monticello/shutterstock
monticello/shutterstock

Crowdsourced information depends on the crowd. But what happens when the underlying sources sk ew Western? Or hold racial or gender biases? And what about the mores and nuances of culture and place?

The free, online information source Wikipedia and related Wikimedia projects are accessed by more than 1 billion unique devices a month and are available in 300 languages, with more than 200,000 editors contributing each month.

But the broad reach doesn’t always translate to equal representation or access. Lisa Seitz-Gruwell, Wikimedia Foundation’s chief advancement officer, acknowledged the issues surrounding the platform’s creators and content in a recent interview. While there are “lots of layers” in its community of editors, she said, they’re “not as diverse as we’d like.” And while all content “comes from somewhere, the corpus of knowledge is not equal at all.”

The nonprofit that supports the platform is making moves to close the information inequality gap. Founder Jimmy Wales established the Wikimedia Foundation in 2003 as a way to fund “an essential infrastructure of free knowledge.” In addition to hosting Wikipedia and 12 other collaborative knowledge projects, the foundation is involved in a worldwide research community, advocates for free and open knowledge sharing, and makes grants.

Early this month, the foundation announced the first round of giving from its $4.5 million commitment to breaking down racial barriers to knowledge and addressing inequities in its own projects. The Knowledge Equity Fund is considered part of the foundation’s ongoing work on the topic, but came about amid the racial justice and police brutality protests during the summer of 2020. The fund was established to support grantees “working at the intersection of free knowledge and racial justice,” according to the announcement.

Here are five things to know about the Equity Fund’s first cohort of winners, and the foundation’s future funding plans:

(1) By the public, for the public

Organized as a public charity, the Wikimedia Foundation receives more than 80% of its funding from individual donors. Last year alone, there were 8 million of them, who made average donations of $15 each. The remaining funding comes through major donors and foundations. Those include the Sloan Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies and the Milwaukee-based Argosy Foundation.

(2) Six winners

The six winners are: Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, or ARIJ, a leading supporter of quality independent journalism in the MENA region; Borealis Philanthropy’s Racial Equity in Journalism Fund, which supports news organizations that serve people of color; the Howard University School of Law and the Institute for Intellectual Property and Social Justice (IIPSJ), to create a fellowship to advance the principles of equitable access, inclusion and empowerment in the social justice arena; InternetLab, a Brazil-based internet policy research center; the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), a network of national media development partners representing all 16 West African countries; and STEM en Route to Change (SeRCH) Foundation, which employs STEM disciplines like science and technology to advance social justice goals.

Half of the projects are based in the West, half are international. Borealis, Howard and IIPSJ, and SeRCH the U.S. The other three work primarily in Brazil, West Africa, and the Middle East and North Africa.

(3) Size and scope

Members of the first cohort received an average total investment of roughly $225,000. Seitz-Gruwell said the foundation tried to be thoughtful about the amounts involved, which were intended to be meaningful while recognizing organizational capacity and the potential for dependency.

Sums were awarded as single-year commitments to three of the organizations. The two largest went to Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, and Borealis Philanthropy’s Racial Equity Journalism Fund; both received $250,000. The Media Foundation for West Africa received $150,000.

Three two-year grants will sustain the fellowships under development at Howard School of Law and IIPSJ ($260,000) and the InternetLab ($200,000), as well as STEM programming at the SeRCH Foundation ($250,000).

(4) An intentional process

It may seem that considerable time has passed between the spring of 2020, when George Floyd’s murder spurred a global racial reckoning and major action on knowledge equity. Seitz-Gruwell explained that Wikimedia’s collaborative approach—and the process of creating a formalized structure for decision-making—made that inevitable. “We definitely tend to take our time and be intentional,” she said.

Before the Equity Fund was created, the foundation lacked dedicated grantmaking staff, and relied instead on a handful of people who made decisions in their free time. Now, an Equity Fund Committee comprising both Wikimedia Foundation employees and members of Wikipedia’s volunteer editing community identifies potential grant recipients.

The nine current Equity Fund Committee members include Emna Mizouni, a community member, activist and 2019 Wikimedian of the Year; Tony Sebro, deputy general counsel at the Wikimedia Foundation; and Kelly Foster, a community member and public historian. Janeen Uzzell, former chief operating officer at the Wikimedia Foundation and the current CEO of National Society of Black Engineers serves as an advisor, along with Seitz-Gruwell.

Grant recipients were chosen based on their past records of impact, their alignment to Wikimedia’s vision of access to knowledge, and their potential to benefit free knowledge. The foundation relied on the organization’s own metrics for success and track records, rather than imposing “another layer.”

Seitz-Gruwell characterized the process of identifying the initial cohort of winners as “not open, but open to community.” Some grantees made a bid for support through committee members; the foundation also put out a call for suggestions from the Wiki community at large.

(5) Concentric circles

Following this first round of grantees, the Equity Fund will continue to conduct subsequent rounds of investments in organizations that align with its goals. It’s currently about a quarter of the way to reaching the total commitment of $4.5 million.

Lisa Seitz-Gruwell said to expect another round of funding in the first part of 2022, with an eye toward global impact. “Asia is a gap in this round,” she said, so they’re looking there specifically.

Measuring success will not be without its challenges. Though they do survey editors through self-reporting, privacy issues prevent the foundation from tracking the kind of data that may show concrete increases in representation.

Seitz-Gruwell sees progress as a matter of concentric circles, pointing to the fact that the information in its posts is all cited. That poses problems where there may be a dearth of contributors or written source material appearing in mass media or academia. Funding Black-led news organizations, for example, will increase the number of people writing about Black communities, creating sources that can then support editor citations.

For now, she said, the foundation is taking a careful and cautious approach. “The pilot for us is getting in slowly and carefully,” while “hoping to learn a lot along the way.”

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