weeklyOSM 505

12:35, Sunday, 29 2020 March UTC


lead picture

A downloadable map colouring book by Madison Draper 1 | © map data OpenStreetMap contributors


  • Baloo Uriza recommended that Amazon switch from paid mapping to contributing GPX only, while discussing burnout.
  • François Lacombe proposes an improvement of pump mapping with man_made=pump in conjunction with additional tags such as pump:output=*, pump:type=* or pump=powered. The proposal would include other pump-related features and hence deprecate man_made=windpump and man_made=pumping_rig.
  • Maxwell Brickner suggested ten service opportunities you can contribute to from home, including OpenStreetMap.
  • Mapillary outlines the possibilities you have to improve OSM while staying, voluntarily or involuntarily, at home during the current pandemic.


  • Frederik Ramm is once again defending the old-school, hand-crafted OSM against the importers. He argues against Facebook’s opinion that OSM’s biggest challenge is ‘importing even readily available authoritative data sets’.
  • Joseph Eisenberg recommends adding the new status ‘import’ to tag and key pages in the OSM wiki to mark keys or values which found their way through large imports into the OSM database. He points to the tiger:*=* tag family as a prominent example.
  • This year’s State of the Map Conference will become virtual due to the Coronavirus. The organisers are in the process of developing an open source software solution and are still looking for a frontend developer to help them.
  • An owner for a ‘OpenStreetMap Deutschland’ YouTube account is sought (automatic translation) desperately. Whether the FOSSGIS, which claims (automatic translation) to be the licensee of trademark rights on OpenStreetMap and demands admin access, is the right organisation to run the account may be a point of contention.
  • Alessandro Sarretta describes (automatic translation) how to make a map, using uMap, of the businesses providing home delivery during the COVID-19 crisis. The tagging that is being used to indicate what home delivery is being provided is also explained.
  • Jothirnadh, from Amazon, provides some insight into the company’s mapping activities in Germany in the forum and user diary following some criticism (de) (automatic translation) in the Germany forum recently about the use of private imagery.

Humanitarian OSM

  • HOT lists ways you can contribute to OSM while staying at home during the Coronavirus outbreak.
  • HOT have decided not to postpone HOT Summit 2020, to be held in Cape Town on 1 and 2 July, and plans to stick to the previously announced deadlines. In a tweet HOT also stated that they’ll continue to monitor the situation in light of health and travel warnings.
  • In the wake of the Piendamó River avalanche in the early morning of 20 March 2020, which affected more than 60 households in the Guambia indigenous reserve of the Misak community in the Department of Cauca, Colombia, and due to quarantine measures ordered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the response of emergency agencies may be delayed. The indigenous community is requesting financial support to address the emergency. If you are unable to support them in this way, please help us spread the word about their problems, or contribute to the mapping of the affected area.


  • [1] Madison Draper, from Mapbox, provides a downloadable map colouring book with the favorite places of the Mapbox team to keep your children entertained during the times of Coronavirus. If you have a need for more, she also explains how to create your own maps for colouring.
  • According to a tweet Mehmed Akcin from EdgeUno plans to support the distribution of map tiles.
  • Martin Elias blogged on how MapTiler is helping the Berliner Morgenpost cope with the large increase in traffic to their COVID-19 map.
  • RandoCarto has produced a poster featuring the hospitals in Île-de-France. They were rendered from OSM data, cut along the boundaries, and assembled on a single sheet.
  • In Germany refuse collection vehicles are generally not allowed to reverse anymore for safety reasons. This sometimes leads to changes in the routes followed by the garbage trucks. The Frankfurt waste disposal company (FES) provides a map (automatic translation), based on OpenStreetMap, where you can check if your street is affected.
  • Já, an Icelandic search company, has released a new national map of Iceland that uses OpenStreetMap data for its buildings and roads. Já also has a Street View-like service called Já 360, and in February 2019 the company gave OSM contributors permission to use its photographs. See an example here.
  • Dropshadow_1 has produced (fr) a uMap of essential services in the Métropole du Grand Nancy. The map shows the locations of grocery shops, supermarkets, pharmacies, bakeries, and tobacconists.
  • The Portuguese newspaper Dinheiro Vivo published, through an online article (automatic translation), a story about the website SOS Covid. This website allows you to find, in real time, the supermarket closest to you that has the essential goods you need in a state of emergency. Fresh products, health and hygiene items, and also groceries are the products that can be found, for now, with this portal. The SOS Covid page was developed by the software development company Feralbyte, in partnership with researchers from the Centre for Research in Geo-Spatial Sciences (CICGE – UPorto|ISMAI). The use of the OSM licence was respected!


  • Guillaume Rischard is proposing a new logo for Overpass Turbo, which might cause nostalgic feelings in people who were around in the 80s.
  • Mietz recommends (de) (automatic translation) using the Android app SyncMe Wireless in combination with OsmAnd to make your OsmAnd recorded GPX tracks and photos from your phone available on your computer.


  • Paul Norman announced a major milestone, v5.0.0, for OSM’s main map style Carto. He highlighted the major changes in his post on the OSM-dev mailing list while a complete list of improvements can, as usual, be found on GitHub.
  • Simon Poole released version 14.1.0 of the mobile OSM editor Vespucci. The improvements made in this minor version are detailed in the release notes with the complete list of changes maintained in the changelog on GitHub.

Did you know …

  • … the ham radio group of the RWTH Aachen University has set up (de) (automatic translation) an OSM tile server for providing base maps in ham radio applications, such as APRS in the European-based High-speed Amateur-radio Multimedia NETwork, and HAMNET. TNX and 73 DE WeeklyOSM.

Other “geo” things

  • The GIScience News Blog reports (automatic translation) that the Heidelberg Institute for Geoinformation Technology (HeiGIT) wants to hold 25 mapathons, all over Germany, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Klaus Tschira Foundation.
  • Gregory Scruggs reports on the Million Neighborhoods map in an article on Next City. The map uses OSM data to calculate the level of street access and AI to suggest a street network that could be created to give people access.
  • dktue pointed (de) (automatic translation) to a video on LinkedIn which compares the length of the road network from OSM, TomTom and Here. However, there seem to be some questions with regard to the measurements, i.e. if all datasets included the same types of ways.
  • Planning to set up a situation map for your region? Starting from 18 March, Ushahidi has waived its basic plan fees for 90 days to support COVID-19 responses.
  • EVNavigation have released a beta version of their EVNavigation app for precise A-to-B route planning for electric cars. Range calculations consider both the elevation of the terrain and other dynamic variables that may affect battery performance, such as weight, tyre pressure, temperature, wind, and driver behaviour. The app is using OpenChargeMap as a data source for charging stations and OpenStreetMap for mapping data.

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Shocking tales from ornithology

12:31, Saturday, 28 2020 March UTC
Manipulative people have always made use of the dynamics of ingroups and outgroups to create diversions from bigger issues. The situation is made worse when misguided philosophies are peddled by governments that put economics ahead of ecology. The pursuit of easily gamed targets such as GDP is preferrable to ecological amelioration since money is a man-made and controllable entity. Nationalism, pride, other forms of chauvinism, the creation of enemies and the magnification of war threats are all effective tools in the arsenal of Machiavelli for use in misdirecting the masses when things go wrong. One might imagine that the educated, especially scientists, would be smart enough not to fall into these traps, but cases from history dampen hopes for such optimism.

There is a very interesting book in German by Eugeniusz Nowak called "Wissenschaftler in turbulenten Zeiten" (or scientists in turbulent times) that deals with the lives of ornithologists, conservationists and other naturalists during the Second World War. Preceded by a series of recollections published in various journals, the book was published in 2010 but I became aware of it only recently while translating some biographies into the English Wikipedia. I have not yet actually seen the book (it has about five pages on Salim Ali as well) and have had to go by secondary quotations in other content. Nowak was a student of Erwin Stresemann (with whom the first chapter deals with) and he writes about several European (but mostly German, Polish and Russian) ornithologists and their lives during the turbulent 1930s and 40s. Although Europe is pretty far from India, there are ripples that reached afar. Incidentally, Nowak's ornithological research includes studies on the expansion in range of the collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto) which the Germans called the Türkentaube, literally the "Turkish dove", a name with a baggage of cultural prejudices.

Nowak's first paper of "recollections" notes that: [he] presents the facts not as accusations or indictments, but rather as a stimulus to the younger generation of scientists to consider the issues, in particular to think “What would I have done if I had lived there or at that time?” - a thought to keep as you read on.

A shocker from this period is a paper by Dr Günther Niethammer on the birds of Auschwitz (Birkenau). This paper (read it online here) was published when Niethammer was posted to the security at the main gate of the concentration camp. You might be forgiven if you thought he was just a victim of the war. Niethammer was a proud nationalist and volunteered to join the Nazi forces in 1937 leaving his position as a curator at the Museum Koenig at Bonn.
The contrast provided by Niethammer who looked at the birds on one side
while ignoring inhumanity on the other provided
novelist Arno Surminski with a title for his 2008 novel -
Die Vogelwelt von Auschwitz
- ie. the birdlife of Auschwitz.

G. Niethammer
Niethammer studied birds around Auschwitz and also shot ducks in numbers for himself and to supply the commandant of the camp Rudolf Höss (if the name does not mean anything please do go to the linked article / or search for the name online).  Upon the death of Niethammer, an obituary (open access PDF here) was published in the Ibis of 1975 - a tribute with little mention of the war years or the fact that he rose to the rank of Obersturmführer. The Bonn museum journal had a special tribute issue noting the works and influence of Niethammer. Among the many tributes is one by Hans Kumerloeve (starts here online). A subspecies of the common jay was named as Garrulus glandarius hansguentheri by Hungarian ornithologist Andreas Keve in 1967 after the first names of Kumerloeve and Niethammer. Fortunately for the poor jay, this name is a junior synonym of  G. g. anatoliae described by Seebohm in 1883.

Meanwhile inside Auschwitz, the Polish artist Wladyslaw Siwek was making sketches of everyday life  in the camp. After the war he became a zoological artist of repute. Unfortunately there is very little that is readily accessible to English readers on the internet (beyond the Wikipedia entry).
Siwek, artist who documented life at Auschwitz
before working as a wildlife artist.
Hans Kumerloeve
Now for Niethammer's friend Dr Kumerloeve who also worked in the Museum Koenig at Bonn. His name was originally spelt Kummerlöwe and was, like Niethammer, a doctoral student of Johannes Meisenheimer. Kummerloeve and Niethammer made journeys on a small motorcyle to study the birds of Turkey. Kummerlöwe's political activities started earlier than Niethammer, joining the NSDAP (German: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei = The National Socialist German Workers' Party)  in 1925 and starting the first student union of the party in 1933. Kummerlöwe soon became a member of the Ahnenerbe, a think tank meant to provide "scientific" support to the party-ideas on race and history. In 1939 he wrote an anthropological study on "Polish prisoners of war". At the museum in Dresden that he headed, he thought up ideas to promote politics and he published them in 1939 and 1940. After the war, it is thought that he went to all the European libraries that held copies of this journal (Anyone interested in hunting it should look for copies of Abhandlungen und Berichte aus den Staatlichen Museen für Tierkunde und Völkerkunde in Dresden 20:1-15.) and purged them of his article. According to Nowak, he even managed to get his hands (and scissors) on copies held in Moscow and Leningrad!  

The Dresden museum was also home to the German ornithologist Adolf Bernhard Meyer (1840–1911). In 1858, he translated the works of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace into German and introduced evolutionary theory to a whole generation of German scientists. Among Meyer's amazing works is a series of avian osteological works which uses photography and depicts birds in nearly-life-like positions (wonder how it was done!) - a less artistic precursor to Katrina van Grouw's 2012 book The Unfeathered Bird. Meyer's skeleton images can be found here. In 1904 Meyer was eased out of the Dresden museum because of rising anti-semitism. Meyer does not find a place in Nowak's book.

Nowak's book includes entries on the following scientists: (I keep this here partly for my reference as I intend to improve Wikipedia entries on several of them as and when time and resources permit. Would be amazing if others could pitch in!).
In the first of his "recollection papers" (his 1998 article) Nowak writes about the reason for writing them - noticing that the obituary for Prof. Ernst Schäfer  was a whitewash that carefully avoided any mention of his wartime activities. And this brings us to India. In a recent article in Indian Birds, Sylke Frahnert and coauthors have written about the bird collections from Sikkim in the Berlin natural history museum. In their article there is a brief statement that "The  collection  in  Berlin  has  remained  almost  unknown due  to  the  political  circumstances  of  the  expedition". This might be a bit cryptic for many but the best read on the topic is Himmler's Crusade: The true story of the 1939 Nazi expedition into Tibet (2009) by Christopher Hale. Hale writes: 
He [Himmler] revered the ancient cultures of India and the East, or at least his own weird vision of them.
These were not private enthusiasms, and they were certainly not harmless. Cranky pseudoscience nourished Himmler’s own murderous convictions about race and inspired ways of convincing others...
Himmler regarded himself not as the fantasist he was but as a patron of science. He believed that most conventional wisdom was bogus and that his power gave him a unique opportunity to promulgate new thinking. He founded the Ahnenerbe specifically to advance the study of the Aryan (or Nordic or Indo-German) race and its origins
From there Hale goes on to examine the motivations of Schäfer and his team. He looks at how much of the science was politically driven. Swastika signs dominate some of the photos from the expedition - as if it provided for a natural tie with Buddhism in Tibet. It seems that Himmler gave Schäfer the opportunity to rise within the political hierarchy. The team that went to Sikkim included Bruno Beger. Beger was a physical anthropologist but with less than innocent motivations although that would be much harder to ascribe to the team's other pursuits like botany and ornithology. One of the results from the expedition was a film made by the entomologist of the group, Ernst Krause - Geheimnis Tibet - or secret Tibet - a copy of this 1 hour and 40 minute film is on YouTube. At around 26 minutes, you can see Bruno Beger creating face casts - first as a negative in Plaster of Paris from which a positive copy was made using resin. Hale talks about how one of the Tibetans put into a cast with just straws to breathe from went into an epileptic seizure from the claustrophobia and fear induced. The real horror however is revealed when Hale quotes a May 1943 letter from an SS officer to Beger - ‘What exactly is happening with the Jewish heads? They are lying around and taking up valuable space . . . In my opinion, the most reasonable course of action is to send them to Strasbourg . . .’ Apparently Beger had to select some prisoners from Auschwitz who appeared to have Asiatic features. Hale shows that Beger knew the fate of his selection - they were gassed for research conducted by Beger and August Hirt.
SS-Sturmbannführer Schäfer at the head of the table in Lhasa

In all, Hale makes a clear case that the Schäfer mission had quite a bit of political activity underneath. We find that Sven Hedin (Schäfer was a big fan of him in his youth. Hedin was a Nazi sympathizer who funded and supported the mission) was in contact with fellow Nazi supporter Erica Schneider-Filchner and her father Wilhelm Filchner in India, both of whom were interned later at Satara, while Bruno Beger made contact with Subhash Chandra Bose more than once. [Two of the pictures from the Bundesarchiv show a certain Bhattacharya - who appears to be a chemist working on snake venom at the Calcutta snake park - one wonders if he is Abhinash Bhattacharya.]

My review of Nowak's book must be uniquely flawed as  I have never managed to access it beyond some online snippets and English reviews.  The war had impacts on the entire region and Nowak's coverage is limited and there were many other interesting characters including the Russian ornithologist Malchevsky  who survived German bullets thanks to a fat bird observation notebook in his pocket! In the 1950's Trofim Lysenko, the crank scientist who controlled science in the USSR sought Malchevsky's help in proving his own pet theories - one of which was the ideas that cuckoos were the result of feeding hairy caterpillars to young warblers!

Issues arising from race and perceptions are of course not restricted to this period or region, one of the less glorious stories of the Smithsonian Institution concerns the honorary curator Robert Wilson Shufeldt (1850 – 1934) who in the infamous Audubon affair made his personal troubles with his second wife, a grand-daughter of Audubon, into one of race. He also wrote such books as America's Greatest Problem: The Negro (1915) in which we learn of the ideas of other scientists of the period like Edward Drinker Cope! Like many other obituaries, Shufeldt's is a classic whitewash.  

Even as recently as 2015, the University of Salzburg withdrew an honorary doctorate that they had given to the Nobel prize winning Konrad Lorenz for his support of the political setup and racial beliefs. It should not be that hard for scientists to figure out whether they are on the wrong side of history even if they are funded by the state. Perhaps salaried scientists in India would do well to look at the legal contracts they sign with their employers, especially the state, more carefully. The current rules make government employees less free than ordinary citizens but will the educated speak out or do they prefer shackling themselves. 

  • Mixing natural history with war sometimes led to tragedy for the participants as well. In the case of Dr Manfred Oberdörffer who used his cover as an expert on leprosy to visit the borders of Afghanistan with entomologist Fred Hermann Brandt (1908–1994), an exchange of gunfire with British forces killed him although Brandt lived on to tell the tale.
  • Apparently Himmler's entanglement with ornithology also led him to dream up "Storchbein Propaganda" - a plan to send pamphlets to the Boers in South Africa via migrating storks! The German ornithologist Ernst Schüz quietly (and safely) pointed out the inefficiency of it purely on the statistics of recoveries!

The best documentation automation can buy

03:46, Saturday, 28 2020 March UTC

HEADER CAPTION: Screenshot from Wikimedia's famous Visual Editor. The typo "documenation" has a red squiggly line under it indicating the spell checker has automatically detected a spelling error by the author.

Tools for validating that JavaScript documentation is current and error-free have advanced significantly over the last several years. It is now possible to detect mismatches between a program's documentation and its source code automatically using a free and open-source, industry-standard type checker. This goes way beyond typos.

JavaScript typing is loose

JavaScript is an untyped language. Unlike a typed language, a JavaScript program is always generated regardless of whether the types in it are valid. Some consider JavaScript's fast-and-loose style a feature, not a bug. Notable proponents of that viewpoint include Douglas Crockford and Paul Graham.

There have been numerous articles written on the subject, but I suspect that most reading already understand the values of clear typing. For any nontrivial program with multiple authors and any longevity, especially those likely to be found among the sprawling wikis, strong typing is much more practical and sustainable than the alternative. With good typing, one can quickly grasp the structure of a program. That is, you can conceptualize and interface with any well-typed API whether you understand how it works internally or not. Refactors are a lot easier too and while not fearless, a typed codebase is far more malleable than an untyped one. Type checks are also a great way to verify your work, just like in grade school.

Picture of a whiteboard showing the complete mathematical steps for unit conversion from 65 miles per hour to kilometers per hour.
CAPTION: 65 miles per hour is how many kilometers per hour? So long as the fractions are correct, we can validate the conversion by checking that the units cancel each other out. In type checking, our function parameters, function return types, and object properties must align in a similar way but the process is automated.

Many bugs could be caught before arriving in production if every patch had its typing validated—but don't take my word for it. Phan, the PHP type checker, is now a required validation test for any change to MediaWiki Core as well as many extensions. It's like a bunch of built-in unit tests specifically for types. Without automation, these tests can require thousands of lines of hand written code that are tedious and time consuming to author, read, and maintain (e.g., see the otherwise excellent Popups extension). In the worst cases, no tests are written at all.

