The Signpost


Wikimania—can volunteers organize conferences?

The Biblioteca Vasconcelos

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.

A Wikimania banner on the Mexico City Hilton

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?

Signpost poll
Should more paid event staff supplement volunteers in the organization of Wikimania?
  Yes (95%; 18 votes)
  No (5%; 1 vote)

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.

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It's actually a systemic problem with chain hotels. Not only do they soak up visitors at exorbitant rates, but they capture a lot of the other spending too, from taxi fares to food and drink, and in the beach resorts entertainment and leisure. It is hard to find accommodation for 1,000+ people with suitable facilities, and at a good price. Pretty much Universities are the only likely contenders. All the best: Rich Farmbrough, 02:26, 28 August 2015 (UTC).[reply]

  • Very nice op-ed, Lane! - with which I agree. - kosboot (talk) 02:48, 28 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • Lane hits the nail on the head with so many observations that it's difficult to know which ones to comment on. Probably the scarcity of budget for scholarships, the huge disparity in the quality of accommodation (DC was aweful), are among major issues. The totally disproportionate use of the conference by the Foundation to showcase their own exploits and present awards to each other has always raised my eyebrows. Overall, I just dread what's going to happen in Italy next year. Thank you. Lane, for this excellent article. --Kudpung กุดผึ้ง (talk) 02:58, 28 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • Excellent points. A mass-movement with pedestrian roots risks losing goodwill through profligacy. Shyamal (talk) 04:07, 28 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • I think it is difficult to assess the significance and future direction of Wikimania events without recognizing that they differ greatly in size based on various factors. The first sentence of this op-ed stands out; "About a thousand people convene" is not a good description of Wikimania 2014 in London, where it was over two thousand. So Wikimania in Mexico was about half the size of the previous year's event, and my understanding is that Wikimania 2016 in Italy certainly does not aim to return to the size of the London event. I think it was said that it's hoped to get back to events more like the 2005 Frankfurt Wikimania... much smaller. But one of the implications of a smaller event is that a much larger proportion of attendees will be either paid Foundation staff (whose dominance of the conference program Lane and Kudpung express concern about here) or recipients of travel grants (a system of which some parts of the community seem to disapprove). For me, two very significant things about Wikimania in London were first that some of the most valuable and productive sessions were the community round-table discussions (not organized by the Foundation), and second that the event attracted such a very large number of people who either had not edited before, or were beginner editors or irregular editors. But the event ambitious enough to provide these outcomes came at quite a cost... it was expensive. Does a high cost necessarily imply profligacy? Has the Foundation demonstrated that there are other ways it can spend donors' money that are more efficient in meeting the aims involved? Arthur goes shopping (talk) 07:02, 28 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
Arthur goes shopping Below someone suggested that I respond to you. Thanks for continuing the conversation. You raise several issues but I only wish to respond to one right here - no, I do not think any money was wasted or could have been spent more efficiently. My objection is only that there is a narrative that Wikimedia events are run inexpensively with volunteer support. The reality is that volunteer run events carry a lot of risks and attendees complain about lack of professionalism for these events. When events planning is left to professionals and volunteers are left to do Wikimedia activities rather than event planning, the cost only goes up to typical nonprofit conference costs and not anything beyond that. There is nothing wrong with the Wikimedia community doing things like a typical nonprofit community - in fact, I favor that in many ways - but this is in contrast to a community philosophy that everything should be crowdsourced. Again, I acknowledge that you raise other points. I would discuss those elsewhere, but not here. Blue Rasberry (talk) 20:36, 31 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • On the question of greater reliance on paid organizers, I think the case has been made. Conference space with suitable infrastructure is not cheap, even for a "smaller" event of under 1000 attendees. No-one has suggested abandoning scholarships altogether, and plane tickets still cost serious money even if we move back to 3 star hotels instead of the 4 star Hilton (I hope we are not moving back to 1 star and 2 star accommodation). So if large six-figure sums must be spent on Wikimania every year anyway, then the cost of more paid event organizers to get the most out of that investment... and to provide better accounting for how the money is spent, as Lane mentions... is very worthwhile. Arthur goes shopping (talk) 07:14, 28 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • I had to give Mexico a miss - it would have cost me around $5,000.00, serious money that I don't have for a 4-day jaunt. I think prolific content providers and hard working backroom boys/girls should be first in line for some compensation but after two years on the scholarships committee I know that's not how it's