“Wikipedia and Global Development”

I just heard Jim Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, speak about “Wikipedia and Global Development” at the Institute for International Economics – co-sponsored by the Center for Global Development. For the uninitiated, Wikipedia is an online, free, open-source encyclopedia that can be edited by anyone anytime. Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales (who looks a lot like Jean Reno) has a level-headed manner as he discusses impressive projects. After a few fumbles (malfunctioning projector, his ringing cell phone) he launched into the philosophy of Wikipedia and ran down a list of the current and upcoming Wiki- projects. Following his 40-minute presentation was a 45-minute Q&A session.

The principal issues discussed were the success of Wikipedia, the editing process, the inner governance, the core values of open debate and its goal of making knowledge available to all, and projects in development.

Most pertinent to Nextbillion were the latter two issues, since “Wikibooks,” one of the projects underway, provides open-source, full-text books and text-books. Some of these are original works that were created for the project, others are donated and open-license, and all are open for collaborative editing. Unlike the Google print project, therefore, there (shouldn’t be) any copyright or proprietary issues. Creative Commons is a similar (not Wikimedia) project.

One of the motivations behind Wikibooks is to make knowledge available to everyone, “regardless of financial status, local/regional educational restrictions, or proximity to an educational institution.” Mr. Wales expressed his hope that such a project encourages open-licensing of textbooks–which can cost exorbitant sums–for American students (something California is working on).

When I asked what the broader implications for developing countries might be, Mr. Wales expressed his belief that making open-source books *here* would directly impact the developing world, where the cost and process of obtaining permission to use/translate existing texts is prohibitively high. The Wikimedia Foundation also occasionally recruits interns who speak under-represented languages to reach out to regions that contribute few Wikipedia entries (such as Middle East).

Another application for developing areas, he added, is entrepreneurship: since open-licensing means freedom to redistribute, an entrepreneur with a printing press in India could print out the entire Wikipedia, or individual Wikibooks, and sell them for a fraction of the cost of copyrighted books and other Encyclopedias. (Mr. Wales at one point alluded to a random man in Africa who voluntarily visits 20-30 schools and uploads the latest contents of Wikipedia to their computers. That’s dedication.)(It’s also similar to the University of Iowa’s “e-Granary Digital Library” activity.)

One last interesting implication (that I only mention briefly, since it’s not directly related to BOP) of Wikipedia on developping countries is political: Wikipedia was recently banned in China, and some of its entries are blocked in Iran. Although committed to being as nonpartisan and inclusive as possible, Wikipedia upholds free debate above all, which is at odds with the governing philosophy in some countries.

The focus of the talk was not on impacting developing countries, but I think Mr. Wales’ micro-entrepreneurship idea of printing and selling open-source books and Wikipedias is excellent–I hope some group or person picks up on this and puts it into action.