Horn OK Please – India is Great

Recently I returned from a whirlwind tour of some of the cultural sector in India in order to work with the local Wikimedia community on building their GLAM collaboration capacity. Equally I was there to learn what the particular advantages and challenges in this field are for India. You can see all of the main meetings and activities in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore at the summary page here.

[Indian truck & taxi art is something quite special (check out this beautiful set on Flickr of Street Graphics)
but one phrase keeps reappearing everywhere I went: “Horn OK Please“.]


Immediately after giving a presentation at the National Library of Australia in Canberra (podcast here) I fanged back to Sydney airport, flew to Mumbai and within five hours of landing,  Bishakha DattaPradeep Mohandas and I met with the director of arguably the most venerable museum in the country, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya – better known as the Prince of Wales Museum.1 Following the precedent of the British Museum’s “Hoxne Challenge“, they are keen on working with the local Wikimedia community to run a similar “editing challenge” event across relevant languages (including Hindi, English, Marathi…) and also to run “backstage pass” tours.

We also visited the directors of Jnanapravaha (a private arts education institute) and the Heras Institute (a research institute associated with St. Xavier’s College). The former are interested in making the videos of their lecture series on Indian aesthetics available via Commons, whilst the latter publish Indica (one of the very few peer reviewed journals on Indian archaeology/ancient culture/religion etc.) and wish to make it more referenced online. I also participated remotely in a Wikipedia Academy running that day in Kolkata:

[Skyping in to talk to the class at the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade]

We also had the 7th Mumbai wikimeetup where the people behind the FOSS video sharing site pad.ma (Public Access Digital Media Archive) which differs from Youtube etc. in that it encourages users to annotate, subtitle, extract and download, not merely comment and rate.


The original purpose of my trip was to speak at the 2011 International Conference on the Convergence of Libraries, Archives and Museums (ICLAM) about my project with the British Museum and Wikimedia GLAM outreach in general.

[The opening ceremony at ICLAM 2011]

I was also asked to open the session on social media. I entitled my talk “Why Wikipedia is not social media” and said that even though Wikipedia requires people to collaborate, that is not its purpose. It is a socially constructed project but its purpose is not to be social. It is a community for a purpose – to write an encyclopedia – whereas the purpose of Twitter/Facebook is interaction. On Wikipedia, interaction is a by-product of the common goal. Personal interaction is the currency of a social network but for a social construction, personal interaction is merely a requisite factor.

Whilst in Delhi I also spent considerable time with Hisham Mundol (twitter), the recently announced head of Indian Wikimedia Foundation office. 2

We couldn’t have hoped for a nicer fellow to be offered this job! For one thing I can report that this man has a fantastically bizarre sense of humor – you’d need it if your day-job in the HIV-AIDS prevention program included running a needle-exchange program for Delhi’s addicts. As difficult as learning all the ins-and-outs of the Wikiverse is, you can be sure that it’s not as hard as learning how to convince long-distance truck drivers to wear condoms when visiting sex workers on their journey.

I am particularly interested to see what the Wikimedia Foundation presence in India can achieve. There are well-documented opportunities to make Wikimedia content more accessible in India and in engaging more Indians to contribute, but equally there are big potential pitfalls in terms of how the tripartite relationship of Community-Chapter-Foundation will work in practice. What can be said for certain is that if the WMF India Office or the Indian Chapter try to undermine, ignore or work against each other then the community will suffer as a result. Good-faith collaboration is the only way to succeed.

Thanks especially to Theo (twitter) for spending his time to show me the sights of old and new Delhi including the Red Fort:


Gautam John (twitter) and Achal Prabhala were kind enough to be my hosts in Bangalore. I was through Gautam that I met Ryan Lobo by chance in a cafe. He told me about his documentary that followed the mass murderer General Butt Naked as he returned to the places where he committed his atrocities. This is his TED talk.

