Interview with João Alexandre Peschanski – What you know matters! 

Жоау Александре Песчански Уикимедия Бразилия
Maratona de produção e edição de imagens 
Photographer

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How your story with Wikipedia started?

It goes back to 2011. My graduate advisor –visionary Erik Olin Wright– requested all students in a seminar he was leading to contribute to Wikipedia. He had just written an influential book called Envisioning Real Utopias in which a chapter was a theoretical discussion on Wikipedia. As the president of the American Sociological Association, he published a call for social scientists to take Wikipedia seriously in the same year. In this context, in 2011, I did two major contributions to the project, both in English. My second set of contributions was done in the context of Erik’s seminar, and I wrote a couple of paragraphs on a book by Polish political scientist Adam Przeworski. My first set of edits was probably at the core of what my journey in the Wikimedia world would become. As we were sitting in at the Capitol in Madison, in the context of the 2011 Wisconsin protests, a friend and I decided we should contribute to telling the story of the protests we were involved in, so we opened up a laptop and I did my first edit. I always smile when I see that this contribution is still on the entry.

Back in Brazil in 2014, it was now my turn to run seminars as I had just been hired as a professor at the Cásper Líbero School of Social Communications, and I decided I would take Wikipedia seriously. I assigned each one of my students an entry to work on during a full semester, as I was teaching a Political Science seminar. The topic: the killed and disappeared in the Brazilian military dictatorship. It was a very big project –we ended up editing thousands of entries, creating almost 200 articles on the main topic, in a collaboration with the National Truth Commission. My first article in Portuguese was Erik Olin Wright; my second was a list of people who were killed or disappeared for political reasons in the context of the Brazilian dictatorship. At the beginning this list was just a collection of names; now, it is a fancy bot-generated table –the increasing tech savviness in this entry to some extent describes my evolution in the projects. But back then I don’t think I was really a Wikimedian yet.

I think I really understood I belonged in the Wikimedia world (or the other way around, the Wikimedia world belonged in me) when my mother got very sick, in 2015. Wikipedia editing was for me a strategy to cope with her disease and later with mourning, as I wrote on a blog post in 2017. In this context, I found support and love from people I now call my friends, in the local and global community. Sometimes, people I didn’t know –some of them I don’t even know yet– were there for me. I also felt good contributing to Wikipedia. Sharing, belonging and caring are pillars of our community, and that’s when I became a Wikimedian I guess.

And this has been quite a journey! Of editing, changing the world and self-discovery. I became more and more involved in local organizing –which in the case of the Wikimedia movement is also global organizing –, led and supported amazing programs and activities. I have been inspired by individuals, proposals and ideas, recently deeply connected to the idea of decolonizing the internet, per the initiative of the amazing friends at Whose Knowledge?. I have engaged with Wikimedia politics, serving in the re-recognized user group Wiki Movimento Brasil. My friends in this user group are probably some of the best friends I have ever had. We know each other, respect each other and are able to do meaningful activities together. I am writing this statement as a personal testimony, but they are all in and they are to a large extent what stimulates me to keep going forward. 

I think there is no better way to end this looong answer (and sorry readers!) with a recent magic moment, at least for me. During an edit-a-thon to improve content on female soccer players, in June 2019, I was there when one of my seven-year-old (I have twins! And a four-year-old!) wrote his first entry, having chosen the username R2D2Y, like the Star Wars robot and my kid’s initial! What we can accomplish is just magic.

And the Academia and Wikipedia – your projects – please tell us more about it?

I have led 55 programs, including large education programs. Over 2,000 students in Brazil have been involved, contributing 85.5 million words to the projects. Almost 90,000 articles and items were improved; 50,000 articles and items were created; almost 50,000 files were uploaded. As a methodology, I try to take these programs as an opportunity to create Wikimedia awareness and establish partnerships as well as do research and innovation. 

One example is the work to improve content on Brazilian elections. I have led a seminar on Brazilian politics and in this seminar I have asked students to write entries on municipal elections. The rationale is that as they look for information they start making sense of how an election works, what an electoral campaign is and so on. These are topics we then discuss in class. The outcome is also very important as in small and medium cities in Brazil the local press is not developed, and electors face real challenges to find good-quality information on politics. I have presented this work on a blog post and on a conference paper. In the seminar evaluation, students agreed the social impact was amazing; nevertheless, they complained the editing was boring, as it involved scrapping and organizing electoral results. 

This negative evaluation was upsetting, as the whole idea of engaging students in Wikimedia projects is to have them do meaningful work. So, just recently with a graduate student of mine who is now a Wikimedian we have developed a tool to automate through Wikidata the creation of robust drafts on elections in Brazil, including the entry introduction, infobox, tables and so on. This tool was an improvement of a resource editors had developed in English Wikipedia. From our end, to develop the tool was important to have students focus their energy in investigating how the particular election they had been assigned to work on had played out. We have probably contributed over a thousand entries on elections in this set of programs.

