Optimize Wikimedia's operations/en

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Summary Issue: Strong infrastructure and operations is required to achieve Wikimedia's mission

Expanding reach, increasing participation, and continually improving the quality of Wikimedia's projects will require strong infrastructure and operations

The Wikimedia movement was unofficially launched in January 2001 when the first Wikipedia article was written. Since then, a snowballing self-governing movement of volunteers has sprung up around the world, working to build the encyclopedias and launching a total of 744 projects. To deliver against its mission, Wikimedia volunteers have formed their own bureaucracy to govern and manage its assets (e.g. brand), proliferate shared values, and keep focus on the collective goal of the sum of all knowledge to all people. In addition to this organic bureaucracy, several structures have been created - the Wikimedia Foundation and country-based chapters - to support the growing base of volunteers and the projects.

Greatly expanding reach, participation, and the quality of its projects, requires volunteers, chapters, and the Foundation to play different and complementary roles. There is much to be done - improving Wikimedia's technological infrastructure, adopting technological innovations, increasing outreach, developing new partnerships and alliances, supporting the health and growth of the Wikimedia community, raising funds, and increasing Wikimedia's voice on important issues that affect the free sharing of information. To achieve all of this, more clarity is needed on the role of chapters and the Foundation in supporting volunteers and taking on the work to build the Wikimedia movement that volunteers can't or won't do. In order to implement strategies that emerge from task forces under ESP 1 through 4, Wikimedia must attend to key elements of its infrastructure and operations, including the roles of the people and structures in the movement, finances, partnerships/alliances, technology, and advocacy.

Clarity of roles

Within the Wikimedia community, there are three major groups working to advance the vision: individual volunteers, chapters, and the Wikimedia Foundation. Much of the work on Wikimedia projects is done by self-organizing volunteers, however, the chapters and Wikimedia Foundation were established to fill specific needs that the volunteers were not capable or focused on addressing.

Established in 2003, the Foundation was initially staffed entirely by volunteers; as of September 2009, the Foundation has 30 paid staff members. The role of the Foundation has grown over time. Initially, it served as a legal entity that collected donations and managed the licensing of Wikimedia's name; today, it continues in these roles and also manages the basic technology infrastructure and plays a role in supporting software development, the development of partnerships and alliances, fundraising, communications, and outreach.

Starting in 2004, the Wikimedia community began to form chapters. Each chapter is focused on specific geographic regions of the world. Today there are 27 independent chapters, 11 are actively preparing to be officially recognized, and another 14 that are "in discussion."[1]. Chapters help support the Wikimedia movement by building a presence within different geographic areas, supporting the foundation by collecting donations, organizing local events and projects, and building awareness of Wikimedia within their home countries.

Existing chapters (dark blue), planned chapters (green), and chapters in discussion (light blue) as of 4 July 2009.

To enable global expansion and spark the next wave of growth for the Wikimedia community, the current size and scope of the Foundaton and chapters is likely insufficient to support the community of volunteers and projects, but what should the Foundation and chapters be focused upon and what is best done by volunteers? What work to advance the movement would not be accomplished without the investment of time and resources by the Foundation and the chapters? Is there work that needs to be done that requires the creation of new structures within the community that do not exist today? The Wikimedia community needs improved clarity on the role of the Foundation and chapters as well as roles volunteers can play to advance its vision.

This includes roles in such functions as:

  • Wikimedia movement strategy
  • Governance and legal
  • Brand management, marketing and communications
  • Community growth and health
  • Project development and management
  • Financial sustainability: cost alignment, fundraising, revenue generation
  • Alliance and partnerships for expanding reach, increasing content and content quality, technology, and advocacy
  • Technology infrastructure maintenance and development
  • Technology innovation
  • Advocacy

While the roles and relationship between foundation, chapters, and individual volunteers is vital to the effective governance, brand management and marketing, and community growth and health, these have areas have been the focus on the all three entities. However, in the areas of financial sustainability, alliances and partnerships, technology and advocacy, advisors and Community members have raised concerns on the lack of efforts against these in relationship to their potential to support Wikimedia’s drive to achieve its goal of the sum of all knowledge for all people.

