"... and one giant leap for Wikipedia."
Mixed reactions to Wikipedia's lunar time-capsule
It looks like a joke; it smells like a joke; but it's not a joke. Since late on Thursday 21 April, editors have been confronted with a large banner at the top of Wikipedia pages: "Let's take Wikipedia to the Moon!". Click and you arrive on a page at Meta that explains how a team called Part-Time Scientists in Berlin plans to send a custom-built rover nearly 400,000 kilometres to the Moon next year, where it will crawl at least 500 metres across the lunar landscape and transmit high-definition video and images back to Earth. The rover is being developed jointly by Part-Time Scientists and the German auto manufacturer Audi, with a verified launch contract required by the end of this year and the mission planned for the last quarter of 2017. Under an arrangement with the German Wikimedia chapter, the rover will carry a 20-gigabyte disk of information from Wikipedia—an other-worldly time-capsule, as it were, planted by a simian species about 4.5 billion years after its planet formed.
It's all part of the Google Lunar X Prize challenge, organised by the non-profit X Prize Foundation, which designs and manages public competitions to encourage technological developments for the public good. The Lunar X Prize is open to any private team in the world, with a first prize of US$20M, second prize of $5M, and a further $5M in other prizes. The English Wikipedia's article on the Prize lists 28 teams whose craft status is under development, of which two, from the US and Israel, already have their launch under contract. However, only five teams are now eligible to compete in the competition, including the Part-Time Scientists–Audi bid, which has already been awarded smaller prizes for mobility and imaging.
The X Prize official website links to a mini-documentary about the participation of the Part-Time Scientists (6 min, 34 s). Shortly after the documentary begins, team leader Robert Böhme announces: "I'm totally unqualified for doing any kind of Moon missions, but you know, that doesn't keep me from doing it." The team comprises a game developer, an electronics specialist / space geek, a maker of dentistry tools, and Arnon, "the brain of our team". One of their scientific objectives is to visit a location on the Moon in which materials have been discarded from earlier visits up to 40 years ago and since exposed to extreme conditions. What lasts, what works, and what doesn't?
The team was able to benefit from downloading the huge amount of scientific data that NASA has made available on its website. This resonates with the driving force behind the project, which Böhme says is "the free exchange of information, the willingness to share", which rests on the ability of a group of disparate engineers and scientists to come together and collaborate across disciplinary boundaries to solve problems. "Part-Time Scientists would not exist without open source", he says.
A technical and logistical issue is that the 20-gigabyte limit gives barely enough space to store one language Wikipedia among the almost 300 Wikipedias. Wikimedia Germany has approached this by throwing open the issue for community discussion as to how to ration the information. There are many possible scenarios, some of them outlined on a dedicated and rather complicated page that will itself present challenges in extracting a cohesive whole.
Thus far, input on the general talkpage has been mixed. Occasional comments show enthusiasm; a few editors have pointed to a public-relations value that could attract more participants in WMF projects; and there has been some debate about the type of disk and its capacity, and the reliability of storage. However, there are numerous negative comments, from the sarcastic to the vitriolic, such as:
- "I don't care how smart [the aliens who find it] are; I just want to tell them about Homestuck."
- "Who on the moon needs a copy of the Wikipedia? Invest your time & energy better in quality assurance of the existing articles."
- "Let's concentrate to work on earth and for the people living here! Stop this madness as fast as possible."
- "... this is a bad idea. It's a publicity stunt, one that makes no sense ..."
- "Don't we litter enough on our own planet?"
- "Perhaps I should start a campaign to send Jimbo Wales into space"
- "Waste of time and waste of money"
- "it is just nonsense"
- "'Let's take Wikipedia to the moon' should not be on every fucking page at Wikipedia ..."
- "put a Wikipedia-dump on a SD-card and throw it into your garden. It [is] more likely to be found"
- "Idea: Send to the moon articles about ... garage bands, bus stops in the Czech republic, asteroids orbiting Pluto and a few other 'select' articles. And leave them there."
- "... this is one of the [most] ridiculous ideas I have ever heard of. Why waste so much of time and effort?"
- "It's so annoying every time I open WP to have to look at this stupid publicity stunt."
- "Why are we doing this?!!!!"
- "It is a ridiculous, stupid, stupid, idea."
- "This is dumb. ... sending a copy of Wikipedia to the moon, where it will be quickly forgotten and lie undisturbed until the sun becomes a red giant, is dumb. Having a politically correct argument about which languages to include is even dumber. Get a life."
Martin Rulsch (DerHexer) is project manager for digital volunteering at Wikimedia Germany. The Signpost asked him to respond to some of these comments. "There's a huge interest in the project. I've never seen a front page translated so quickly into 50 languages like this one, and on the Phase 1 page there are already many suggestions as to how to select the information." The endeavour has symbolic power on an international scale, he said, and represents a major opportunity to promoting participation in Wikipedia, especially when community-driven selection of information to upload has been finalised; and when the mission is launched we expect attention from the mainstream media. "It's the kind of event that can capture the imagination of anyone from professors to schoolkids who might be potential editors." (Already the announcement has prompted many posts to Hacker News.) According to Rulsch, there will also be significant outreach to potential new editors when it comes to improving related articles on the Wikipedias.
On the objections to the banners, he said that they are visible only to Wikipedians, only for just over two more days, and are easy to click off; without banners, it would be difficult to garner community input to important projects. "The project is quite unlike any other ever undertaken by the Wikimedia community, and deciding on the selection is contrary to the usual wiki way and challenging for all of us; that's why we need the global community involved."
The discussion phase will finish on 3 June, followed by a community vote from 10 June on what should be included, a working phase from 1 July, and a wrap-up phase from 31 October. The chapter expects to hand over the product on 5 December, International Volunteers' Day. Editors from all language groups are encouraged to participate in the process.
WMF forms steering group for new ED
Back on Earth, trustee Alice Wiegand announced on the Wikimedia mailing list the first official move towards filling the permanent position of executive director that was recently vacated when Lila Tretikov resigned (with Katherine Maher subsequently taking up the interim ED position):
the Board has created a steering group tasked with crafting the actual job description, planning and conducting the search, and finding ways to include community perspectives. This steering group will be regularly consulting with the Board throughout the search process.
Please see the ED transition team page on Meta to find more information about the steering group, and get the latest updates. We have also included three questions on the participation page to help us start forming a better understanding of the community’s various opinions and expectations.
The voting members of the group are:
- Alice Wiegand (Board’s vice chair, head of ED search steering group)
- Kelly Battles (Board member, audit committee chair)
- Guy Kawasaki (Board member, human resources committee chair)
- Dariusz Jemielniak (Board member, Board governance committee chair)
- Katie Horn (staff member, selected by staff)
- Lisa Gruwell (staff member, leadership team, selected by the Board)
Among the group's tasks will be to identify, evaluate, and select candidates for approval by the Board; engage consultants or a search firm to support the search; consult with the community and collect their input; determine the job description after consultation with the Board; and to recruit additional non-voting members as appropriate.
The group is posing three questions for community input:
- What are the three most important competencies and skills required to lead the Foundation?
- Will the right candidate come from a tech company, a media company, an NGO, open source, GLAM, research, or educational institution?
- What are three pitfalls we should avoid?
Editor input is welcome on that page.
Check back for the next Signpost on July 1.