I’ve been reading UserFriendly since the third or fourth day it’s been online. JD “Illiad” Frazier was good enough to feature Geekcorps prominently on the site, helping us recruit dozens of volunteers. But I read less out of loyalty and more because he periodically makes me laugh so hard I fall out of my chair.
The cartoon is a reference to a recent Reuters story where Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales talks about plans to create a static version of the encyclopedia for distribution in the developing world.
This isn’t exactly a breaking news story: Jimmy’s said from the start of the project that he was trying to create a free encyclopedia that could be distributed to people offline. There’s a page on Wikipedia – Pushing to 1.0 – on the topic which has been around since last November. And the project seems to focus, primarily, on creating a static version that could be distributed on CDROM or DVD, and less on partial paper versions.
(If Wikipedia were printed out, it would create a pile of pages roughly 23 meters high. According to a mid-2003 study, the average article on Wikipedia was 2,100 characters, or roughly 2KB. There are currently 804,000 English language articles. Assuming 600 words, we’re talking 3-4 KB per page. Let’s call it 7KB on both sides of a printed page. We’d need 229,714 printed pages to contain the English edition. A ream – 500 sheets of paper – is roughly 5cm thick, giving us roughly 10 pages per milimeter. The comprehensive edition, containing 1.8 million articles in 100 languages, is roughly 51 meters high…)
Illiad’s a little off when he references a single page in a local language…but not by much. The Kiswahili edition has 87 articles… Bambara just reached 68… Lingala’s up to 144.
Does this mean that Wikipedia’s a failed experiment in African languages? Probably not. Using the ‘net in Africa right now requires pretty good English or French language skills – while projects like Translate.org.za and Jambo Open Office are creating browsers and other tools in local languages, the vast majority of African net users at present are bilingual or multilingual. We’ve seen, in the middle east Wikipedia community, that many speakers who are bilingual in English and Arabic are contributing to the English wikipedia rather than the Arabic, because the Arabic wikipedia is so small, and there’s a perception that for the work to be recognized, used and appreciated, it needs to be on the widely used English encyclopedia.
It’s going to be interesting to follow the development of the Swahili wikipedia. There’s a small but passionate group of Swahili language bloggers, and one of the key figures in that community, Ndesanjo Macha, has gotten involved with the Wikipedia project. If the Swahili community can mobilize to bring the Swahili wikipedia to a thousand or ten thousand entries, then perhaps it makes a good deal of sense to distribute it on CD or paper to students who wouldn’t otherwise have affordable reference materials in their native language.