Financial sustainability

As the size and scope of Wikimedia’s projects have grown, so too has the resource requirements to support the technology infrastructure and conduct activities that depend on paid staff (e.g., communications, fundraising). The budget of the Foundation has grown from $23K in fiscal year 2004 to $3.5M for fiscal year 2008.

To date, Wikimedia has primarily relied on donations from the community, foundations and supporters to fund the budget. To date, community donations have provided much of the financial fuel for the Wikimedia Foundation and the chapters. The Wikimedia Foundation recently developed additional revenue streams based on licensing its brand. In 2007-08, small donations (less than $10K U.S.) comprised 37% of total revenue. The remainder was comprised of the Sloan Foundation's pledge (28%), other major grants and gifts (26%), in-kind revenue (5%), earned-income (2%), and other (2%).[2]

Foundation revenue sources for 2007-08.

[1] Donations of more than $10K. Includes a $1 million grant from the Sloan Foundation in 2008, and a further $2M pledge through 2010.
[2] Donations less than $10K.
[3] Income from live feed deals, trademark deals, etc.
[4] Includes income from sponsorships, interest, and foreign exchange gains.
[5] In-kind donations.

Financial sustainability was a major concern for a number of those interviewed for this analysis. Some believe that the Foundation can and should continue to rely primarily on small donations from many community members. As one Advisory Board member suggested, Right now a plurality of funds come from community with small donations. It’s a bit dangerous to move from that model. -AB member. Several Wikimedia Foundation staff agreed, suggesting that the previous community giving campaigns had barely scratched the surface of what the broader community would be willing to provide to support Wikimedia. In contrast, other interviewees believed that a new financial model would be needed to support the next stage of Wikimedia's growth. Several Advisory Board members referenced the original decision Jimmy Wales made not to take advertising revenue as a short-sighted decision that cut off a vital long-term source of stable funding. While they weren't sure whether the community would be open to revisiting this decision, they thought it would be important for the strategic planning process to identify alternatives to donations and foundation support for the ongoing health of Wikimedia.

It is not clear what economic model fits best given Wikimedia's mission and activities. Some have suggested the need for an endowment, but the purpose and size of this has yet to be defined. This strategic planning process should help to clarify the role of the Foundation, the investments it may need to make, and the ongoing costs it will bear in order to support the Wikimedia community. What needs to be determined is how the Foundation will achieve financial sustainability, what revenue sources are most appropriate given anticipated budget requirements.

Alliances and partnerships

Wikimedia is not fully leveraging its brand. Alliances and partnerships could be important mechanisms to advance Wikimedia's mission, but the Foundation is under-staffed to develop and manage partnerships and chapters and volunteers are not well-supported to develop them on their own.

The community has garnered some limited experience in this area. For example, volunteers and chapters have been involved in developing partnerships with galleries, libraries, and museums to increase the quality and scope of Wikimedia projects. As a result of their efforts, major new traunches of content have been added to the projects including an image donation from the German Federal Archive, an image donation from Deutsche Fotothek,and the Australian chapter's effort to partner with galleries, archives, libraries, and museums. Further, the Wikimedia Foundation has taken the lead in partnering with funders and businesses. For example, the Foundation's partnership with the Sloan Foundation is enabling it to expand outreach events to encourage targeted groups to contribute to Wikipedia and its sister projects. In its partnership with Orange, the Foundation is working with the European telco leader to increase its reach by creating specific Wikipedia channels on Orange mobile and web portals, enriching sections of the Orange web and mobile portals, and developing mobile and web-based widgets which enable customers to access Wikipedia content directly from their Orange mobile or web homepage. [3]

Many more entities seek opportunities to partner with the Wikimedia foundation than the organization has the capacity to respond to because each type of partnership requires a level of effort to determine value, develop and sustain. Further, valuing, developing and sustaining partnerships requires a level of organization and coordination within the Wikimedia community - between the foundation, chapters, and volunteers - that has been difficult to manage.

