Just this goy...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Memoirs of impressions of the Offline Strategy Task Force, as it stood in January 2010.

Any discussion of an offline strategy for the Wikimedia Foundation is, essentially, a discussion of technology and infrastructure. There are two primary target markets: those who already have access to WMF products, and those who do not. The largest offline product-consuming market will always be those who already have access to WMF products, but it is a primary element of the WMF mission to provide access to those markets who do not have access.

With the above assumptions, and the reality the Wikimedia Foundation is a charitable organization with finite resources, the primary strategy should be enabling third-party development of technologies and infrastructure for offline WMF-derived products. How the Foundation does so should not be restricted, but there are certain goals we found to be of particularly high value:
  • XML article format, which can support semantics, with project-specific DTD.
  • Create and publish a Mediawiki parser specification.
  • Create and support a reference parser, and companion writer.
Related to these goals we found supporting intra-project standardization, and implementing international information categorization schema, to be important efforts to encourage communities to pursue (and support them in pursuit of) in order to make their output more valuable for offline applications.

When considering how to make WMF published content available to people who do not have regular internet access, the largest potential market could be realized through cellphone platforms. In the most-underserved internet markets cellular phone service has good to excellent availability. Retaining the theme of supporting third-parties rather than investing extensively in technology, it's noted there are already several cellular-based products and projects using WMF content. This second strategy for the Foundation is to focus on the cellphone specifically as the world's most ubiquitous hardware platform, with several goals related to this publication medium:
  • Target upstream from end users: cellular network providers for dynamic content systems, and OEM for static content systems as well as built-in 'apps'.
  • Prioritize support for third-party development: open offline storage standards, readers which use those standards, and finally proprietary products.
  • Where possible, support non-internet distribution systems, for example an SMS article retrieval system.
School systems are a natural partner for WMF in regions under-served by Internet. They are centers for learners, a primary target audience for the Foundation's projects. Schooling systems themselves are the target audience for the Wikibooks project, as well as other more-specific wikiprojects. This tertiary strategy did not develop concrete targets, but rather a laundry-list of desired outcomes including:
  • Work with schools, and support organizations which do so.
  • Customizable content collations.
  • Use multi-project approaches: draw content from any relevant WMF project.
  • Use multiple distribution channels: Internet, static digital, print, &c.
Most WMF published content is general, and targets an adult audience. The offline markets with the lowest internet access rates are disproportionately younger, and content targeting a youth audience should be specifically supported. Third-party publishers tend to have target markets for whom they wish to tailor their content, as do schools and governments. Technologies already exist to provide best versions, as well as semantic tagging to improve article relevance. A fourth strategy focus involves improving the ease of creating custom collations, both through content initiatives and through technology development.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Sue Gardner's recent [blog entry] discusses what she sees as "changes that stuck", highlighting the [[en.Wikipedia]] issues of Biographies of Living People and license migration, and the supposedly Foundation-wide Strategy Project.

It's my opinion the 9 points she raised are fundamentally wrong as regards that latter 'change that stuck'.

As someone who was involved in the Offline Task Force, devoting rather a large number of hours to research, consultation, and discussion as well as editing our recommendations, [my impression of the process] is it was futile, a waste of our time, and ultimately co-opted by WMF staffers who altered, changed, deleted, or substituted their agenda for the issues discovered, researched, and presented by the community. Perhaps one cannot test the quality of the strategy until after it is begun to be implemented, but one can certainly judge the honesty with which it is collected and reported.

Take, for example, [[Offline]], the primary link for offline Strategy. All but three edits are by staff members, nearly 90% of the content was written within the past 6 weeks. Only one of the contributors ever attended an [[Offline Task Force]] [[meeting]]; Philippe, who hasn't touched the page in more than 6 months. And nothing on the page is related to the Offline Task Force's [[recommendations]].

  1. The person/people leading the change did wait for it to happen naturally, then like a wiki-troll, they co-opted the community process and replaced the findings of the task force with their desired outcomes. Maybe only this one task force, but I wouldn't trust it to be such a unique situation.
  2. A single person didn't make it happen, but a group of employees did.
  3. There is no evidence of any effort made to understand the global/meta issues in the current pages. The trail of evidence disappears back in April, to be replaced in October with atheoretical and unsupported conclusions.
  4. If the process was carefully designed to ask the right people the right questions at the right time, this was a carefully designed ruse to convince those volunteers and contextual experts that their efforts would ultimately shape the documents guiding Wikimedia Foundation's strategy 2010-2015, for none of the research is represented in the current pages.
  5. Lots of people did lots of real work. No dispute about that. But "making it happen"? As far as the Offline Task Force is concerned, clearly what we found should happen is never going to happen because it has been excised from the offline strategy pages.
  6. No, it appears almost none of the work which has gone into the current offline strategy has taken place in public. The primary contributor, a new employee, has never edited on a single talk page, has never asked a question nor answered one. So where did all the verbiage come from?
  7. Yes, almost every bit of work on the current offline strategy took place in private, probably within the Wikimedia Foundation offices. No, [this is not a good thing]. To be blunt, leadership is about making decisions when they need to be made, publicly, and being responsible for them. It is better to make a bad decision than to not make a decision. As a sailor, often I must make commitments without enough data to be sure of safety, and yes I have run aground. But I cannot get anywhere if I wait in port until I know everything about the route, the weather, and the destination anchorage because I can never know enough to eliminate all risks of error or mischance. Operating in private until you won't be embarrassed means you will always be [operating secretly].
  8. Did people put their credibility on the line? That's a tough call. Sue Gardner put her credibility on the line when she said Strategy would be a community-centered and driven process, with results drawn from the community. As regards the offline strategy that is clearly not the present case - none of the findings of the community task force are represented in the strategy documents.
  9. Most people wanted - more than anything else - to advance the Wikimedia mission... Hmm. I think, among the most active members of the offline task force, I can agree with this statement. But I don't believe that is true of a majority of those involved with the offline strategy, certainly was not true of the majority of the individuals I interviewed while doing research related to the strategy. And there is a huge caveat: to advance their personal interpretation of the Wikimedia mission, however illogical or distorted that interpretation might be.
Maybe Ms Gardner thinks this pattern is a positive model. Ultimately, she claims responsibility for both the conception and implementation of the Strategy project. To me this means she is personally responsible for the current situation regarding Offline Strategy. She is responsible for encouraging the community involvement, the research, but also the disregarding of both. As a "change that sticks" I would see it as an anti-pattern.

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