I gave a presentation to the students at a local Fine Arts college Chitrakala Parishath who were quite keen to hear about how they could start documenting local public monuments and heritage buildings using the models developed by the team in Indianapolis. (Hari Prasad Nadig put some lovely photos of this event in a gallery on Flickr.)

Following up on contacts made in Delhi, we also visited the Microsoft Research campus to talk with the people behind “WikiBhasha” – a tool that enables you to translate into your own language from another language edition of Wikipedia better content – even if you don’t understand the other language. Of course, you could simply throw the full text of an article into any translation software and then fix the errors, but this system lets you do the work within Wikipedia with all of the editorial and markup advantages that entails (youtube instructional video).

We also visited and gave presentations to staff at the National Gallery of Modern Art and the Karnataka State Library Association (who gave me a lovely gift of સત્યના પ્રયોગો અથવા આત્મકથા).

Finally, we had a wikimeetup and talked about what the Indian Chapter could do in the GLAM field. One of the major problems of course is the lack of archival Indian-language material that is digitised, let alone available online. A consequence of this scarcity is that it is extremely difficult to provide any same-language footnotes when writing in regional Indian languages. Two specific project ideas were discussed:

  1. We commission a digitisation list. The Chapter first engages the Wikipedia (and especially Wikisource) communities to come up with a list of “most wanted” texts/maps/manuscripts in local languages that are in the Public Domain and then runs a campaign to have these works digitised in high quality and placed on Wikimedia Commons. The funding could come from a WMF grant or local donations for this specific cause. This kind of project could and should be run in any country but is particularly useful in places where GoogleBooks doesn’t see any commercial potential and so hasn’t bothered to bridge the digital divide.
  2. We become the digitisers ourselves. Principal reasons why there is so little digitised content available are: lack of proper equipment/trained staff; political fighting over which regional language gets priority; no online system to put it even if it is digitised (usually it sits in a CD on the shelf). Perhaps if a State/National library agreed to allow access, the Indian chapter could raise a grant to purchase a good quality bookscanner and the funds to operate it. A request list could be set up on-wiki where editors in any language could ask for particular sources to be scanned. The digitised documents could then be placed on Commons and OCR on Wikisource and a copy given to the institution. This system has obvious financial and bureaucratic pitfalls. However, it has the advantage of ensuring that the content is made available for free in the future and that it WILL be publicly referenced given that the request comes from a Wikipedian not a private scholar. Chapters in developed countries should probably not suggest that their libraries outsource digitisation to Wikimedia, but for developing countries I would argue this is a legitimate usage of our funds.

[If memory serves, the two ladies on the left were from the arts college talk in the morning and came to find out more about being Wikimedians, yay! Note the kangaroo/penguin on my shoulder, I call it Pengaroo!]

Thanks especially to Bishakha in Mumbai, Theo in Delhi and Achal and Gautam in Bangalore for their time and hospitality.

1 For political reasons many of the former colonial names for public institutions and major roads in India have formally been given local names (fair enough) but the locals still commonly refer to them only by their original names – making it particularly difficult for anyone not from the area to reconcile oral instructions with a written map! For example if someone tells you to meet them at “VT” you need to know that this is Victoria Terminus (Mumbai’s gorgeous Victorian-gothic central train station) that is now officially known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.

2 Presumably he has been given the formal title of consultant because the legal framework for the Wikimedia Foundation presence in India is not yet in place so there is no organisation of which he can be the head. 🙂 This is similar to the situation when Sue Gardner first joined the Wikimedia Foundation as a “consultant”.

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1 Response to Horn OK Please – India is Great

  1. Prashanth says:

    Missed meeting you at the event in Bangalore. Recently started off a small project for Indian wildlife articles with some new subject expert editors. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:School_and_university_projects/Nature_Conservation_Foundation_-_Improvement_drive_on_articles_on_Indian_wildlife/forests). Hope to catch you next visit.

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