Wikipedia wants you: 'We're a startup in stealth mode', says Jimmy Wales as he plans to open data to all

Changes include a simplified user interface and a better-publicised API to attract developers
  • @jjvincent

Wikipedia is launching a range of new initiatives in order to entice new editors to the site, expand the community of ‘Wikipedians’ and help make its data as available possible everyone - from developers to developing nations.

Speaking last night at an event in London, co-founder Jimmy Wales described the charity as “a start-up in stealth mode” – always trying to reach and influence more users, but without access to the marketing budget or the profits of other companies: “For us, you know, it doesn’t really benefit us commercially, it’s just we feel like it’s our responsibility.”

As the number seven most accessed website in the world, attracting more than 21.3bn monthly page views, Wikipedia is very much an institution in its own right; however, itit still hopes to expand and improve, offering its knowledge to as many people as possible.

New ways to edit to attract new editors

The most obvious change to the 12-year-old site will be the introduction of a new editing interface that closely resembles a typical word processor, offering familiar icons and with no code language in sight. Wales described the current system as “very primitive”, complaining that “it excludes a lot of people.”

The mobile interface will also be getting an overhaul to allow better editing on the move, with future plans to better integrate the GPS data that often accompanies Wikipedia articles: “On the web, that’s just an interesting titbit of information, on mobile clearly that’s massive and should be a key part of the user interface.”

“You can just say “Oh wow, what’s that?” and you click a button and it says “It’s the Shard!” and you can read about the Shard.”

Other changes will focus on improving the features that tie the Wikipedia community together, with a new notification system that will be “a little bit more - dare I say it - Facebook like” and a ‘Flow’ feature that will help ‘newbies’ get to grips with standard editing practices.

“For a lot of people there’s this idea that Wikipedia is 10 million people adding one sentence each and magically it becomes an encyclopaedia,” said Wales, “but in fact that there’s a complex social structure within Wikipedia.”

Wales was keen to stress the importance of community in powering Wikipedia's success, highlighting the work of Wikiprojects - self-organizing subgroups dedicated to writing on certain topics - as the "source of some of the best stuff in Wikipedia".

He also briefly addressed complaints about the site's bias towards pop culture and specialised interests: “Sometimes people say "Look, it’s really stupid. Why are so many people writing about Beyonce? We really need a lot more article on Biophysics." But the people who are really experts on Beyonce, well,  I’d rather they write about Beyonce than biophysics."

Big data & open data: Offering Wikipedia to the world

As well as strengthening the internal community Wales hopes to improve how the site’s knowledge and data is offered to the general public: helping educators, public institutions, developers and developing nations to better tap into the sites resources.

When it comes to educators Wales claims that the culture has moved on significantly: “Now we’re in the era where teachers understand that 100 per cent of all students are using Wikipedia; now it’s time to teach them how to use Wikipedia.”

New initiatives will guide students and teachers to make useful and lasting contributions to the encyclopaedia, but also help newcomers navigate Wikipedia’s internal system of checks and balances: “When the Wikipedians say “The neutrality of this article is disputed” then you better believe it,” says Wales.

Wikipedia Zero – a low-powered mobile app for access in developing markets – will also be pushed more. Through deals with mobile carriers the service currently offers free access to more than 410 million people, but it is hoped that this number will jump significantly in the next couple of years.

“Our goal is really education and technology,” says Wales, “The sum of all human knowledge available to everyone in their own language.” In order to achieve this, Wikipedia will also be reaching out more to developers and encouraging them to use the encyclopaedia’s API , a toolkit to help third-parties integrate Wikipedia’s data into their own projects.

“One analogy here is to think about Facebook before and after the social graph API,” says Wales, “And how suddenly all kinds of things have been empowered [...] to bring all types of new and interesting services.”

In order to promote the possibilities of Wikipedia’s data (“carefully thought about, argued-about, debated data”) the Wikimedia Foundation will be hosting its annual conference, Wikimania, in London next year. Described as “the most outward looking” event it’s ever hosted, Wikipedia hopes to attract more than 10,000 people, inviting editors, developers, partners and hackers “into our community.”

“You need to be engaged in Wikipedia,” says Wales, “it’s where everybody comes to: it’s the platform of choice for the entire world.”