Photograph of the interior of a pocket watch showing intricate gears and fine craftsmanship.
CAPTION: Types must align like clockwork or the machine stops running. Image by ElooKoN / CC BY-SA.

Documentation should be correct

Good typing is just as important in documentation. For JavaScript, documentation is largely written in JSDoc (or its deprecated competitor, JSDuck). Wikipedians seem to agree that documentation is a very good idea. If documentation is a good idea, correct and up-to-date documentation is an even better one. There's a tool for that: it's called TypeScript.

If you haven't heard of TypeScript yet, it may be because it's not very common at Wikimedia except for the uber-amazing work by the WMDE and Wikidata communities (e.g., see wikibase-termbox which is over 80% TypeScript) as well as explorations several years back by Joaquín Oltra Hernández. However, it is now immensely popular globally and proven itself by capability to be far more than just a fashionable trend from 2012.

So what is TypeScript exactly? TypeScript is JavaScript with types. Whether you choose to use it for functional code like WMDE or not, TypeScript features the ability to lint plain JavaScript files for the type correctness of their JSDocs. You don't need Webpack and you don't need to make any functional changes to your code (unless it's incorrect and out-of-sync from the documentation—i.e., bug fixes). Your JavaScript is the same as it ever was but now, if your documentation and program don't match, TypeScript will report an error.

This isn't just better documentation, it's documentation as accurate as we can write in an automated way. Who doesn't want better documentation?

What changes are needed?

Typing at the seams. In practice, this usually means documenting function inputs and outputs, and user types using JSDoc syntax. E.g.:

 * Template properties for a portlet.
 * @typedef {Object} PortletContext
 * @prop {string} portal-id Identifier for wrapper.
 * @prop {string} html-tooltip Tooltip message.
 * @prop {string} msg-label-id Aria identifier for label text.
 * @prop {string} [html-userlangattributes] Additional Element attributes.
 * @prop {string} msg-label Aria label text.
 * @prop {string} html-portal-content
 * @prop {string} [html-after-portal] HTML to inject after the portal.
 * @prop {string} [html-hook-vector-after-toolbox] Deprecated and used by the toolbox portal.

 * @param {PortletContext} data The properties to render the portlet template with.
 * @return {HTMLElement} The rendered portlet.
function wrapPortlet( data ) {
  const node = document.createElement( 'div' );
  node.setAttribute( 'id', 'mw-panel' );
  node.innerHTML = mustache.render( portalTemplate, data );
  return node;

CAPTION: If this code was undocumented or the types inaccurate, would you always get the data properties right? Maybe you would, but what about everyone else?

Most programmers are already typing their JavaScript to some extent with JSDocs, so often only refinements are needed. In other cases, TypeScript's excellent type inference abilities can be leveraged so that no changes are required.

Type definitions are a useful supplement to JSDocs. Definitions are non-functional documentation that support type annotations inline. For example, the definition of the powerful but fantastically loose jQuery API could find marvelous utility in many Wikimedia codebases for at-your-fingertips documentation needs. Another very relevant example that ships with TypeScript itself is the DOM definition, which will alert you to misalignments such as attempting to access a classList on a Node instead of an Element. Thorough type checking is similar and the perfect complement to ESLint checks for ES5-only sources or more broadly ESLint's safety checks.

Type definitions are also a convenient way to describe globals and, more generally, share types. Definitions are either shipped with the NPM package itself or DefinitelyTyped (e.g., npm i -D @types/jquery) and are now standard practice for most noteworthy JavaScript libraries. Imagine if this degree of accuracy could be achieved in some of our most well-used codebases. Integrations between skins, extensions, Core, and peripheral libraries would be validated for alignment. It would be harder to break things and a much more welcoming experience for newcomers.

npm install jsdoc typescript tsconfig.json tsc Document!

The actual project setup for adding documentation checks to an existing repository is minimal and requires no functional changes:

  1. Add JSDoc and TypeScript as NPM development dependencies. Optionally: add any missing types for third-party libraries used.
  2. Add a tsconfig.json to tell TypeScript to lint JavaScript documentation you wish to validate.
  3. Add tsc to the project's NPM test script.

The real work is in fleshing out the missing documentation with JSDocs. However, TypeScript is quite flexible about how one chooses to opt in or out of documentation validation. If code isn't worth documenting, it's probably not worth keeping, but typing can be consciously deferred in a number of ways. The most straightforward is probably with a // @ts-ignore comment. Think of it as progressively enhanced code.

An example project setup for Vector is here which shows how typing and documentation can be retrofitted nicely even on codebases that predate TypeScript and make heavy use of sophisticated APIs like jQuery.

Editor support

It's unnecessary for setting up a project, but worth mentioning, that by ensuring that even a machine can model your documentation means that your code editor can understand it too. For most editors, this means you'll get accurate, split-second documentation lookup and documentation type checking. Visual Studio Code has a superb out-of-box experience for JavaScript including documentation awareness and code completion, but other editors are supported too.

Screenshot from Visual Studio Code integrated development environment showing the same red squigglies we saw before but this time its detecting a fatal error instead of a typo.
CAPTION: Errors are identified as you write. There's that typo again but this time it could be your next unbreak now or your next type checker error.

You would see similar output from a continuous integration job or the command line:

Animation of the same flawed code presenting an error on the command line when checked.
CAPTION: The command line output is just as informative.

And here are those excellent docs:

Screenshot of the same code editor presenting documentation in a highly integrated and useful manner.
CAPTION: Documentation is a mouse hover away. Coding with documentation at hand is a breeze and the expectation for many modern developers writing their first MediaWiki patches.


65 miles per hour is 104.60736 kilometers per hour. Language changes the way we think, and documentation is the encyclopedia of code. Tooling that improves our abilities to understand, reason, and express ourselves through language improves our ability to engineer.

In my own personal and professional development, I've found accurate documentation to be a great treasure that gives me confidence and efficiency in the code that I read and write. Maybe we should have the same hopes and expectations of our documentation that newcomers do. Maybe with better documentation—documentation that is as accurate as we can automate—some of Wikipedia's many JavaScript errors could be identified and eliminated as easily as changing units from mph to kph. Maybe with better documentation, we could write better software, faster. Software that users love using and developers enjoy writing. Let's get to work!

Photograph of a blank jigsaw puzzle where pieces differ only by shape.
CAPTION: Programs are like jigsaw puzzles where types are the shapes. Check assembly before shipping. Image by Muns and Schlurcher / CC BY-SA.

Thanks to Sam Smith, Joaquín Oltra Hernández, and Leszek Manicki for reviewing and providing feedback.

NOTE: Documentation on building better documentation is being written on wiki with the help of editors like you!

Monthly​ ​Report,​ January 2020

17:30, Thursday, 26 2020 March UTC


  • This month, we worked with our partners at the Society of Family Planning (SFP) to launch the second iteration of SFP Wiki Scholars courses. SFP is sponsoring additional courses to train their members—primarily medical practitioners—how to add scientific information to family planning articles.
  • This month the English Wikipedia celebrated a major milestone: 6 million articles! As the number climbed closer to that figure, many members of the editing community worked feverishly to create articles in the hope that theirs would be number 6,000,000. The article’s creator was none other than Northeastern University Visiting Scholar Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, who told the Wikipedia community newsletter, The Signpost that she “woke up at 3:30 AM the morning of January 23rd. Unable to go back to sleep, I went into the living room. I opened up my laptop to Wikipedia and noticed we were a few hundred articles shy of the 6 millionth article. I decided to create an article about a woman writer, my preferred focus, on the chance that when I would be ready to click Save, it would miraculously be the right moment.”
  • The board met in San Francisco for an in-person meeting. The board approved the creation of an Advisory Board, the extension of our current strategic plan, and two new board members: Jon Cawthorne, Dean of the Wayne State University Library System and incoming president of the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL), and Meaghan Duff, Owner & Principal of Mercy Education Partners and former Senior Vice President for Partnerships & Strategy at Faculty Guilt.



Wikipedia Student Program

Status of the Wikipedia Student Program for Spring 2020 in numbers, as of January 31:

  • 279 Wiki Education-supported courses were in progress (193, or 69%, were led by returning instructors).
  • 4,381 student editors were enrolled.
  • 67% of students were up-to-date with their assigned training modules
  • Students edited 869 articles, created 18 new entries, and added 165,000 words and 2,030 references.

January marked the beginning of the Spring 2020 term, and as always, that means that students were busy signing up for Wikipedia usernames, getting familiar with the Dashboard, and generally introducing themselves to the ins and outs of Wikipedia editing.

Wikipedia Student Program Manager Helaine Blumenthal was busy approving course pages and making sure that all of our Spring 2020 courses are set up for success. She also launched a new feature of the Student Program where instructors receive an end of term email summarizing the work their students did along with links to easily share their successes on social media. Wikipedia Experts Ian Ramjohn, Elysia Webb, and Shalor Toncray were busy wrapping up courses from Fall 2019 and helping students as they plunged into their Wikipedia assignments.

Student work highlights:

Three student-authored articles appeared on Wikipedia’s Main Page in the Did You Know? section: Affect labeling on January 5, School belonging on January 6, Cognitive inertia on January 9, and Jellyfish bloom on January 13. Cognitive inertia was viewed over 6,700 while it was on Wikipedia’s main page, while jellyfish bloom received over 3,300 views.

Drosophila subobscura was promoted to Good Article status on January 18. Good Articles represent a tremendous effort from an editor, and it’s especially impressive that the student from Joan Strassman’s Behavioural Ecology course kept editing after their term ended to see the article through the peer review process.

Art is an enduring part of human life, as people have been drawn to create depictions of how they see and interpret their lives and the world around them. Students in Alice Price’s The Modern North class at Temple University, Tyler School of Art chose to create articles on topics and persons such as Isaac Levitan, a classical Russian landscape painter who advanced the genre of the “mood landscape”. During his life Levitan faced several challenges, one of which occurred toward the beginning of his art career when he along with many other Jewish people were forcibly deported from the big cities of the Russian Empire after Alexander Soloviev’s assassination attempt on Alexander II. Levitan was later allowed back into the city after several of his fans pleaded his case with the authorities. He was friends with famed writer Anton Chekhov, however the two had a falling out in 1892 over Chekov’s “The Grasshopper”, which Levitan believed was based on his romantic relationship with Sofia Kuvshinnikova. Although Chekhov apologized the two remained estranged until January 1895. Two years later Levitan was elected to the Imperial Academy of Arts and only a few short years after that Isaac Levitan died at the age of 39 at Chekhov’s home in Crimea. Although he suffered from heart complications throughout his life and his last works were increasingly filled with light. During the year after his death an exhibit of several hundred Levitan paintings was shown in Moscow and then in St. Petersburg.

Wikipedia is one of the world’s most accessed resources for people who want to learn more about health content, so we’re thrilled to support courses like this one out of University of Central Florida. When these health professions students learned how to edit Wikipedia, they applied their skills and knowledge towards high-impact articles like Anticoagulant, which is viewed nearly 1,000 times every day. Student editors greatly strengthened the section “Adverse effects”, which is critical information for consumers of health information. Altogether, the students rewrote over half of this page. Another topic of high importance edited by the students is Nephritic syndrome, which is a kidney disease. Before the student began editing, this page only had 10 references. Now, not only is the content much more robust, it is more verifiable, with a total of 46 references to high-quality sources.

Scholars & Scientists Program


This was a busy month for the Scholars & Scientists program, wrapping up one course and starting three more!

First, we wrapped up Living Knowledge, our Wiki Scientists course focused on biology. Among the articles participants improved are:

  • Reporter gene, genes used in research which help scientists identify and measure other genes. The article had been tagged as needing more references since 2008! At the start of the course, it had only 5 sources. A Wiki Scientist not only added information to the article but significantly improved the sourcing, increasing that number to 23.
  • Stretch reflex, a muscle contraction in response to stretching in the muscle. A Wiki Scientist improved sourcing while adding quite a bit of information to the lead and several sections.

Early in the month we launched our exciting Science and Society course to improve currently relevant science topics. At the end of the month, we are only a few weeks into the process, with the group of 14 scientists working in sandboxes while learning to share their passion and knowledge on Wikipedia, but we see several fascinating articles to look forward to.

Toward the end of the month we also launched a course, #Envision2030, in partnership with Keene State College. Through it we will be teaching faculty and staff from Keene as well as nearby Plymouth State University to improve Wikipedia articles related to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Finally, we had our first meeting of a new kind of Wiki Scientists program. Last year we ran two successful courses with the Society of Family Planning, training its members to improve Wikipedia articles related to family planning, like abortion and contraception. Based on positive outcomes from those courses, SFP will be running two more courses this year. Additionally, we will be supporting members who have gone through the program in an alumni program. Through this initiative, we use a dedicated Slack channel, monthly standing meetings, and a monthly newsletter to foster ongoing engagement between Wiki Scientists and Wikipedia. Additionally, we are setting up a form to allow other SFP members to participate in the initiative by submitting opportunities for improvement that they see while reading Wikipedia. We know that scientists can do excellent work through out training programs, and we are excited to start this ongoing support model to facilitate contributions after the courses, too.

Outside of regular courses, Scholars & Scientists Program Manager Ryan McGrady attended the American Historical Association conference in New York to present on a panel, “Wiki Scholars: Historians and the National Archives Team Up for a Course to Improve Wikipedia’s Articles about Women’s Suffrage”. Ryan joined three of our past Wiki Scholars, Lindsey Wieck, Cassandra Berman, and Erin Siodmak, to talk about our long-term collaboration with the National Archives to improve articles relevant to women’s suffrage.


Wiki Education Wikidata Program Participants, Ian Gill (L) and Marla Misunas (R)
with Wikidata Program Manager, Will Kent (C)

This past month we began collecting best practices to create a self-directed Wikidata course. This process involves looking at other online course-delivery platforms, analyzing our current Wikidata training modules, and weighing what kind of features we would like this learning experience to have. We are excited to have multiple ways to deliver online learning opportunities about Wikidata and the various skills people may need to get the most out of Wikidata. We hope to release this new delivery method later this year.

Program manager Will Kent was also able to visit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) to check in with some past Wikidata course participants Marla Misunas and Ian Gill. They discussed what was useful about the course and what SFMOMA has been working on since the course ended. Ian has been busy adding exhibition data about SFMOMA exhibitions to Wikidata. He created this query to track all exhibition data from 1935-2020. Feel free to follow the link and click the blue “play button” to see the full list of over 3,000 SFMOMA exhibitions.

This kind of query shows the impact that Wikidata can have not only at an institutional level, but also at a global level. Now that this dataset is open and freely accessible on Wikidata, other museums and individuals can see this data and use it in their own projects.

Visiting Scholars Program

Maria Elise Turner Lauder (1833-1922)

This month the English Wikipedia celebrated a major milestone: 6 million articles! As the number climbed closer to that figure, many members of the editing community worked feverishly to create articles in the hope that theirs would be number 6,000,000. Due to technical limitations, determining which article it was took both art and science, but ultimately settled on a biography for Maria Elise Turner Lauder (1833-1922). Lauder was a Canadian teacher, linguist, author, and philanthropist best known for her works about her travels. The article’s creator was none other than Northeastern University Visiting Scholar Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, who told the Wikipedia community newsletter, The Signpost that she “woke up at 3:30 AM the morning of January 23rd. Unable to go back to sleep, I went into the living room. I opened up my laptop to Wikipedia and noticed we were a few hundred articles shy of the 6 millionth article. I decided to create an article about a woman writer, my preferred focus, on the chance that when I would be ready to click Save, it would miraculously be the right moment.” You can read more about the milestone and Rosie’s perspective in the Signpost piece here.

In other exciting news, the George Mason University Visiting Scholar, Gary Greenbaum, promoted three Featured Articles this month. Most editors do not achieve three Featured Articles across their Wikipedia career, but this is not even Gary’s first time with three in a month. Two of them are for commemorative coins. There is the New Rochelle 250th Anniversary half dollar, celebrating the city’s settlement in 1938, and the Bridgeport, Connecticut, Centennial half dollar, issued two years earlier for the hundredth anniversary of the city’s incorporation.

Apollo 13’s damaged service module, as it was being jettisoned

The third Featured Article is a big one: Apollo 13, the 1970 mission to the moon famous for its nearly catastrophic oxygen tank failure just two days in. Many people know it best through the 1995 Ron Howard/Tom Hanks film, but more than 2 million people a year go to Wikipedia for information about the real mission. Thanks to Gary’s efforts, in collaboration with another editor, User:Kees08, what people will find is one of the highest quality articles on Wikipedia.




On January 31, 2020 we signed an agreement for a new fundraising staff member. After working with Lisa Grossman at Oppenheimer Associates for search services, Paul Carroll joined the staff as the Director, Institutional Funding, effective February 3, 2020. Paul joined Wiki Education on the first day of our All Staff meeting week just after our January Board meeting.

On January 2, 2020, TJ Bliss, as part of his work under contract, submitted the grant report to the Moore Foundation for the Communicating Science grant ($485,000, grant ended 11/5/2019).


This month, we worked with our partners at the Society of Family Planning (SFP) to launch the second iteration of SFP Wiki Scholars courses. SFP is sponsoring additional courses to train their members – primarily medical practitioners – how to add scientific information to family planning articles. Director of Partnerships Jami Mathewson joined two alumni Wiki Scholars in a webinar to announce the initiative to their members and inspire them to apply. After the amazing work SFP Wiki Scholars did in 2019, we’re excited to facilitate these courses with a new cohort of medical professionals and researchers.

In January, we started two additional courses. We’re working with faculty from Keene State College and Plymouth State University as they work on topics related to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. We’re supporting members of the American Physical Society as they add women physicists to Wikipedia. We’re thrilled to bring so many content experts to Wikipedia and look forward to sharing their impact.


Curious about what it’s like in our beginning Wikidata course? Digital Collections Associate Lisa Barrier and Digital Collections Manager Kathryn Gronsbell from Carnegie Hall will walk you through it in their guest blog this month, as well as their linked data plans for the future. Jackie Shieh, a Descriptive Data Management Librarian at Smithsonian Libraries, also walks through the course experience in a guest blog. And Jake Kubrin explains a specific project he started developing in our intermediate Wikidata course.

Wiki Scientists sponsored by the National Science Policy Network were also prolific on our blog this month. Daniel Puentes improved articles related to nuclear policy. Dilara Kiran walked us through why she found the course particularly valuable for early career scientists like herself.

New York Academy of Sciences Wiki Scientist Jyoti Patel spoke to the personal reasons behind her commitment to science communication.

One of the Wiki Scholars sponsored at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Dr. Bridget Marshall, shared what she has learned being part of the course and her plans for teaching Wikipedia writing assignments in the future.

We also republished a great piece by Faith Rovenolt of Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching about Dr. Danielle Picard’s Wikipedia writing assignment last fall.

