Next time you search for South Africa in Wikipedia, you may do so in any of the country’s 11 official languages. That's because South Africa is getting its own Wikipedia chapter, the first of its kind on the continent.
A group of local Wikipedians, as they are known, have made it their mission to make Wikipedia more accessible and relevant for South Africans.
Kerryn McKay, director of the non-profit African Commons Project, said the chapter is a bringing together a number of Wikipedians to represent the goals of the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs the massive online encyclopaedia.
“We decided there needs to be an organisation to help formalise the process locally. These chapters are very independent and can do their own thing. But they have to further the goals of Wikipedia.”
One of those goals is for each country to establish its own chapter and increase representation of all the world’s languages. South Africa, with its wealth of indigenous languages, is perfectly placed to lead the African continent in reaching this goal.
Geared towards empowering people
The mission of the Wikimedia Foundation, according to its website, is to "empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain and to disseminate it effectively and globally".
McKay said one of the benefits of having a local chapter is that it can help community projects by providing resources or even funds.
“Other chapters get funding locally that they then distribute to community projects in their area,” she said.
The South African chapter will also look to develop the local languages on Wikipedia and subsequently translate content, promote awareness of projects and their proper academic use, support the creation of local free knowledge and media, and offer scholarships for promising local students.
A long process
The South African chapter itself is still in the early stages of development. The group have decided upon the legal structure and are currently developing a constitution and appointing five directors, who will take the process further.
“It’s been a very long process. It started with a kick-off workshop last September that pulled together Wikipedians from around the country. We are now finalising the by-laws and are awaiting approval from the Wikimedia Foundation,” said McKay.
Other procedures still awaiting finalisation are the registration of the chapter locally; approval from the Wikimedia Foundation for the constitution; and development of a Wiki presence - all of which could take a further two months.
The group have agreed upon establishing the chapter as a non-profit organisation and are set to begin operating by the second quarter of 2011.
No longer a dubious source
Wikipedia, which prides itself on being a free but comprehensive encyclopaedia, has always allowed users to add their own content. This garnered the website a poor reputation amongst scholars, who felt the information could be inaccurate if it was not developed by qualified individuals.
The foundation is now working towards earning a name for itself as a more credible source for the academic world.
“We have a few academics in the group who are looking for ways to make the website work in an academic environment,” said Mckay.
She added that references play a large role in determining the accuracy and legitimacy of a post. “There are lots of watchdogs on Wikipedia. It is difficult to write rubbish on topics as it needs citations. There is a strong discipline of monitoring on the site,” said McKay.