Looking back on a year of incremental changes
2012 in review
A video about one new feature launched in 2012 (Special:NewPagesFeed
and its associated page curation toolbar) displayed using another (the TimedMediaHandler).
In the first of two features, the Signpost this week looks back on 2012, a year when developers finally made inroads into three issues that had been put off for far too long (the need for editors to learn wiki-markup, the lack of a proper template language and the centralisation of data) but left all three projects far from finished.
The overall result was a year of numerous incremental changes (including Special:NewPagesFeed, new diff colours, MathJax support, high-resolution images, database dump mirroring) but few genuinely watershed moments. One exception, however, was the switchover in version control system from Subversion to Git in March. For a complex transition, the switch was made relatively easily and more-or-less on schedule, although the top-down nature of it – and in particular the choice of code review tool Gerrit – continues to rankle with some developers even now. The possibility of entrenching a division between staff and volunteer-written code, highlighted in last year's annual review, was successfully avoided, though the presence of a de facto distinction – first established by a Signpost investigation in September – is an ongoing concern likely to remain on the agenda for most if not all of 2013.
Other big gainers included Wikipedia Zero, the Wikimedia Foundation's drive to make a (sometimes text-only) version of its flagship project available for free on internet-enabled handsets across the developing world, which went from strength to strength over the course. Despite only being in development this time last year, quarter of a billion people are now estimated to have free access under the system, with more than a dozen further partnerships already agreed. An Android app was also released in 2012, and the predicted mobile web upload facility is now in development, building on continuing from the success of a "Wiki Loves Monuments" app that included similar functionality. A mobile editing interface, scheduled for March, was not so lucky. As forecast, support for accessing Wikipedia via SMS/USSD has now been implemented, though it is yet to go live.
There were low points too, both technical and social. Downtime was not as rare as the Wikimedia Operations team would have liked, while untested (or insufficiently tested) code, deployed live, caused problems on a similar scale. The fine line between constructive criticism and personal attacks, particularly in the context of top-down decisions, remained well trodden, not least in the context of the rise of Wikimedia Labs at the expense of the independently-run (but not financed) Toolserver.
On a more positive note, the TimedMediaHandler extension (improving MediaWiki's handling of video files) was finally deployed to Wikimedia wikis following a drawn out development process few would wish to emulate. Only time will tell whether the lessons learned will ensure the Lua coding, VisualEditor and Wikidata projects – now 15, 13 and 9 months old respectively – can reach the same end any quicker; but more on that next week, when the Signpost looks forward to what 2013 may have in store for Wikimedia wikis and MediaWiki more generally.
Not all fixes may have gone live to WMF sites at the time of writing; some may not be scheduled to go live for several weeks.
- Tor be or not Tor be: developers consider the problems of anonymised editing: Trying to provide a fuller service to users of anonymity network Tor may be "aiming too high", wrote one contributor to a thread on the mailing list this week. Tor, a controversial system for anonymously accessing the web, is popular among citizens of countries such as China, Burma and Iran as a means of safely evading tight censorship controls, but can also be easily manipulated by repeat vandals to evade blocks. Differentiating between the two is at present virtually impossible, with users blocked from editing unless they can prove their good intentions – something which is impossible if they have no other way of editing. Although some incremental improvements were proposed to the process of blocking Tor users, most obviously in the literature provided, it is unclear whether there is any way of allowing editing whilst also preventing abuse.
- Translate extension getting facelift: The Translate extension, which helps users translate (among other things) MediaWiki interface messages is benefiting from a WMF-led visual overhaul, WMF Software Engineer Amir E. Aharoni writes on the Wikimedia blog. The facelift is intended to make it easier to translate new messages, as well as allowing the host wiki (translatewiki.net for MediaWiki interface messages) to surface statistics about which messages out of a batch users struggle to translate.
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