Two weeks ago at the Aalto University, we were having a symposium focusing on accessibility of media. In there I gave a talk about Wikipedia / Wikimedia.
If we think the Wikimedia services from the accessibility point of view, there are some issues that make it pretty unique. Often one must go all the way to the Mission and Vision of the Wikimedia to understand them.
Accessibility can be seen narrowly as technical quality of a product. A television program that provides sub-titles and a signer of a sign language is more accessible than a TV program that does not have these add-ons. Similar way a web page where one can resize the font of read the text with a screen reader is more accessible than a web page that has, for instance, text in images. Doing technically accessible media products is not trivial. It is hard. Still, it is a topic you may study and pay attention to. If you do, you probably will get it right.
Accessibility can be approached also broadly, by not focusing only to the media or application as such, but to the service and infrastructure underlying it. For instance, if people do not have access to Internet at all, it doesn’t really matter if the web pages are accessible or not. If compared to architecture one may have technically accessible public library building, with wheelchair ramps etc. but if citizens moving with wheelchairs can never reach the library, the public service itself is not accessible.
In the Wikimedia / Wikipedia there is an attempt to be technically, but also broadly accessible. Wikimedia / Wikipedia naturally may not provide Internet connection for all, even if they would like to, but they may do design decisions that will increase broad accessibility. For instance, strict commitment to free content, free standards and free software is this kind of decision. With out the commitment, the long-term accessibility aims, stated in the last words of the Wikimedia’s Mission statement, could never happen:
“The Foundation will make and keep useful information from its projects available on the Internet free of charge, in perpetuity.”
To be free of charge and in perpetuity the content, standards and software must be free.
How this then effects on the Wikipedia today?
Various ways. I have examples of all the three.
Free content: Wikipedia does not have high-quality or “official” photos of all the heads of states of all the countries, because all the governments do not provide photos under free content license. For instance, in the Wikipedia, the photo of the long time president of Finland, President Kekkonen, is a stamp from the year 1986.
This is sad and people working in different State Archives could take a note and consider providing photos under free content license.
The positive effects of the commitment to free content, however, are significant. For instance, there is a device using Wikipedia content and you may order custom books out of Wikipedia content.
One of my favorite projects “taking advatage” of the free content is the Webcionary, a multi-lingual web dictionary with easy to use web and mobile interface. A bit surprisingly all the content comes from the Wiktionary -project, the Wikimedia’s free dictionary project. All these examples are also greatly improving accessibility, as people are free to design new ways to distribute and access the Wikimedia content.
Free standards: In Wikipedia audio and video content is still limited as the free formats are not mature enough to be de facto formats. This is a bit of a chicken or an egg dilemma. Developing free formats is slow because there aren’t many users for them. If there would be easy to use free formats, more users would take them in use.
In the development of free formats and web standards Wikmedia / Wikipedia actually plays an important role. With its volume, it partly pushes other players to the right direction. Because of this I would like to see the Wikimedia / Wikipedia to work more with the World Wide Web Consortium, practically defining web standards.
Free software: Many people do not know that Wikimedia / Wikipedia is one of the largest users and developers of free software in the world. All the Wikimedia web services run on the Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP. Also the wiki-platform in use and developed by the community, the MediaWiki, is a free software.
Wikimedia / Wikipedia’s decision to be multilingual is another attempt to increase accessibility. Most people in the world do not speak English. Also most people in the world are more or less multilingual. They are fluent in their native language but can more or less operate with one, two or three other languages. When using the content of the Wikimedia / Wikipedia they simultaneously use several language versions, to get a rich picture of the topic.
Finally there is one more news from the Wikimedia / Wikipedia, related to accessibility. The mobile phone operator Orange and the Wikimedia Foundation will provide for more than 70 million people in African and the Middle East, free of charge mobile access to Wikipedia. The Orange-Wikimedia deal is non-exclusive and other operators are invited to join it.
In those parts of the world where the only affordable access to Internet for majority of people is (and will be) with mobile phone this is great news. It also demonstrates that we can provide accessible services and infrastructure if we really want to.