News and notes
Wikimedia Foundation's new plans announced
Executive director Sue Gardner ... her last annual plan before leaving the WMF shows foresight, strategic robustness, and a willingness to adapt to changing technological and social environments.
Last week the Wikimedia Foundation released its annual plan for July 2013 to June 2014. It provides a surprisingly frank view—of past achievements and failures, and future goals and risks—that could be afforded only by a non-profit that is confident and beholden to no commercial or political interests.
The document sets out the blueprint for how the Foundation intends to evolve during the coming fiscal year—the fourth in the five-year strategic plan it launched in 2010. In backgrounding the 2013–14 plan, the document describes progress over the past two years. In 2011–12, the WMF was "capacity-building, conducting research and analysis, and experimenting". Last year this shifted into an "execution phase", building on the introduction of the strategy of "narrowing focus", developed and introduced by the Board of Trustees and executive director Sue Gardner a year ago. The key aspects of this new strategy are a primary focus on product development and engineering, and on grantmaking; it involves a willingness to "shut down or deprioritise" areas deemed not to be supporting these areas.
The document admits that the 2015 targets were "audacious guesswork" and will not be achieved, although progress towards them has been "steady and real" in the key indicators of site uptime, site performance, time-to-rollout, number of readers, and number of articles. The disappointment continues to be the number of editors, which has proven to be "our most difficult challenge", but the claim is made that there is "a good outlook for materially impacting the overall size and diversity of Wikimedia's community in the year ahead".
2012–13: what has been achieved?
There have been significant advances. VisualEditor is now under trial as an option on the English Wikipedia, despite (perhaps in anticipation of) the wave of technical complaints from the editing community. Mobile readership is growing strongly, with improvements to the user experience. Wikipedia Zero, while "a tougher slog than anticipated", is on track to give half a billion people mobile access to free downloads from WMF sites, although page-view results are as yet less impressive. In a move towards financial transparency, the grantmaking program has been re-organised and expanded with the creation of the FDC. The travel project Wikivoyage was brought under the WMF umbrella as the first new type of content project since 2006. A framework for providing legal assistance to editors in certain circumstances was developed and implemented.
Financially, the WMF has finished the year "in excellent shape". A two-part fundraiser that experimented with the rationing of page banners has enabled important refinements. Revenue rose not by the expected 32% from the previous fiscal year, but by a notable 46%. Spending was slightly under-budget. Staffing has increased by 40% to 167, again slightly less than predicted.
2013–14: what does the next year hold?
The Foundation's most substantial change slated for 2013–14 is the split of the Product and Engineering Division into two departments. The move will allow the current head, Erik Möller, to devote his time solely to product-related concerns, while a second head will represent and deal with engineering issues. The move will come with a bump in funding from US$15.3M to $21M, and in staffing; the Foundation believes "this will enable our core engineering projects to launch more quickly and at a higher level of quality". There will be further investments in achieving high standards of evaluation in grantmaking. Emphasis on good governance comes after a number of issues in chapters over the past year, most notably the Gibraltarpedia scandal, which prompted "significant negative international press and required substantial Wikimedia Foundation managerial, legal, governance, and media relations resources to handle."
Of interest to the editing community will be the planned system-level improvements. There will be continual improvements to VisualEditor, which is seen as a key way of attracting more editors into the online projects. As this becomes a robust and stable default editing environment, the WMF will shift its attention to "a new frontier: real-time collaboration and chat. Collaborative editing environments (Google Docs, Etherpad, etc.) have proven that this combination is very powerful. In the Wikimedia context this will help address edit conflicts and inefficient collaboration on articles that receive attention from multiple users at the same time. It will also create wholly new opportunities for engagement and mentoring." Discussion systems will be modernised with Flow, a technically complex task for engineers, for which the urgency is underlined in the plan: "existing discussion systems and ad-hoc page/template-based workflows represent a critical barrier to contribution for new contributors". However, there is a note of caution—Flow is not expected to be available on all talk-based workflows by June 2014.
The Foundation's revenue is projected to decline slightly over the next year, from $50.9M to $50.1M. Spending, on the other hand, will surge by 30%, from $38.5M to $50.1M. The ambitious increase is on top of the 33% spending increase in 2012–13, though the plan takes care to note that it will be three percentage points lower than last year’s increase. Because $5M was added to the WMF's reserve in 2012–13, no additional funds will be allocated to it. While more revenue could be collected if needed, the WMF believes "this target reflects an appropriate balance between funding growth while minimizing [banner] annoyance to the readers of the projects." The Signpost asked chief revenue officer Zack Exley why the costs of fundraising will increase by some 35% (up by $1.2M to $4.6M) while the funds to be raised are projected to fall by 1.6%, but did not receive a reply.
