Knowledge is a slippery thing these days.
Nearly half of Americans get their news from Facebook, a proprietary, opaque delivery system engineered to make money. We’re also seeing the rise of online sources deliberately seeking to mislead for political or commercial reasons. Perhaps most disturbing, the soon-to-be president of the United States has displayed a flagrant disregard for the truth.
Sure, the internet has opened up huge reserves of information that anyone can turn to, but storing, maintaining, and organizing it in a neutral and reliable way is an immense challenge.
While it’s gained a more pressing relevance lately, for years now, a set of nonprofits and funders have recognized the importance of access to digital information, and the Sloan Foundation is a major player. One of the biggest beneficiaries is the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit best known for overseeing crowdsourced information repository Wikipedia.
Sloan just expanded its support with a new $3 million grant, bringing funding for the nonprofit to more than $12 million since 2008. This new grant is a little different from previous giving, however, in that it’s not focused on Wikipedia, at least not directly.
Rather, the three-year grant supports a project that’s been on Wikimedia’ wish list for some time—improved storage and accessibility for Wikimedia Commons’ nearly 36 million media files. It gets a little dense here, but basically Wikimedia Commons is a huge bank of freely licensed media (lots of news outlets, IP included, often use its images) pooled from individuals, archival institutions, governments, universities and other sources.
Online files have certain data attached to them, which allows them to be stored, searched, accessed by other programs, among other uses. But Wikimedia’s data has so far been limited, hindering both access and contribution to the repository. For example, it limits the level to which cultural heritage organizations such as galleries, libraries, and museums can partner with Wikimedia to share their materials online.
In short, Wikimedia expects that having better data (called structured data) attached to files could make an already highly trafficked storehouse of openly accessible media become even larger and more accessible.
Earlier grants from Sloan were more Wikipedia-centric, providing organizational support, capacity building, and improvements to the diversity and quality of the information available on the online encyclopedia.
Speaking of which, if you’ve ever been in a college class in which your professor expressly forbade you to reference Wikipedia, you might be wondering why a research funder like Sloan (and many others that back it) has such a devotion to the operation. For one, the nonprofit, donor-driven nature of Wikimedia has appeal, since it can receive charitable giving; but also because it can, in theory, remain neutral and free from commercial interest. Wikipedia’s massively crowdsourced, self-policing nature also provides an imperfect-but-effective level of protection against being undermined or skewed in any one direction.
But at the end of the day, Wikipedia and, more broadly, Wikimedia offer one of the most accessible and widely used platforms of knowledge humanity has known. It consistently ranks as one of the most popular sites on the Internet, and is often the first place the average person turns to for information. It’s also come a long way in terms of reliability, and works hard to set a standard for pooling knowledge online.
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This is a big issue for Sloan, which has a whole strategy devoted to improving access to the world's knowledge using digital technology. The funding initiative sits alongside Sloan’s research and higher ed giving, plus efforts to inform the public via movies, theater, radio, and other venues. Other grantees supporting access to knowledge include public libraries, universities, and a massive cataloging of botanical gardens’ plant databases.
Doron Weber, vice president and program director at Sloan said of Wikimedia:
At a time when the World Wide Web, like the rest of the world, is beset by increasing polarization, commercialization, and narrowing, Wikipedia continues to serve as a shining, global counter-example of open collaborative knowledge sharing and consensus building presented in a reliable context with a neutral point of view, free of fake news and false information, that emphasizes how we can come together to build the sum of all human knowledge.
Still, the quality of its services is only as good as its staff, its army of contributors, and funding can make it. Wikipedia is not perfect, with plenty of gaps, ongoing battles over controversial pages, and a well-documented diversity problem when it comes to editors and representation of issues.
Wikimedia’s successes and shortcomings have prompted philanthropy to embrace the nonprofit. Aside from Sloan, the Simons Foundation has organized Wikipedia edit-a-thons in which experts in scientific fields shore up pages in their areas of expertise. The Knight Foundation has been a repeat supporter, serving the funder’s interests in digital media. And an independent spinoff of the Wikimedia Foundation, Wiki Education Foundation, has landed funds from Simons, Google, and the Hewlett Foundation for its work to connect higher ed to Wikipedia.
The need for open, reliable sources of digital information is obviously not a new problem, and it’s one that academia and media outlets alike have wrestled with for many years. But like so many issues we cover, the political climate and the Trump administration stand to make it more critical to democracy, scientific understanding, and even daily life. Just as shared physical commons become critical in times of political turmoil, you can see the same effect in digital spaces, and philanthropy can play in important role in both.
As Weber puts it, “We all need Wikipedia, its sister projects, its technology, and its values, now more than ever.”