Blog posts:


In January, we pushed forward our work on Wiki Education Dashboard student user experience improvements and a better interface for instructors to evaluate student work at each phase of the Wikipedia assignment. The technology team conducted in-person usability tests with several University of Washington students, and made a number of adjustments, bug fixes, and feature improvements to the “My Articles” widget and the training system based on what we learned. Software Developer Wes Reid also worked on a substantial reorganization of the “Students” tab of Dashboard, adding key information about each assigned article and peer review for individual students, which will go live in mid-February.

Finance & Administration

The total expenditures for the month of January were 227K, +$10K than the budget of $217K. The Board was over budget by +$7K due to timing, this $7K will go against the February budget. Fundraising was under ($5K) due to a staffing change ($7K) while adding Outside Contracting support +$2K through transition. General and Administrative are over +$25K due to +21K in Indirect Costs, +$15K in audit fees budgeted in prior months, but were billed in January, +$1K Payroll Costs and under ($12K) in staff meetings that got pushed to February. Programs are under ($17K) due to ($20K) in Indirect Costs, ($8K) in Outside Professional fees and over +$11K in Payroll Cost.

Wiki Education expenses January 2020

The Year-to-date expenses were $1.330K, ($30K) under the budget of $1.300K. The Board was over +$8K, of which +$7K of January overage due to timing that will even out in February and +$1K in previous Payroll Costs. Fundraising was under ($8K) due to ($3K) in Indirect Costs, ($7K) Staff Change in January, and +$2K in Outside Support. General and Administrative was over +$76K, of which +$99K in Indirect Costs, +$5K Travel, +$2K Payroll Costs, +$3K Communication, while being under ($17K) Staff Meetings and Office Expenses, ($12K) Professional Fees, ($5K) Occupancy Costs. Programs were under ($106K) of which ($95K) in Indirect Costs, ($32K) Travel, ($12K) Communications, ($2K) Office Expenses, with an overage of +$30K Payroll Costs and +$5K in Professional Services.

Wiki Education expenses YTD January 2020

Office of the ED

  • Current priorities:
  • In-person board meeting
  • Hiring of a new fundraiser
  • Getting ready for the all-staff meeting in February

In January, board members gathered for their in-person board meeting at the Omni Hotel in San Francisco. The two-day event started with a meeting of Wiki Education’s Finance and Audit Committee which Jordan Daly from SFBay Financials and Susan Malone from Hood & Strong joined in person. Then, Frank provided the board with a report on the current status of the organization, followed by an outlook on the fundraising situation and a discussion. Afterwards, LiAnna Davis gave the board an update on Wiki Education’s programmatic activities. On the second day, Sage Ross provided an update on the recent work of the technology department. Then, Frank and LiAnna presented different options for what to focus on in next fiscal year and discussed these options with the board. Subsequently, board members Carwil Bjork-James and Bob Cummings gave a presentation titled “Five Major Trends in Higher Ed/OER and How they May Impact Wiki Education.” At the end of the meeting, the board approved the creation of an Advisory Board, the extension of our current strategic plan, and two new board members: Jon Cawthorne, Dean of the Wayne State University Library System and incoming president of the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL), and Meaghan Duff, Owner & Principal of Mercy Education Partners and former Senior Vice President for Partnerships & Strategy at Faculty Guilt.

Wiki Education in-person board meeting at the Omni Hotel in San Francisco in January 2020. 
Left to right: Carwil Bjork-James, Sue Gardner, Karen Twitchell, Bob Cummings, PJ Tabit.

Also in January, Frank finalized his search for a new fundraiser. With the help of Lisa Grossman from recruiting firm m/Oppenheim, he hired Paul Carroll as Director, Institutional Funding. Prior to joining Wiki Education, Paul worked as a grantmaker with the Ploughshares Fund, a public foundation that addresses international security. Paul served as the program director with responsibilities for a roughly $6 million annual grantmaking budget. He has also served on the steering committee of the Peace and Security Funders Group (PSFG), an international network of foundations and individual donors interested in a broad range of peace, human security, and development issues. Paul has lived on both sides of the fundraising/grantmaking table – experience that adds to his understanding of and appreciation for the craft of development, communications, and partnership-building.



Dear members of the Wiki Education community,

Amidst the anxieties and uncertainties of our collective future, I’d like to express my compassion for all members of our community affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. We are in solidarity alongside you as we all face new personal and professional challenges.

Because Wiki Education is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, we took the first steps to ensure the safety of our staff in February. We are well-equipped to work remotely and continue offering support to all program participants with little to no interruption.

Sharing reliable and trustworthy knowledge freely with others is an invaluable project that we’re honored to pursue with all of you. Never in living history has a crisis reached so far across the globe. Making sure everyone has information to best make well-informed decisions for themselves and their families right now is essential. We’re proud that our programs are helping to bring that information to where we’re all looking for it: directly into Wikipedia.

Thank you for continuing to work with us to achieve this big goal. Seeing so many people around the world getting their information about the current global health crisis from Wikipedia, everybody on staff is more than ever devoted to the mission of our organization.

Frank Schulenburg


Please stay safe and well,

Frank Schulenburg





Production Excellence #19: February 2020

13:46, Wednesday, 25 2020 March UTC

How’d we do in our strive for operational excellence last month? Read on to find out!

📊  Month in numbers
  • 8 documented incidents. [1]
  • 27 new Wikimedia-prod-error reports. [2]
  • 26 Wikimedia-prod-error reports closed. [3]
  • 199 currently open Wikimedia-prod-error reports in total. [4]

With a median of 4–5 documented incidents per month (over the last three years), there were a fairly large number of them this past month.

To read more about these incidents and pending actionables; check Incident documentation § 2020, or Explore Wikimedia incident stats (interactive).

📖  Unset vs array splice

Our error monitor (Logstash) received numerous reports about an “Undefined offset” error from the OATHAuth extension. This extension powers the Two-factor auth (2FA) login interface on Wikipedia.

@ItSpiderman and @Reedy investigated the problem. The error message:

PHP Notice: Undefined offset: 8
at /srv/mediawiki/extensions/OATHAuth/src/Key/TOTPKey.php:188

This error means that the code was accessing item number 8 from a list (an array), but the item does not exist. Normally, when a “2FA scratch token” is used, we remove it from a list, and save the remaining list for next time.

The code used the count() function to compute the length of the list, and used a for-loop to iterate through the list. When the code found the user’s token, it used the unset( $list[$num] ) operation to remove token $num from the list, and then save $list for next time.

The problem with removing a list item in this way is that it leaves a “gap”. Imagine a list with 4 items, like [ 1: …, 2: …, 3: … , 4: … ]. If we unset item 2, then the remaining list will be [ 1: …, 3: …, 4: … ]. The next time we check this list, the length of the list is now 3 (so far so good!), but the for-loop will access the items as 1-2-3. The code would not know that 3 comes after 1, causing an error because item 2 does not exist. And, the code would not even look at item 4!

When a user used their first ever scratch token, everything worked fine. But from their second token onwards, the tokens could be rejected as “wrong” because the code was not able to find them.

To avoid this bug, we changed the code to use array_splice( $list, $num, 1 ) instead of unset( $list[$num] ). The important thing about array_splice is that it renumbers the items in the list, leaving no gaps.

T244308 / https://gerrit.wikimedia.org/r/570253

📉  Outstanding reports

Take a look at the workboard and look for tasks that might need your help. The workboard lists error reports, grouped by the month in which they were first observed.


Breakdown of recent months:

  • March: 3 of 10 reports left (unchanged). ⚠️
  • April: 4 of 14 left (unchanged).
  • May: (All clear!)
  • June: 4 of 11 left (unchanged).
  • July: 8 of 18 left (unchanged).
  • August: Two reports closed! 2 of 14 reports left.
  • September: One report closed, 7 of 12 left.
  • October: Two reports closed, 6 of 12 left.
  • November: 5 of 5 left (unchanged).
  • December: 6 of 9 left (unchanged).
  • January: One report closed, 6 of 7 reports left.
  • February: 7 new reports survived the month of February.

Last month’s total over recent months was 57 open reports. Of those, 6 got closed, but with 7 new reports from February still open, the total is now up at 58 open reports.

🎉  Thanks!

Thank you to everyone who helped by reporting, investigating, or resolving problems in Wikimedia production.

Together, we’re getting there!

Until next time,

– Timo Tijhof

[1] Incidents. – wikitech.wikimedia.org/wiki/Incident_documentation#2020
[2] Tasks created. – phabricator.wikimedia.org/maniphest/query…
[3] Tasks closed. – phabricator.wikimedia.org/maniphest/query…
[4] Open tasks. – phabricator.wikimedia.org/maniphest/query…

Production Excellence #18: January 2020

22:08, Tuesday, 24 2020 March UTC

How’d we do in our strive for operational excellence last month? Read on to find out!

📊  Month in numbers
  • 3 documented incidents. [1]
  • 26 new Wikimedia-prod-error reports. [2]
  • 26 Wikimedia-prod-error reports closed. [3]
  • 198 currently open Wikimedia-prod-error reports in total. [4]

To read more about these incidents and pending actionables; check Incident documentation § 2020, or Explore Wikimedia incident stats (interactive).

📖  Paradoxical array key

Wikimedia encountered several Zend engine bugs that could corrupt a PHP program at run-time, during the upgrade from HHVM to PHP 7.2. (Some of these bugs are still being worked on.) One of the bugs we fixed last month was particularly mysterious. Investigation led by @hashar and @tstarling.

MediaWiki would create an array in PHP and add a key-value pair to it. We could iterate this array, and see that our key was there. Moments later, if we tried to retrieve the key from that same array, sometimes the key would no longer exist!

After many ad-hoc debug logs, core dumps, and GDB sessions, the problem was tracked down to the string interning system of Zend PHP. String interning is a memory reduction technique. It means we only store one copy of a character sequence in RAM, even if many parts of the code use the same character sequence. For example, the words “user” and “edit” are frequently used in the MediaWiki codebase. One of those sequences is the empty string (“”), which is also used a lot in our code. This is the string we found disappearing most often from our PHP arrays. This bug affected several components, including Wikibase, the wikimedia/rdbms library, and ResourceLoader.

Tim used a hardware watchpoint in GDB, and traced the root cause to the Memcached client for PHP. The php-memcached client would “free” a string directly from the internal memory manager after doing some work. It did this even for “interned” strings that other parts of the program may still be depending on.

@jijiki and @Joe backported the upstream fix to our php-memcached package and deployed it to production. Thanks! — T232613

📉  Outstanding reports

Take a look at the workboard and look for tasks that might need your help. The workboard lists error reports, grouped by the month in which they were first observed.


Breakdown of recent months (past two weeks not included):

  • March: 3 of 10 reports left (unchanged). ⚠️
  • April: Two reports closed, 4 of 14 left.
  • May: (All clear!)
  • June: Two reports closed. 4 of 11 left.
  • July: Four reports closed, 8 of 18 left.
  • August: 4 of 14 reports left (unchanged).
  • September: One report closed, 8 of 12 left.
  • October: 8 of 12 left (unchanged).
  • November: 5 of 5 left (unchanged).
  • December: Three reports closed, 6 of 9 left.
  • January: 7 new reports survived the month of January.

There are a total of 57 reports filed in recent months that remain open. This is down from 62 last month.

🎉  Thanks!

Thank you to everyone who helped by reporting, investigating, or resolving problems in Wikimedia production. Thanks!

Until next time,

– Timo Tijhof

[1] Incidents. – wikitech.wikimedia.org/wiki/Incident_documentation#2019
[2] Tasks created. – phabricator.wikimedia.org/maniphest/query…
[3] Tasks closed. – phabricator.wikimedia.org/maniphest/query…
[4] Open tasks. – phabricator.wikimedia.org/maniphest/query…

Production Excellence #4: October 2018

22:06, Tuesday, 24 2020 March UTC

How’d we do in our strive for operational excellence last month? Read on to find out!

  • Month in numbers.
  • Highlighted stories.
  • Current problems.

📊 Month in numbers

  • 7 documented incident since from 24 September to 31 October. [1]
  • 79 Wikimedia-prod-error tasks closed from 24 September to 31 October. [2]
  • 69 Wikimedia-prod-error tasks created from 24 September to 31 October. [3]
  • 175 currently open Wikimedia-prod-error tasks (as of 25 November 2018).

October had a relatively high number of incidents – compared to prior months and compared to the same month last year (details).


  • An Exception (or fatal) causes user actions to be prevented. For example, a page would display "Exception: Unable to render page", instead the article content.
  • A Warning (or non-fatal, or error) can produce page views that are technically unaware of a problem, but may show corrupt, incorrect, or incomplete information. Examples – an article would display the code word “null” instead of the actual content, a user looking for Vegetables may be taken to an article about Vegetarians, a user may receive a notification that says “You have (null) new messages.”

I’ve highlighted a few of last month’s resolved tasks below.

📖 Send your thanks for talk contributions

Fixed by volunteer @Mh-3110 (Mahuton).

The Thanks functionality for MediaWiki (created in 2013) wasn’t working in some cases. This problem was first reported in April, with four more reports since then. Mahuton investigated together with @SBisson. They found that the issue was specific to talk pages with structured discussions.

It turned out to be caused by an outdated array access key in SpecialThanks.php. Once adjusted, the functionality was restored to its former glory. The error existed for about eight months, since internal refactoring in March for T186920 changed the internal array.

This was Mahuton’s first Gerrit contribution. Thank you @Mh-3110, and welcome!

T191442 / https://gerrit.wikimedia.org/r/461189

📖 One space led to Fatal exception

Fixed by volunteer @D3r1ck01 (Derick Alangi).

Administrators use the Special:DeletedContributions page to search for edits that are hidden from public view. When an admin typed a space at the end of their search, the MediaWiki application would throw a fatal exception. The user would see a generic error page, suggesting that the website may be unavailable.

Derick went in and updated the input handler to automatically correct these inputs for the user.


📖 Fatal exception from translation draft access

Accessing the private link for ContentTranslation when logged-out isn’t meant to work. But, the code didn’t account for this fact. When users attempted to open such url when not logged in, the ContentTranslation code performed an invalid operation. This caused a fatal error from the MediaWiki application. The user would see a system error page without further details.

This could happen when opening the link from your bookmarks before logging in, or after restarting the browser, or after clearing one’s cookies.

Fixed by @santhosh (Santhosh Thottingal, WMF Language Engineering team).


🎉 Thanks!

Thank you to everyone who helped by reporting or investigating problems in Wikimedia production; and for devising, coding or reviewing the corrective measures. Including: @Addshore, @Aklapper, @Anomie, @ArielGlenn, @Catrope, @D3r1ck01, @Daimona, @Fomafix, @Ladsgroup, @Legoktm, @MSantos, @Mainframe98, @Melos, @Mh-3110, @SBisson, @Tgr, @Umherirrender, @Vort, @aaron, @aezell, @cscott, @dcausse, @jcrespo, @kostajh, @matmarex, @mmodell, @mobrovac, @santhosh, @thcipriani, and @thiemowmde.

📉 Current problems

Take a look at the workboard and look for tasks that might need your help. The workboard lists known issues, grouped by the week in which they were first observed.


💡 ProTip:

Cross-reference one workboard with another via Open Tasks Advanced Filter and enter Tag(s) to apply as a filter.


Until next time,
– Timo Tijhof


[1] Incidents. – wikitech.wikimedia.org/wiki/Special:AllPages...
[2] Tasks closed. – phabricator.wikimedia.org/maniphest/query...
[3] Tasks opened. – phabricator.wikimedia.org/maniphest/query...

Production Excellence #3: September 2018

22:06, Tuesday, 24 2020 March UTC

How’d we do in our strive for operational excellence last month? Read on to find out!

Month in numbers

  • 1 documented incident since August 9. [1]
  • 113 Wikimedia-prod-error tasks closed since August 9. [2]
  • 99 Wikimedia-prod-error tasks created since August 9. [3]

Current problems


  • [MediaWiki-Logging] Exception from Special:Log (public GET). – T201411
  • [Graph] Warning "data error" from ApiGraph in gzdecode. – T184128
  • [RemexHtml] Exception "backtrack_limit exhausted" from search index jobs. – T201184


  • [MediaWiki-Redirects] Exception from NS_MEDIA redirect (public GET). – T203942

This is an oldie: (Well..., it's an oldie where I come from... 🎸)

  • [FlaggedRevs] Exception from Special:ProblemChanges (since 2011). – T176232


  • An Exception (or fatal error) causes user actions to be aborted. For example, a page would display "Exception: Unable to render page", instead the article content.
  • A Warning (or non-fatal error) can produce page views that are technically unaware of a problem, but may show corrupt or incomplete information. For example, an article would display the word "null" instead of the actual content. Or, a user may be told "You have null new messages."

The combined volume of infrequent non-fatal errors is high. This limits our ability to automatically detect whether a deployment caused problems. The “public GET” risks in particular can (and have) caused alerts to fire that notify Operations of wikis potentially being down. Such exceptions must not be publicly exposed.

With that behind us... Let’s celebrate this month’s highlights!

📖 Quiz defect – "0" is not nothing!

Tyler Cipriani (Release Engineering) reported an error in Quiz. Wikiversity uses Quiz for interactive learning. Editors define quizzes in the source text (wikitext). The Quiz program processes this text, creates checkboxes with labels, and sends it to a user. When the sending part failed, "Error: Undefined index" appeared in the logs. @Umherirrender investigated.

A line in the source text can: define a question, or an answer, or nothing at all. The code that creates checkboxes needs to decide between "something" and "nothing". The code utilised the PHP "if" statement for this, which compares a value to True and False. The answers to a quiz can be any text, which means PHP first transforms the text to one of True or False. In doing so, values like "0" became False. This meant the code thought "0" was not an answer. The code responsible for sending checkboxes did not have this problem. When the code tried to access the checkbox to send, it did not exist. Hence, "Error: Undefined index".

Umherirrender fixed the problem by using a strict comparison. A strict comparison doesn't transform a value first, it only compares.


📖 PageTriage enters JobQueue for better performance

Kosta Harlan (from Audiences's Growth team) investigated a warning for PageTriage. This extension provides the New Pages Feed tool on the English Wikipedia. Each page in the feed has metadata, usually calculated when an editor creates a page. Sometimes, this is not available. Then, it must be calculated on-demand, when a user triages pages. So far, so good. The information was then saved to the database for re-use by other triagers. This last part caused the serious performance warning: "Unexpected database writes".

Database changes must not happen on page views. The database has many replicas for reading, but only one "master" for all writing. We avoid using the master during page views to make our systems independent. This is a key design principle for MediaWiki performance. [5] It lets a secondary data centre build pages without connecting to the primary (which can be far away).

Kosta addressed the warning by improving the code that saves the calculated information. Instead of saving it immediately, an instruction is now sent via a job queue, after the page view is ready. This job queue then calculates and saves the information to the master database. The master synchronises it to replicas, and then page views can use it.

T199699 / https://gerrit.wikimedia.org/r/455870

📖 Tomorrow, may be sooner than you think

After developers submit code to Gerrit, they eagerly await the result from Jenkins, an automated test runner. It sometimes incorrectly reported a problem with the MergeHistory feature. The code assumed that the tests would finish by "tomorrow".

