Spark of knowledge starts with Wikipedia

The people actively building Wikipedia’s Myanmar language site have a joke. Each time a celebrity dies, a Myanmar Wikipedia page is born.

That’s because when a famous person passes on, news sources publish stories about them, which serve as ready-made references for the Myanmar Wikipedia community of editors. “Sometimes it’s very hard to collect the information about the biography,” says Ko Zaw Thet Aung, a community administrator. “[When] some celebrity dies, their biography’s in the newspaper.”

Wikipedia relies on a community of volunteers to write and edit encyclopedia articles online. The website, run by non-profit organisation Wikimedia Foundation, was founded as an English-language page, but now covers more than 33 million pages in upward of 287 languages around the world – including Myanmar. A dedicated community of Myanmar editors, whose core group of frequent contributors numbers about 10 to 20 people, has helped build up a vault of more than 33,000 Myanmar language articles.

For the small group of volunteers building the Myanmar-language Wikipedia presence, content begets content. Editors can take everything from current events to books on niche topics and turn them into native language articles. Subjects aren’t assigned, but crop up naturally from interest and popular topics on subjects as varied as geography, famous figures and the mysterious disappearance of MH370.

Wikipedia contributor Ko Maung San has seen the site come a long way from the blacklist, where it briefly ended up “once or twice when the political situation was not very good … like 2007, 2008”, he said.

Still, there’s plenty more information that has not yet found its way into the Myanmar version of the digital encyclopedia. Advocates hope to augment the expansion of Myanmar Wikipedia, which according to Wikipedia Statistics has 3 percent more articles now than it did last year and sees 2 new articles go up a day.

As Anna Koval, manager of the Wikipedia Education Program at the Wikimedia Foundaton, said at Ooredoo’s Yangon Connected Women’s Conference on October 17, the site has room to grow. And though 33,549 articles might seem like a small number compared to the nearly 4.7 million pages in English, passionate people are making progress.

“It only takes one match to burn down a forest and one tree can make a million matches,” she said, speaking about raising awareness for Wikipedia.

Though a crowd of loosely organised contributors has created this information stockpile mostly on its own steam, it has also had help most recently from Telenor, the Norwegian telco which launched services in Yangon on October 26.

If a contributor’s aim is to help make Wikipedia a one-stop shop for information, Telenor is working toward bringing people in. In 2012 the firm partnered with the Wikimedia Foundation on Wikipedia Zero, the initiative to deliver mobile users free access to the site. The company also helps to put on local trainings and events.

Telenor’s initiatives could help spur the responsible content generation – article-writing with a conscience – which Wikipedia also emphasises through its values. At a recent training at Yangon’s Strategy First Institute, the Wikimedia Foundation’s director of global partnerships Carolynne Schloeder became emotional when speaking about the Wikipedians’ reasons for dedicated editing.

“You’re going to get tears in my eyes,” she said. “First of all they believe that knowledge is a basic right and everybody should have access … I hope … what we’re seeing is pride also in Myanmar culture, Myanmar-specific knowledge and how to share that with the world.”

Contributors interact with Wikipedia within the structure of its five pillars: that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia; that is must be written without bias; that its content is free and for anyone to use, edit and distribute; that editors must be civil and respectful to each other; and that no rules are set in stone, the tenets’ Wikipedia page said.

Ko Zaw Thet Aung, the only active administrator of Myanmar Wikipedia’s four admins, with nearly a decade on the site under his belt, said he has only one power that normal contributors don’t: he can delete and “protect” articles, or shield them from edits by new or unregistered users.

Yet he’s far from ruling the community with an iron fist. Wikipedia can sometimes become the field of battle for “edit wars”, when users change information in articles, especially controversial ones. Ko Zaw Thet Aung said he has seen arguments over the Rakhine conflict and death tolls in Cyclone Nargis.

In cases of contention, Ko Zaw Thet Aung delegates power to the people to hand down judgment.

“I will just protect the pages and then let some experienced users decide what’s going on … I cannot know everything and I’m not a dictator,” he said jokingly.

His approach is typical of a self-governing community where administrators don’t even assign which articles to write. Instead, contributors head to a discussion page aptly called “the tea shop” to decide for themselves.

In this group, what’s “true” can be contested. Through Wikipedia “talk pages”, editors have the option of arguing articles’ finer points, though both Ko Zaw Thet Aung and Ko Maung San said this behaviour hasn’t yet caught on in Myanmar. Work must be based on specific types of reliable sources, which play trump card in arguments.

“Edit wars … are not very big, because so long as we can show our sources and we can show our references, we can just solve it,” Ko Maung San said.

Particular changes expose the agents behind them. Sometimes the term “ethnic armed force” gets rebranded as “rebels” – a sign that military people have contributed to the page, according to Ko Zaw Thet Aung.

Content generation presents a constant challenge for the community. To get fresh contributors, people first need to know what Wikipedia is and, second, need computers. Wikipedia Zero, which facilitates free access to the site via mobile, can help spread information, but only if one major issue facing users gets resolved, according to Ko Maung San.

“We need the next generation to come in,” Ko Maung San said. “The barrier is the font problem … Most people are using the non-standard font, Zawgyi, so they have difficulty viewing Wikipedia because all their devices and computers defer to Zawgyi.”

“I think Wikipedia Zero [has a] lot of potential in Myanmar,” he said. “I think most of the Myanmar people are English illiterate so they will get more profit from the Myanmar language Wikipedia than English language Wikipedia. But … to get that knowledge all the mobile phones have to be supported with Unicode.”

Ms Schloeder said the Zawgyi versus Unicode problem can be addressed in the interim. It’s a move that could bring more people into the Wikipedia fold and increase awareness for the site.

Though 33,549 articles is a start, more people need to provide kindling for information to spread like wildfire in Myanmar.


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