Meet Jay Prakash: Wikimedian of the Year 2021 Tech Innovator winner

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Jay Prakash during Wikimania 2019 (Suyash.dwivedi CC BY-SA 4.0)

This year’s seven Wikimedian of the Year award winners were announced today at the 2021 virtual Wikimania convening. Read the interview below with Jay Prakash, recipient of the Tech Innovator Award.

Jay Prakash is an invaluable member of the Wikimedia movement, providing technical support to Indic communities, fixing bugs, building new tools, and spearheading technical outreach. For a while, he was the only go-to person for technical help for many Indic communities, all while juggling grad school.

He established and manages Indic-TechCom and is an auxiliary member of the MediaWiki Code of Conduct Committee. Additionally, Jay has worked as a Lead Developer, Global Interface Admin, Wikimedia Intern, MediaWiki extensions developer, MediaWiki trainer, and is a contributor with over 20,000 edits.

“Love, appreciation, and community health are the core of Wikimedia projects.”

The technology developer community that helps support the movement is often behind the scenes. An initiative started in 2021 – the Wikimedian of the Year Tech Innovator award recognizes an exceptional Wikimedian who has focused on building and improving the infrastructure that powers free knowledge.

Jay gets the surprise call from Jimmy Wales

This recognition is one of seven awards made this year to celebrate contributors who have made an exceptional impact on our movement. The awards were announced at this year’s virtual Wikimania celebration by Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales (watch the announcement!). 

“I am continually in awe of the volunteer technical community that works to support the Wikimedia projects. Jay’s significant contributions have helped improve MediaWiki, the foundational software that underpins all of the projects. In addition to his technical achievements, he is a strong advocate for the technical community and epitomizes the generosity and collaborative nature of our movement.”

– Jimmy Wales

We spoke with Jay to learn more about his experiences and perspectives on the Wikimedia movement. Here are some highlights: 

Q: What do you think people would find most surprising to learn about how the Wikimedia projects work behind the scenes?

“Love, appreciation, and community health are the core of Wikimedia projects. I contribute to many free and open-source software (FOSS) and programmes, but the appreciation and respect I receive in the Wikimedia community is unmatchable. In my native language Hindi Wikipedia, we use the word “जी” (Ji) every time, which is a very very humble word to give respect to others. 

When I first got started and made mistakes, the Wikimedia technical community guided me to learn and grow, without impacting my motivation. This difference is huge between the Wikimedia tech community and other FOSS.”

Q: What motivates you to contribute to Wikimedia projects?

“Initially, I started contributing to Wikipedia on topics about space technologies, as I was a fan of the Soviet space program. I found that most of the space articles did not exist on my native language Wikipedia. So I started creating space articles on Hindi Wikipedia. Since our community was small, my contribution was being recognized and appreciated by many users including sysops. I became the autopatroller, reviewer, and rollbacker within 6 months. I received respect and appreciation from other volunteers through barnstars, which kept me motivated to contribute more to Wikipedia. After knowing the Wikimedia tech community, I completely moved to tech. Every time when my patch merges into the Wikimedia repository, I feel proud that my contribution is used on one of the top visited websites in the world.”

Q: Can you share a favorite memory from your time contributing to Wikimedia?

“A beautiful day with Tito Dutta, who I met during a Hindi Wikipedia conference in 2017. We decided to explore the city after the event. We took the city tour bus and talked about the Wikimedia movement for the whole journey. That day, I came to learn just how large the Wikimedia movement is (including Wikimedia chapters, grants, the Assume Good Faith principle, and activity on other Indic language projects. 

This day drastically changed the Wikimedia technical movement in India. The whole day, we talked and decided to conduct MediaWiki core training in India. Later, we conducted the MediaWiki core training just within three months through CIS-A2K. Since then, I have been part of five MediaWiki trainings conducted by CIS-A2K. In fact, this day led us to lay out the idea of Indic-TechCom to solve technical problems in the Indic language communities.