It might be safe to assume our tests will not take one day to finish. Unfortunately, the programming utility "strtotime", does not interpret "tomorrow" as "this time tomorrow". Instead, it means "the start of tomorrow". In other words, the next strike of midnight! The tests use UTC as the neutral timezone.

Every day in the 15 minutes before 5 PM in San Francisco (which is midnight UTC), code submitted to Code Review, could have mysteriously failing tests.

– Continue at https://gerrit.wikimedia.org/r/452873

📖 Continuous Whac-A-Mole

In August, developers started to notice rare and mysterious failures from Jenkins. No obvious cause or solution was known at that time.

Later that month, Dan Duvall (Release Engineering team) started exploring ways to run our tests faster. Before, we had many small virtual servers, where each server runs only one test at a time. The idea: Have a smaller group of much larger virtual servers where each server could run many tests at the same time. We hope that during busier times this will better share the resources between tests. And, during less busy times, allow a single test to use more resources.

As implementation of this idea began, the mysterious test failures became commonplace. "No space left on device", was a common error. The test servers had their hard disk full. This was surprising. The new (larger) servers seemed to have enough space to accommodate the number of tests it ran at the same time. Together with Antoine Musso and Tyler Cipriani, they identified and resolved two problems:

  1. Some automated tests did not clean up after themselves.
  2. The test-templates were stored on the "root disk" (the hard drive for the operating system), instead of the hard drive with space reserved for tests. This root disk is quite small, and is the same size on small servers and large servers.

T202160 / T202457

🎉 Thanks!

Thank you to everyone who has helped report, investigate, or resolve production errors past month. Including:

Dan Duvall
Gilles Dubuc
Daniel Kinzler
Greg Grossmeier
Gergő Tisza (Tgr)
Sam Reed (Reedy)
Giuseppe Lavagetto
Brad Jorsch (Anomie)
Tim Starling (tstarling)
Kosta Harlan (kostajh)
Jaime Crespo (jcrespo)
Antoine Musso (hashar)
Roan Kattouw (Catrope)
Adam WMDE (Addshore)
Stephane Bisson (SBisson)
Niklas Laxström (Nikerabbit)
Thiemo Kreuz (thiemowmde)
Subramanya Sastry (ssastry)
This, that and the other (TTO)
Manuel Aróstegui (Marostegui)
Bartosz Dziewoński (matmarex)
James D. Forrester (Jdforrester-WMF)


Until next time,

– Timo Tijhof

Further reading:


[1] Incidents. – https://wikitech.wikimedia.org/wiki/Special:AllPages?from=Incident+documentation%2F20180809&to=Incident+documentation%2F20180922&namespace=0
[2] Tasks closed. – https://phabricator.wikimedia.org/maniphest/query/wOuWkMNsZheu/#R
[3] Tasks opened. – https://phabricator.wikimedia.org/maniphest/query/6HpdI76rfuDg/#R
[4] Quiz on Wikiversity. – https://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/How_things_work_college_course/Conceptual_physics_wikiquizzes/Velocity_and_acceleration
[5] Operate multiple datacenters. – https://www.mediawiki.org/wiki/Requests_for_comment/Master-slave_datacenter_strategy_for_MediaWiki

Tech News issue #13, 2020 (March 23, 2020)

00:00, Monday, 23 2020 March UTC
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Mobile web performance: the importance of the device

21:24, Saturday, 21 2020 March UTC

This week at our team offsite in Dublin, I looked at our performance data from an angle we haven't explored before: mobile device type. Most mobile devices expose their make and model in the User Agent string, which allows to look at data for a particular type of device. As per our data retention guidelines, we only keep user agent information for 90 days, but that's already plenty of data to draw conclusions.

I looked at the top 10 mobile devices accessing our mobile sites, per country, for the past week. One country in particular, India, had an interesting set of top 10 devices that included two models from different hardware generations. The Samsung SM-J200G, commercially known as the Samsung Galaxy J2, which was the 5th most common mobile device accessing our mobile sites. And the Samsung SM-G610F, also known as the Samsung Galaxy J7 Prime, which was the 2nd most common. The hardware of the more recent handset is considerably more powerful, with 3 times the RAM, 23% faster CPU clock and twice the amount of CPU cores than the older model.

Being in the top 10 for that country, both devices get a lot of traffic in India, which means a lot of performance Real User Monitoring data collected from real clients to work with.

With the J7 Prime retail price in India currently being double the J2 retail price, one might wonder if users who use the cheaper phone also use a cheaper, slower, internet provider.

Thanks to the Network Information API, which we recently added to the performance data we collect, we are able to tell.

Looking at Chrome Mobile only, for the sake of having a consistent definition of the effectiveType buckets, we get:

effectiveType  J2 J7 Prime
slow-2g 0.5% 1.1%
2g 0.8% 0.7%
3g 27% 28%
4g 71.5% 70.2%

These breakdowns are extremely similar, which strongly suggests that users of these two phone models in India actually experience the same internet connectivity quality. This is very interesting, because it gives us the ability to compare the performance of these two devices from different hardware generations, in the real world, with connectivity quality as a whole that looks almost identical. And similar latency, since they're connecting to our data centers from the same country.

What does firstPaint look like for these users, then?

Device Sample size Median p90 p95 p99
J2 1226 1842 4769 7704 15957
J7 Prime 1798 1082 2811 5076 12136
difference -41.3% -41.1% -34.2% -24%

And what about loadEventEnd?

Device Sample size Median p90 p95 p99
J2 1226 3078 9813 14072 29240
J7 Prime 1798 1821 5635 9847 28949
difference -40.9% -42.6% -30.1% -1.1%

Across the board, the difference is huge, even for metrics like loadEventEnd when one might think that download speed might be an equalizer, particularly since we serve some heavy pages when articles are long. OS version might play a part in addition to hardware, but in practice we see that older Android devices tend to stick to the OS version they were shipped with, which means that those two factors are tied together. For example, worldwide for the past week, 100% of J2 phones run the Android version they were shipped with (5.1).

These results show that device generation has a huge impact on the real performance experienced by users. Across the globe, users are upgrading their devices over time. This phenomenon means that the performance metrics we measure directly on sampled users with RUM should improve over time, by virtue of people getting more powerful devices on average. This is an important factor to keep in mind when measuring the effect of our own performance optimizations. And when the median of the RUM metrics stay stable over a long period of time, it might be that our performance is actually worsening, and that degradation is being masked by device and network improvements across the board.

Given the eye-opening results of this small study, getting a better grasp on the pace of improvement of the environment (device generations, network) looks like a necessity to understand and validate our impact on the evolution of RUM metrics.

WikimediaDebug v2 is here!

21:20, Saturday, 21 2020 March UTC

WikimediaDebug is a set of tools for debugging and profiling MediaWiki web requests in a production environment. WikimediaDebug can be used through the accompanying browser extension, or from the command-line.

This post highlights changes we made to WikimediaDebug over the past year, and explains more generally how its capabilities work.

  1. What's new?
  2. Features overview: Staging changes, Debug logging, and Performance profiling.
  3. How does it all work?

§ 1. What's new?


I've redesigned the popup using the style and components of the Wikimedia Design Style Guide.

New design Previous design

The images above also show improved labels for the various options. For example, "Log" is now known as "Verbose log". The footer links also have clearer labels now, and visually stand out more.

New footer Previous footer

This release also brings dark mode support! (brighter icon, slightly muted color palette, and darker tones overall). The color scheme is automatically switched based on device settings.

Dark mode
Inline profile

I've added a new "Inline profile" option. This is a quicker and more light-weight alternative to the "XHGui" profile option. It outputs the captured performance profile directly to your browser (as hidden comment at the end of the HTML or CSS/JS response).

Beta Cluster support

This week, I've set up an XHGui server in the Beta Cluster. With this release, WikimediaDebug has reached feature parity between Beta Cluster and production.

It recognises whether the current tab is for the Beta Cluster or production, and adapts accordingly.

  • The list of hostnames is omitted to avoid confusion (as there is no debug proxy in Beta).
  • The "Find in Logstash" link points to logstash-beta.wmflabs.org.
  • The "Find in XHGui" link points to performance-beta.wmflabs.org/xhgui/.

§ 2. Features overview

Staging changes

The most common use of WikimediaDebug is to verify software changes during deployments (e.g. SWAT). When deploying changes, the Scap deployment tool first syncs to an mw-debug host. The user then toggles on WikimediaDebug and selects the staging host.

WikimediaDebug is now active and routes browser activity for WMF wikis to the staging host. This bypasses the CDN caching layers and load balancers normally involved with such requests.

Debug logging

The MediaWiki software is instrumented with log messages throughout its source code. These indicate how the software behaves, which internal values it observes, and the decisions it makes along the way. In production we dispatch messages that carry the "error" severity to a central store for monitoring purposes.

When investigating a bug report, developers may try to reproduce the bug in their local environment with a verbose log. With WikimediaDebug, this can be done straight in production.

The "Verbose log" option configures MediaWiki to dispatch all its log messages, from any channel or severity level. Below is an example where the Watchlist component is used with the verbose log enabled.

One can then reproduce the bug (on the live site). The verbose log is automatically sent to Logstash, for access via the Kibana viewer at logstash.wikimedia.org (restricted link).

Aggregate graphs (Kibana) Verbose log (Kibana)
Performance profiling

The performance profiler shows where time is spent in a web request. This feature was originally implemented using the XHProf PHP extension (for PHP 5 and HHVM). XHProf is no longer actively developed, or packaged, for PHP 7. As part of the PHP 7 migration this year, we migrated to Tideways which provides similar functionality. (T176370, T206152)

The Tideways profiler intercepts the internals of the PHP engine, and tracks the duration of every subroutine call in the MediaWiki codebase, and its relation to other subroutines. This structure is known as a call tree, or call graph.

The performance profile we capture with Tideways, is automatically sent to our XHGui installation at at https://performance.wikimedia.org (public). There, the request can be inspected in fine detail. In addition to a full call graph, it also monitors memory usage throughout the web request.

Most expensive functions (XHGui) Call graph (XHGui)

§ 3. How does it all work?

Browser extension

The browser extension is written using the WebExtensions API which Firefox and Chrome implement.

Add to Firefox   Add to Chrome

You can find the source code on github.com/wikimedia/WikimediaDebug. To learn more about how WebExtensions work, refer to MDN docs, or Chrome docs.

HTTP header

When you activate WikimediaDebug, the browser is given one an extra HTTP header. This header is sent along with all web requests relating to WMF's wiki domains. Both those for production, and those belonging to the Beta Cluster. In other words, any web request for *.wikipedia.org, wikidata.org, *.beta.wmflabs.org, etc.

The header is called X-Wikimedia-Debug. In the edge traffic layers of Wikimedia, this header is used as signal to bypass the CDN cache. The request is then forwarded, past the load balancers, directly to the specified mw-debug server.

Header Format
X-Wikimedia-Debug: backend=<servername> [ ; log ] [ ; profile ] [ ; forceprofile ] [ ; readonly ]

This HTTP header is parsed by our MediaWiki configuration (wmf/profiler.php, and wmf/logging.php).

For example, when profile is set (the XHGui option), profiler.php invokes Tideways to start collecting stack traces with CPU/memory information. It then schedules a shutdown callback in which it gathers this data, connects to the XHGui database, and inserts a new record. The record can then be viewed via performance.wikimedia.org.

See also

Further reading

Add WikimediaDebug to Firefox   Add WikimediaDebug to Chrome

14 January 2020 security incident on Phabricator

21:20, Saturday, 21 2020 March UTC

On 14 January 2020, staff at the Wikimedia Foundation discovered that a data file exported from the Wikimedia Phabricator installation, our engineering task and ticket tracking system, had been made publicly available. The file was leaked accidentally; there was no intrusion. We have no evidence that it was ever viewed or accessed. The Foundation's Security team immediately began investigating the incident and removing the related files. The data dump included limited non-public information such as private tickets, login access tokens, and the second factor of the two-factor authentication keys for Phabricator accounts. Passwords and full login information for Phabricator were not affected -- that information is stored in another, unaffected system.

The Security team has investigated and assesses that there is no known impact from this incident. However, out of an abundance of caution, we are resetting all Two-Factor Authentication keys for Phabricator and invalidating the exposed login access tokens. Additionally, we continue to encourage people to engage in online security best practices, such as keeping your software updated and resetting your passwords regularly.

The Foundation will continue to investigate this incident and take steps to prevent it from occurring again in the future. In the meantime, Phabricator is online and functioning normally. We regret any inconvenience this may have caused and will provide updates if we learn of any further impact.


David Sharpe
Senior Information Security Analyst
Wikimedia Foundation

Remote working the Wikimedia UK way

12:06, Thursday, 19 2020 March UTC

Blog by Sara Thomas, Wikimedia UK’s Scotland Programme Coordinator

Due to the Coronavirus outbreak, it’s likely that more and more of us across the UK are going to be working from home. Here at Wikimedia UK, two of us (one in Scotland, one in Wales) are remote-workers by default, and so with our whole organisation now working remotely we thought that we might be able to share some hints and tips for those of you joining the shortest-commute-club.

I’m Dr Sara Thomas, Scotland Programme Coordinator for Wikimedia UK, and as the only Wikimedia UK employee in Scotland, I always work remotely. Hello, and welcome to the joys of having your cat interrupt your video call.

I work for a few organisations, one of which is Wikimedia UK, and none of which involve office space in Scotland. Most of the time, I’m sat at a desk (dining room table pushed against a wall) in the bay window area of my attic flat in Glasgow which you can see above. The shelf of stuff in front of me has sometimes useful stuff. My partner is an artist, and when he’s not running workshops or at his studio, he’s using the computer set up in our spare room to do digital work. We are a household of home workers. Here’s what I’ve learned over the past few years:

Video conferencing. I do a lot of meetings by Google Hangout / Meet / Skype. I definitely prefer the video option to phone calls; you just don’t get the same rapport with someone when you can’t see their face. My default is now video chat rather than call. Cuts down on travel time, and depending on where this situation goes in terms of social distancing, it might start to be your default too. 

Check ins / Office rapport. I started off wiki-life as a Wikimedian in Residence, and whilst there was a good office culture at my host institution, I often felt distant from the rest of the UK Wikimedia community. For the last year or so, I’ve been running a WhatsApp group that brings Wikimedia UK programmes staff and Wikimedians in Residence across the country together, and it’s been great for swapping tips, support, and ideas about working with Wikimedia. Slack’s pretty good for this kind of stuff too. 

Project & diary management. This is more of a time management thing, but it’s also good for when you’re working across a distributed team. Trello, Basecamp, etc – choose your weapon. Good for to-do lists, assigning tasks, etc. If you’re not used to working without direct supervision it’s really easy for your attention to wander – I find that blocking out my day in my diary really helps.

Don’t get distracted by TV, tempting though it is. Spotify playlists, on the other hand… if your office doesn’t usually allow tunes, now is your opportunity to play Nine Inch Nails very loudly to your heart’s content.  

Organise your workspace. I have a good mouse, laptop stand and a proper chair. DO NOT WORK FROM BED. I know, I know, you can totally answer emails from your phone whilst under a duvet. But you will regret it, not least when your body has decided to associate your bed with work-thoughts, and doesn’t want you to get to sleep at night.

Get dressed. It’s really tempting to stay in your jammies all day but it makes it really hard to get into the headspace for work.

Cook good food.  You’re at home, don’t limit yourself to the packed lunch you’d bring to work, or the disappointing sandwich from the shop round the corner. Slow cooker? Something that needs to marinate but that you’d never have time to do normally? Now’s your chance.

Remember to exercise. In my last office job I’d regularly walk a couple of miles a day; these days it takes less than 20 seconds to get from my bed to my desk.  This is not good for my sleep pattern, waistline or general mental health, to be honest. So take regular breaks from your desk. Get up, move around.  Go for a walk at lunchtime. I’ve seen a few friends decide that they’re not going to use the gym until this whole thing blows over (too much coughing and not wiping down of machines) but running shoes, walking shoes, and doing yoga in your front room are still options. Getting out into nature (if you’ve got any near you) is a good idea, not least because Cabin Fever Really Is A Thing.

If your work isn’t usually remote. One of our partners is considering Wiki-work as an option in the event of a building shutdown. They’d be updating metadata on images, contributing to their areas of interest and expertise, or maybe improving Wikidata. If you’ve any questions about how this might become a stream of work for your organisation, please feel free to drop me a line…

Another good blog I read on this recently is here.

Tech News issue #12, 2020 (March 16, 2020)

00:00, Monday, 16 2020 March UTC
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weeklyOSM 503

15:47, Sunday, 15 2020 March UTC


lead picture

Mapathon at Saint Louis University in Baguio City, Philippines 1 | Photo © GOwin


  • Stereo and contrapunctus have proposed a simplified approach to mapping public transport routes. This is based on their extensive experience in Luxembourg and Delhi respectively. Feedback was requested on the tagging mailing list.
  • Baloo Uriza has completed a large project of cleaning up southern California’s Interstate 405 freeway, much of which hasn’t been significantly touched since the TIGER imports. A number of issues, largely relating to complications arising from lane-mapping very large roads and editors not highlighting lane information such as placement, lane change restrictions and per-lane access restrictions, are highlighted in his wrap-up on talk-us.
  • Martijn van Exel introduced a new type of MapRoulette Challenge, the Quick Fix. Unlike traditional MapRoulette Challenges, the new Quick Fix Challenges require no experience with OSM editing tools like JOSM or iD. MapRoulette asks you, the mapper, a question that just requires a simple yes/no answer.
  • The voting for Ferdinand0101’s proposal of name:Zsye=*, which enables mappers to add names writeable with emojis, has closed. The proposal was unsuccessful.


  • The OSMF Board marked International Women’s Day by reflecting on the limitations to knowing exactly how many women contribute to the OpenStreetMap project and why some people contribute more or less than others. They also note that the reasons that bring people of any gender, origin or age to our project seem to be similar among contributors: it’s fun to make the map data a bit better and it’s rewarding when someone finds your work useful.
  • Miriam Gonzalez, one of the founders of Geochicas, was featured in an article on women in mapping by Anastasia Moloney. The article discusses how women mappers tend to add services often overlooked by men, such as hospitals, childcare services, toilets, domestic violence shelters and women’s health clinics. The OSMF Board’s full responses to Anastasia’s questions can be found here.
  • HOT uses International Women’s Day to recap the previous year’s HOT gender achievements, to summarise what can be done to ensure maps are being made for, by, and about women and to state HOT’s Gender Commitments.
  • Mapillary and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team are launching a new mapping campaign, #map2020, to improve maps and navigation in low- and middle-income countries. Jessica Bergmann invited communities to get involved for the chance for one individual to win a fully-funded trip to present at the HOT Summit in Cape Town, South Africa. This year’s campaign calls for communities to capture street-level imagery with Mapillary that contributes to improved navigation within their communities. Expressions of interest must be submitted by 20 March and final projects by 20 April.
  • Marco Minghini announced that the call for abstracts for the Academic Track at State of the Map 2020 has been extended to 26 March.
  • Nathalie Sidibé provided her background, motivation for OSM, and her achievements in an article in her user diary.
  • Andy Mabbett reminded us of a debate five years ago about the value of adding Wikidata IDs to OSM. Andy provides an example of the benefits of the link and asks others for their projects, which make use of both OSM and Wikidata.