Among the extensive treatment of "Risks considered in developing the 2013–14 plan" were developments of similar themes published in last year's plan. However, one notable new theme was that "Grantmaking may not prove to be an effective way of achieving programmatic impact." The WMF sees two major challenges: "as a movement we don't currently have a solid understanding of what programmatic impact looks like and how it can be achieved, [and] the movement seems to be on a path of rapidly creating incorporated, professionally staffed entities, and it is not clear whether that is the best path towards achieving programmatic impact." The response will involve the creation of a Program Evaluation and Design team, "to facilitate conversations among program leaders ... to identify and document best practices and expertise ...".
The Signpost talks to WMF staff
Erik Möller, head of Product and Engineering, which will be split in the coming year.
It is only natural that a summary of a new plan should raise complex issues. The Signpost
asked three WMF staff members for clarification on significant matters.
Of immediate interest to the editing community is the performance of the Product and Engineering Division, which holds the key to adapting the MediaWiki software and other functionalities that affect our daily lives and, ultimately, the experience of readers in about 20 billion page views a month. The annual plan allocates considerable space to discussing the risks posed by the Silicon Valley shortage: the WMF, it states, "faces a risk of not being able to hire the key engineers, designers, product managers, and other staff needed to deliver on this plan."
The Division's budget—which pays for salaries and associated travel, server and equipment purchases, hosting costs, and external contract services—will increase from $15.3M to $21.0M, up by 37%. We asked Erik Möller, VP of the Division, to what extent will this increase go towards higher salaries—either generally to existing staff in the department, or to new hires. In asking this, we put to him an observation sometimes made that WMF engineers are not well paid by industry standards. He disagreed with this observation:
"By non-profit standards, the Wikimedia Foundation offers salaries in the top quartile. By for-profit standards, the Wikimedia Foundation offers base salaries in the 50th percentile of Bay Area tech [employee] compensation ... Clearly, we are not going to win a bidding war with a multi-billion dollar tech company—but then again, they don't tend to have as awesome a mission as we do, and you may have to talk to a lawyer if you want to release code [you write for a for-profit] as open source. / ... our personnel costs do increase every year, accounting for cost-of-living, merit-based pay, and fairness adjustments (e.g. bringing folks who've been hired early at a lower base salary gradually to the level of more recent hires). In addition, we offer generous [health insurance and retirement] benefits plan ..."
Erik Möller's point about "fairness adjustments" does imply a recognition by the WMF that salaries have had to be adjusted upwards since the crisis hit in 2010. He further cited the increased flexibility for engineers, particularly in terms of working outside San Francisco, and a host of non-salary "strategies to attract engineering talent", detailed in the "Risks" section of the annual plan.
LiAnna Davis, speaking at the Wikipedia in Higher Education Summit
in July 2011
The annual report says the education program team will "work closely with volunteers and educators in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia on driving impact in this high-potential region". This appears to be a particularly challenging area, where there are no WMF affiliates such as chapters, and there are major cultural, gender, and logistical problems.
We asked LiAnna Davis, communications manager of the Wikipedia Education Program, who will it recruit as "volunteers and educators"? She pointed out that the education program already exists in these four countries. The approach has been "to work with mission-aligned university professors who are already interested in Wikipedia as a teaching tool as small pilots. Drs Nidal Yousef (Jordan), Fareh Abdelhak (Algeria), and Mohammed Alghbban and Sami Ben Salamh (Saudi Arabia) have partnered with us this last term." In Algeria, LiAnna said, Dr Fareh is very involved with the free software movement, ... and his students last term added an impressive 1.6 million bytes of content to the Arabic Wikipedia; "in other words, one class in Algeria added nearly the same amount content to the Arabic Wikipedia as seven classes did in the Cairo pilot." Independent programs in Saudi had been in progress, and Drs Sami and Mohammed, who run the Wikipedia Arabic Translation Project, sponsored by their university, "simply joined forces with us. Last year they created a Wikipedia Training Center for Translation on campus. Both professors joined the Education Workshop in Milan at the chapters meeting, "so they've also had the opportunity to collaborate with others in our movement."
