Meet Netha Hussain: Wikimedian of the Year 2021 Honourable Mention winner

(Adam Novak CC BY-SA 3.0).

This year’s seven Wikimedian of the Year award winners were announced today at the 2021 virtual Wikimania convening. Read the interview below with Dr. Netha Hussain, recipient of the Honourable Mention Award.

Dr. Netha Hussain has been a Wikimedia volunteer for over a decade, as well as a medical doctor and researcher who has contributed to English and Malayalam languages of Wikipedia, Wikidata, Wikimedia Commons, and Meta-Wiki. 

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Netha wrote, updated, and translated dozens of Wikipedia articles to ensure reliable information about the pandemic is available for everyone. She also recently launched a project to improve information about vaccine safety topics on Wikipedia, helping combat misinformation. In the process, Netha has collaborated with Wikimedians around the world and inspired many others to ensure information is verifiable and reliable. 

“The idea of sharing free knowledge with millions of people around the world excites me, and this serves as a motivation to keep doing more.”

Additionally, Netha has contributed to outreach and research surrounding the diversity of participation and content on Wikimedia projects, particularly of the gender gap. In 2020, she was recognized by Red Hat as a 2020 Women in Open Source Award winner.

The Wikimedian of the Year Honourable Mention award recognizes exceptional Wikimedians who already have a strong presence in the movement, as well as public exposure such as press coverage, local recognition, and national titles. 

Netha 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!). 

“Dr. Hussain is a role model in the Wikimedia movement for her staggering medical and scientific contributions to Wikipedia, contributions she balances alongside her own medical career. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, her work has brought increased visibility to Wikipedia’s unique role as a source for reliable public health information about the virus and the vaccines. In addition, her constant advocacy to address the gender gap and her support for Indic communities demonstrate the values of collaboration and contribution that are integral to our movement.”

– Jimmy Wales

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

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

“Creating my first article is a special memory that I cherish to this day. The process did take a long time because, back in 2010, I was running on a 128 kbps internet connection in a six year old desktop computer on an old version of the browser.

I wanted to create an article about an Indian cuisine called chutney in Malayalam language Wikipedia. I wasn’t sure about the rules one has to follow while editing, but I thought I will make a try anyway. I created some text and saved it as a new Wikipedia page. The next day, I was surprised to find out that other editors have improved upon that page by adding media and more content. This was the first nudge which paved the way for the rest of my Wikimedia volunteering journey.

Another memory was when I saw that a pathology image that I added to Wikimedia Commons was re-used on a prominent medical website. This made me reflect on the scarcity of good quality medical images in online sources, and prompted me to start the first of its kind GLAM [galleries, libraries, archives, and museums] collaboration with Government Medical College, Kozhikode.”

Q: What motivates you to contribute to Wikimedia projects?

“I am motivated by the satisfaction of having done a small part in making the world a better place. The idea of sharing free knowledge with millions of people around the world excites me, and this serves as a motivation to keep doing more.”

Netha Hussain presenting at the Wikimedia Diversity Conference in 2013 (Christopher Schwarzkopf (WMDE), CC BY-SA 3.0)

Q: How has Wikipedia helped tackle COVID-19 disinformation and misinformation?

“Wikimedia was able to play a large role in tackling COVID-19 disinformation because of its people, technology, and policies. 

The people who make up the Wikimedia movement are experts from a wide variety of subject areas. They perform tasks such as copyediting, structuring, and adding rich media to Wikimedia pages. Wikimedia has robust policies around verifiability, neutrality, and original research, which warrants the use of sources with high credibility. The technology used in Wikimedia provides a simple interface for editing and has provisions to counter vandalism. 

All these factors taken together, as well as learnings from the movement’s previous experience in responding to crisis situations helped Wikimedia tackle disinformation effectively.”

“It is hard to imagine all the ways that Wikimedia will influence the future of the ecosystem of free knowledge in medicine, but I am convinced that Wikimedia will continue to occupy a central role in the process.”

Q: How does your work on Wikipedia contribute to the future of medicine?

“I was a medical student when I started contributing to Wikimedia in 2010. At that time, I worked on concepts that I learned at medical school. Later on, I focused on building content around specific topic areas. My current focus is on creating content related to COVID-19 and vaccination. The articles created by me in English and Malayalam languages are being edited several times by other editors and are becoming richer and more comprehensive by the day. I think that these articles will continue to educate (and perhaps also entertain and enlighten) people in the future. 

The text and media that I and fellow editors created will continue to be remixed, curated and magnified several times by third party sources such as search engines, websites, and virtual assistants. Additionally, the edit history of the work that we performed on Wikimedia is likely to serve as a historical documentation of how events unfolded in time and how scientific evidence changed over time. 

Our discussions on talk pages would serve as a reminder for how and why we made some decisions regarding the policy or structure of Wikimedia entities. The metadata of our edits are likely to act as data points for researching about trends and patterns in editing, paving way for insightful conclusions regarding the growth and diversification of Wikimedia projects. The structured data contributed by us would serve as the database for search engine and machine learning algorithms. It is hard to imagine all the ways that Wikimedia will influence the future of the ecosystem of free knowledge in medicine, but I am convinced that Wikimedia will continue to occupy a central role in the process.”

“In the process of researching health conditions and treatment options, people…eventually to Wikimedia projects. Therefore, it is important that Wikimedians should work in the interest of public health.”

Q: What is Wikipedia’s role in public health?

“Wikipedia is the largest non-profit website in terms of pageviews. Wikipedia has become a popular source of healthcare information because of its simplicity of content, higher ranking in search results, easiness in accessibility, availability of citations, presence of photo/video illustrations, ability to edit quickly and possibility to navigate in multiple language editions. 

Most often, in the process of researching health conditions and treatment options, people go online, and eventually to Wikimedia projects. Therefore, it is important that Wikimedians should work in the interest of public health and invest resources for making its medical content reliable, comprehensive and updated.”

“I wish everyone knew that they have something to contribute to the Wikimedia movement.”

Q: What is one thing you wish everyone knew about Wikimedia projects?

“I wish everyone knew that they have something to contribute to the Wikimedia movement. People usually shy away from contributing to Wikimedia because they think that the expertise they have is trivial or irrelevant for Wikimedia.

We need not only content creators and curators, but those interested in technology, outreach, fundraising, strategizing, to name a few. We need to make non-content related contributions more visible and rewarding so that everyone knows what is possible for them to do on Wikimedia projects, and enjoys doing what they love or care about.”


Congratulations, Netha! 

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.