From San Francisco to Cairo and back again: Collaborating across cultures

Annie Lin. Pic by Guillaume Paumier CC BY 3.0

I’ve been trying to talk to Egyptian Wikipedia editors for a project about the experience of Wikipedia editors in the Middle East and am finding it really difficult to connect to relevant people through their Talk pages. And so I went to talk to Annie Lin, Global Education Program Manager at the Wikimedia Foundation about how she engaged with editors in Egypt at the start of a project to get students in local universities to write Wikipedia articles. In this interview, Lin talks about ways for outsiders to gain access by giving up power, encouraging participation and changing communication styles and platforms where the culture demands it. She’s given me some great things to think about as I build a more grounded understanding of editing in the Middle East, and I’m sure there are some gems in here that will help others as they think about doing ethnography starting from online places. 

Annie Lin is excited. The first pilot project that she oversaw in Cairo, Egypt to encourage students in local universities to contribute to Wikipedia has been a success – and although the term has ended, many students are still editing.

May was the last month of classes but a lot of students say they’ll keep editing. It seems that the students are excited about the idea that they’re contributing Arabic topics in the Arab world.

The pilot project, involving 60 students from 7 classes in 2 universities, had students create articles in Arabic Wikipedia either as part of the curriculum or as an extra curricula activity. An initial survey asking students what would motivate them to edit Wikipedia had a sense of contributing information about Egypt or the Arab world as the most common motivation. Lin says that when they show maps of Portuguese Wikipedia compared to Arabic Wikipedia, professors and students are shocked at the low numbers of Arabic articles.

Everyone is angry and shocked, saying that this is unacceptable when they see that map. And that’s encouraging more activity.

The pilot project had classes choose which articles to edit. Some of those choices were surprising, says Lin.

Annie Lin talks with a participant of the professor orientation workshop in January this year at Ain Shams University, Cairo. Pic by Frank Schulenburg, CC BY SA

One group of students from a French literature class developed an article on the 2012 French presidential election; another class translated an article on Civil disobedience and the American bank panic of 1907 from French to Arabic, and another created an article about Egyptian events in 2011.

Interestingly, says Lin, the articles attracted relatively large numbers of readers which leads her to wonder how people come across these articles. Is it because there is wide general interest right now in the Arabic-speaking world in the topics that students are working on, especially given the political and social changes currently taking place there? Is it because the quality of the articles is really good relative to other Arabic articles? Or are editors doing a really good job of advertising the articles to their own networks?

Lin talked about starting work in Egypt when they knew very few editors. She said that they had a meetup in December last year which about six people attended. They’ve kept up the involvement of the Arabic Wikipedia community in the project. In the beginning, the editors were skepital.

Google had done an Arabic Wikipedia machine translation project that editors were not entirely happy with. We had to assure them that this was not going to be a similar project and that their concerns were being addressed.

Many of those that they initially met then became Campus Ambassadors for the education pilot. The initial training of professors and students was led by the local team in Arabic. Lin and her colleague from the Global Development team at the Wikimedia Foundation, Frank Schulenberg gave a ten minute introduction in English and sat back for the rest of it. Lin laughs as she tells the story.

We were sitting in the back and this trainer said can we move to another room because there wasn’t a lot of space for “non-functional” people <laughs>. It was such a great thing to see local Wikipedians taking over. This is the idea: our goal is to institutionalize this program in local universities and NGOs where local organisations adopt it as their own.

Lin says that they employ a Wikipedia editor part time in Cairo who does on-the-ground work for them.

We met Faris and we thought he was a great person to do this job – he was one of the most active Wikipedians editing about geography in Egypt. Sources are really lacking in the places that he was writing about so he travelled to the places and collected sources, took pictures etc.

Students in Dr. Iman Ezzeldin’s class work on Arabic Wikipedia articles about famous theatrical productions and playwrights. Pic by Faris Knight CC BY SA

Faris does much of the local coordination, says Lin. This proved really essential when their team was conducting research about the program. With the American project, Lin says she sent professors a link to a survey and the professor would forward it to students. But in Egypt, only 10 out of 60 students responded.

We had to completely overhaul our system of communication,” says Lin. “In the end, we got our local team to print out the surveys, physically go to the class, hand them out and collect and digitize them.

The team also set up a table on campus and asked passing students about their experience with Wikipedia. And when they wanted to get feedback from their Campus Ambassadors and Online Ambassadors, they used Facebook.

In Egypt our experience is that a lot of people — especially younger people — use Facebook for both personal and professional purposes. And compared to the U.S., a lot of people in Egypt don’t respond to email as often as if you just call them on the phone.

Lin says that this work is still a challenge – especially since she’s coordinating with people when she doesn’t speak the language – but that it’s working surprisingly well and that they’re thinking of adding more countries to the mix in the next phase of the project.

We’ve learned so much about how professors and students in Cairo prefer to communicate, to work with volunteers, to approach assignments. We’ve left a lot of room for experimentation on purpose because we didn’t and still don’t have all the answers. The design for the Cairo Pilot incorporated a lot of the learnings we took from doing similar programs in the U.S., Canada, and India, and the next term in the Arabic-speaking world will definitely also incorporate the learnings we are taking away from the first pilot phase. But the fact that on average, each student in the Cairo Pilot contributed almost twice as much content to the Arabic Wikipedia than did each student in the pilot phase of the U.S. program is a really great sign.

For more information on the Cairo education pilot, go here.

Featured image by FontFont on Flickr. CC BY ND 

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