The development of the Greek-language Wikipedia: An interview with the general coordinator of the “I participate in Wikipedia” campaign.

On: July 5, 2011
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About Ilektra Pavlaki
Here I am in Amsterdam. Studying in the New Media Master Program and hoping that by the end of this year I will have gained new experiences, new friends, brand new goals. My bachelor was in Communication, Media and Culture in Athens. Then I found myself a 90% dreamy job as a copywriter in a global advertising agency (BBDO). Great boss, big clients, small income :) Fun Theory and Free Hug Campaign magnified my interest in new media. "So, there must be a way to combine passion -advertising- and curiosity-new media-. Let's find out" I said. So... here I am in Amsterdam.

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Yiannis Giannarakis is the general coordinator of the “I participate in Wikipedia” campaign, which aims at the development and enrichment of the Greek – language Wikipedia. The initiative, launched in January 2011, is supported by the Greek-language Wikipedia community, the Greek Ministry of Education, the Greek Free/Open-Source Software Society (GFoss) and the Greek Research and Technology Network (GrNet).

Here, Giannarakis talks about the collaboration between the Greek-language Wikipedia community and the agents who support the campaign, as well as the valuable “lessons” the campaign has offered to both new and experienced users. Finally, he shares his vision concerning the future of the Greek-language Wikipedia.

The first part of the interview appears below.

You & Wikipedia

You have been an active entrepreneur in the field of electronic encyclopedias for a long time. How did your involvement with Wikipedia come about?

My first entrepreneurial experience in the publication of digital encyclopedias dates back to the mid 90s. A team of colleagues and I created a small encyclopedia for students, the encyclopedia Alpha, as we later named it, which was based on a printed encyclopedia. Unfortunately, this project fell through as, shortly after completing the work, the editor of the printed encyclopedia discovered that, due to copyright restrictions, he did not have the right to publish it in digital form.

Later, I pursued and managed to obtain the copyright of a printed encyclopedia for students, rich in content, in order to publish it in a digital form. In fact, we referred to it as an “encyclopedic dictionary” and not as an “encyclopedia”, in order not to raise the standards.

At the beginning of the 2000s, we realized that the traditional way of updating an encyclopedia (i.e. creating an editorial committee, assigning articles to specialist teams etc.) was not only a time-consuming procedure but quite inefficient as well. As a result, we started looking for something that was similar in many ways to what led to the creation of Wikipedia. As a matter of fact, on Wikipedia’s first appearance in 2001, we saw that what we had a vague idea of had become a reality. Thus, we decided to create a wiki version for our own electronic encyclopedia, which we named Livepedia.

The next thing we had to consider was whether these two encyclopedias should remain distinct. We decided that it would be better if they coexisted. Therefore, we “opened” Livepedia in Wikipedia. This took place between 2004 and 2006. In practice,  it advanced to a more intensive level in 2006, when we worked with my colleagues on the “merging” of the two encyclopedias, taking material from Livepedia and sharing it on Wikipedia and vice versa.

Campaign & supporters

As part of the campaign for the enrichment of the Greek-language Wikipedia that kicked off in January, a series of experiential workshops were held across Greece. How did this idea develop?

During the second half of the last decade, I had the opportunity to broadly discuss with members of the educational community on the creation of an encyclopedia that would be useful to the educational process. At that time such an encyclopedia could not be guaranteed by the Greek-language Wikipedia, as it did not contain more than 20.000 entries. 

In 2009 though, the issue of the development of an encyclopedia that could be used in the education process was raised by the Ministry of Education. Therefore, the exploitation of the potentials of Vikipaideia [the Greek-language Wikipedia] was proposed, along with its enrichment.

Based on this idea, the Ministry began a creative cooperation with the GFoss and the GrNet, who asked me to participate in creating an action plan. There were many people working together on this project. It is worth mentioning that the President of GFoss, Theodoros Karounos, dedicated many hours on the planning and so did the President of GrNet, Panagiotis Tsanakas, along with the Vice President Aris Koziris.

From day one, we contacted the Wikipedia community to ensure the community’s collaboration- both as communicants and participants. Hence a deliberation process started, that was first announced online at the Village Pump and then unfolded on the website of the GFoss. Several editors of the Greek- language Wikipedia participated in the process, expressing ideas, some of which have the potential to be implemented in the future, while others have already been incorporated in the existing project. One of those ideas was organizing a series of workshops all over Greece in order to familiarize the public with Wikipedia.

At this point, I should mention that there was some initial hesitation and reservation expressed by many editors, concerning the seminars and the presentations. Some of them thought that it would be better to present the campaign only on the Internet and mainly on the Wikipedia pages using, for instance, a banner.

The Ministry of Education not only has the campaign under its auspices, but also proclaimed 2011 as the “Year of the Digital Encyclopedia’’. How can Wikipedia benefit from this “blessing” by the State?

Probably most people remember the time when there was – and maybe there still is – great reservation as far as the use of Wikipedia in education is concerned. Anyone who used it did so feeling almost like a “semi-outlaw” [laughs].

The fact that the Ministry of Education supports this initiative, first of all opened the door to the use of Wikipedia in education, and, in addition, it created favorable conditions that allowed teachers to see Wikipedia in a different light and think about getting personally involved in it. Mrs Mina Theofilatou, for instance, took the initiative to make a practical user manual for her students and thus proved that the Greek-language Wikipedia can be an efficient educational tool for both students and teachers.

Have you heard of any running project in other countries concerning the promotion of Wikipedia that are being supported by a public agent?

As far as I know, in other countries many initiatives are taken by educational agents, mainly universities. However, I have not heard so far of a similar case like ours where a ministry has participated so actively and fostered the campaign, the way the Greek Ministry has done here. So one could say that the Ministry of Education did pioneering work in supporting the campaign, as well as in proclaiming 2011 as the year of the Digital Encyclopedia. The idea to link electronic textbooks with Wikipedia- encouraged by the General Secretary of the Ministry of Education, Mr Vassilis Koulaidis- was quite progressive as well.

Given the fact that political institutions are being questioned by the public nowadays, do you think that people see the support from the Ministry in a positive light?

It is clear that there are some reservations, which is also apparent within the Wikipedia community. Not only as far as the Ministry is concerned, but also regarding the role of GFoss and GrNet, two agents that belong to the academic community. Sometimes, even my own presence is met with some caution, since I have been active in the field of journalism and had an entrepreneurial approach to the encyclopedic projects.

However, through contact with the community and the educators, it became obvious that the Ministry is not trying to take over; quite the opposite actually: the Ministry has acknowledged the fact that in Greece, in the year 2011, only Wikipedia has the potential to bring students in contact with encyclopedic knowledge.

With this in mind and as long as the necessary “distance” is kept in order not to influence and thus compromise the values and ethics of the community, the support of the Ministry and of other agents is welcome. The important thing to remember here is that, whoever contributes in the efforts to enrich and expand the Greek-language Wikipedia needs to do so having in mind that the common good is of more importance than any underlying personal or political agenda.

Continue to Part II

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