Wikipedia expands free access in developing countries

Mobile phone Wiki SMS_Panos.jpg
Copyright: G. M. B. Akash / Panos

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  • Wikipedia Zero is a project where mobile operators provide free Wikipedia access
  • Widespread in Africa and Asia, it is hoping to expand in Latin America this year
  • One limitation is cheap handsets do not always have fonts in local languages

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The Wikimedia Foundation is on the quest to expand its content and access to it for users in developing nations.

As part of its ‘Wikipedia Zero’ initiative the foundation is trying to make mobile access to Wikipedia free of internet data charges and to develop content in local languages.

“We started Wikipedia Zero because we [perceived] the trend that Wikipedia usage is shifting to mobiles, and [for it to] grow and expand in developing countries, we needed to [do more to] support the service on mobile,” says Carolynne Schloeder, director of mobile programs at the Wikimedia Foundation.

The foundation is partnering with mobile phone operators in developing countries to enable free internet access to Wikipedia. When a user accesses Wikipedia through an operator that has agreed to provide free usage, a message would appear to confirm that the page is free. When the user clicks an external link that may carry a cost to visit a warning message would show up.

The Wikipedia Zero initiative made its first deal to provide free access to mobile users in selected countries of Africa and the Middle East with telecom company Orange in 2012.

Another telecom company, MTN Group, signed a deal last month with Wikipedia Zero to provide access to the site in South Africa. The move came after school students in Cape Town wrote an open letter to mobile operators in the country asking them to introduce the scheme.

Wikipedia Zero has now expanded to 23 developing-world countries and is working with 26 operators.

“We are reaching about 300 million mobile subscribers who can now access Wikipedia free of data charge and we have a lot of [operators] in the pipeline,” Schloeder tells SciDev.Net.

Following inroads into many countries in Africa and Asia, the foundation is looking to expand in Latin America in the coming year, she says. It is also boosting content development in local languages.

As part of this effort, for example, Wikimedia Foundation’s local chapter in Bangladesh conducted a workshop last month (16–17 February) with telecom operator Grameenphone to introduce its participants to the basics of Wikipedia editing in Bengali.

“Our main aim is to expand access to Wikipedia and grow readership in developing countries,” Schloeder says. “Along the way we are partnering with operators who want to support their local communities and help create a strong Wikipedia resource in their local language.”

Though Wikipedia is available in a lot of local languages, according to Schloeder, not all mobile phones support fonts in every language, and the foundation hopes to solve this by collaborating with operating system providers.

For those who do not have an internet-enabled mobile handset or a smart phone, the foundation is also looking to provide a free search-by-SMS option to access Wikipedia.
Information scientist Michael Twidale, of the University of Illinois, United States, says he sees Wikipedia Zero as “an exciting initiative with a lot of potential.”

“Persuading the operators should be a fairly easy case to make,” he says. “It can provide an awful lot of publicity to them.” He adds that it is “possible that those with free access to Wikipedia might be interested in willingly paying for data access to read other material”.
See below for a video on Wikipedia’s expansion in developing nations: