Wikimania, the annual conference of the Wikimedia Foundation, is going virtual for the first time in its 16-year history. Instead of viewing it as a limitation, the operator of Wikipedia and other free knowledge projects is taking the opportunity to expand the event’s reach across time zones and language barriers.
In a scenario all too familiar to event organizers during the pandemic, the Wikimedia Foundation’s annual conference set to meet in Bangkok in 2020 was cancelled and rescheduled for the same venue this year. As the pandemic dragged on, those plans had to be scrapped as well, forcing organizers to announce that Wikimania 2021 would take place on August 13-17 as a virtual event for the first time in its 16-year history.
Far from a disadvantage, Wikimania’s international team of volunteer organizers say the virtual format has the potential to expand the conference’s global reach and blow through time zones and language barriers. Instead of an in-person event geared for an English-speaking audience in a single location, organizers emphasize that Wikimania 2021 will feature both live and pre-recorded sessions available on-demand and with interpretation or translation.
Cross-Border Access Translates Into Inclusivity
One key advantage of virtual events is connected to the increase in reach. Lower barriers for attendance and speaking engagements produces opportunities for those who might not normally have access to the knowledge and networking opportunities of in-person events to participate and benefit from online equivalents, and multilingual service extends that principle further.
According to a statement from the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that operates Wikipedia and an array of other free-knowledge “Wiki” projects, “We want to enable more people from our movement to be able to access Wikimania in a language they feel comfortable in and we are experimenting with new approaches.”
While acknowledging that not every person or community can be accommodated, the Wikimedia Foundation plans to provide live translation of sessions delivered in English into Arabic, French, German, Russion, Spanish and Mandarin. It will also provide closed captioning in English for all pre-recorded sessions.
Along with addressing the varied language needs of a global audience, the Wikimedia Foundation is also making a greater effort to accommodate the multilingual needs of speakers and presenters, particularly with pre-recorded sessions. While simultaneous interpretation and closed captioning of live sessions are limited to the languages mentioned above, Wikimania is allowing pre-recorded sessions to be presented in any language. One requirement is that a pre-recorded session presented in a language other than English must include an English transcript so that closed captions in English can be added in order to reach a wider audience.
Taking steps toward language and on-demand accessibility in order to meet the needs of a broader array of international participants makes a lot of sense for an organization whose information services purportedly encompass 40 million articles in nearly 300 languages. If kept, these practices are certain to be a beneficial legacy for any future Wikimania conferences, whether in-person or virtual.
In devising ways to make Wikimania’s content available on demand and in languages other than English, the Wikimedia Foundation has turned what could have been a setback into an opportunity to reach a wider audience, one that reflects the international scope of the organization.