  • Jungle Bus is organising a Project of the Month in March, in the French-speaking community, on charging stations for electric vehicles. Numerous tools are available to contribute in the field or from home. Useful information is available on the project wiki page. The hashtag for this project is #balanceTaBorne
  • Michael Reichert announced (automatic translation) that the OSM Saturday planned for 14 March at the FOSSGIS Conference 2020 was cancelled due to current developments.
  • Current developments have also resulted in the Berliner OSM Hackweekend, planned for 28 and 29 March, being cancelled, as reported (automatic translation) by Lars Lingner.

Humanitarian OSM

  • Sean Fleming reported on how Microsoft’s AI for Humanitarian Action program is working with HOT and Bing to bring together satellite mapping, machine learning, and volunteers to create a new generation of detailed maps. The AI-powered tools help make the human volunteers more productive by predicting features, suggesting that a shape may be a building, and speeding up initial identification.
  • The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team invites everyone to submit ideas, during the Call for Sessions, for events at the 6th HOT Summit in Cape Town, South Africa, to be held 1 and 2 July 2020.
  • HOT announced its internship programmes around Google Summer of Code and Outreachy, a programme which organises short paid internships for typically under-represented people.
  • The good folk of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, love their Lenten fish fry so much that a few clever souls have created a Lenten Fish Fry Map to help residents catch their weekly fried fish fix. Emily Mercurio describes how Hollen Barmer and Code for Pittsburg used open source software and open geospatial data to build a platform for volunteers to gather, update, and share fish fry information.


  • The Russian taxi ordering service ‘Taksovichkof‘ uses OSM as a basemap. We want to note that they have specified attribution properly.
  • A team of Russian cartographers created (automatic translation) a detailed map of Southern Ural. According (automatic translation) to one of the project participants Alexey Klyanin, it is based on OSM data.
  • The map at coronavirus.app visualises the number of people infected with the new virus by country on an OSM basemap.


  • The Russian public movement ‘Antiborshevik’ (borshevik is Russian for heracleum), which aims to fight the harmful and poisonous plant Heracleum sosnowskyi, recently switched to OSM. Now their map (ru) is made using the uMap service, which uses OSM.

Open Data

  • The Saint Louis University in Baguio City, Philippines has recently hosted its first mapathon and was pleasantly surprised by the number of participants. GOwin shares their impressions of the event and the results in a nicely illustrated user diary post.
  • OpenTrees.org, a service which currently visualises 12 million municipal street and park trees from 179 different sources, went live recently.


  • Christian Quest reported on the success of OSM France’s ‘AttributionIsNotOptional’ campaign (which we reported earlier). OSM France’s tile servers delivered a tile requesting that OSM be attributed as the source instead of a map tile, to websites using the tiles without the correct OSM attribution. The source citation is mandatory according to paragraph 4.3 of the ODbL. There are some pros and cons in the discussion about the procedure. Interesting to see who does not speak out 😉


  • The JOSM team wrote about the planned removal of the JavaScript API from JOSM, following the removal of the JavaScript engine Nashorn from Java, and the impact it had and still has to the core of the editor JOSM.


  • Nick Whitelegg informed us about the start of a new development blog for his OSM-based augmented reality project Hikar and the off-road ‘StreetView’-like application opentrailview.org.
  • Russian user Vascom, who recently began to create weekly maps for the Maps.Me app for all regions of Russia and CIS countries, shared the scripts he uses to do this.
  • According to Roman Shuvalov, the developer of the game ‘Generation Street’, in the new version of his game you can export generated 3D models into .ply and .obj.


  • DBeaver SQL Client version 7.0.0 for Windows, MAC OS X and Linux is available. This DB Client allows users to Access/Edit/View the major SQL DBase. Major enhancements were announced for this version:
    • Data viewer and data editor UI major improvements
    • SQL editor major improvements.
  • In the new version (9.6.0) of the famous mobile navigation app Maps.Me, which is based on OSM data, isolines were added (iOS, Android). Now navigation through mountains and hills will become a little easier. The function is also available in offline mode.

Did you know …

  • … in a tweet the JOSM team reminded editors in SK, BR, CZ, FR, DE, PT and RU to enable their country-specific JOSM validator rules.
  • …there is a QGIS tool for automatically identifying asbestos roofing?
  • … that the KFC representative office in Russia uses OSM to display (ru) its restaurants on its website?
  • … about the Russian website ‘Accident Map‘? (automatic translation) Its developers take data from the official traffic police statistics portal and map it. OSM is used as a basemap.

OSM in the media

  • FingerLakes1.com, a website offering local news, weather and sports for the Finger Lakes region in New York, featured OSM in an article titled ‘OpenStreetMap: Find Your Way In A Foreign City Like A Local’.

Other “geo” things

  • GPS World carried a story on ‘RoadTagger’, an artificial intelligence model developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Qatar Computing Research Institute to determine road features, such as type or lane count, from aerial imagery. Testing of the model with OSM data from 20 USA cities showed that it predicted the number of lanes with 77% accuracy and the road surface type with 93% accuracy.
  • Upendra Oli created a tutorial video on how to animate OSM time series data using QGIS.
  • Open Knowledge Belgium and Noms Peut-Être (automatic translation) have created a map visualising the street names of Brussels by gender. Only 6% of streets named for people in Brussels are named after women and only one street is named after a transgender man. Dries blogged about the creation and launch of EqualStreetNames.Brussels.
  • A user of the app RunKeeper, which tracked his bike ride close to a crime scene, was subjected to a police investigation following a ‘geofence warrant’ that led Google, whose location services the app is using, to share the data of its nearby phone users with the police.

Upcoming Events

Where What When Country
Chemnitz Chemnitzer Linux-Tage (cancelled) 2020-03-14-2020-03-15 germany
Nottingham Nottingham pub meetup 2020-03-17 united kingdom
Lüneburg Lüneburger Mappertreffen 2020-03-17 germany
Cologne Bonn Airport 127. Bonner OSM-Stammtisch 2020-03-17 germany
Hanover OSM-Sprechstunde 2020-03-18 germany
Hanover Stammtisch Hannover 2020-03-19 germany
Munich Münchner Treffen 2020-03-19 germany
San José Civic Hack & Map Night (online) 2020-03-19 united states
Bremen Bremer Mappertreffen 2020-03-23 germany
Reading Reading Missing Maps Mapathon 2020-03-24 united kingdom
Hanover OSM-Sprechstunde 2020-03-25 germany
Prešov Missing Maps Mapathon Prešov #5 2020-03-26 slovakia
Lübeck Lübecker Mappertreffen 2020-03-26 germany
Düsseldorf Düsseldorfer OSM-Stammtisch 2020-03-27 germany
Biella Incontro mensile 2020-03-28 italy
Toulouse Contrib’atelier OpenStreetMap 2020-03-28 france
Berlin Berlin Hackweekend 2020-03-28-2020-03-29 germany
Cologne Kölner Stammtisch 2020-04-01 germany
Stuttgart Stuttgarter Stammtisch 2020-04-01 germany
Toulouse Toulouse Hack Weekend April 2020 2020-04-04-2020-04-05 france
Valcea EuYoutH OSM Meeting 2020-04-27-2020-05-01 romania
Guarda EuYoutH OSM Meeting 2020-06-24-2020-06-28 spain
Cape Town HOT Summit 2020-07-01-2020-07-02 south africa
Cape Town State of the Map 2020 2020-07-03-2020-07-05 south africa

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This weeklyOSM was produced by PierZen, Polyglot, Rogehm, SK53, Silka123, SunCobalt, TheSwavu, derFred, geologist.

#SwineFlue management with #wolves

11:43, Sunday, 15 2020 March UTC
A lot is being said about viruses and pandemics, they do not only exist in humans but also in animals particularly in kept animals. One knee jerk reaction is that by an outbreak of a disease animals in nature are blamed.

A good example is swine flue and African swine flue. It is a tradition to call for the culling, the extermination of wild boar and, traditionally the result is an increase in boar being killed.

A real solution may be found in an ecological solution, wolves who predate on boar prefer a sickly animal over a healthy animal that is better able to fight back. There is documentation of wolves determining the extend of outbreaks of a swine flue. Areas with wolves do better.

As an apex hunter the effects of wolves on its ecology are profound. There are all kinds of arguments why people oppose the reintroduction of animals that are essential for a functional ecology, animals like wild boar, beaver, wolf are extinct in places. We argue that we need more trees to offset climate change but this will not work when those trees are not placed in a functioning ecology. In Scotland trees will not grow because they will be eaten by overabundant elk.. Scotland has no functioning ecology it lacks predators like wolves and lynx to keep the elk in check.

When we consider pandemics, viral diseases, our ecology it is important to consider our own effects. We will do better when we enable ecological functionality and consider building with nature for more sustainable results.

At the end of February I was honoured to be invited to present the closing keynote at the Wikimedia in Education Summit at the Disruptive Media Learning Lab at Coventry University.  This is the transcript of my talk. 


Although I’m originally an archaeologist by background, I’ve worked in the domain of learning technology for over twenty years and for the last ten years I’ve focused primarily on supporting the uptake of open education technology, resources, policy and practice, and it’s through open education that I came to join the Wikimedia community.  I think the first Wikimedia event I ever took part in was OER De a cross-sector open education conference, hosted by Wikimedia Deutschland in Berlin in 2014. I remember being really impressed by the wide range of innovative projects and initiatives from across all sectors of education and it really opened my eyes to the potential of Wikimedia to support the development of digital literacy skills, while enhancing the student experience and enriching our shared knowledge commons. And I think we’ve seen plenty of inspiring examples today of that potential being realised in education institutions around the UK.

So what I want to do this afternoon is to explore the relationship between the open education and Wikimedia domains and the common purpose they share; to widen access to open knowledge, remove barriers to inclusive and equitable education, and work towards knowledge equity for all. I also want to turn our attention to some of the structural barriers and systemic inequalities that prevent equitable participation in and access to this open knowledge landscape. We’ll begin by taking a brief look at some of the recent global policy initiatives in this area, before coming back closer to home to explore how the University of Edinburgh’s support for both open education and Wikimedia in the curriculum forms part of the institution’s strategic commitment to creating and sharing open knowledge.

Open Education

To begin with though, I want to take a step back to look at what we mean when we talk about open education, and if you’re heard me speak before, I apologise if I’m going over old ground here.

The principles of open education were outlined in the 2008 Cape Town Declaration, one of the first initiatives to lay the foundations of what it referred to as the “emerging open education movement”. The Declaration advocates that everyone should have the freedom to use, customize, and redistribute educational resources without constraint, in order to nourish the kind of participatory culture of learning, sharing and cooperation that rapidly changing knowledge societies need. It sounds a lot like the goals of the Wikimedia community doesn’t it? Which is hardly surprising given that one of the authors of the Cape Town Declaration was Jimmy Wales. In a press release to mark the launch of the Declaration, Wales was quoted as saying

“Open education allows every person on earth to access and contribute to the vast pool of knowledge on the web. Everyone has something to teach and everyone has something to learn.”

The Cape Town Declaration is still an influential document and it was updated on its 10th anniversary as Capetown +10, and I can highly recommend having a look at this if you want a broad overview of the principles of open education. Unsurprisingly, engaging with Wikipedia is woven through Capetown +10, as a means to empower the next generation of learners, to encourage the adoption of open pedagogies, and to open up publicly funded resources.

As conceived by the CapeTown Declaration, open education is a broad umbrella term, there’s is no one hard and fast definition, and indeed as Catherine Cronin reminds us in her paper “Openness and Praxis” open education is complex, personal, contextual and continually negotiated.

One conceptualisation of open education that I like is from the European Union’s JRC Science for Policy Report. Opening Up Education. A Support Framework for higher education institutions, which describes the aim of open education as being

“to widen access and participation to everyone by removing barriers and making learning accessible, abundant, and customisable for all. It offers multiple ways of teaching and learning, building and sharing knowledge. It also provides a variety of access routes to formal and non-formal education, and connects the two.”

Another interpretation of open education that I often return to is from the not-for-profit organization OER Commons which states that

“The worldwide OER movement is rooted in the human right to access high-quality education. The Open Education Movement is not just about cost savings and easy access to openly licensed content; it’s about participation and co-creation.”

One of the things I like about both these interpretations is the focus co-creation and removing barriers to knowledge, which to my mind are the most important aspects of open education and which, of course, are also cornerstones of the Wikimedia movement.

Open Educational Resources (OER)

Owing to its contextual nature, open education encompasses many different things including open pedagogy, open textbooks, open assessment practices, open online courses, and open data, however open educational resources, or OER, are central to any understanding of this domain. And of course Wikipedia is frequently described as the world’s biggest open educational resource.

UNESCO define open educational resources as:

“learning, teaching and research materials in any format and medium that reside in the public domain or are under copyright that have been released under an open license, that permit no-cost access, re-use, re-purpose, adaptation and redistribution by others.”

UNESCO OER Recommendation

Now there is actually some controversy regarding this wording of this definition, but I’m not going to go into that right now. The reason this definition is significant is that in November last year UNESCO made a formal commitment to actively support the global adoption of OER, when it approved its Recommendation on Open Educational Resources. This Recommendation builds on a series of earlier policy instruments including the 2012 Paris OER Declaration, and the 2017 Ljubljana OER Action Plan. To distinguish between these policy instruments, Declarations outline principles that UNESCO states wish to afford the broadest possible support to, while Recommendations have significantly greater authority and are intended to influence the development of national laws and practices. So the fact that we now have a new UNESCO Recommendation on OER is an important step forward.

Central to the new Recommendation, is the acknowledgement of the role that OER can play in achieving United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4. The Recommendation recognises that

“in building inclusive Knowledge Societies, Open Educational Resources (OER) can support quality education that is equitable, inclusive, open and participatory as well as enhancing academic freedom and professional autonomy of teachers by widening the scope of materials available for teaching and learning.”

And it outlines five areas of action

  1. Building capacity of stakeholders to create, access, re-use, adapt and redistribute OER
  2. Developing supportive policy
  3. Encouraging effective, inclusive and equitable access to quality OER
  4. Nurturing the creation of sustainability models for OER
  5. Promoting and reinforcing international cooperation

Equality and diversity is centred throughout the Recommendation with the acknowledgement that

“In all instances, gender equality should be ensured, and particular attention paid to equity and inclusion for learners who are especially disadvantaged due to multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.”

This echoes UNESCO Assistant Director for Education Qian Tang’s summing up at the end of the 2nd World OER Congress in Ljubljana in 2017 when he said that

“to meet education challenges, we can’t use the traditional way. In remote and developing areas, particularly for girls and women, OER are a crucial, crucial means to reach SDGs. OER are the key.”

How member states choose to action the UNESCO OER Recommendation, and what impact it will have globally, remains to be seen. However a coalition of organizations committed to promoting open education worldwide, including the Commonwealth of Learning, Creative Commons, SPARC and Open Education Global has been established to provide resources and services to support the implementation of the Recommendations.

Wikimedia Movement Strategy

Running in parallel with the development of the UNESCO Recommendation, the Wikimedia Foundation has been undertaking its own Movement Strategy exercise to shape the strategic direction of the movement, and outline the processes required to enable Wikimedia to achieve its goal of becoming the essential infrastructure of the ecosystem of free knowledge by 2030. Over the past three years volunteers, staff, partners and other stakeholders from across the global Wikimedia community have been involved in an ambitious process to identify what the future of the movement should look like, and how we should get there. And although the process and mechanism for scoping the Movement Strategy could hardly be more different from the development and ratification of the formal UNESCO Recommendation, both are underpinned by common principles and seek to achieve broadly similar goals.  The movement strategy is still under development but it outlines 13 Recommendations to build a shared future and bring the Wikimedia movement’s vision to life.

I’m not going to go into all these Recommendations, you can find out more about them and how to contribute to the Movements Strategy process here, but it’s clear that they echo many of principals of the UNESCO OER Recommendation. Indeed Recommendation 10 Prioritize Topics for Impact, specifically acknowledges the need to address global challenges, such as those outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals, and there are many other areas of commonality with the global open education movement among the other Recommendations.

Enshrined in the Wikimedia Movement Strategy, are the key concepts of Knowledge as a Service and Knowledge Equity.

Knowledge as a service, is the idea that, Wikimedia will become a platform that serves open knowledge to the world across interfaces and communities.

And knowledge equity, is the commitment to focus on knowledge and communities that have been left out by structures of power and privilege, and to break down the social, political, and technical barriers preventing people from accessing and contributing to free knowledge.
Knowledge Equity and Structural Inequality – giving up space.

Structural Inequality in the Open Knowledge Landscape

And to my mind it is this commitment to knowledge equity that is key to both the open education and Wikimedia movements, because as we are all aware, the open knowledge landscape is not without its hierarchies, norms, gatekeepers and power structures.

Indeed the 2019 Progress update for Sustainable Development Goal 4 notes that while rapid technological changes present both opportunities and challenges, refocused efforts are needed to improve learning outcomes particularly for women, girls and marginalized people in vulnerable settings.

Wikimedia’s problems with gender imbalance, structural inequalities and systemic bias are well known and much discussed. On English language Wikipedia just over 18% of biographical articles are about women, and the number of female editors is somewhere between 15 and 20%. Some language Wikipedias, such as the Welsh Wicipedia, fare better, others are much worse. Despite Wikipedia’s gender imbalance being an acknowledged problem, that projects such as Wiki Women In Red have sought to address, too often those who attempt to challenge these structural inequalities and rectify the systemic bias, are the subject of targeted hostility and harassment. The Movement Strategy acknowledges these issues and highlights the importance of addressing them.

Recommendation 2; on Creating Cultural Change for Inclusive Communities notes that Wikimedia communities do not reflect the diversity of our global society, and that the alarming gender gap can be attributed to a number of causes, including lack of a safe environment, as evidenced by numerous cases of harassment. And Recommendation 5 on Ensuring Equity in Decision-Making notes that Wikimedia’s historical structures and processes reinforce the concentration of power around established participants and entities. Adding that inclusive growth and diversification requires a cultural change founded on more equitable processes and representative structures.

In a recent article titled “The Dangers of Being Open” Amira Dhalla, who leads Mozilla’s Women and Web Literacy programs, wrote:

“What happens when only certain people are able to contribute to open projects and what happens when only certain people are able to access open resources? This means that the movement is not actually open to everyone and only obtainable by those who can practice and access it.

Open is great. Open can be the future. If, and only when, we prioritize structuring it as a movement where anyone can participate and protecting those who do.”

This lack of equity in the open knowledge landscape is significant, because if knowledge and education are to be truly open, then they must be open to all regardless of race, gender, or ability, because openness is not just about definitions, recommendations and strategies, openness is about creativity, access, equity, and social inclusion and enabling learners to become fully engaged radical digital citizens.

