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Last Updated: Sunday, 20 November 2005, 08:10 GMT
Open media to connect communities
By Jo Twist
BBC News technology reporter

Rebuilding work in Thailand, AFP
Many used the Wikipedia after the Asian tsunami
A US-based project is tapping into the collaborative nature of the web to provide online content that is relevant and valuable to developing nations.

The Wikimedia Foundation has set itself the ambitious aim of providing knowledge to people in their own language.

The goal is to tackle on one of the recurring issues that arose during the UN World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis about the lack of material online in languages other than English.

Wikimedia has emerged from the Wikipedia, the freely-available, editable, open and collaborative online encyclopaedia set up by Jimmy Wales.

"The Wikimedia Foundation is a non-profit organisation with the essential goal to distribute that free encyclopaedia to everyone on the planet in their own language," said Mr Wales.

The Wikimedia projects are about accessing cultural diversity and giving voices and knowledge to people in their own language. Together they form a giant, multicultural, adaptable and free cerebral net.

Going local

The foundation is setting up local chapters to further support local participation.

"Wikipedia is organised by languages, not by location, but we are building local chapters because local people like to meet and it is a way for us to interface with them on a local scale," said Mr Wales.

The foundation's other projects also include Wikicommons, Wikibooks, and Wikinews.

Boys using laptop, BBC
Freedom of speech is critical for all cultures
Jimmy Wales, Wikimedia Foundation

"Wikinews was born out of observation that when any major news ever happens, Wikipedia becomes a very valuable resource for people."

"What you don't get in the mainstream media is so much of the background material. So you can come to Wikipedia and get a lot of background," said Mr Wales.

A good example of that was after the Asian tsunami. People visited Wikipedia to search for information about the phenomenon.

But eyewitness videos and images were also published on blogs and photo sharing websites, and collected and used by mainstream news organisations.

Wikicommons is an attempt to aggregate all that content to make it accessible to anyone, even mainstream media, anywhere, for free, under free licence terms.

It collects all the images, sound, and video that are all freely licensed so that they can be used in any kind of cultural context. It is like an information hub for a "global free culture", said Mr Wales.

Silencing voices

But the issue for an organisation which relies on volunteers and only two full-time employees is making groups outside of the online community aware of it, and to get them using it as part of their projects.

Wikipedia now attracts roughly more than 2.4 billion hits a month, running on more than 120 servers globally, managed by volunteers who communicate via internet chat.

It says it has a broader reach than the Los Angeles times, New York Times, MSNBC.com and The Chicago Tribune, collectively.

However, there are still big barriers to making the foundation's efforts truly global.

"Freedom of speech is critical for all cultures," said Mr Wales.

But in cultures where there are oppressive regimes, the voice of people, no matter what their political stance, is not being expressed at all.

Chinese net users,
China has cut off contact with the Wikipedia encyclopaedia
"One of the things we see in Wikipedia is that by silencing your own citizens, you are not only preventing them from reading information from outside, but you are also silencing the information that comes out.

Access to Wikipedia has recently been blocked by Chinese authorities which, Mr Wales said, has backfired in some senses.

It means people from mainland China cannot read or contribute to the Chinese Wikipedia.

The number of edits on the Chinese version since the blocking has dropped by around 40%, according to Mr Wales.

"The mainland Chinese tend to take a Chinese mainland point of view on controversial issues, and the Taiwanese take another the Taiwanese viewpoint," he explained.

"Hopefully it is just a mistake and it will be unblocked. It has happened before," he said.

Wikipedia gives people the chance to post articles which they think are of cultural and social importance from their own countries, which people are encouraged to translate into their own languages.

Each international-facing Wikipedia site features articles on the front page which are culturally relevant.

"We are not talking about dissidents and being critical of the Chinese government," he said, stressing that Wikipedia was about having the tools to promote your culture.

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