2014 Wikimedia Conference—what is the impact?
The group photograph: as always a potent symbol of the movement's potential for international collaboration.
The annual Wikimedia Conference wound up last Sunday, 13 April—a four-day meeting costing several hundred thousand dollars, hosted in Berlin by Wikimedia Germany and attended by more than 100 Wikimedians. They included some 80 chapter volunteers and staff (eight from WMUK alone), one from the new thematic organisation, Amical Wikimedia, 11 from user groups (including the new Wikimedia Nepal and Brazil Community group), six WMF trustees, 14 WMF staff, nine members of the FDC and AffCom, and nine others.
Almost all of the nearly 40 sessions are documented on Meta; they varied between tightly conceived and delivered presentations on specialised themes, and group brainstorming that appeared to yield few tangible outcomes. Since only a small minority of affiliated organisation members were able to attend the conference, the documentation of proceedings has the potential to make the key messages widely accessible to those who might benefit. The Signpost scrutinised the quality and content of the notes, and assessed the potential for such a conference to make conceptual progress and improve knowledge and skills in the movement in line with the WMF's priorities.
Grantmaking and funding
The notes for the first of four sessions devoted to grantmaking and funding—Demystifying the FDC—suggest that some of the session was taken up by basic structural and procedural explanations that would have been more efficiently conveyed by proper communication between affiliates and the WMF's grantmaking resources, with better textual infrastructure in a number of languages. The summary states that the Funds Dissemination Committee process is becoming more familiar to applicants, but that there are still problems regarding both community input to the proposals and language barriers (perhaps the FDC remains a mystery to some). There were understandable queries as to why the WMF has submitted a proposal to the current FDC round, given that the submission is for comment only, not a funding bid (comments still open).
The opening session, held in an awkwardly oblong room
Wikimedia Germany's Nicole Ebber at the Conference: she played a key role in organising the event, for which the chapter received strong praise.
"Stop", "start", and "keep": coloured stickers represent suggestions on the FDC process.
Chapters dialogue session 1
A second session on the grantmaking process invited and received feedback on the FDC in advance, and sorted it into three categories—"stop", "start", and "keep"; but it is not easy to make sense of many of the proposals that appear in the documentation. The summary statement "there was no further (broad) discussion" suggests that this session functioned rather as a clearing house of disparate ideas, without shaping them into a set of cohesive (or even competing) strategies for reform. At a third session on grant programs offered by chapters, Polish and Swiss participants explained a few of their own experiences. Asaf Bartov, head of WMF grants and global south partnerships, pointed out that although applicants for such funding don't like filling out forms and writing reports, these are the only ways to achieve transparency, sustainability, and to learn lessons; in other words, "Hard questions need to be part of the decision making process".
At Diversifying fundraising models and sources, South African, Indonesian, and Estonian speakers discussed the pros and cons of external funding, including the administrative burdens and potential for influence by third parties. Kaarel Vaidla from Estonia observed that "government is good for core-funding but they like to play political football with you"; but just how this might be translated into general advice or protocols for WMF affiliate organisations was unclear.
The page on Strategy processes in Wikimedia organisations is marked "actually, difficult to summarize". No fewer than 13 questions were posed, some of them of such enormous sweep as to defy corralling ("How do we collaborate across chapters, etc?"; "How do you make use of external consultants?"—no answers or responses were recorded). This suggests the need for narrower thematic targeting if discussion is to get anywhere. It is difficult to extract useful lessons from much of the official documentation of the meeting ("WMF aims get parted in strategic objects."; "Lessons: impact methods is highlighted; need for tools; challenges.").
Chapters dialogue and "re-imagining" the movement
Green stickers: six big questions
Three sessions were devoted to this project, but despite the good-faith efforts of Wikimedia Germany staff to forge more meaningful communication and collaboration among chapters, the chapter itself expressed doubt
as to future directions, and whether it "has the mandate" to find or implement possible solutions in such a project. Again, a model of opening with a very big picture ("six big questions"
) yielded only vague wish-lists, hunches, and prognostications of the medium- and long-term outlooks for the movement ("People will be nicer, much more depth of trust, more consensus about approaches"; "more innovative", "more chapters", "edit wars, but no real wars"). The method of having participants gather around tables to discuss a topic, and after a time for people to circle to next table and see what people there have found out—could well have introduced some Wikimedians to each other, but beyond this seems to have achieved little but sticker-boards of vague, undigested fragments.