Radical Digital Citizenship, as defined by Akwugo Emejulu and Callum McGregor, moves beyond the concept of digital literacy as simply acquiring skills to navigate the digital world, to a re-politicised digital citizenship in which social relations with technology are made visible, and emancipatory technological practices for social justice are developed to advance the common good.

And I think, to some extent, that is what the Wikimedia Movement strategy process and the UNESCO OER Recommendation are trying to achieve.

University of Edinburgh

At the University of Edinburgh we believe that both open education and open knowledge are strongly in keeping with our institutional vision and values; to discover knowledge and make the world a better place, and to ensure our teaching and research is accessible, inclusive, and relevant to society. In line with the UNESCO OER Recommendation, we also believe that OER and open knowledge can contribute to achieving the aims of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which the University is committed to through the SDG Accord. To this end the University supports both a Wikimedian in Residence and a central OER Service.

We’ve already heard about our successful Wikimedian in Residence programme so I want to turn our attention to our OER Service which was launched in 2015, round about the same time as our Residency, and both have worked closely together over the last five years.
OER Vision

The University’s vision for OER has three strands, building on our excellent education and research collections, traditions of the Scottish Enlightenment, the university’s civic mission and the history of the Edinburgh Settlement. The three strands of our OER vision are:

For the common good – encompassing every day teaching and learning materials.
Edinburgh at its best – high quality resources produced by a range of projects and initiatives.
Edinburgh’s Treasures – content from our world class cultural heritage collections.
OER Policy

This vision is backed up by an OER Policy, approved by our Learning and Teaching Committee, which encourages staff and students to use, create and publish OERs to enhance the quality of the student experience. The fact that this policy was approved by our Learning and Teaching Committee is significant as it places open education and OER squarely in the domain of teaching and learning. Both the University’s vision for OER and its support for our Wikimedian in Residence are the brainchild of Melissa Highton, Assistant Principal Online Learning and Director of Learning and Teaching Web Services, who many of you will know and who presented the keynote at the Wikimedia in Education Summit in Middlesex University two years ago. EUSA, the student union were also instrumental in encouraging the University to adopt an OER policy, and we continue to see student engagement and co-creation as being fundamental aspects of open education and open knowledge.

OER Service

Of course policy is nothing without support, and this is where the OER Service comes in. The service provides staff and students with advice and guidance on creating and using OER, and engaging with open education. We provide a one stop shop that provides access to OER produced by staff and students across the university, and we place openness at the centre of strategic technology initiatives by embedding digital skills training and support in institution wide programmes including lecture recording, academic blogging, MOOCs, and distance learning at scale.

Like our Wikimedian in Residence, the OER Service focuses on digital skills development and we run a wide range of digital skills workshops for staff and students on copyright literacy, open licencing, OER and playful engagement.

Copyright Debt

We see the development of copyright literacy skills as particularly important as it helps to mitigate a phenomenon that my colleague Melissa has referred to as copyright debt.  If you don’t get the licensing of educational content right first time round, it will cost you to fix it further down the line, and the cost and reputational risk to the university could be significant if copyright is breached. And this is one of the key value propositions for investing in strategic support for OER at the institutional level; we need to ensure that we have the right to use, adapt, and reuse the educational resources we have invested in. It’s very common to think of OER as primarily being of benefit to those outwith the institution, however open licenses help to ensure that we can continue to use and reuse the resources that we ourselves have created. Unless teaching and learning resources carry a clear and unambiguous licence statement, it is difficult to know whether and in what context they can be reused.

Online Learning: MOOCs and MicroMasters

Ensuring continued access to course materials is particularly important for our many online learners, whether they are among the 4,000 matriculated students enrolled on our online masters courses, or the 2.7 million learners who have signed up for the wide variety of MOOCs that we offer. Continued access to MOOC content can be particularly problematic as educational content often gets locked into commercial MOOC platforms, regardless of whether or not it is openly licensed, and some platforms are now time limiting access to content. Clearly this is not helpful for learners and, given how costly high-quality online resources are to produce, it also represents a poor return on investment for the University. In order to address this issue, the OER Service works closely with our MOOC production teams to ensure that all content can be released under open licence though our Open Media Bank channel on our media asset management platform Media Hopper Create. We now have over 500 MOOC videos which are available to re-use, covering topics as diverse as music theory, mental health, clinical psychology, astrobiology and the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle.

We’re also extending our commitment to providing open access to high quality online learning opportunities and widening access to our scholarship, by launching a new programme of MicroMasters in partnership with EdX. These micro credentials are flexible, open to all, and provide a stepping stone from open to formal accreditation. And if you cast your minds back to the EU report on Opening Up Education, you’ll remember that providing access routes between non-formal and formal education is one of the specific benefits of open education that it highlights.

Openness has informed our approach to these innovative new programmes at every step of that way: edX was chosen as a not for profit organisation built on an open source platform; the technology and policies that drive our new pedagogical approaches at scale, are open and shared; and in line with our OER policy, we’re building openness into the creation of all teaching materials. Our first MicroMasters in Predictive Analytics for Business Applications was launched in September, and course materials will be released under open licence shortly.


As I mentioned earlier, at Edinburgh we believe that student engagement is fundamental to our institutional mission and our vision for OER and open knowledge. And arguably the best way to engage students is through co-creation, which to my mind, is one of the most powerful affordances of open education.

Put simply, co-creation can be described as student led collaborative initiatives, often developed with teachers or other bodies, that lead to the development of shared outputs. A key feature of co-creation is that it should be based on equal partnerships, and relationships that foster respect, reciprocity, and shared responsibility.

And we’ve already seen plenty of examples of the benefits of co-creation in action through the inspiring Wikimedia in the Curriculum initiatives supported by Ewan, but we also have a number of open education and OER creation assignments running throughout the University.

One particularly inspiring example is the School of Geosciences Outreach and Engagement course which gives students the opportunity to develop their own science communication projects with schools, museums, outdoor centres and community groups, creating a wide range of reusable educational resources for science engagement and community outreach.  Each summer the OER Service employs Open Content Creation student interns, who take the materials created by the GeoScience students, make sure everything in those resources can be released under open license and then share them on TES Resources, so they could be found and reused by other teachers and learners.

OER creation assignments also form an integral part of the Digital Futures for Learning course which is part of our MSc in Digital Education. Commenting on this assignment course leader Jen Ross said

“Experiencing first-hand what it means to engage in open educational practice gives students an appetite to learn and think more. The creation of OERs provides a platform for students to share their learning, so their assignments can have ongoing, tangible value for the students themselves and for those who encounter their work.”

And these sentiments echo the experiences of many of the students who have participated in our Wikipedia in the Curriculum assignments.

Knowledge Equity

Finally I want to return to the theme of knowledge equity; many of our open education and Wikimedia activities have a strong focus on redressing gender imbalance, centering marginalised voices, diversifying and decolonising the curriculum, and uncovering hidden histories. Some inspiring examples include our regular Wiki Women in Red editathons; Women in STEM editathons for Ada Lovelace Day and International Women’s Day; LGBT+ resources for medical education; open educational resources on LGBT+ Issues for Secondary Schools; UncoverED, a student led collaborative decolonial project uncovering the global history of the university; Diverse Collections, showcasing stories of equality and diversity within our archives; and the award winning Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Wikidata project.

Projects such as these provide our staff and students with opportunities to engage with the creation of open knowledge and to improve knowledge equity. And what is particularly gratifying is that we often find that this inspires our staff and students to further knowledge activism. ♦ So for example this is Tomas Sanders, an undergraduate History student and one of our former Open Content Curation student interns, and who went on to run a successful Wikipedia editathon for Black History Month with the student History Society.

Talking about his experience of running the Black History Month Editathon, in an interview with Ewan, Tomas said

“The history that people access on Wikipedia is often very different from the history that you would access in a University department; there’s very little social history, very little women’s history, gender history, history of people of colour or queer history, and the only way that’s going to be overcome is if people from those disciplines start actively engaging in Wikipedia and trying to correct those imbalances. I feel the social potential of Wikipedia to inform people’s perspectives on the world really lies in correcting imbalances in the representation of that world. People should try to make Wikipedia accurately represent the diversity of the world around us, the diversity of history, and the diversity of historical scholarship.”

All these projects are examples of knowledge equity in action; the dismantling of obstacles that prevent people from accessing and participating in education and knowledge creation. Ultimately, this is what knowledge equity is about; counteracting structural inequalities and systemic barriers to ensure just representation of knowledge and equitable participation in the creation of a shared public commons. And it’s through the common purpose of knowledge equity that we can harness the transformational potential of open knowledge and open education to make real steps towards achieve the aims of Sustainable Development Goal 4; ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all, while supporting social inclusion and enabling learners to become fully engaged radical digital citizens.


Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., & Felten, P. (2014). Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: A guide for faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cronin, C. (2017). Openness and Praxis: Exploring the Use of Open Educational Practices in Higher Education. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(5). https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v18i5.3096

Cybulska, D., (2019), Funding utopia when you’re already a free knowledge utopia, https://medium.com/a-funding-utopia/funding- utopia-when-youre-already-a-free-knowledge-utopia-8da9d8f12c3c

Dhalla, A., (2018). The Dangers of Being Open, https://medium.com/@amirad/the-dangers-of-being-open-b50b654fe77e

Emejulu, A. and McGregor, C., (2019). Towards a radical digital citizenship in digital education, Critical Studies in Education, 60:1, 131-147, DOI: 10.1080/17508487.2016.1234494

Inamorato Dos Santos, A., Punie, Y., and Castaño Muñoz, J. (2016). Opening up Education: A Support Framework for Higher Education Institutions, European Commission Joint Research Centre, https://10.2791/293408

Lubicz-Nawrocka, T. (2018). Students as partners in learning and teaching: The benefits of co-creation of the curriculum. International Journal for Students As Partners, 2(1), 47-63.

Schuwer, R. (2019), UNESCO Recommendation on OER, https://www.robertschuwer.nl/?p=2812

UNESCO General Conference, (2019), Draft Recommendation on Open Educational Resources, https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000370936

Wikimedia Movement Strategy, 2018 – 2020, https://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Strategy/Wikimedia_movement/2018-20

A greatly-overdue Commons app update

14:26, Thursday, 12 2020 March UTC

Wow, has it really been a year since the last post I wrote on this blog? Time has really gotten away from me for a bit!

Much has changed in the Commons app since I last wrote. We have completed our codebase overhaul, and are proud to report a much more modern, stable, organized codebase. Also, from all reports that we have, the persistent upload failures that have plagued a few users have been solved! More details can be found on our Project Grant’s midpoint report.

Some screenshots from our new Nearby filters feature in v2.12:

Nearby filters in Commons app 01 Nearby filters in Commons app 02

And a map of p18 edits made with our app (images uploaded via Nearby for places that need them) from all around the world:

Commons app p18 edits map

2020 plans

We may also have an iOS app coming up for those of you who use iPhones! We are currently proposing its creation here – feel free to post your thoughts on it. 🙂

As usual, thank you to every one of you who has made all of this possible.

Wikipedia as a teaching tool that empowers students

15:19, Tuesday, 10 2020 March UTC

“I’ve improved my student reviews from it.”

Dr. Jennifer Glass’ environmental geochemistry course at Georgia Tech last fall covered “how chemical, biological, and geological processes control the distribution of chemical elements on Earth and the solar system.” Through a semester-long Wikipedia writing assignment, she wanted students to gain experience “in scientific writing on notable topics in environmental geochemistry of high interest to the public.”

This was her third term in a row using our assignment management tools and trainings to guide students through the task. After that first term in Fall 2018, she was thrilled to see how the assignment both affected students and the public resource that is Wikipedia. “Everyone agrees it’s way more interesting than a term paper,” she shared with us back in early 2019. “I think I’ll never go back to term papers – and instead always do something interactive like this.”

Cement wall with leaching occurring causing the white discoloration.
Image by Daina Krumins, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

One student from this most recent fall term improved Wikipedia’s coverage of the chemistry process called leaching, a naturally occurring process where a solute is extracted using a solvent. Although the page was created in 2008, it has only seen a few updates every year until this student came in overhauled the article. They effectively rewrote the whole article (check out the Authorship Highlighting tool on the Dashboard to see their contributions), including what leaching processes look like in soil and for fly ash. The page now also has a summary of laboratory tests used to measure for each type of leaching process. The page gets about 240 views every day and has received more than 23,000 visits since the student improved it! They also uploaded a freely licensed photo to the page to illustrate leaching occurring in a cement wall due to natural weathering events.

Another student expanded a section of the page about sulfur cycles, the “processes by which sulfur moves between rocks, waterways and living systems.” The page receives about 340 pageviews every day and has been read 35,000 times since the student added this new section of well-referenced work.

Our Dashboard’s Authorship Highlighting tool shows all the live content that students have added to a particular topic on Wikipedia. It’s very helpful for grading!

Dr. Glass recently spoke at Georgia Tech’s Spring 2020 Teaching with Technology Spotlight about the power of the assignment (see the full talk recorded here). She shares how to incorporate the assignment into her class, what learning objectives it achieves, and student reactions.

“I was excited to do it because I first learned how to edit Wikipedia myself at a conference five years ago,” she explained. She had seen warnings on Wikipedia pages before this (like the “reference needed” tag), but wasn’t familiar with how the site’s content was actually curated.

“Before this conference, I thought that kind of warning was for an official editor of Wikipedia to fix, when in fact, no, that’s the beauty of Wikipedia. It’s this big community out there that volunteers their time. And I realized, along with a lot of other professors, that I could use this in my class. And maybe students would like it a lot more than the typical project of a term paper that only I read.”

“I liked the assignment myself in the beginning because it’s for the public good. It’s getting information out. It’s taking the information from these specialized journals that only we, at universities, have easy access to because our institute pays the very high subscription fees. Most people can’t get access to that peer review information, so how do we get this out to the broader community that’s interested?”

Already, freeing up knowledge that’s siloed inside academia is a powerful motivator for many of the instructors we work with. But there’s another piece that is almost more compelling—students really like it.

“Students can take greater ownership of their work,” Dr. Glass continued. “And I’ve learned through my experience that students are much more engaged with the material, take much more ownership, and feel much more empowered when they know that the information is gonna end up in the public domain. It’s going to be seen by the world. In the beginning, it’s kind of scary for them. They’ve heard bad things about Wikipedia in high school, often, and they also are nervous about writing something that is going to end of being seen by the entire world. But when they go through the whole semester-long process, by the end of it, 95% of them really like the experience and feel empowered. I’ve seen multiple people put it on their resumes. It really shows that they feel like they got a real life experience out of this that is going to help them in the real world. And I think it will.”

“If you can do more writing in your classes, or if you want to, I really feel that students get a lot of great writing experience from this. And it teaches them about ethics and plagiarism and bias and how to find sources.”

Plus, she added, “I’ve improved my Course Instructor Opinion Survey (CIOS) scores from it.” That’s not a bad outcome, either!

To incorporate a Wikipedia writing assignment into an upcoming course, visit teach.wikiedu.org for access to free resources and assignment templates.

To read more about Dr. Glass’ past course, see our blog post after her first term teaching. To watch Dr. Glass’ full talk, click here.

A fair number of books have been written on the birds of India. Many colonial-era books have been taken out of the clutches of antique book sellers and wealthy hoarders and made available to researchers at large by the Biodiversity Heritage Library but there are still many extremely rare books that few have read or written about. Here is a small sampling of them which I hope to produce as a series of short entries.

One of these is by M.R.N. Homer (Mary Rebekah Norris Holmer - 6 June 1875 - 2 September 1957) - a professor of physiology at Lady Hardinge Medical College who was also the first woman board member in the Senate of Punjab University and a first for any university in India. Educated at Cambridge and Dublin University she worked in India from 1915 to 1922 and then returned to England. She wrote several bits on the methods of teaching nature study, and seems to have been very particular about these ideas. From a small fragment, it would appear that she emphasized the use of local and easily available plants as teaching aids and she deplored the use of the word "weed". Her sole book on birds was first published in 1923 as Indian Bird Life and then revised in 1926 as Bird Study in India. The second edition includes very neat black-and-white  illustrations by Kay Nixon, a very talented artist who illustrated some Enid Blyton books and apparently designed posters for the Indian Railways.

A rather sparse Wikipedia entry has been created at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M.R.N._Holmer - more information is welcome!

A scanned version of her bird book can now be found on the Internet Archive - https://archive.org/details/Holmer Holmer came from a Christian Sunday School approach to natural history which shows up in places in the book. Her book includes many literary references, several especially to R.L.S. (R.L.Stevenson). In another part of the series we will look at more "evangelical" bird books.

John Stephenson, the writer of the preface, was a zoologist and a specialist on the oligochaetes. He wrote the Fauna of British India volume on the oligochaetes and was the series editor for the Fauna of British India from 1927 following the death of the editor A.E. Shipley.

This Month in GLAM: February 2020

02:04, Tuesday, 10 2020 March UTC
  • Armenia report: Wiki project on Museums with My Armenia
  • Brazil report: Moreira Salles Institute GLAM initiative in Brazil
  • Finland report: The Helsinki then and now exhibition
  • France report: GLAM related blogposts
  • Indonesia report: Proposing collaboration with museums in Bali; First Wikisource training in the region
  • Netherlands report: Students write articles about Media artists, Public Domain Day 2020, Wiki Goes Caribbean, WikiFridays at Ihlia – Wikimedia Nederland in January & February 2020
  • Norway report: Wikipedia editing workshop with the Norwegian Network for Museums
  • Serbia report: Great dedication of librarians
  • Sweden report: Historic photos; Support for international Wikimedia community; Library training tour; Many GLAMs improved on Wikidata
  • UK report: Kimonos and Khalili
  • Ukraine report: Winning photos Wiki Loves Monuments shown in different cities; Libraries Lead an All-Ukrainian Challenge
  • USA report: Black History Month and Open Access Anniversaries
  • Structured Data on Wikimedia Commons report: Summary of pilot projects, and what’s next
  • Wikidata report: Leap into Wikidata!
  • WMF GLAM report: New Team Leadership, GLAM-Focused Grants Review, OpenGLAM Declaration Research
  • Calendar: March’s GLAM events

Eval, not evil

12:44, Monday, 09 2020 March UTC

My Mix-n-match tool deals with third-party catalogs, and helps matching their entries to Wikidata. This involves, as a necessity, importing minimal information about those entries into the Mix’n’match database, but ideally also imports additional metadata, such as (in case of biographical entries) gender, birth/death dates, VIAF etc., which are invaluable in automatically matching entries to Wikidata items, and thus greatly reduce volunteer workload.

However, virtually none of the (currently) ~2600 catalogs in Mix’n’match offers a standardized format to retrieve either basic or meta-data. Some catalogs are imported by volunteers from tabbed files, but most are “scraped”, that is, automatically read and parsed, from the source website.

Some source websites are set up in a way that allows a standardized scraping tool to run there, and I offer a web form to create new scrapers; over 1400 of these scrapers have run successfully, and ~750 of them can automatically run again on a regular basis.