allowed to work. Hilton Hotel in Mexico? I can't believe that such a large city didn't have anything more economical to offer. At the bottom end of the scale, the humiliation of a backpacker squat in an 8-man room on the 4th floor without a functioning elevator for an arthritic old age pensioner was a bit hard to swallow, while the WMF as always, on top of their other junkets, wallow in 5-star luxury. I'm always amazed why no Wikimania is able to learn from the errors of its predecessors. I can't help but feel that Italy is going to be a fiasco, but I'll be there anyway. I've heard tell that European visitors are going to be expected to come in motor homes or caravans.Kudpung กุดผึ้ง (talk) 07:41, 28 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • "The first two were hackathon days, in which WMF staff controlled everything in the schedule" - I wasn't able to go to Mexico, but as a developer this strikes me as extremely odd. Of course typically, "sessions" aren't why you go to the hackathon, but still usually people can do what they want. Even the official website says "This schedule is made by the hackathon participants." [1]. So what's the deal with this. Bawolff (talk) 08:30, 28 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
Bawolff this would be a minor issue which could be resolved with communication, except that it is another example of how paid staff naturally tend to capture loosely-held common property. Staff should do this - staff are great for getting more value out of underutilized resources. The problem was that all events posted for the first two days of Wikimania had to be approved by Wikimedia Foundation staff, and they had a blanket rejection policy for anything that was not coding and software development. I wanted an WP:OTRS session and would have helped other people schedule too. See Talk:Hackathon#The_Wikimania_Hackathon_is_a_technical_event_indeed. This is not a problem now - I think this is going to be addressed and resolved so that there is space for everyone from now on. Blue Rasberry (talk) 16:05, 28 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
Bluerasberry That doesn't sound like it had much to do with being controlled by paid staff so much as being reserved for certain types of events. A Hackathon, by definition is an event to do coding and software development. Bawolff (talk) 07:20, 29 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
Bawolff In previous years the hackathon made space for non-technical events, and the entirety of the preconference has been called the hackathon. This year there was policing to prevent dilution of the hackathon concept, such that non-technical events where disallowed from the hackathon schedule and no alternative was provided for scheduling them. There were empty rooms everywhere, and most people in attendance were non-developers, so the scarce resource being withheld was branding and space on the Wikimania wiki. There was no way to get other kinds of events on the Wikimania schedule. In previous years anyone could schedule anything. The problem could be solved by having a separate schedule for other kinds of events, and not advertising the preconference as exclusively a hackathon. I do not want to encroach on the hackathon - I just wanted to use empty rooms and space on the wiki do post other events. Blue Rasberry (talk) 10:45, 29 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
Bluerasberry, This was the first year things were done this way and that was part of Qgil-WMF's team's effort to make things work better. They asked for feedback, so I think it would be something you could tell them. --MarkAHershberger(talk) 14:05, 2 September 2015 (UTC)[reply]
Hi, I was in charge of the Wikimania Hackathon content prior to the beginning of the event. "The first two were hackathon days, in which WMF staff controlled everything in the schedule" is definitely not true. We have wiki pages, phabricator tasks and mailing list archives to show that open calls were made and the schedule was filled by whoever had any session to propose in a completely decentralized fashion. We kept the scope of the pre-scheduled hackathon session to technical sessions, yes, but this is just consequent. During the event, we accommodated to all requests, we spoke with Bluerasberry (just like we spoke with him before online), and as far as I'm aware he got the space and slots he was asking for. I agree that there should be rooms available for non-technical unconference-like sessions, I just don't think that these should be provided by the Hackathon organizers. They should be planned by the Wikimania organizers. It is not true that all spaces before the main Wikimania days were allocated to the Hackathon. Other activities were organized in spaces allocated to them, totally out of the scope and reach of the Hackathon. In next years there should be an open space for non-technical sessions, completely detached from the Hackathon, so contributors like Bluerasberry can have non-technical meetings at will without having to deal with the Hackathon process.--Qgil-WMF (talk) 07:10, 3 September 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • Asking the question if paid staff should be hired or not should be answered in my opinion based on the available qualities (skills) in the community to come to a good plan. To organise a good conference, you need at first a good plan. A good plan consists out of arranging everything possible, and then even expect to arrange more things that are not expected. To be able to arrange everything possible, you need someone or some people who have insight in planning and oversight the whole happening. This is not easy to learn, you just need luck to have someone on board who has the skills to do that and can see and understand the issues.
