Wikimedians in Residence – navigating the impact of working with open knowledge

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Daria Cybulska, Director of Programmes and Evaluation, Wikimedia UK

The Wikimedian in Residence (WIR) projects in the UK have been run with varying degrees of involvement from Wikimedia UK since the first ever WIR position at the British Museum in 2010. The placements often last about a year, and we now have plenty of case studies of past partnerships, sometimes with organisations we haven’t spoken to much since! So in 2017 we decided to look back and reflect on whether the Wikimedians in Residence projects have achieved what we were expecting.

Wikimedia UK – agent for open knowledge

Wikimedia UK believes that open access to knowledge is a fundamental right, and a driver for social and economic development. One way we do this is by working in partnership with organizations from the cultural and education sectors and beyond in order to unlock content, remove barriers to knowledge, develop new ways of engaging with the public, and enable learners to benefit fully from the educational potential of the Wikimedia projects. 

Despite the openness of our approach and transparency of our programmes, it can be very hard for external organisations to understand how to engage with us. The inner workings of Wikipedia can be hard to uncover, let alone mapping them onto an engagement plan within a cultural or educational organization. 

For this reason Wikimedia UK developed a defined partnership package which interested organisations can take up and engage with open knowledge through it. This model is called a Wikimedian in Residence.

Wikimedian in Residence impact 

The programme is made up of individual fixed-term residencies organised and facilitated by Wikimedia UK in partnership with other organisations. Residents act as change makers, advocating for open knowledge within and beyond their host institutions and supporting and facilitating new practice through training, outreach, policy development, technical innovation and research.

Earlier this year, Wikimedia UK published a report about the long term impact of Wikimedia UK’s Wikimedian in Residence programme. Our research – conducted mainly through structured interviews – focused on residencies that took place between 2012 and 2017, and has led to increased understanding about the nature and scale of the impact created through these partnerships, and the development of best practice recommendations.

What were the wider effects we were looking for? We understood ‘impact’ to mean broad or longer-term effects of a programme, occuring after the project exerted its direct influence. It includes wide, sustained changes, e.g. to a culture, policies, audiences. 

Our evaluation demonstrates the extent to which these partnerships have enabled world-leading cultural heritage institutions to increase their reach, improve their external image and shift their internal culture towards more open practices. It also reveals the multiplier effect of the Wikimedian in Residence programme, with the potential to influence change beyond the immediate scope of each individual project and create sector-wide impact. The Wikimedians in Residence delivered four kinds of impact:  

Impact on reach: Residency projects within our partner institutions extended the reach of collections to new audiences, and enabled participating organisations to better share their knowledge. This effect continued after the residencies themselves ended. 

Wikipedia is ‘where the light is’, so it makes sense to put the collections there. Digitised and derivative works have had far more views than original works – for example, images uploaded from books (not the books themselves) are being viewed now, where anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the books have not been taken out before.

— Mahendra Mahey (Head of British Library Labs, involved in the Wikimedian in Residence project), impact interview July 2017

The statistics of images reused on Wikipedia (released during the residency) are being counted via BagLAMa alongside YouTube views and uses on Internet Archive. These increased numbers are mentioned a lot within the organisation in different contexts, even in conversations with the government.

— Gill Hamilton (Digital Access Manager, National Library of Scotland, Wikimedian in Residence’s line manager), impact interview June 2017

Impact on external image: Hosting a Wikimedian in Residence changed the institutions’ external image. Several partners report that their engagement with the programme enabled them to become more open and connected with their audiences.

British Library was seen in the sector as risk averse, but the fact that we hosted a Wikimedian in Residence was a signal that we are open to innovative projects.

— Mahendra Mahey (Head of British Library Labs, involved in the Wikimedian in Residence project), impact interview July 2017

One of the great challenges of a 21st century museum is how it embraces technological advances…. The projects run by Wikimedia allow us to engage with a global community who will use, reuse, interpret and add value to our content. In short: Wikimedia provides a platform that allows anyone to become a collaborator with one of the world’s great museums.

— Ed Baker (Data Researcher, Natural History Museum, involved in the Wikimedian in Residence project), residency final report May 2014

Impact on culture: Similarly, the Wikimedian in Residence programme transformed our partners’ culture and self-perception, and made them more open. In some cases, these changes in culture and practice were strengthened by internal policy changes.

Having a Wikimedian in Residence at the Natural History Museum coincided with a paradigm shift in how we think about our digital content and the start of a project to rapidly digitise the museum’s collection of more than 80 million specimens at an industrial scale. Having an advocate for Open Science and a culture of reusable content helped us to frame these projects in a context that makes this work useful to a wider audience. We have also raised the institution’s internal understanding of the benefits of open data.

— Vince Smith (Research Leader, Natural History Museum, Wikimedian in Residence’s line manager), residency final report May 2014

Having the resident hugely increased understanding within the organisation of its role in the open knowledge movement. By actively participating in this programme the Library drove its thinking about openness, policies, across the organisation. That’s extremely long lasting and is continuing as the organisation moves towards embracing public domain.

— Andrew McDougall (Organisational Development Partner, National Library of Scotland, involved in the Wikimedian in Residence project), impact interview June 2017

Impact on scale: The programme had a multiplier effect. Host institutions worked with many other organisations and the projects often had an impact at a sector-wide level. At the Natural History Museum, for example, the resident leveraged the prestige of his host institution to run collaborative projects with other organisations. These included discussions with Wellcome Collection (which later developed into a Wikimedian in Residence project of its own), advising the Royal Society on hosting a Wikimedian in Residence (which led to the setup of the project), and Wikipedia events with the Medical Research Council, the Office for National Statistics, and the Collections Trust. 

The biggest benefit of having the Wikimedian in Residence was building awareness of open knowledge within the museum and galleries sector in Scotland. Organisations are increasingly seeking advice from MGS on e.g. digitisation projects – that’s become very popular, possibly because widening access is so important now in the sector. The advice given is linked to the open knowledge because staff have gained expertise in it through the residency. For MGS, the big change has been increased confidence in speaking about licences.

— Kelly Forbes (Digital Manager, Museums Galleries Scotland, Wikimedian in Residence’s line manager), impact interview June 2017

Learning from experience – best practices

Parachuting a Wikimedian in Residence into an unsuspecting institution would not however deliver automatic results. Through experience we identified a number of key ingredients for a successful project. To frame them as recommendations:  

  • Ensure there is clarity about what impact is expected from the programme, both in the view of Wikimedia UK and the host organisation
  • During set up, establish the digital skills level of the partner organisation
  • Ensure project visibility by having a showcase early on during the programme
  • Timing challenges are hard to anticipate – building communication, transparency and trust early on helps mitigate problems and take opportunities
  • Recruit for soft skills when placing a WIR and build technical skills within the host organisation to carry on WIR work after they leave
  • Shaping projects in a way that makes host organisations’ staff work more efficiently and promotes sustainability, as does demonstrating the financial value of releasing content openly.

Get in touch

The Wikimedian in Residence programme also grew as a brand and a flagship programme of Wikimedia UK, becoming recognisable and desirable within the education and cultural sectors. We would be happy to share our reflections and advice to others looking to set up an impactful Wikimedian in Residence programme. 

The full report can be downloaded here:   

Short version:

More general info

Archive notice: This is an archived post from Wikimedia Space, which operated under different editorial and content guidelines than Diff.

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