Throughout the past decade, Wikpedia has become the first place a person with an Internet connection turns to for answers to questions. But the staff of the Wikimedia Foundation says their future direction looks beyond the web, reaching places where an Internet connection is an expensive commodity.
This vision, along with other new ideas, is at the heart of this year's International Wikimania Conference, an annual event, which is currently being held in Haifa. About 600 people from 50 countries are taking part in the forum. Some of these countries, says the director of the Wikimedia Foundation in Israel, Tomer Ashur, do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.
Wiki is not just pedia, says Ashur. The entire Wikimedia movement has grown out of Wikipedia, which was established in 2001. It deals with the dissemination of knowledge that is not necessarily encyclopedic, he says.
The conference will also address Wikimedia projects such as Wikimedia Commons, which already gives visitors access to 10 million pictures, and Wikisource, which gives access to important historical texts, from the Torah to the Gettysburg Address.
Although Wikipedia is already translated into over 250 languages, Ashur says that there are still a lot of challenges to be faced, and plenty of work to do, especially in improving our quality in all languages, which means technically better writing and the use of more reliable sources in order to increase our reliability.
Among its new projects, Wikimedia is also collaborating with cultural institutions, such as galleries, libraries, archives and museums, to bring important materials out into the light, with images and texts uploaded to Wikimedia Commons and Wikisources, says Ashur.
One of its most important initiatives according to Ashur, however, is an attempt to bring Wikmedia to developing countries. Asaf Bartov, who used to work for Wikimedia Israel, is now leading this project for the Wikmedia foundation.
Whoever has Internet access can access Wikipedia, says Bartov. But there are many people who are still not online, and who can only get on the Internet once a week – when they have electricity. These people could be helped by an offline version of Wikipedia, on a DVD or memory stick."
Bartov gave an example of a memory stick loaded with the entire Wikipedia in French, reaching a remote village in Cameroon. If the village has computers and electricity, but no Internet connection, this one stick could provide millions of entries, including information on animals, plants and health. "That provides information that was in no way available to the village" prior to that, said Bartov.
Bartov said he would be travelling straight from the conference in Haifa to Kenya, to present a series of lectures at universities in Nairobi and Mombasa aimed at promoting the free encyclopedia in the academia and with the education ministry.
Another field Wikimedia are working to advance is that of cellular technology. Bartov said that just as the developing world is moving towards mobile technology, this same movement will occur in third world countries within the next three to four years.
Bartov also said Wikimedia are working with Internet providers with the intention of making Wikipedia surfing free, for in many cases Internet users pay according to the quantity of data usage.
Bartov emphasized that all these programs are part of an attempt of the organization to create action that is more directed than in the past. "We are assessing what will yield the most or what will provide the highest relative output per invested time and money," he said. "Therefore, this will be a very significant year in terms of growth in the amount of free information Wikipedia creates and makes accessible to the developing world."