything in the schedule. This was the first year that that had happened. There were lots of empty rooms reserved, and people could meet during the first two days, and scholarship recipients were present, but posting to the schedule was prohibited. In the other three days of the conference, I counted 150 talks. Among these, 48 were presentations by WMF staff. The Foundation didn't participate in Spanish-language talks, of which there were 26. So 39% of the English-language talks were paid presentations by WMF staff. Another 50 of the English-language talks were by people who were paid to present by some organization other than the WMF (including chapter staff or paid Wikipedians like me), so that really just leaves (150 − 48 − 26 − 50 = ) 26 English-language talks, or about 16%, that were presented by volunteers in the three days available to the community.
I'm grateful to the volunteers who contributed to put this conference on; but I'd have preferred that the Wikimedia volunteer community fill most of the speaking slots—perhaps 66% of them. I want to emphasize volunteers, because the community and the Foundation put so much emphasis on volunteer contributions. I think there's a perception that the community speaks for itself, but somehow this year the community was mostly just the audience. At the very least, I'd like to see future Wikimanias advertise which talks are presented by volunteers, WMF staff, or others.
Lane Rasberry is Wikipedian-in-residence at Consumer Reports. This article originally appeared on the author's blog and is republished here with his permission.