  • Having a local chapter themselves doing the organisation of the largest Wikimedia event possible gives a chapter the opportunity to professionalise. They learn that they can organise the largest event, and having done that, everything is possible and easy for them to do as well. During the organisation to learn by doing. And they get a chance to culture exchange, something what is important for the world wide movement. As a local movement gets the opportunity to open their mind up to the world wide community, afterwards a chapter is a stronger organisation with more experience. Not only for the key organisers, but for all the helping volunteers that get to learn about the excitement from the whole world wide Wikimedia movement.
  • But above all, being hired or as volunteer organising a conference, the most important part is to have feeling with the community that comes to the conference. Wikimedia has a large different culture in comparison with almost any organisation.
  • One question that should be asked is: what is Wikimania? And more precise: is Wikimania a community conference? In other words: a conference of the community. The organisers of the 2016 conference said so at the closing ceremony of Wikimania 2015 in Mexico. If Wikimania is a community conference, this property has implications we should think about.
  • To me, the most important part of an organisation is that good people organise a great conference. This can be done by someone/some people who are hired, but personally I think that working with people who have the feeling with Wikimedia is the best! :-) Romaine (talk) 10:01, 28 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • Lane raises some interesting points, but - as with many who question the cost or administration of Wikimania - does not address the benefits gained. Spending $2million (or whatever) on a conference is fine - if it grows participation in the projects to a degree commensurate with such a figure. While I have enjoyed my time at two Wikimanias, and at GLAM similar events, (hostel issues notwithstanding), thanks to scholarships, I have also found them to be a good use if my time, and extremely beneficial in terms of making contact with other Wikipedians and working with them to resolve issues which had resisted on-wiki solutions. Andy Mabbett (Pigsonthewing); Talk to Andy; Andy's edits 12:19, 28 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
I'd like to discuss the issues of the very last paragraph. Wikimania has been hijacked by WMF staff. It once was a conference for the volunteer community, nowadays the vast majority of those attending are employees of either WMF or the chapters. The speakers are almost exclusively staff. With topics that mostly are of no interest at all for volunteers. This got to change, fast and hard. WMF: Give us Wikimania back and if you can justify it to the donors, create your own conference besides the existing ones. --h-stt !? 12:37, 28 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • "nowadays the vast majority of those attending are employees of either WMF or the chapters"... I don't see how that is numerically possible, since it would mean considerably more than 500 Foundation staff plus chapter staff attended in Mexico, and considerably more than 1000 in London. And, at least some Foundation talks are very well attended, for example the one on copyright... if I remember rightly... in the Fountain Room at Wikimania 2014 in London. Arthur goes shopping (talk) 13:11, 28 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • I've only attended Wikimania in DC, but I observed at last year's WikiConferenceUSA (and have heard about Wikimania in London) that an extremely well-organized and "professional-looking" conference attracts interested non-Wikipedians. Having attended numerous professional conferences, I feel that a Wikimania created solely for Wikipedians is a narrow and provincial way to view the event. A good Wikimania can be a significant outreach tool and the community should be open to that possibility. I was so impressed by the materials produced by Wikimedia UK documenting their extensive Wikimania preparations the thought occurs to me: Why not have a committee devoted to the logistics of the annual Wikimania? It could be a rotating committee, with volunteers serving 3-4 year terms in staggered manner (so as to help newer members of the committee learn the ropes), all under the aegis of a paid professional organizer. - kosboot (talk) 12:50, 28 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • I'd rather like Wikimanias organized by volunteers but if it is not possible paid staff could be hired.
    But I don't like the idea of paid people making the presentations. I've only been to one WM (London) and learnt a lot from the fellow Wikimedians I met there, somebody who writes about a country half a world away, the problems that some others had with their project about trains, or the unexpected simmilarities with countries you wouldn't think of. I don't mind some Jimmy's speech here, some Lila's comment there, or some paid specialist from time to time. But I'm far more interested in how you do the things you do. And I was asked more than once about what I did and how, so maybe I'm not the only one with this opinion.