But the autoscraper does not handle metadata, such as birth/death dates, and many catalogs need bespoke import code even for the basic information. Until recently, I had hundreds of scripts, some of them consisting of thousands of lines of code, running data retrieval and parsing:

  • Basic (ID, name, URL) information retrieval from source site
  • Creating or amending entry descriptions from source site
  • Importing auxiliary data (other IDs, such as VIAF, coordinates, etc.) from source site
  • extraction of birth/death dates from descriptions, taking care not to use estimates, “flourit” etc
  • extraction of auxiliary data from descriptions
  • linking of two related catalogs (e.g. one for painters, one for paintings) to improve matching (e.g. artworks only from that artist on Wikidata)

and many others.

Over time, all this has become unwieldy, unstructured, repetitive; I have written bespoke scrapers only to find that I already had one somewhere else etc.

So I went to radically redesign all these processes. My approach is that since only some small piece of code performs the actual scraping/parsing logic, these code fragments are now stored in the Mix’n’match database, associated with the respective catalog. I imported many code fragments from the “old” scripts into this table. I also wrote function-specific wrapper code that can load and execute a code fragment (via the eval function, which is often considered “evil”, hence the blog post title) on its associated catalog. An example of such code fragments for a catalog can be seen here.

I can now use that web interface to retrieve, create, test, and save code, without having to touch the command line at all.

In an ideal world, I would let everyone add and edit code here; however, since the framework executes PHP code, this would open the way for all kinds of malicious attacks. I can not think of a way to safeguard against (deliberate or accidental) destructive code, though I have put some mitigations in place, in case I make a mistake. So, for now, you can look, but you can’t touch. If you want to contribute code (new or patches), please give it to me, and I’ll be happy to add it!

This code migration is just in its infancy; so far, I support four functions, with a total of 591 code fragments. Many more to come, over time.

Selenium Ruby framework deprecated

09:14, Monday, 09 2020 March UTC

This is your friendly but final warning that we are replacing Selenium tests written in Ruby with tests in Node.js. There will be no more reminders. Ruby stack will no longer be maintained. For more information see T139740 and T173488.

Extensive documentation is available at mediawiki.org. If you need help with the migration, I am available for pairing and code review (zfilipin in Gerrit, zeljkof in #wikimedia-releng).

To see how to write a test watch Selenium tests in Node.js tech talk (J78).

Tech News issue #11, 2020 (March 9, 2020)

00:00, Monday, 09 2020 March UTC
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weeklyOSM 502

12:32, Sunday, 08 2020 March UTC


lead picture

OSM-FR reminder “Attribution is not an option!” 1 | © Picture by Christian Quest | © map data OpenStreetMap contributors


  • Markus Peloso created a proposal for locations used to share surplus food with others, and asks the readers of the Tagging mailing list for their opinions. The proposed tag is analogous to give_box and public_bookcase, but for food.
  • Martin Koppenhoefer has revived the 2014 proposal, originally submitted by Hno, for amenity=student_accommodation and asks for comments.
  • Rory McCann asks whether there is a tag for marking information boards which display OSM-based maps. (Nabble)
  • Crossing Highways (roads) in India is a map of spots in India where highways cross or overlap each other without sharing a node. Users can see details and click to open the same location in the OpenStreetMap iD editor to fix it. The map updates daily. It was created by processing the output of OSMLint. The frontend map uses leaflet-simple-csv. Note: it may contain false positives such as pedestrian overbridges.
  • The European Water Project’s proposal for drinking_water:refill=<yes/no> and drinking_water:refill_scheme=<scheme-name/multiple> was approved.
  • Brian Prangle enjoyed a short 90 minute stroll, on a crisp showery early spring day, around Ward End Park in Birmingham (UK). In a blog post on Mappa Mercia Brian explains not only how his walk contributed to the OSMUK first quarter project, but also some of the history of Ward End Park and his observations on how the park has changed since it was last mapped in 2009.
  • Manonv and Kateregga1 created a proposal for the tag place=refugee_site to solve the lack of consensus within the OSM community regarding the way to reference refugee camps in OSM.
  • Mateusz Konieczny published statistics on how many OSM elements were edited by each StreetComplete quest.


  • Gerry McGovern will give a series of talks at An Event Apart about the environmental impact of digitalisation and will propose ways to improve it. He is looking for arguments as to why OSM is more environmentally friendly than Google Maps.
  • mavl detailed the first 3000 out of more than 7500 reported issues at openstreetmap.org in a diary post. The reader can learn, for example, that most reported issues are about spam, and if a user is reported, because of vandalism.
  • Ibrahima Sory Diallo, a Masters student in ‘Geography – urban spaces and societies’ at Gaston Berger University (UGB), Saint-Louis, Senegal, shares his experience about the inaugural Africa Geospatial Data and Internet Conference (AGDIC2019) he attended in Accra, Ghana on the YouthMappers blog.


  • Deane Kensok is planning an import of buildings for Flagstaff, Arizona, USA. He has detailed his plan to import the data, provided by City of Flagstaff GIS Team, in the OSM wiki.
  • Stefan Baebler seeks advice on how to improve municipal and city boundaries for Slovenia in OSM following the release of new official border data. The new boundaries align with cadastral parcels. This means they do not fit to the data already in OSM as well as the older public data did.


  • The local community of OpenStreetMap, OsGeo/FOSS4G, and other map-py enthusiasts in the Philippines announced the upcoming Pista ng Mapa (Festival of Maps) 2020 conference to be held in Cebu City, on 27 to 29 May 2020. For updates, follow them on Twitter.
  • The State of the Map US 2020 will be held from 5 to 7 November in Tucson, Arizona. The organising committee is holding a logo design competition, entries are due by 22 March. If you want to do more than attend the committee is looking for help organising.

Humanitarian OSM

  • MapSwipe has won the Global Mobile Award for the Best Mobile Innovation Supporting Emergency or Humanitarian Situations. The GIScience News Blog explains the aims and background of the MapSwipe project.


  • The city of Düsseldorf, in Germany, in cooperation with surrounding municipalities has updated its official maps and now combines cadastral with OSM data. In an article they mention (de) (automatic translation) the advantages of the combination.


  • Christian Quest reports on Twitter and talk-fr about the OSM-fr ‘Reminder tile actions’ to address the lack of OSM attribution by some sites using the tile.openstreetmap.fr tile service. Several websites reacted in under 24 hours, and added the appropriate attribution.


  • Binnette wrote an article, in his diary, on how he become a ‘noob contributor’ to uMap. He is looking for translators and contributors (see his article for details).


  • Frederic Rodrigo’s article, ‘ImpOsm2pgRouting Route planning on OpenStreetMap road network with the benefit of updates’, presents the ImpOsm2pgRouting programming tool that can import OSM data, including pbf format, into PostgreSQL/PostGIS and transform it to the PgRouting data model.This allows synchronisation of a PgRouting database with OSM data. OSM highway lines are cut at each crossing and the characteristics of each road network segment are kept to calculate the route with the ‘lowest cost’, respecting various constraints such as road speed, one ways, etc.


  • OsmAnd has released version 3.6 of their Android app. The new version includes improved navigation profiles, the use of exit numbers in navigation, a direct-to-point navigation mode for marine users, and an Antarctica map.
  • Florimond Berthoux announced the release of a new version of CyclOSM, on its first anniversary. In his mail he briefly mentions the rendering improvements made in recent versions.

Did you know …

Other “geo” things

  • MobiGyaan ran an article about everything you need to know about NavIC. Navigation with Indian Constellation (NavIC) is India’s autonomous regional satellite navigation system.
  • Google Earth is finally available in browsers other than Chrome. Google beta tested a switch from its NaCI implementation to WebAssembly over the past six months, and it has successfully led to the launch of Google Earth for Firefox, Edge, and Opera. If you’d like to try out Google Earth in a web browser it is available at Google’s site.
  • HERE has released Geodata Models to help the telecommunications industry plan and deploy 5G wireless networks. The physical characteristics of mmWave 5G networks may require operators to install up to 10 times as many cell sites per km2 compared to 4G networks, so planning for the networks will require much more precise location data.
  • Far & Wide has created a gallery of their favourite maps from Terrible Maps.
  • It may surprise you to learn that paper maps still sell. Sales of print maps and road atlases have had a five-year compound annual growth rate of 10% in the USA. Edward Baig’s article in USA Today explains why you’ll never tear some folks away from their paper maps.

Upcoming Events

Where What When Country
Dortmund Mappertreffen 2020-03-06 germany
Riga State of the Map Baltics 2020-03-06 latvia
Amagasaki GPSで絵を描いてみようじゃあ~りませんか 2020-03-07 japan
Rennes Réunion mensuelle 2020-03-09 france
Grenoble Rencontre mensuelle 2020-03-09 france
Taipei OSM x Wikidata #14 2020-03-09 taiwan
Toronto Toronto Mappy Hour 2020-03-09 canada
Hamburg Hamburger Mappertreffen 2020-03-10 germany
Lyon Rencontre mensuelle 2020-03-10 france
Zurich 115. OSM Meetup Zurich 2020-03-11 switzerland
Hanover OSM-Sprechstunde 2020-03-11 germany
Freiburg FOSSGIS-Konferenz 2020-03-11-2020-03-14 germany
Nantes Rencontre mensuelle 2020-03-12 france
Berlin 141. Berlin-Brandenburg Stammtisch 2020-03-12 germany
Ulmer Alb Stammtisch Ulmer Alb 2020-03-12 germany
Chemnitz Chemnitzer Linux-Tage 2020-03-14-2020-03-15 germany
Freiburg OSM-Samstag @ FOSSGIS-Konferenz 2020-03-14 germany
Nottingham Nottingham pub meetup 2020-03-17 united kingdom
Lüneburg Lüneburger Mappertreffen 2020-03-17 germany
Cologne Bonn Airport 127. Bonner OSM-Stammtisch 2020-03-17 germany
Hanover OSM-Sprechstunde 2020-03-18 germany
Hanover Stammtisch Hannover 2020-03-19 germany
Munich Münchner Treffen 2020-03-19 germany
San José Civic Hack & Map Night 2020-03-19 united states
Bremen Bremer Mappertreffen 2020-03-23 germany
Reading Reading Missing Maps Mapathon 2020-03-24 united kingdom
Hanover OSM-Sprechstunde 2020-03-25 germany
Prešov Missing Maps Mapathon Prešov #5 2020-03-26 slovakia
Lübeck Lübecker Mappertreffen 2020-03-26 germany
Valcea EuYoutH OSM Meeting 2020-04-27-2020-05-01 romania
Guarda EuYoutH OSM Meeting 2020-06-24-2020-06-28 spain
Cape Town HOT Summit 2020-07-01-2020-07-02 south africa
Cape Town State of the Map 2020 2020-07-03-2020-07-05 south africa

Note: If you like to see your event here, please put it into the calendar. Only data which is there, will appear in weeklyOSM. Please check your event in our public calendar preview and correct it, where appropriate.

This weeklyOSM was produced by Elizabete, NunoMASAzevedo, PierZen, Polyglot, Rogehm, SK53, Sammyhawkrad, SunCobalt, TheSwavu, derFred.

A buggy history

08:13, Saturday, 07 2020 March UTC
—I suppose you are an entomologist?—I said with a note of interrogation.
—Not quite so ambitious as that, sir. I should like to put my eyes on the individual entitled to that name! A society may call itself an Entomological Society, but the man who arrogates such a broad title as that to himself, in the present state of science, is a pretender, sir, a dilettante, an impostor! No man can be truly called an entomologist, sir; the subject is too vast for any single human intelligence to grasp.
The Poet at the Breakfast Table (1872) by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. 
A collection of biographies
with surprising gaps (ex. A.D. Imms)
The history of Indian interest in insects has been approached by many writers and there are several bits and pieces available in journals and various insights distributed across books. There are numerous ways of looking at how people viewed insects over time. One of these is a collection of biographies, some of which includes uncited verbatim (and not even within quotation marks) accounts  from obituaries. This collation by B.R. Subba Rao who also provides a few historical supporting material to thread together the biographies. Keeping Indian expectations in view, bot Subba Rao and the agricultural entomologist M.A. Husain play to the crowd in their versions. Husain wrote in pre-Independence times where there was a need for Indians to assert themselves in their conflict with colonial masters. They begin with mentions of insects in ancient Indian texts and as can be expected there are mentions of honey, shellac, bees, ants, and a few nuisance insects. Husain takes the fact that the term Satpada षट्पद or six-legs existed in the 1st century Amarakosa to make the claim that Indians were far ahead of time because Latreille's Hexapoda, the supposed analogy, was proposed only in 1825. Such one-up-manship misses the fact that science is not just about terms but  also about structures and one can only assume that they failed to find the development of such structured ideas in the ancient texts that they examined. The identification of species in old texts also leave one wondering about the accuracy of translations. For instance K.N. Dave translates a verse from the Atharva-veda and suggests an early date for knowledge of shellac. This interpretation looks dubious and sure enough, Dave has been critiqued by an entomologist, Mahdihassan. One organism named in the texts as the indragopa (Indra's cowherd) is supposedly something that appears after the rains. Sanskrit scholars have remarkably enough, identified it with a confidence that no coccidologist ever had as the cochineal insect (the species Dactylopius coccus is South American!), while still others identify it as a lac insect, a firefly(!) and as Trombidium (red velvet mites) - the last matches the blood red colour mentioned in a text attributed to Susrutha. To be fair, ambiguities resulting from translation are not limited to those that deal with Indian writing. Dikairon (Δικαιρον), supposedly a highly-valued and potent poison from India was mentioned in the work Indika by Ctesias 398 - 397 BC. One writer said it was the droppings of a bird. Valentine Ball thought it was derived from a scarab beetle. Jeffrey Lockwood claimed that it came from the rove beetles Paederus sp. And finally a Spanish scholar states that all this was a misunderstanding and that Dikairon was not a poison, and believe it or not - was a masticated mix of betel leaves, arecanut, and lime! One gets a far more reliable idea of ancient knowledge and traditions from practitioners, forest dwellers, the traditional honey-harvesting tribes, and similar people that have been gathering materials such as shellac and beeswax. Unfortunately, many of these traditions and their practitioners are threatened by modern laws, economics, and cultural prejudice. These practitioners are being driven out of the forests where they live, and their knowledge was hardly ever captured in writing. The writers of the ancient Sanskrit texts were probably associated with temple-towns and other semi-urban clusters and it seems like the knowledge of forest dwellers was never considered merit-worthy.

A more meaningful overview of entomology may be gained by reading and synthesizing a large number of historical bits, and of which there are a growing number. The 1973 book published by the Annual Reviews Inc. should be of some interest. I have appended a selection of sources that I have found useful in adding bits and pieces to form a historic view of entomology in India. It helps however to have a broader skeleton on which to attach these bits and minutiae. Here, there area also truly verbose and terminology-filled systems developed by historians of science (for example, see ANT). I prefer an approach that is free of a jargon overload and like to look at entomology and its growth along three lines of action - cataloguing with the main product being collection of artefacts and the assignment of names, communication and vocabulary-building are social actions involving groups of interested people who work together with the products being scholarly societies and journals, and pattern-finding where hypotheses are made, and predictions tested. I like to think that anyone learning entomology also goes through these activities, often in this sequence. With professionalization there appears to be a need for people to step faster and faster into the pattern-finding way which also means that less time is spent on the other two streams of activity. The fast stepping often is achieved by having comprehensive texts, keys, identification guides and manuals. The skills involved in the production of those works - ways to prepare specimens, observe, illustrate, or describe are often not captured by the books themselves.


The cataloguing phase of knowledge gathering, especially of the (larger and more conspicuous) insect species of India grew rapidly thanks to the craze for natural history cabinets of the wealthy (made socially meritorious by the idea that appreciating the works of the Creator was as good as attending church)  in Britain and Europe and their ability to tap into networks of collectors working within the colonial enterprise. The cataloguing phase can be divided into the non-scientific cabinet-of-curiosity style especially followed before Darwin and the more scientific forms. The idea that insects could be preserved by drying and kept for reference by pinning, [See Barnard 2018] the system of binomial names, the idea of designating type specimens that could be inspected by anyone describing new species, the system of priority in assigning names were some of the innovations and cultural rules created to aid cataloguing. These rules were enforced by scholarly societies, their members (which would later lead to such things as codes of nomenclature suggested by rule makers like Strickland, now dealt with by committees that oversee the  ICZN Code) and their journals. It would be wrong to assume that the cataloguing phase is purely historic and no longer needed. It is a phase that is constantly involved in the creation of new knowledge. Labels, catalogues, and referencing whether in science or librarianship are essential for all subsequent work to be discovered and are essential to science based on building on the work of others, climbing the shoulders of giants to see further. Cataloguing was probably what the physicists derided as "stamp-collecting".

Communication and vocabulary building

The other phase involves social activities, the creation of specialist language, groups, and "culture". The methods and tools adopted by specialists also helps in producing associations and the identification of boundaries that could spawn new associations. The formation of groups of people based on interests is something that ethnographers and sociologists have examined in the context of science. Textbooks, taxonomic monographs, and major syntheses also help in building community - they make it possible for new entrants to rapidly move on to joining the earlier formed groups of experts. Whereas some of the early learned societies were spawned by people with wealth and leisure, some of the later societies have had other economic forces in their support.

Like species, interest groups too specialize and split to cover more specific niches, such as those that deal with applied areas such as agriculture, medicine, veterinary science and forensics. There can also be interest in behaviour, and evolution which, though having applications, are often do not find economic support.

Pattern finding
Eleanor Ormerod, an unexpected influence
in the rise of economic entomology in India

The pattern finding phase when reached allows a field to become professional - with paid services offered by practitioners. It is the phase in which science flexes its muscle, specialists gain social status, and are able to make livelihoods out of their interest. Lefroy (1904) cites economic entomology as starting with E.C. Cotes [Cotes' career in entomology was short, after marrying the famous Canadian journalist Sara Duncan in 1889 he too moved to writing] in the Indian Museum in 1888. But he surprisingly does not mention any earlier attempts, and one finds that Edward Balfour, that encyclopaedic-surgeon of Madras collated a list of insect pests in 1887 and drew inspiration from Eleanor Ormerod who hints at the idea of getting government support, noting that it would cost very little given that she herself worked with no remuneration to provide a service for agriculture in England. Her letters were also forwarded to the Secretary of State for India and it is quite possible that Cotes' appointment was a result.

As can be imagined, economics, society, and the way science is supported - royal patronage, family, state, "free markets", crowd-sourcing, or mixes of these - impact the way an individual or a field progresses. Entomology was among the first fields of zoology that managed to gain economic value with the possibility of paid employment. David Lack, who later became an influential ornithologist, was wisely guided by his father to pursue entomology as it was the only field of zoology where jobs existed. Lack however found his apprenticeship (in Germany, 1929!) involving pinning specimens "extremely boring".

