Choice of small village for Wikimania 2016 ruffles feathers
, an Italian community about a hour outside Milan and the jury's choice to host Wikimania 2016.
Esino Lario—a mountainous village of some 750 people in northern Italy—was selected to host Wikimania 2016. However, volunteers and others have since brought up a host of concerns that raise serious questions about the town's suitability for hosting such a large conference.
Wikimania is one of two annual international events held annually by the Wikimedia movement. Each Wikimania site is selected by a jury, a temporary group that assembles each year to review bids and recommend a host to the WMF Board. The jury is composed of six volunteer editors and WMF conference coordinator Ellie Young, who is a voting member. Of the volunteers, four are from Europe, one is from South America, and one is from Australia. Of six original bids for Wikimania 2016, four were disqualified by the jury, leaving just Manila, the capital city of the Philippines, and Esino Lario.
The town hall in Esino Lario, one of the locations for proceedings of the 2016 Wikimania
In January, the jury announced it had selected Esino Lario as conference host. The decision is subject to approval by the WMF Board, although this fact is difficult to discern from the jury's timeline, which has it that "by the end of 2014 ... jury decision made; announcement of host city to bidders and public", and of the statement at the time by Ellie Young that: "On the recommendation of the Wikimania 2016 selection Jury Committee, we have accepted the proposal from the Esino Lario Italy team." No jury decision has ever been overturned by the Board, which Young told the Signpost is due to examine the recommendation in May, after her site visit that month. Nevertheless, she did express some potential concerns with the bid, which will be directly funded by the WMF with some US$350,000—a basic grant comparable to the 2010 and 2012 Wikimanias. Young has refused to issue further comments either to the Signpost or concerned editors, instead requesting patience for the WMF to complete its site visits.
In the past, the conference has not been without controversy, highlighted by the repeated failure of the Hong Kong organisers of the 2013 event to produce a financial statement, raising still-unresolved questions of financial probity. This failure occurred despite an upbeat announcement by the volunteer jury 18 months before that they had selected Hong Kong's bid over four other proposals. Although the 2016 jury's decision initially received accolades in the community and from several WMF staffers, there were glimmers of doubt almost immediately on the Wikimedia mailing list ("sounds just a little bit crazy"; "Northern Italian village of 775 people for a conference of 1,000. ... So where are people gonna sleep?".)
The ensuing discussion, particularly on the Wikimania Facebook group page, raised serious questions about the site. Andrew Lih (Fuzheado) wrote: "If you have not read the proposal, I encourage you to digest the "Accomodation" section, which makes this unlike any Wikimania you've ever seen before", and for his trouble was told to "nut up and be a little adventurous". Stuart Prior (Battleofalma), a jury member, wrote that he had seen a "demand to get 'back to Frankfurt' and have a more low key event after the recent Wikimania dynamic of 'bigger = better'."
Esino Lario's railway station
A strong theme in the commentary related to Esino Lario's deficiencies in accessibility and facilities. Alison Wheeler, who identified herself on Facebook as an individual with a disability that sometimes precludes her from walking, expressed outrage that inaccessibility had not been a dealbreaker: "How would you feel if a location said 'nobody over 30', 'vegans only', 'no gay people', or 'no jews'? Full access should be an automatic given not 'something nice to have'," she wrote. "Anything which prevents full access to the event by all who want to attend is not acceptable in this day and age. There can be no justification for allowing an event which enforces this discrimination." In regards to the accessibility concerns, jury member Richard Symonds (Chase me ladies, I'm the Cavalry) wrote, just before a lengthy examination into the Philippines' mental health care system, "Although Esino Lario poses some problems for those with physical disabilities, the Philippines poses huge problems for those with mental disabilities, and serious problems for those with physical ones".
Members of the jury indicated in an email to the Signpost that Esino Lario had scored 116 to the Philippines' 109, out of a possible 140. The jury mentioned specific strengths of the Esino Lario bid as "personal safety of attendees, attractive meeting spaces, and the overall strength of the bid team." These strengths outweighed any concerns over the fact that most attendees will need to be accommodated in hotels up to 40 minutes away from the town by bus, or that the small, separated hotels would disrupt any plans outside of the conference itself.
Josh Lim (Sky Harbor), a member of the Manila bid team, challenged much of the jury's analysis. While conceding that Manila is not a perfect city for the disabled, he wrote that "to claim that a major convention center in a major city is not accessible is preposterous."
"Esino Lario is not ideal, but it is better than Manila."