    My wife loves Barbican Centre, but had the place been an industrial building or a university campus, we would have enjoyed it all the same. B25es (talk) 14:59, 28 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • A world in which paid services were the only provided in the field of knowledge, already existed. Then Wikipedia came. Staff are useful, volunteers are wonderful, which would be a rational choice? It is however reasonable, imho, that paid staff is hired only when necessary, and for really necessary services: this is and remains a context of volunteers. The little they can do is wonderful, the mistakes they can make are the mistakes of everyone of us. If this is a Community talking about the most important Community event... --g (talk) 15:45, 28 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • Twice the city is referred to as "Mexico". I know that people who speak Spanish might call it that (actually México). But it's confusing. Like New York City in the United States. If someone says "New York" how do we know they're not talking about the state?— Vchimpanzee • talk • contributions • 18:57, 28 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • The hackethon days are important even if it's just for the extra socialising for anyone who has paid a fortune to fly to the conference. Hong Kong's Wikiania was a nice, friendly, almost family affair, and organised by a team of extremely young and very enthusiastc people. All the right people were there (if you could spot them through the crowds of Foundation employees) and it was great to see them all again. Some things such as the two organised extramural events, went disasterously wrong and left many of us frustrated, but were forgivable. That said, event management is a recognised professional service. It need not be ridiculously expensive like some consultants' fees but it does cross the Ts and dot the Is which inexperienced volunteers miscalculate or don't think of. London was fine except for the food but there is a nice piano in the Barbican. Kudpung กุดผึ้ง (talk) 20:19, 28 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • Lane makes a few accusations in his op-ed, especially regarding the alleged $300,000 that went into the hotel for the scholarships. Please support that with facts, because I'm not buying it, and it does not match with explanations I have heard from the organisers. So... citation needed! effeietsanders 18:46, 30 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • The actual group hotel rate for a double room was $179 which included full breakfast and internet. A large part of the group (scholarships, staff, speakers) shared a room.--EYoung (WMF) (talk) 17:41, 31 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
EYoung (WMF) To what extent can the room rate be determined independently of the venue rental, staff wages, catering, and everything else? I assume that rooms and everything else were negotiated together, right? This is a conversation and I am not looking for answers, but in the longer term, I would like more discussion and communication about costs. Thanks for always doing an awesome job, Ellie. I am sure that you get the best possible deals and execute the conference in the most efficient way possible. No one should ever ask more of you because you do the best anyone can. Blue Rasberry (talk) 20:49, 31 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
effeietsanders I make no accusations. I am very pleased with Wikimania, and if I criticize at all, it is to make a good thing better. I would talk to you anytime and tell you more good things about the Wikimedia movement, but to answer you here, I am not sure where to begin. Do you question that about 100 volunteers got scholarships, or that the rate posted at the hotel at the check-in counter was about USD 300/night? By the posted rate, 5 nights * 300 is 1500, so 150,000 for 100 volunteers. Another 100 WMF staff were there so that's 150,000 more. With that amount of money spent of course the WMF negotiated the rate for conference space, catering, hotel staff support, and audio video. Typically, renting conference space at a hotel in a city like this for 1000 people is about 150,000 if there are rooms rented also. I am not accusing anyone of extravagance - I just said that a typical nonprofit conference happened in a usual way. The 2013 conference in Hong Kong happened in a university, so should have been less expensive, and meta:Wikimania_2013/Budget still cost about USD 300k. Of course I did not do research for any of this and could be wrong, but if I am, then it is because I do not have access to better information and because more communication needs to happen about community funding. I have no objections to the money spent - I only question the idea of whether we should continue to say that all of this should be managed by volunteers. I have another prediction for you too - the bidding process for Wikimania is going to end after 1-2 more years, and instead, a small team will choose a country without volunteer bids. We are looking at the end of the narrative of volunteer management for events. I always love your ideas and would take any criticism you have of anything I say gracefully. It is embarrassing to be published in the Signpost because I know my ideas are not well-researched, and I say these things more in the hope that someone will correct me than because I want to teach anyone things that I myself do not understand. Blue Rasberry (talk) 12:55, 31 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • "the rate posted at the hotel at the check-in counter was about USD 300/night" ... citing such numbers is very misleading, and using them as a basis for calculations of overall cost is even more problematic. The rack rate displayed behind hotels' check-in counters is nothing at all like the price actually paid for most rooms, especially when rooms are booked well in advance (as in this case) and taking advantage of further discounts due to block booking a very large number of rooms (as in this case). I have on numerous occasions paid well under USD 100 per night per room for rooms where the displayed rack rate was considerably over USD 500, and that is with only booking one or two rooms and only booking one or two months in advance. I am amazed that no-one has pointed this out to assuage the concerns of some attendees who were shocked by these displayed rates, especially on the feedback pages for the event itself, where a number of scholarship attendees had it as their largest concern. Arthur goes shopping (talk) 18:00, 31 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
    • Bluerasberry: I also appreciate your piece (parts of it), but this 300k$ definitely sounds like an accusation to me, based on unsound numbers as Arthur explains above. Especially if this large a number of rooms is booked, and even more so if you would combine that with the room renting, those prices might actually be hugely lower - in cases like this using those rack rates is, I'm afraid, wild speculation. I hope that you can retract that particular suggestion (or clarify that it is likely to be way too high), because I think it suggests wasting money where that suggestion is unjustified (maybe it is justified elsewhere, but lets stick to facts). effeietsanders 19:22, 31 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
effeietsanders I do not mean to accuse. I do not even want to criticize. Sometimes it is hard to even suggest that things could be done in other ways, or that I have questions, or to ask about other options without people taking things personally. Then also - I know that I personally tend to challenge ideas, even when I do not mean to be confrontational. So part of the problem here is my own inability to communicate peacefully.