While there has been some great work done, there remains a lot of untapped opportunity. In order to catalyze and support these types of partnerships, more clarity is needed on the types of partnerships the Wikimedia community wants to pursue, the goal of these partnerships, the entities within the community that should be involved in pursuing them, best practices and other supports to assist their development.

Technology infrastructure

Much of the work of the Foundation today is maintaining the network infrastructure to keep the projects running. Wikimedia’s network is a lean architecture of two server clusters (Tampa, Amsterdam) of some 350 machines, Apache web servers to accept and serve up requests, MySQL database servers, and Squid proxy servers to cache common or repeated requests to offload usage from both Apache and databases [4]. The system is designed to failover to backup configurations at both the squid and Apache levels, and backup database support is in place, but not in an automatic failover. For more information, see Technology challenges.

Some Advisory Board members raised concerns about the network’s continued ability to meet the traffic demands. One described the infrastructure as "held together by goodwill and karma." Another said, ''We are the fifth largest website and we are held together with scotch tape and paper clips, it’s going to implode. If you neglect a system long enough it implodes. I don’t want this one to implode. Although the current network can manage the current 330M visitors a day and has an up-time of XXX, Brion Vibber, the Wikimedia Foundation's former CTO, did voice concern around the fragility of the Squid system to handle peak capacity, especially at the Amsterdam node. With increased video and media, there will be the need to split the media traffic using DNS servers, but funding has yet to be raised. In addition, there is need for a larger Asian cluster for local cacheing and faster rendering as the network is not as well interconnected in Asia due to a lack of partnerships and business alliances. And optimally, another data center within the US would be useful.

Wikimedia’s network is able to operate with an annual cost of XX, principally due to the donation of hardware from Sun (~$180K in 2008), leveraging Wikimedia brand for lower bandwidth and hosting costs (e.g. Amsterdam Internet Exchange), and the dependence on dedicated developer volunteers. While, the price performance of computer hardware has been improving for decades in accordance with, and as such the number of servers Wikimedia needs is falling as the capacity of new servers is improving faster than organic growth in traffic, the potential need of additional bandwidth, increased redundancy, additional software for more tools and types of content, and potential localization of servers to improve performance and deal with specific country blocking issues, can significantly increase the costs of building out and maintaining Wikimedia’s network infrastructure to keep pace with the growth of Wikimedia’s projects and usage.

Technology innovation and improved usabilty

Wikimedia’s MediaWiki is a free software wiki package written in PHP [5] that has powered Wikipedia and has been leveraged to several other Wikimedia projects with varying degrees of success. Many of Wikimedia’s developers believe that MediaWiki is sufficiently robust and flexible to build upon and to expand to meet increase usage and variety of needs. [6] However, the rate of development of tools, new user interfaces, and compatibility across operating systems (e.g. various mobile OS) is limited by the number of volunteer developers. Unlike other web sites of its size, Wikimedia does not have a robust, dedicated group of compensated developers. Facebook, currently ranked fourth, has over 1 million developers, more than 350,000 active applications, and more than 15,000 websites, devices and applications have implemented Facebook Connect since its general availability in December 2008. [7]

That said, Wikimedia currently has two usability projects underway and is working on mobile partnerships to address community and broad readership issues with usability of the wiki platform, especially with editing. With only 8% of registered users making 5 or more edits in a given month, as compared to 50% of Facebooks 300 million members actively contributing every day, and survey results that suggest usability is a big barrier to contribution, there are clear opportunities for Wikimedia to improve in this area. Likewise, mobile wiki versions are read-only at this point, whereas many other social networking or mass collaboration websites of even smaller size have full capabilities across a multitude of operating platforms.

The Wikimedia movement could potentially be a powerful voice

Fulfillment of the Wikimedia mission depends on unimpeded global access to information online. The Wikimedia community has a powerful voice that it could bring to bear on important issues, such as: censorship, net neutrality, copyright expansion, privacy, and the digital divide. To date, however, the Wikimedia Foundation, chapters, and volunteers have not engaged in any major advocacy efforts in a coordinated fashion.

