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By Wikipedia, the world's largest online encyclopaedia, has a vibrant community of editors and contributors in India. And on its 10th anniversary it is looking to enlarge its base in the country, says T.V. Jayan
  • Published 11.09.11
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Vaibhav Jain, 13, looks like any other child. The Delhi resident is crazy about animated characters Pokémon and Shin-chan, and cheers for the Delhi Daredevils whenever his home team is playing at the IPL. But looks, as they say, can be deceptive. Vaibhav assumes a completely different persona when he is on the Web — that of a vigilant cop waging a war against vandalism.

Vaibhav is one of the 4,200-odd “rollbackers” of Wikipedia — the world’s largest free and open online encyclopaedia. When he is not studying or playing, he scours Wikipedia articles for recent editorial changes that are suspect and reverts them to the original. Vaibhav, who set up his Wikipedia account earlier this year because he “got bored with social networking sites and online games”, has a Wiki user page that says it all: “This user reverts vandalism faster than Rajinikanth…”

Seventy-three-year old G. Balachandran from Paravur, Kerala, has a different story to tell. Paralysed for nearly two decades, this retired junior commissioned officer of the Indian Army got a new lease of life, thanks to Wikipedia. When his son presented him with a laptop, Balachandran started contributing to Wikipedia in Malayalam. “Wikipedia not only helped me rediscover myself, but also gave me the strength to fight my condition,” says Balachandran, who has contributed nearly 100 articles to the Malayalam Wikipedia since 2008 and has more than 2,000 edits to his credit.

Vaibhav and Balachandran belong to a vibrant global community of Wikipedians who contribute to the resource in one way or another. And there is a growing number of Indians among them — those who have taken it upon themselves to add, edit and improve Wikipedia in their spare time.

From a little known resource on the Web 10 years ago, Wikipedia has grown into a mammoth, ever-expanding encyclopaedia with more than 19 million articles in 282 languages at last count. The English Wikipedia alone has 3.73 million articles, followed by German (1.28 million) and French (1.14 million). According to Alexa.com, an Internet information company that tracks traffic to websites, wikipedia.org ranks fifth in terms of traffic. More than 14 per cent of global Internet users visit Wikipedia at least once a day.

India too has been part of the phenomenon, so much so that Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit body which manages Wikipedia’s affairs, has decided to set up its first office outside the US in New Delhi later this year. “India is our new focus area,” says Bishakha Datta, one of the global trustees of Wikimedia Foundation. “The experience that we gain from India will provide us with a blueprint to expand Wiki activities in other countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.”

Right now, Wikipedia is available in 20 Indian languages and 20 other language versions are under incubation.

What sets Wikipedia apart from other encyclopaedia, which are written by renowned subject experts, is not just that it is free and accessible to everyone, but also its dynamic nature. Anybody can contribute a Wikipedia article. “You don’t even need to register to be able to edit 99 per cent of the pages on Wikipedia,” says Tinu Cherian Abraham, a software engineer with a Bangalore-based firm, who has been associated with Wikimedia activities since 2006. Abraham has so far contributed more than 2,000 Wiki articles and done more than 53,000 edits on the English Wikipedia.

However, because of its free and open character, Wikipedia is also liable to abuse and misinformation being fed into it. And that is where feisty rollbackers like Vaibhav come into play. Recently, a Wiki article on Team Anna member Arvind Kejriwal was ambushed by a miscreant and his name was changed to Neelabh Kaushik. However, the watchful Vaibhav caught the fraud in no time and rolled it back.

Developing events find their way to Wikipedia almost instantaneously, thanks to more than 1,40,000 registered editors around the world who contribute and edit Wiki articles free of charge. “Everyone can be an editor on Wikipedia,” quips Hisham Mundol, a consultant with Wikimedia Foundation, who is slated to head its India operations. “We genuinely feel that with inputs from various quarters, Wiki articles can be more rounded,” adds Datta.

The policy has paid off, with a growing number of online editors and contributors adding their bit to the burgeoning resource. Take K. Ravichandar, who is an employee of Karnataka Bank in Bangalore. He wrote about Melattur, a tiny town in Tamil Nadu that is famous for a unique form of dance drama called Bhagavatha Mela. “Very little was known about this dance form till my article in Wikipedia,” says Ravichandar, who has made more than 35,000 contributions to the resource by way of articles and edits.

It’s the energy and enthusiasm of people like Ravichandar, Vaibhav and others that’s spurring the Wikimedia Foundation to woo India in a big way. Apart from setting up an office in Delhi, the foundation is also organising its first ever WikiConference in India in November this year. The conference, to be held in Mumbai, is expected to become an annual feature and will draw up a road map to develop Wikipedias in “Indic” languages, says Pranav Curumsey, one of the Wikimedians behind the meet.

The conference will also discuss how to make Wikipedia available offline to schools in rural India, which do not have Internet access, reveals Curumsey. More than 400 Wikimedians from India are expected to participate in the conference.

“The Wikimedia movement is strong and vibrant in India. But we need more people to join us,” says Abraham. “People from India can make an important contribution to global knowledge, and we want both Indians and the broader world to benefit from that.”

Indian Wikimedians say they face some challenges in achieving these objectives. First, the general public is mostly unaware of the fact that it can actually edit Wikipedia articles. Second, most people do not know that Wikipedia is available in many of the Indian languages.

But some point out that Indian language Wikipedia often fall short in terms of quality and quantity. Among the Indian languages, Hindi has the largest number of articles — 99,815. This is followed by Telugu (48,000), Tamil (35,700) and Marathi (34,400). Malayalam and Bengali are two other Indian languages that have been witnessing some active contributions in recent times.

“It’s not just the number of articles; the depth of the content is also important. For instance, though Malayalam Wikipedia has only 19,000 articles, I would say that they are of far better quality than those in the other Indian languages,” says Bala Jeyaraman, a Coimbatore-based Wikimedian who played a significant role in expanding the Tamil version.

Shiju Alex, a Bangalore-based technical writer, who has played a pivotal role in the Malayalam Wikipedia movement, says there is a need to take the movement beyond Wikipedia. “Wikipedia is just one of the many products from the Wikimedia community. There are sister products like Wikisource, which involves digitalisation of old books, Wikictionary which deals with dictionary development in a particular language, and so on,” says Alex.

Mundol, reveals that in an effort to expand Wikimedia’s reach in India, the foundation has plans to work with Indian college students. As part of a pilot project, students from two colleges in Pune have been roped in to create content in academic subjects. “The programme, taken up with the consent and involvement of the college administration, will also be used for the internal assessment of volunteering students,” says Mundol.

Clearly, in its 10th year, Wikipedia is all set to go from strength to strength in India.