Another part of this is that it is hard to get information on topics like this. There is a thread in the mailing lists right now in which people are trying to collect Wikimania financial records - these records are neither easy to find nor understand. I am not sure what kind of information is ideal to report. I hardly know where to begin a conversation. For this opinion piece, I am ready to retract what I said and defer to anyone else who publishes something more informed, if anyone says anything better. I feel more confused than confident.
I still expect the hotel collected the rates they posted. Some of the costs went into other things - like the venue - and I still worry about how expensive this was versus how inexpensive locally managed (not international) events are. More data could tell a clearer story. Definitely no money was wasted, but I feel that it was invested in a way that cannot be called crowdsourcing. An event at a university or library rather than a foreign hotel would feel a lot more like crowdsourcing to me, but that may not be a reasonable expectation or may even cost more than using a hotel. Blue Rasberry (talk) 20:36, 31 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
I share your concerns about confusion and about transparency and about many other things, but statements (even now) like "I still expect the hotel collected the rates they posted", when we are apparently talking about rack rates, do far more to add to the confusion than anything else. It's misleading and can only lead to less clarity and transparency, not more. Arthur goes shopping (talk) 21:14, 31 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • @User:Bluerasberry, "The mythology around the Wikimedia movement is that volunteers do everything." It is time that this myth is busted as volunteers are not super humans to do anything and everything efficiently and effectively. There is a role for chapters and foundation. The sooner that these roles are articulated, discussed and agreed, the better for the movement.--Arjunaraoc (talk) 06:50, 31 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
    "mythology" is only another way to call a dream come true, but with a less positive spirit. Volunteers are not super humans and never pretended being, but everything you can see here around, from the website to the grants, from the pens with "wikipedia" printed on them to the bank account of those who already work as paid staff for the Movement, well, all this is strictly based on the work of volunteers who built all what we are here for. They are not super humans, they don't complete the things they start, a lot of articles still need a citation to a reliable source, and paid staff actually is sometimes necessary: all true. But let's keep in touch with common sense: paid staff can be seen like a shortcut to quicker material results, because we could never wait for volunteers learning how to do everything that's needed. Even if they would be eager to try. Sometimes they just cannot and we need paid stuff. I bet this is a point on which we all could converge, so I do believe that this is the perspective; so this is why I don't agree with this "hunt for professionals" which one could read in some of the posts above. We could perhaps plainly say that they are useful, in some cases we need them, but a literally extraordinary Movement of volunteers just cannot turn itself into a commercial firm like any other: we don't collectively think as a commercial operator, what's normal for firms not necessarily is good for us too, or appropriate. It's no heresy to talk about professionals; rest assured, i.e., that I wouldn't feel safe if legal stuff should be managed by a committee of volunteers spending 70% of their day in telling how much the law is wrong and how politics should go :-) It's no heresy; still, I wouldn't go crusading aloud for paid staff in the place in which the work of volunteers has smashed down the commercial system of paid encyclopedia writers, making it crumble with unprofessional volunteer small edits. We are famous for being volunteers; how the hell can we seriously propose such a turnaround and hope for a no-volunteer zone in our context? Hire the ones who are necessary, ok; but hire the ones who are needed, no more. Common sense; which is always much better than dogmatism. Common sense and a bit of wiki-feeling ;-) Imho :-) --g (talk) 22:04, 31 August 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • I have been the Wikimedia Foundation's representative for Wikimania for Wikimania DC, Wikimania HK, Wikimania London, and Wikimedia Mexico. Some clarity on the information provided. For these last four Wikimania's it has been a community event. The organizing team and the program committee have been managed by volunteers. Each organizing team decides what professionals they want to hire to support the organizing team in the work of hosting Wikimania. The Foundation