Anasuya Sengupta, senior director of grantmaking
Oxford MPhil and former Rhodes Scholar Anasuya Sengupta was recruited to the key role of senior director of grantmaking just one year ago. We first expressed surprise to her that the annual plan revealed grantmaking overheads to be projected at 28% in the coming year, almost twice the rate as for other foundations that engage regularly in international grantmaking. She pointed out that the number itself, for all grantmaking agencies, depends very much on the way it is calculated. (It does seem that the Foundation might have used different methods of calculation, given its unique circumstances and the decision to exclude from the calculations the WMF's bid for nearly half of the FDC's funding.)
What is clear is that individual grants are administratively expensive, and that the FDC is still at an early stage of development and involves intensive face-to-face interactions: "very few international foundations give individual grants, which are highly resource-intensive (of the 89 grants we gave over 2012–13, 43 were grants to individuals for projects, events and travel)." In addition, there is the start-up cost of "investing in an open-source back-end grants management software (capital expenditure), and the addition of two staff positions for grants and governance."
Anasuya Sengupta said that "some US-based public foundations that give out 8–10 million dollars in international grants, have at least 70 staff engaged in the process", compared with the 10 staff doing so at the WMF. She emphasised that WMF grantmaking is central to "implementing a Global South strategy, facilitating conversations on the Gender Gap, and doing research, learning and evaluation that supports all of these processes. That makes us pretty effective and efficient, I think. We are committed, nonetheless, to keeping a close watch on our costs relative to our expenditures, and reporting back to the community regularly."
A new strategy for addressing issues surrounding the global south (currently 5% of grantmaking) and the 90–10 gender gap will be to focus on selected geographies and languages with high potential and by encouraging the increased participation of female contributors, at least partly through grantmaking. We asked whether grantmaking will explicitly favour these agendas. Not favouring, but soliciting, Sengupta responded: "All our grantmaking programs evaluate grant proposals strictly on their merits, and will continue to do so." However, the WMF will be reaching out, "proactively encouraging such proposals to be submitted in the first place. ... a proposal that actually addresses the gender gap [will be rated higher], all other things being equal, than one that doesn't." She emphasised that this will also apply to the focus on selected geographies and languages of the global south, but that all grant applications must "stand competitively alongside others in our global processes", and that feedback from communities will be important in developing these strategies. "To offer our readers the sum total of all human knowledge, we need to strengthen the presence and active participation of women contributors and global South communities."
In view of the increased attention to language translation (one extra dedicated employee in 2013–14), we took the opportunity to ask Garfield Byrd, chief of finance and administration, whether the Foundation is prepared to commit resources to the prompt and accurate translation of the annual plan itself (or key parts of it) into other languages. He stated: "I am hoping that some key parts of the annual plan can be translated and the Foundation is prepared to commit resources to this task."
- World's largest encyclopedia meets the world’s largest medical library: Following the Signpost's story on the English Wikipedia's medical collaborations two weeks ago, a National Institutes of Health blog post published this week focused attention on the ongoing collaborations between WikiProject Medicine and the institutes' PubMed initiative.
- New chapter affiliate: By resolution of the Foundation's Board of Trustees, Wikimedia Uruguay is now a fully fledged chapter affiliate. The chapters are legally independent organizations set up to promote the interests of the Wikimedia movement on a local basis; as such, nearly all of them operate within and are separated by the borders of different nation-states.
- Engineering report: The June Wikimedia engineering report has been published on Meta.
- Wikivoyage logo: Submissions for the new Wikivoyage logo are still being accepted on Meta.
- Controversial topics: Gawker has published a list of the ten most controversial topics on Wikipedia, gleaned from a study where Taha Yasseri and a team of researchers defined controversiality by "summing the weights of all mutually reverting editor pairs, excluding the topmost pair, and multiplying this number by the total number of editors involved in the article." On the list are many articles long-time Wikipedians will recognize: at the top is George W. Bush, while among the most unusual is "List of World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. employees" (most likely List of WWE personnel).
- Most interesting article lead: Foreign Policy's Passport blog asked its readers if the lead section of Adrian Carton de Wiart was the "most interesting opening paragraph Wikipedia's ever published?" Wiart fought in three wars, where he was "shot in the face, head, stomach, ankle, leg, hip and ear, survived a plane crash, tunneled out of a POW camp, and bit off his own fingers when a doctor wouldn't amputate them." Reportedly, Wiart later said of his experiences: "frankly I had enjoyed the war."