– Richard Symonds, Wikimania 2016 jury member
(email to the Signpost)
Additional concerns were raised on Facebook by Christopher Cooper (CT Cooper) concerning the planned use of $55,000 in WMF funds to subsidize internet and electricity development in a first-world town, without which it would be ill-equipped for an event such as Wikimania. Young told the Signpost that "it has been made clear that no WMF funds will be used to upgrade any infrastructure in Esino Lario—only sponsor's money may be used for this purpose."
However, the Signpost viewed a subsequent email from Young to Cooper that states: "Regarding the significant amounts of money to upgrade the communications, the ES team is applying for grants to subsidize and/or cover this. We should know more in the next couple of months. WMF is going to need assurances that we won't be spending more than what is requested, while still providing all the benefits and services that we normally offer at Wikimania." It is possible that organizers may apply for additional Wikimedia donors' funds through the WMF's PEG funding scheme, on top of the $350,000 operating grant, although a later email from Young denied that this would be the case.
We asked davidwilliam97, an English Wikipedian with networking expertise, to comment on the networking issues raised by the bid. He was first concerned about the lack of specifications in the bid, and the absence of details about undertakings by the named contractor Telecom Italia, which he noted has $34 billion in debt and whose Brazilian operation was involved in a 2012 consumer lawsuit (in Portuguese). Dave questioned "their track-record in deploying internet solutions to events", and referring to the schematic of the network topology, he said: "a mesh topology means they’ll probably have wireless access points scattered around. It's very odd that the hackathon is shown as on the end of a point-to-point link, not the wired links to venues 2, 3, 6, and 7." He had a number of other queries: "How much would the university in Milan charge to house the hackathon if the installed network is unsatisfactory for its needs, and would it be possible to arrange this in time? Was the $55K a formal written quote or just what some engineer told them in conversation? The bid says: 'the Telecom site-visit and check will allow to select the most appropriate and efficient solution'—has it been done yet? Would there be connectivity in the distant hotels?"
The Esino Lario bid's schematic of the proposed $55,000 network topology to be installed in the town
Although the bid claims that one advantage of Wikimania would be "The structures improved for the conference are used after the conference”, we asked Dave what could be taken back by the WMF: "the server, the UPS, wireless radio equipment, router, 24-port unmanaged switch, and the cable (but the last is probably not worth taking back) ... that’s it." The jury told the Signpost that "the benefits of delivering a successful conference as well as the impact and legacy for the local community were considered important enough to justify the expenditure. The technical requirements were independently verified by community members with expert knowledge, the bid team also has within it expert knowledge, and the jury has within it former Wikimania organisers who are all too aware of how important these issues are and how potential problems will unfold." On the prospects for recovering some of the hardware, they said: "Our understanding is that the majority of items are recoverable, however, the details of any cost-recovery in terms of equipment, especially at this early stage in planning, are too granular for the jury to consider in more detail."
Christopher Cooper wrote to Ellie Young on 9 February questioning the choice of Esino Lario on a number of grounds, and privately circulated copies of the email, which pushed up the temperature of the Facebook discussion. One jury member, for example, accused him of making "passive aggressive comments about our opinions". Cooper then published the email onwiki, and included a further email he sent to Young on 12 February.
Cooper told the Signpost on the phone that: "I was hoping the issues I raised would be resolved, but the events of the past few days have made me rethink that. ... Some members of the jury seemed to see themselves as the final arbiters, treating the Board like "a rubber stamp". He suggested that the jury was faced with two unsatisfactory bids, and that rather than an Esino Lario vs Manilla competition, it might have been handled differently. The Signpost also spoke with Richard Symonds and Stuart Prior by phone (both are employees of Wikimedia UK). Concerning the notion that they had to decide between two bad bids, they were unwilling to comment without seeking input from the other jury members.
The jury subsequently wrote to us that it "was unanimous in its support for the Esino Lario bid and there were a few deciding factors:"
||The Esino Lario bid had been in development for longer, which meant that the team had had more time to think about problems and propose solutions, relationships had been well established with potential sponsors and partners, and crucially it demonstrated strong commitment to the project that after 2.5 years, and one rejection, they were still dedicated to making it happen. The bid team had established a wide range of support and cooperation across movement organisations and also demonstrated a very strong combined experience and knowledge between them. Additionally, the bid was very focused on legacy and the momentum that Wikimania could generate to deliver lasting impact in the region and for the regional languages. ... We must add that the jury’s decision isn’t the final word, and further due diligence in terms of financial and practical considerations will be conducted by the Foundation, but we feel that we made a fair assessment of the bids and chose the strongest one and a final decision from the Foundation will be made later this Spring.
- Editor's note: As a result of email exchanges, the Signpost is now aware that the organizers are progressing in their connectivity plans (2 May 2015).
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