supported the hiring of a event planner for Wikimania in DC and hired Ellie Young to support the organizing teams for Wikimania HK, Wikimania London and Wikimania Mexico and any additional paid staff they needed to be successful. In each case, Ellie and I worked with the local team to determine what support they needed to be successful and worked to provide that support. Each organizing teams ask for different types of support. Except for the venue change in Mexico, I made the decision to change the venue based on the information available to me and with the objective of not overburdening the local team, most of the key decisions are made by the volunteer program committee (Please talk to them if you feel the Wikimedia Foundation staff are over represented in presentations) and the local organizing team. I agree that the time has come for the community to have a conversation on what is the purpose and objective of Wikimania given the size of the event and the budget.--GByrd (WMF) (talk) 22:37, 1 September 2015 (UTC)[reply]
GByrd (WMF), the time has come, certainly, but it is too late for what will almost certainly get screwed up in Italy next year and it needs to start right now if problems are to be avoided for 2017. How many more annual experiments are needed before various organisers and WMF staff finally get it right? --Kudpung กุดผึ้ง (talk) 00:40, 2 September 2015 (UTC)[reply]
An OT about Italy: I'm not at all involved in the Committee, but I know them, and I also recently met the Mayor of Esino Lario, where the event will be. First of all, thank you for the expected failure some of you, once more, are talking about: this immediately makes everybody feel more comfortable, because whatever it might happen tomorrow, it certainly will be more and better than what those haruspices were able to foresee today, so thank you for this surprising opportunity and this early positive result :-)
Yes, it is an experiment. The thrill is that it is, for many reasons, an important experiment; I then hope you too you can share the thrill of the challenge, in Esino.
Actually, they are all working to let all the visitors (each and every visitor) enjoy at their best their stay and the event. The Mayor is a really positive and brilliant person, he more or less put the entire town in the hands of the Committee, so the town of Esino Lario will totally, entirely, and wholeheartedly work for the Wikimedians attending the event. And this is one of the not-monetary symbols of the event: the Wiki Movement inside the life of the town, in the streets of an everyday life, and the town wanting some Wiki in its life. Of course, you are not going to visit a bank, despite certain arguments I can read above; in Esino you will find the streets of a small village on a lakeshore, with no touristic premises, and this might seem rather "unprofessional", indeed. ClubMed's GMs are welcome, however, just the same.
I'm not at all involved in the Committee. Volunteers wanted this event, volunteers are working on it. Mostly volunteers. So, if any mistakes or troubles there will be, they'll be mine too, even if I'm not helping in that. If mistakes and troubles will be yours too, then we still are in Wikiland, and that's the good news of the day... --g (talk) 08:26, 2 September 2015 (UTC)[reply]
(PS: needless to say, I would say the same whatever the destination; I know something about this one because the whole Italian Community, and the Swiss too, are supporting it and wish that Wikimedians will be welcome as well as they deserve)
  • Thank you for sharing this helpful insight, Lane. I have no objection to having more paid staff doing the groundwork for Wikimania, as from my experiences, volunteers have often struggled to cope with the huge amount of work organising Wikimania involves. I had significant involvement in Wikimania 2014, and from what I saw, it was the combination of paid staff and volunteers that made the conference a general success – the absence of either could have changed the outcome significantly. I've also been part of the Scholarship Committee for three years, and I could certainly see merits in paid staff doing more of the groundwork there, as volunteers have sometimes struggled to cope. That said, I think Wikimania must be a community centred event – that's what makes Wikimania magical to me. Such magic is hard to put into words, but of the three Wikimanias I've attended (2011, 2014, and 2015), the first one had it very strongly, while 2014 had it a lot less, and 2015 even less still. Giving more speaking slots to volunteers would be a good start in getting that magic back. As for Esino Lario, the radically different approach of this Wikimania gives good reasons to believe that it could be very magical, but nevertheless, critical commentary has been made for good reasons. CT Cooper · talk 06:46, 4 September 2015 (UTC)[reply]


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