The subsequent Re-imagine Wikimedia movement session was a brave attempt to bring together these disparate fragments, again with the different-tables technique. The documented summary began: "Actually, hard to summarize", and finished with exasperated good humour. As WMF trustee Phoebe Ayers said: "It's a little easier often to imagine what a very good Wikipedia would look like. It's a little harder to imagine what a very good [Wikimedia] will look like, but that's what we need to do."
More focused themes
The conflict-of-interest workshop
A series of sessions with more targeted purposes appeared to be on a better footing, although there was often a sense of deja vu, given that previous international meetings of the movement have treated the same or similar issues. Some of these sessions also showed just how much the movement needs to agree on and publish detailed textual infrastructure of professionally reviewed advice, coupled with a culture of seeking and offering guidance by phone and email. But as often as not, these presentations and discussions revealed widespread disparities in attitudes and outcomes without forming any basis for permanent, cohesive online help for affiliates. The write-up of Hiring staff
does point to the barest beginnings of this kind of approach, egregiously inadequate as it still is, although the few interesting fact-morsels were swamped by "big questions", no answers, and truisms.
Conflict of interest, run by Asaf Bartov and the WMF legal team's Stephen LaPorte, might have been a soul-searching sequence of morally challenging and borderline ethical scenarios—putting participants in awkward psychological spaces in a dynamic learning experience, laced with anecdotes real or confabulated. This would always be hard to convey in the documentation, which nevertheless shows signs of a well-thought-out approach. Like this session, Programmatic evaluation could have benefited from online streaming and edited uploading to YouTube—one participant told the Signpost that "simple streaming is now quite cheap and easy: Android phone + Internet + Ustream app". But if the take-home message for those who attended Programmatic evaluation is contained within the write-ups on Meta, it's hard to know the extent to which attendees left with tools sharpened for application to their next project, as opposed to merely a new theoretical perspective.
Among the more strategically technical topics was Lessons learned in huge projects: Wikidata, presented by Wikimedia Germany's Lydia Pintscher and Abraham Taherivand. Their message was to take your time in finding the right employees for your software team; diversity is a huge advantage in a software team; and work with them in single, integrated office.
Meet the Board of Trustees
The meeting touched on the following points: The process of developing future strategy won't start before the new executive director is announced, expected by the end of May; the whole community, explicitly the affiliates as well, will be included in this developmental process. On the technology side, Wikidata and Etherpad integration will be the next steps, according to Sam Klein, possibly with more emphasis on local development teams. Alice is unsure about the difficult role of the chapter/affiliate-selected board seats: they don't necessarily represent the affiliates, and she would like to have a space for sharing and developing policy ideas and resolutions.
There is no doubt that a Wikimedia conference presents huge challenges for whoever is organising it. The final session, Future of the Wikimedia Conference, roundly thanked the Wikimedia Germany organisers and volunteers who had made the event possible. It was generally agreed that the program was much better than before, and that accommodating all attendees in one hotel was a good idea (the organisation even included an efficient and well-designed online feedback form for participants). Asaf Bartov announced: "This year's program teams did a really good job, pushing, asking for the input." But on a critical note, Bartov is documented as telling participants:
||What we can do better is preparation. Not only speakers (they were better prepared than the last year's), but also the attendees. They should know more than only the title and have an idea on what to achieve. ... I think this conference is meant to be a working conference instead of a community gathering. To achieve that you need topics, on which people should work on to have a worky work group conference. Historically, some WMCONs basically discussed non-problems. The key for the conference is to find the right topics and problems.
Vladimir Medeyko, from Wikimedia Russia, was one of the conference participants. He told the Signpost that "technically this year the conference was the best-organized, [although] it is perhaps true that each year the Wikimedia Conferences generate less benefits than earlier", citing the sheer complexity of the movement as a problem for these events. "Of course it generates some understanding, some ideas, some new ways to go." Reflecting his specific technical orientation, the strongest event for him was Software development as a new opportunity for chapters.
Perhaps the challenges ahead for such conferences lie in working out how to prompt meaningful, cohesive discussion that goes beyond mere airing of questions and points, and in developing clear ways in which the results can be drawn together into strategies and recommendations. Oddly, despite the large array of topics, three of the WMF's key priorities—the global south, the startlingly persistent gender disparity, and editor retention in the WMF projects—were not mentioned.
The FDC feedback session on day 2