Several interviewed for this analysis believe that Wikimedia should be playing a stronger role in this arena, that it has both the opportunity and responsibility to do so. As Ting Chen of the Board of Trustees said, "I think we [the Foundation] should advocate more strongly." But, today, there is no mechanism for determining what issues to get involved with, how to do so, who to align or partner with, and what the role of different entities in the community should or could be.

Task Forces

Movement Roles Task Force

There is overlap between what individual volunteers, the chapters, and the Foundation are doing to advance the vision of Wikimedia (e.g., all play a role in outreach, partnership development, fundraising), thus it is important to articulate the different roles each of these entities can and should play in building the movement. Further, there may be roles that chapters and the Foundation are not well-positioned to play where the community may benefit from the creation of new structures. The work of this task force is to achieve greater clarity of how individual chapters, the Foundation, and the chapters could work together and to, potentially, propose new structures that might be needed going forward.

See Movement Roles Task Force for the list of critical questions associated with this Task Force.

Financial Sustainability Task Force

Financial sustainability is critical to ensure the future health and success of the Wikimedia projects. It is not clear what the target mix of revenue sources should or could be for the Wikimedia Foundation in the future. Wikimedia has a relatively short track record and there are few analogous organizations to base projections upon. Given this, the focus of this task force will be to surface the options that are available to the Wikimedia community to generate income to support its work into perpetuity, identify what it would take to pursue these different economic models, and recommend the approaches that would best fit the Wikimedia Foundation and movement.

See Financial Sustainability Task Force for the list of critical questions associated with this Task Force.

Alliances and Partnerships Task Force

Through alliances and partnerships, the Wikimedia movement could dramatically advance its work in engaging the world in freely sharing knowledge. Based on the power of its brand, Wikimedia has lots of opportunity in this area. This task force will help to identify the types of partnerships that are high priority for the community, the purpose of these partnerships, and what tools, agreements, and supports are needed make it easier for those within the Wikimedia community to enter relationships with key partners and allies in the future.

See Alliances and Partnerships Task Force for the list of critical questions associated with this Task Force.

Technology infrastructure, interface, and innovation task force

While Wikimedia's current network can manage the current 330M visitors a month, if Wikimedia is successful in increasing its reach to 1B users per month, it may need a dramatically more sophisticated technology infrastructure. Wikimedia's current and future success depends on making the right decisions about technology investments, ensuring there is a sufficient network infrastructure and successfully managing technology operations to continually build and improve the projects.

Improved usability and technology innovation are also key levers to increase Wikimedia's global reach and participation. Wikimedia’s MediaWiki has powered Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects, as well as hundreds of thousands of other sites and applications beyond Wikimedia. Wikimedia has recently undertaken two new usability projects and a partnership with Orange to increase mobile access, but within the rapidly changing tech landscape the pace of development for MediaWiki is relatively slow.

See Technology infrastructure, interface, and innovation task force for the list of critical questions associated with this Task Force.

Advocacy Agenda Task Force

Fulfillment of the Wikimedia mission is dependent on unimpeded global access to information online. To date, there have been no coordinated efforts to engage in policy debates or advocate for positions that are important to the future of Wikimedia. This task force will assess what it would take for the Wikimedia movement to have a larger voice in shaping and influencing public perception and public policy, internationally, in order to support development of an environment conducive to its work.

See Advocacy Agenda Task Force for the list of critical questions associated with this Task Force, as well as specific supporting materials.


  1. "Wikimedia chapters." http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Wikimedia_chapters
  2. Wikimedia Foundation Annual Report http://wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/Annual_Report
  3. Press release: Orange and Wikimedia announce partnership April 2009[1]
  4. Detail on meta[2]
  5. [3]
  6. E-mail exchange with Tim Starling
  7. Link to facebook statistics [4]