Another example is the education work that has been done in the context of the project with the Museu Paulista, one of our current GLAM-Wiki initiatives. This is an important case as the museum has been closed for many years, and we were able to open it to the digital world. We have uploaded over 20,000 items of the museum collection. In three universities, professors and students have teamed up to improve content associated to the museum on Wikipedia, write a wikibook on the museum photography collection… but I would like to stress one activity I am particularly proud of: under the supervision of the museum educators and professionals from an NGO working with people with visual impairment, we have produced the scripts and recorded hundreds of audio descriptions of paintings (full list). These files are made available via Wikidata on several Wikipedia entries, such as lists and articles on specific paintings. We have led workshops at the NGO in which students with visual impairment who are taking an Art History class get to use this content. This is one of the most powerful projects I have led, I think.

A third example is the set of activities I have contributed to as a member of the Research, Innovation and Dissemination Center for Neuromathematics (RIDC NeuroMat). This is a big laboratory of Probability and Statistics in São Paulo, where I hold a research supervisor position. We have established major Wikimedia programs in the lab, coordinating activities to improve content on Probability and Statistics on Wikipedia in Portuguese. For instance, a professor and a Wikimedian have worked on the most viewed topics in Mathematics on Wikipedia and improved them to the point that they have become featured articles: mean, median, probability distribution, and so on. Portuguese Wikipedia might have now the largest number of featured articles on Mathematics across languages as a result of this work, and these entries are viewed by millions of people every year.

It was also within the RIDC NeuroMat that we have set up Wikidata Labs. These labs were thought of as spaces in which we would create community capacity for working with Wikidata and integrating Wikidata with the other projects and actually do stuff. We hold monthly meetings in which a guest speaker gives a one-hour-and-a-half lecture on a topic our community considers we should develop skills on, which is followed by an afternoon of hands-on activities to improve the projects. We have held seventeen of these labs until now and have an agreed schedule for three more labs. Some of the most well known Wikimedians from Brazil and abroad have led discussions in the labs; some of them were organized as remote lectures. I was to some extent a latecomer to Wikidata, as until late 2017 I was not really sure how it worked and what it was built for, but let me say this is today the project that I like contributing the most.

Why you invest time and efforts in such projects? What is the reward for you?

I know we do a lot of stuff, but I always like to remember the global community this is Brazil. A complicated country from the Global South, with lots of opportunities, but also challenges and threats… Brazil figures in the lowest positions of education rankings in the world. Mathematical literacy has been consistently decreasing. Public universities are being shut down, museums and other cultural institutions are being destroyed. Economic inequality and poverty rates are unacceptable, among the highest in the world. We are currently facing a long economic and political crisis, in a context in which a far-right politician has become the president. Being a Wikimedian –and engaging in the kind of Wikimedia activity I engage in– is a way to contribute to the development of my country. In a country where people have difficulty to have access to education and culture, every file we upload, every entry we write, every contribution makes a difference.

We have been able to structure our user group and the programs it leads in relatively adverse circumstances. I think we are doing an amazing job, particularly in a context in which the Brazilian community has received almost no support from the Wikimedia Foundation in the last two years. I understand the Wikimedia Foundation will change its policy towards Brazil, and we look forward to working with them.

And what Wikimedia means to you?

I have joined the Wikimedia projects from a theoretical standpoint, under the influence of my research advisor, and really understood what Wikimedia meant when I got to know the community. Community dynamics can be exhausting and frustrating, but this community is the power of what we are doing. This community practices a wealth of creativity, expertise, commitment to open knowledge, that has made an unlikely encyclopedia in which anyone can contribute to rise as a major monument of education and culture. Of course, a lot needs to be done –and I am especially concerned with fostering knowledge diversity– but our accomplishments are just amazing!

Our community should be taken seriously. The power it embodies should be the ground on which we do organizing, for instance. This community gives us an opportunity to experiment systems of empowering participatory governance and radical egalitarian democracy. These are ambitious ideas, associated to Erik Olin Wright’s research agenda, but I always encapsulate them in a principle that is at the core of my engagement with Wikimedia politics: everyone should have in general equal access to the means necessary for them to participate significantly and meaningfully in public decisions that affect their lives and accordingly to the extent by which these decisions affect their lives.

My sense is that recent dynamics within the Wikimedia world have failed the radical egalitarian democratic principle I am strongly committed to –which is a principle I share with many fellow Wikimedians. As an example: I am always confused by top-down decisions being made to regulate the community that are not based on transparent procedures and community consulting. Short-term end results might be justifiable and appropriate, but the process by which they were taken undermine the very sustainability of these results. There is no learning process when a body that should foster the community it depends on adopts top-down strategies –and this process is the core of what the Wikimedia idea is, an idea worth fighting for. To devise strategies by which we can learn  from the community to organize and govern ourselves is a major challenge, but cannot be disregarded and dismissed.

Your message to all people who still don’t edit / contribute to Wikipedia?

What you know matters! 

I have met people who knew a lot about their neighborhood and who didn’t know their history was relevant for the rest of the world. It matters. An old picture one has stored can be the only image for an entry. It matters. A document one has a copy of might be the only existing file on an important event. It matters. Your oral account might be the only source of information of a whole community. It matters. All these potential contributions belong to the ecology of free knowledge, and we can help you bring your knowledge to Wikimedia projects.


See also interview with Nat Tymkiv – Ukrainian Wikipedia – https://blog.wikimedia.bg/2019/06/27/interview-with-nat-tymkiv-ukrainian-wikipedia/,
interview with Shani – Wikimedia Israel – https://blog.wikimedia.bg/2019/05/29/interview-with-shani-evenstein-sigalov/

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