The annual conference celebrating Wikipedia and its sister projects was held in the alpine town of Esino Lario in the province of Lecco, Northern Italy, this year.
It was my first but I am led to believe that this year’s venue, and this year’s conference in general, was quite different from the ones in years gone by; certainly the rural location was quite different from the Hilton Hotel in Mexico City in 2015 and the Barbican in London in 2014.
This time Wikimania really was going outdoors.
There was another gathering going on the day I left for the conference however: the EU referendum vote. Given that I was due to catch a 7.45am flight from Glasgow Airport on the day of the EU referendum, I left my vote in the hands of my girlfriend to vote on my behalf. (The thunder storms that delayed the flight from landing at London Heathrow should have been a portent for the political turmoil to come.)
However, I was in good spirits despite the delay and, even when the consequence of the London storm was that I missed my bus connection from Milan airport to Esino Lario, I was busy contemplating how it might be nice to spend a bit more time travelling by train from Milan Central to Varenna-Esino. Fortunately, I found myself in the same boat as Lucy Crompton-Reid, CEO of Wikimedia UK, who had been on the same flight. A quick chat with a terrifically pleasant Italian gentlemen at the Wikimania greeters’ table at the airport and a taxi was arranged to take us both the rest of the way to Esino Lario.
While we waited, and our charming Italian saviour checked our names off his list of expected delegates, we were told the sad tale of one particular delegate who earlier in the day had been told that his name definitely wasn’t on the list and would he mind checking the FIVE pages of names on the list himself to see that was the case. Perplexed, the man had taken one long look at the list and replied, “But I’m Jimmy Wales.” (Needless to say, I think he probably made it back to Esino Lario okay after that, especially after a few selfies were taken with the volunteers from the local high school.)
A picturesque drive through Alpine country to Esino Lario in the company of Lucy’s incredibly entertaining, but incredibly dark, sense of humour and I got settled into the family-run hotel I was to spend the next four nights in. Once registered, I was able to wind my way through the narrow cobbled side streets to meet with my fellow Wikimaniacs at the central reception area.
The experience of the first night’s good-humoured chats were typical of the whole conference; here were Wikimaniacs from all over the world ostensibly divided by different backgrounds, languages & cultures but who were all united by their passion for working collaboratively & sharing open knowledge through Wikimedia’s projects.
So it was with some shock that I discovered the next morning that the referendum result had been that the UK had chosen to turn its back on working together as part of the EU. It just ran contrary to everything that Wikimania, and Wikimedia in general, was all about. Consequently, Jimmy Wales in his keynote address at the opening ceremony could not help but address this seismic decision back home in Britain. Clearly emotional, Jimmy Wales referenced the murder of his friend Jo Cox MP, the EU referendum & Donald Trump, when he asserted that Wikipedia was not about the rhetoric of hate or division or of building walls but rather was about building bridges. Wikipedia was instead a “force for knowledge and knowledge is a force for peace and understanding.”
The focus of the programme for Wikimania 2016, therefore, was on Wikipedia as a ‘driver for change’.
Of course, I couldn’t get in to see the keynote in person. The venue, the Gym Palace, could only hold around six hundred people and with around 1200 Wikimaniacs, plus curious townspeople attending too, the venue and the wi-fi soon because saturated. Hence, a great many people, myself included, got turned away to watch the keynote opening ceremony via the live stream at a nearby hall. Unfortunately, the one thing that everyone had been worried about prior to the conference occurred; the wi-fi couldn’t cope and we were left with a pixelated image of the opening ceremony that got stuck in buffering limbo. Little wonder then that a massive cheer went up when the young Esino Lario volunteers put on a Youtube clip of ‘Cool cats doing crazy things’ to keep the audience entertained while they desperately tried to fix the live stream.
The town of Esino Lario itself only has a population of around 760 inhabitants so the people of Esino Lario really did invite the 1000+ Wikimaniacs into their homes and I can honestly say that we were treated extremely well by our hosts. The hope is that the experience of hosting Wikimania in such a small town will have an enormous impact on the local economy & a legacy such that their young people, who worked as volunteers to help run the events and made sure we were well looked after in terms of espresso & soft drinks while we walked in the heat of the afternoon sun from venue to venue, may hopefully look to careers in tech and become the next generation of Wikimedians.
The rest of the conference brought no further technical problems and everyone seemed to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere, and stunning views of the surrounding Alpine mountains, to learn & share both in formal presentations and informal discussions in-between times. There was also a preponderance of egalitarian community discussions to determine how each project should move forward which were recorded on Etherpad discussion pages (I made good use of these during the few days I was at the conference to follow real-time discussions at several venues at once.)
The ticketing system for meal times was a hit too as it meant you were allocated to a certain venue at a certain time so that you couldn’t stay in the same clique & always encountered new people to chat to over a delicious plate of pasta. The evening events – chocolate tasting, cheese & wine, evening hikes, line dancing, a live band, a falcon playing a theremin – all allowed for further discussions and it was a real pleasure to be able to learn through ‘play’ in such relaxed surroundings.
In terms of content, Wikidata proved its growing importance in the Wikimedia movement with a number of sessions threading through the conference and I was also pleased to see Open Street Map and Wikisource, the free content library, garnering greater attention & affection. The additional focus on education, especially higher education, with sessions on Wikipedia’s verifiability, the state of research on Wikipedia and the tidying up of citations was terrific to see. Overall though, it was great to see further focus on translation between Wikipedias and on areas of under-representation: on the gender gap and on the Global South in particular. As one session put it, there is only one international language: translation.
In a nutshell, the weather was hot, the espresso was hot and the whole town was a hotbed of ideas with people on every street corner discussing the projects they were working on or wanted to find out more about. #Brexit was the hot topic of conversation too but it felt a million miles away; completely unreal & counter-intuitive when the fruits of cross-border collaboration were there for all to see at every turn. People I had encountered only in the online world I was finally able to meet in the flesh and warmly discuss past, present & future collaborations. It was especially pleasing to be able to meet the Wikipedia Library’s Alex Stinson and my Edinburgh Spy Week: Women in Espionage editathon collaborator, Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight from WikiProject Women in Red, who deservingly had just been made Wikipedian of the Year for the work WikiWomeninRed had done in helping to address the gender gap. Warm hugs and warm handshakes about working together was what Wikimania meant to me.
Boarding the bus for the airport home on the Monday morning, I was able to listen in on Andrew Lih’s (author of ‘The Wikipedia Revolution’) roundtable discussion with the Wikimedia Foundation’s James Forrester and Cambridge University’s Wikimedian, Deryck Chan, about their reflections on Wikimania 2016 (as it was recorded as a podcast on the bus at the table of seats nearby).
Listening to their summary of proceedings while I looked out the window at the rolling Alpine foothills & waterfalls proved a nice full-stop to proceedings as it confirmed what UNESCO Wikimedian in Residence, John Cummings, had told me first and many, many others had said since… this was the best Wikimania ever.