Indian reflections on the history of entomology

Kunhikannan died at the rather young age of 47
A rather interesting analysis of Indian science is made by the first native Indian entomologist to work with the official title of "entomologist" in the state of Mysore - K. Kunhikannan. Kunhikannan was deputed to pursue a Ph.D. at Stanford (for some unknown reason many of the pre-Independence Indian entomologists trained in Stanford rather than England - see postscript) through his superior Leslie Coleman. At Stanford, Kunhikannan gave a talk on Science in India. He noted in his 1923 talk :

In the field of natural sciences the Hindus did not make any progress. The classifications of animals and plants are very crude. It seems to me possible that this singular lack of interest in this branch of knowledge was due to the love of animal life. It is difficult for Westerners to realise how deep it is among Indians. The observant traveller will come across people trailing sugar as they walk along streets so that ants may have a supply, and there are priests in certain sects who veil that face while reading sacred books that they may avoid drawing in with their breath and killing any small unwary insects. [Note: Salim Ali expressed a similar view ]
He then examines science sponsored by state institutions, by universities and then by individuals. About the last he writes:
Though I deal with it last it is the first in importance. Under it has to be included all the work done by individuals who are not in Government employment or who being government servants devote their leisure hours to science. A number of missionaries come under this category. They have done considerable work mainly in the natural sciences. There are also medical men who devote their leisure hours to science. The discovery of the transmission of malaria was made not during the course of Government work. These men have not received much encouragement for research or reward for research, but they deserve the highest praise., European officials in other walks of life have made signal contributions to science. The fascinating volumes of E. H. Aitken and Douglas Dewar are the result of observations made in the field of natural history in the course of official duties. Men like these have formed themselves into an association, and a journal is published by the Bombay Natural History Association[sic], in which valuable observations are recorded from time to time. That publication has been running for over a quarter of a century, and its volumes are a mine of interesting information with regard to the natural history of India.
This then is a brief survey of the work done in India. As you will see it is very little, regard being had to the extent of the country and the size of her population. I have tried to explain why Indians' contribution is as yet so little, how education has been defective and how opportunities have been few. Men do not go after scientific research when reward is so little and facilities so few. But there are those who will say that science must be pursued for its own sake. That view is narrow and does not take into account the origin and course of scientific research. Men began to pursue science for the sake of material progress. The Arab alchemists started chemistry in the hope of discovering a method of making gold. So it has been all along and even now in the 20th century the cry is often heard that scientific research is pursued with too little regard for its immediate usefulness to man. The passion for science for its own sake has developed largely as a result of the enormous growth of each of the sciences beyond the grasp of individual minds so that a division between pure and applied science has become necessary. The charge therefore that Indians have failed to pursue science for its own sake is not justified. Science flourishes where the application of its results makes possible the advancement of the individual and the community as a whole. It requires a leisured class free from anxieties of obtaining livelihood or capable of appreciating the value of scientific work. Such a class does not exist in India. The leisured classes in India are not yet educated sufficiently to honour scientific men.
It is interesting that leisure is noted as important for scientific advance. Edward Balfour, mentioned earlier, also made a similar comment that Indians were too close to subsistence to reflect accurately on their environment!  (apparently in The Vydian and the Hakim, what do they know of medicine? (1875) which unfortunately is not available online)

Kunhikannan may be among the few Indian scientists who dabbled in cultural history, and political theorizing. He wrote two rather interesting books The West (1927) and A Civilization at Bay (1931, posthumously published) which defended Indian cultural norms while also suggesting areas for reform. While reading these works one has to remind oneself that he was working under and with Europeans and may not have been able to have many conversations on such topics with Indians. An anonymous writer who penned the memoir of his life in his posthumous work notes that he was reserved and had only a small number of people to talk to outside of his professional work.
Entomologists meeting at Pusa in 1919
Third row: C.C. Ghosh (assistant entomologist), Ram Saran ("field man"), Gupta, P.V. Isaac, Y. Ramachandra Rao, Afzal Husain, Ojha, A. Haq
Second row: M. Zaharuddin, C.S. Misra, D. Naoroji, Harchand Singh, G.R. Dutt (Personal Assistant to the Imperial Entomologist), E.S. David (Entomological Assistant, United Provinces), K. Kunhi Kannan, Ramrao S. Kasergode (Assistant Professor of Entomology, Poona), J.L.Khare (lecturer in entomology, Nagpur), T.N. Jhaveri (assistant entomologist, Bombay), V.G.Deshpande, R. Madhavan Pillai (Entomological Assistant, Travancore), Patel, Ahmad Mujtaba (head fieldman), P.C. Sen
First row: Capt. Froilano de Mello, W Robertson-Brown (agricultural officer, NWFP), S. Higginbotham, C.M. Inglis, C.F.C. Beeson, Dr Lewis Henry Gough (entomologist in Egypt), Bainbrigge Fletcher, Bentley, Senior-White, T.V. Rama Krishna Ayyar, C.M. Hutchinson, Andrews, H.L.Dutt

Enotmologists meeting at Pusa in 1923
Fifth row (standing) Mukerjee, G.D.Ojha, Bashir, Torabaz Khan, D.P. Singh
Fourth row (standing) M.O.T. Iyengar (a malariologist), R.N. Singh, S. Sultan Ahmad, G.D. Misra, Sharma, Ahmad Mujtaba, Mohammad Shaffi
Third row (standing) Rao Sahib Y Rama Chandra Rao, D Naoroji, G.R.Dutt, Rai Bahadur C.S. Misra, SCJ Bennett (bacteriologist, Muktesar), P.V. Isaac, T.M. Timoney, Harchand Singh, S.K.Sen
Second row (seated) Mr M. Afzal Husain, Major RWG Hingston, Dr C F C Beeson, T. Bainbrigge Fletcher, P.B. Richards, J.T. Edwards, Major J.A. Sinton
First row (seated) Rai Sahib PN Das, B B Bose, Ram Saran, R.V. Pillai, M.B. Menon, V.R. Phadke (veterinary college, Bombay)

Note: As usual, these notes are spin-offs from researching and writing Wikipedia entries, in this case on several pioneering Indian entomologists. It is remarkable that even some people in high offices, such as P.V. Isaac, the last Imperial Entomologist, and grandfather of noted writer Arundhati Roy, are largely unknown (except as the near-fictional Pappachi in Roy's God of Small Things)

Further reading
An index to entomologists who worked in India or described a significant number of species from India - with links to Wikipedia (where possible - the gaps in coverage of entomologists in general are too many)
(woefully incomplete - feel free to let me know of additional candidates)

Carl Linnaeus - Johan Christian Fabricius - Edward Donovan - John Gerard Koenig - John Obadiah Westwood - Frederick William Hope - George Alexander James Rothney - Thomas de Grey Walsingham - Henry John Elwes - Victor Motschulsky - Charles Swinhoe - John William Yerbury - Edward Yerbury Watson - Peter Cameron - Charles George Nurse - H.C. Tytler - Arthur Henry Eyre Mosse - W.H. Evans - Frederic Moore - John Henry Leech - Charles Augustus de Niceville - Thomas Nelson Annandale - R.C. WroughtonT.R.D. Bell - Francis Buchanan-Hamilton - James Wood-Mason - Frederic Charles Fraser  - R.W. Hingston - Auguste Forel - James Davidson - E.H. Aitken -  O.C. Ollenbach - Frank Hannyngton - Martin Ephraim Mosley - Hamilton J. Druce  - Thomas Vincent Campbell - Gilbert Edward James Nixon - Malcolm Cameron - G.F. Hampson - Martin Jacoby - W.F. Kirby - W.L. DistantC.T. Bingham - G.J. Arrow - Claude Morley - Malcolm Burr - Samarendra Maulik - Guy Marshall
Edward Percy Stebbing - T.B. Fletcher - Edward Ernest Green - E.C. Cotes - Harold Maxwell Lefroy - Frank Milburn Howlett - S.R. Christophers - Leslie C. Coleman - T.V. Ramakrishna Ayyar - Yelsetti Ramachandra Rao - Magadi Puttarudriah - Hem Singh Pruthi - Shyam Sunder Lal Pradhan - James Molesworth Gardner - Vakittur Prabhakar Rao - D.N. Raychoudhary - C.F.W. Muesebeck  - Mithan Lal Roonwal - Ennapada S. Narayanan - M.S. Mani - T.N. Ananthakrishnan - Muhammad Afzal Husain

Not included by Rao -   F.H. Gravely - P.V. Isaac - M. Afzal Husain - A.D. Imms - C.F.C. Beeson
 - C. Brooke Worth - Kumar Krishna - M.O.T. Iyengar - K. Kunhikannan

PS: Thanks to Prof C.A. Viraktamath, I became aware of a new book-  Gunathilagaraj, K.; Chitra, N.; Kuttalam, S.; Ramaraju, K. (2018). Dr. T.V. Ramakrishna Ayyar: The Entomologist. Coimbatore: Tamil Nadu Agricultural University. - this suggests that TVRA went to Stanford on the suggestion of Kunhikannan.

    Update: On March 14, 2020, the Wikimedia Foundation announced new measures to support employees and protect general public health amid COVID-19. As part of these operational actions, we have:

    • Closed both Foundation offices in San Francisco and Washington, DC, until at least March 31, 2020. All staff are now working remotely. 
    • Shifted to a reduced work week. Expectations are that staff may work 20 hours a week if necessary, and all will be paid according to their usual work schedules.
    • Waived normal sick time requirements for staff who are ill or caring for others.
    • Guaranteed all contract and hourly workers full compensation for planned hours worked.
    • Cancelled all near-term, in-person gatherings until the World Health Organization declares the pandemic over.


    Importantly, we have shifted our priorities to essential work, including keeping Wikipedia online and available for the world as a critical informational resource. Please see here for real-time updates about our COVID-19 response, as well as related resources.


    The Wikimedia Foundation is closely monitoring developments with respect to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) and its potential impact on our staff and the communities in which we all live. Today, we’re sharing steps we’re taking to protect our employees and how we plan to do our part to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

    For the remainder of March 2020, our San Francisco office will be closed to staff and visitors. We are putting in place measures to ensure that our San Francisco-based staff have resources and support to continue working remotely. Our Washington D.C. office will remain open for the time being, though we are encouraging everyone to take precautions to protect themselves and their communities and to work remotely where possible.

    We have also temporarily suspended nonessential travel for all staff, and instituted a risk review process for any travel considered essential. In addition, we have been in touch with members of the Wikimedia movement community with respect to upcoming events and are taking necessary steps to cancel or postpone these, based on potential risks.

    To ensure we continue to evaluate and take action to limit the spread of COVID-19, we have established a responding team of staff to monitor new developments and determine the appropriate measures as the situation further develops. This team will also be tasked with ensuring we have clear, actionable protocols and plans to maintain the continuity of technical needs to provide free knowledge for our hundreds of millions of users around the world.

    Approximately 64 percent of Wikimedia Foundation staff are remote, and so we do not anticipate a major disruption in our work. That said, we’re continuing to evaluate and take necessary measures to meet the organization’s goals and priorities.

    We encourage our staff, partners, volunteer communities, and everyone to take care of themselves during this time, and recognize the role each of us can play in not only limiting the spread of the disease for ourselves, but also for the communities we all live in. Stay safe, be well, and we’ll keep you updated as the situation develops.

    Katherine Maher
    Wikimedia Foundation Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director

    What are the implications if the world’s leading source of online information highlights the accomplishments of elite Indigenous athletes? It’s a question that Dr. Vicky Paraschak’s class at University of Windsor surely discussed as they created brand new Wikipedia biographies for Indigenous athletes from Canada as an assignment this last fall.

    Tony Cote, the first elected Chief of the Cote First Nations and creator of the Saskatchewan First Nations Summer and Winter Games, has a brand new page. As a student from Dr. Paraschak’s Spring 2019 course wrote in the Wikipedia page for the World Indigenous Games (WIN), sporting events like the one Tony Cote created “have become a means to project positive images and garner social, political, and/or economic benefits for their communities. Organizers and Indigenous stakeholders wanted to use the WIN Games [in particular] to address challenges faced by Indigenous communities such as: stereotypes, lack of resources and opportunities for Indigenous youth, and vulnerability of Indigenous women.”

    And head on over to Joy SpearChief-Morris’s new biography to learn about her career as a track champion. She received the 2017 Tom Longboat Award, “awarded annually by the Aboriginal Sport Circle to the most outstanding male and female Indigenous athletes in Canada;” “holds the 115th position in the World Ranking of the International Association of Athletics Federations for 100-meter hurdles;” and is training to compete in the 2020 Summer Olympics.

    The world can also now read about taekwondo athlete Sara-Lynne Knockwood, who is not only a Miꞌkmaq hall of famer, but also a North American Indigenous Games multi-gold medalist!

    The 6 students who completed the assignment added more than 1,000 words each and their work has already been viewed 1,400 times! We can all agree that that’s quite a bit more than if they had written a term paper that only their instructor would read…

    Screenshot of Dr. Paraschak’s Dashboard course page shows the impact students made on Wikipedia during the Fall 2019 term.

    As a professor at the University of Windsor, Dr. Paraschak focuses on “efforts to enhance reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in Canada specifically in the area of physical activity, in keeping with the five relevant calls to action found in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission summary report.” [1] The Wikipedia writing assignment has played a role in her work since 2017 and since then, students have created or improved 194 Wikipedia pages within three main categories: First Nations sportspeople, Métis sportspeople and Canadian Inuit sportspeople.

    Screenshot shows the total impact that Dr. Paraschak’s students have made on Wikipedia since the Spring 2017 term.

    Her commitment to the Wikipedia assignment shows the real impact that students can have on expanding Wikipedia’s coverage of Indigenous achievements. Well done!

    Interested in incorporating a Wikipedia writing assignment into a future course? Visit teach.wikiedu.org for all you need to know to get started.

    Teaching students that their words have power

    19:48, Thursday, 05 2020 March UTC

    “College professors tend not to allow you to include a Wikipedia article as a citation in a paper you write. So what are you doing encouraging your students to go to Wikipedia?” Houston Matters host Craig Cohen asked Dr. Melissa Weininger in a radio interview last week.

    Dr. Melissa Weininger (by Jeff Fitlow).

    “Well, I’m not encouraging them to go to Wikipedia but to write well-sourced, well researched Wikipedia entries,” Dr. Weininger clarified. “We all know that people do use Wikipedia. Even if you’re not allowed to use it for your college course, we certainly look to Wikipedia when we need a little bit of information about something. And so it’s really important that the information that’s on Wikipedia is reliable.”

    Dr. Weininger began teaching a Wikipedia writing assignment in her course, Sex and Gender in Modern Jewish Culture, at Rice University last fall. Through it, students discussed issues of inequity in Wikipedia’s content and the importance of access to accurate, verifiable information.

    “I think we’ve all learned in the last years about how important it is for everybody, but students in particular, to be able to differentiate between reliable and unreliable information on the internet,” Dr. Weininger continued. “So one of the things the students learned in doing the project is—it was a way of reverse engineering that process. They learned how Wikipedia entries are built and therefore what their strengths and weaknesses can be.”

    The lack of equal representation of biographies of women on Wikipedia “was one of the reasons for starting this project.” Dr. Weininger was interested in exploring writing as activism with students.

    “Part of that is to teach the students that their words and their actions have power, that the information that is available to us on the internet can also be a source of power. If there’s less information available to us about women, we learn that women aren’t as valuable in our culture and we simply don’t have access to their stories. So the assignments for the class were all structured around this idea of not just improving our access to information about women on Wikipedia, but thinking about how what we do in the classroom, what we learn in the classroom, and how our own writing can really be of benefit to the public sphere in general.”

    Sarah Silberman (by Katharine Shilcutt).

    Dr. Weininger was joined by one of her former students who had completed the assignment, Sarah Silberman, who drastically improved Jewish social historian Paula Hyman’s biography (see the Dashboard’s Authorship Highlighting tool in action here!).

    “At Rice I’m a double history and French major,” Sarah shared. “So in other Jewish history classes I actually read a good number of Paula Hyman articles and I read excerpts from books she had written. I really wanted to write about her because looking at her Wikipedia article, it just looked so sad and sparse in comparison to all the amazing things she’s done in her life and I wanted people to know that.”

    “There’s a potential downside to crowdsourcing on Wikipedia,” the interviewer suggested, “where someone like you, Sarah, will write this extensive article, have well-cited sources, and then somebody else will come along and decide to change it without any particular citation. Did you track your article to see if others were coming along and making tweaks to it?”

    “I have actually gone back a few times to make sure everything with Paula’s article is tip-top shape and so far no one has changed anything,” Sarah responded. “But even so, it tends to be that people on Wikipedia change things for the better. If my language was too subjective, citing too much of an opinion rather than a fact, then it would be changing something like that.”

    “When my students published their entries, I immediately started circulating them to other people,” said Dr. Weininger. “And to be honest, other academics were really excited about it and excited to see that my students had really improved the quality of entries about these women who were extremely important.”

    “Wikipedia itself might not be a reliable source as a place to look for all of your information,” she noted. “But it does actually have pretty stringent citation standards. So one of the things students also learn from this is the way to fact-check Wikipedia is by going back to the original sources because they’re all cited at the end of the article.”

    ”A lot of my students have grown up with Wikipedia and Googling things, but haven’t thought very much about where that information comes from. And when you yourself write an entry, all of a sudden all of that is open to you. And you have a much clearer understanding of how these things are put together, maybe who’s putting these things together, what’s involved in it, what the potential pitfalls are, and also the potential advantages.”

    “Most projects in a classroom-setting are done in the classroom,” the interviewer noted. “This is one that is sort of public record. Did you have any qualms about doing a project that is so out there?”

    “Well no,” Dr. Weininger answered, “and that’s mostly a testament to how great Rice students are and the students in this class were. I actually wasn’t worried about that at all. And there are also advantages that come with that risk—the public nature of this project. And that is that students get to see their work published. One of the great things to see was the day that the articles were due and they had to post them online. … They were all saying, ‘I wrote this and it’s on the internet!’ That’s a really exciting thing, and hopefully it gets them excited about doing it more now that they have the skills and the ability to do it. So there’s some risk involved, but a lot of reward. And I knew they were up to it and they really did such a fantastic job.”

    “I actually really did enjoy doing this project,” Sarah added. “I would love to continue doing this as a side hobby or something. … I think this should be more prominent in college classes and in university classes. I think that, like Dr. Weininger was saying, not only was it satisfying from a student perspective to see that my work was published and that it was doing a public good, but also it’s just a way for our work to have greater impact. Because a lot of times I write papers, they’ll go to my professor, my professor will read them, and then that’s the end of it. It doesn’t really go anywhere beyond that. So having a project that actually has some impact on the world is really important. And I think academia should take advantage of more opportunities like that.”

    To incorporate a Wikipedia writing assignment into an upcoming course, visit teach.wikiedu.org for access to free resources and assignment templates.

    To read more about Dr. Weininger’s class, check out this blog post.

    To listen to the original interview (which begins at minute 11:10), visit Houston Matters.

    Thumbnail and inset images by Jeff Fitlow and Katharine Shilcutt respectively (Rights reserved).

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