This day focused my technical activities on a specific purpose. I found that my calling was to work on something that directly impacts Indic communities.”

“ I found that my calling was to work on something that directly impacts Indic communities.”

Q: How has Wikimedia impacted your life?

“I started contributing to Wikimedia from my high school in 2015. At that time, I was very limited to the sphere of my city in terms of lifestyle, knowledge, and culture. In fact, the Wikidata training in 2017 by Asaf Bartov in Chandigarh was my first journey outside my city alone. It was my first time experiencing metropolitan life. Wikimedians were using cabs regularly, roaming to malls, and enjoying life till late-night. Soon I joined them,  traveling to Southern India for a MediaWiki training on my first airplane trip. I will never forget those moments.

Now, all my best friends are from the Wikimedia movement. Some of them are my mentors, like User:KCVelaga who gives me weekly English lessons and communication training. And User:Titodutta who is my pathfinder. I even met and stayed with a Wikimedian at their place.

When I joined the Wikimedia tech community, I knew only about C and C++ programming languages. Indian education is still very limited to these 2 theoretical programming languages. After learning about MediaWiki, I started learning PHP. Then for UserScript and Gadget, I started learning JavaScript & jQuery. The Wikimedia tech community helped me a lot by sharing their skills. This improved my logical thinking and approach to problem solving. I came to learn Git (version control), Jenkins (CI/CD), and Phabricator (project management) technologies which are the essential tools for software development industries nowadays.

After contributing to Wikimedia, I decided to participate in Google Summer of Code as a Wikimedia intern. I got a stipend from GSoC which was my first professional income. Later, I worked with Stanford University to create and integrate an education dashboard on their MediaWiki site. This led me to choose MediaWiki as a profession and I started working as a freelance MediaWiki developer on UpWork, where I am currently a top rated developer.”

Q: How have some of your technical contributions helped support the local Indic communities?

“Since 2018, I have been directly working on Indic communities requirements. As a lead developer in Indic-TechCom, I created many tools like Indic-OCR, Indic Wikisource Contest, WikiFile-Transfer etc., and UserScript like MassMove, BookReader, MoveAndReplace, etc. They all have supported the Indic communities as they are wanted features.

In 2018, I developed IndicOCR, which helped address the limitations of GoogleOCR by providing support for a wider range of Indic languages. For background, the Wikimedia Foundation’s CommunityTech team developed an OCR tool based on Google Fusion API, but there were five Indic languages that were not supported by Fusion API. So, these Wikisource communities were doing OCR manually until IndicOCR was available. 

Q: What was the most difficult technical bug you have had to fix on Wikimedia? 

“One of the most difficult was [BUG] HTTP 404 for several images in page namespace on different wikisource projects. The Indic language was suffering from image issues on Wikisource. Images had disappeared from the right side of the Proofread interface. Images are very important for Wikisource communities, as their all works depend on proofreading from images. I created the hotfix for communities. It fixed the problem on a temporary basis on Indic languages and Russian Wikisource. It became very important to me because, at that time, Indic communities were running some contests on the Wikisource project. Although the original issue was fixed in the PDFHandler extension later by someone else. But my hotfix provided big support to communities.”

Congratulations, Jay! 

About the 2021 Wikimedian of the Year Awards

The Wikimedian of the Year is an annual award that honours contributors to Wikimedia projects, including Wikipedia editors, to highlight major achievements within the Wikimedia movement in the previous year. The tradition dates back to 2011 and has evolved since then in dynamic ways to welcome and celebrate Wikimedians from different backgrounds and experiences. This year’s celebration is bigger and more inclusive than ever before, recognizing seven exceptional contributors to the Wikimedia movement in six categories, including Newcomer of the Year, 20th Year Honouree, Rich Media and Tech contributors, and Honourable Mentions, as well as the Wikimedian of the Year. 

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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