Mike Peel shares his experience mentoring Wikimedia projects through FOSS outreach programs

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In this post, Mike Peel, a GSOC & Outreachy mentor with Wikimedia since 2021, shares his experience with the two programs.

Srishti: Can you tell us about your background and involvement in the Wikimedia movement?

Mike: I’ve been editing the English Wikipedia since 2005, when I was reading an article and was irritated by a grammatical error – so I fixed it. After that I just kept coming back and contributing more. The Wikimedia projects are a natural place to share information and photographs with others while you’re exploring the world around you – and discover pointers to new things to learn and discover.

I soon got involved in the technical side of things too, working on templates that could be used across multiple articles. Wikidata then came along, and revolutionised the way that templates can display information – instead of it being manually provided through template parameters, it could be fetched directly from Wikidata. Initial work on automated infobox templates on the English Wikipedia ran into community issues, but having a single, multilingual, Wikidata Infobox on Commons became a big success.

I also got pulled into the organisational side of things quite early on, and ended up co-founding Wikimedia UK in 2008, serving as a Trustee of it for 5 years, and going on to serve on grants committees (initially the global Funds Dissemination Committee, and later the Northern and Western Europe Grants Committee). I was elected to the Wikimedia Foundation Board in 2022 where I am currently serving as a trustee.

Srishti: It is impressive to see your mentoring involvement in technical projects in almost every round Wikimedia organizes! How many projects have you mentored so far? And how did you get involved with mentoring in Wikimedia’s outreach programs?

Mike: I heard about the Wikimedia Foundation’s involvement in Outreachy and GSoC by emails to wikimedia-l, and I submitted my first project proposal in 2021 as a technical volunteer. I was already familiar with supervising students: I had two summer students working on science articles in the English Wikipedia back in 2014, and I’ve also supervised students working on astronomy projects over the years.

I was really impressed by the Outreachy program, and their focus on tackling underrepresentation in open source tech through paid internships. I ended up supervising two students in each of their Summer 2021, Winter 2021/2, and Summer 2022 rounds (co-supervised by Andy Mabbett), as well as co-supervising a student in Winter 2022/3 (main supervisor Éder Porto).

I also really like how Wikimedia volunteers can (and are encouraged to) supervise students through both Outreachy and GSoC – you don’t have to be a staff member to mentor projects!

(My day job is in academia, so I normally use the word ‘student’ rather than ‘intern’ – since every project is a learning experience.)

Srishti: This past summer you mentored 3 interns as part of GSoC / Outreachy. Can you tell us a little about the projects they worked on?

Mike: The two Outreachy students – Roberto and Nirali – worked on “What’s in a name? Automatically identifying first and last author names for Wikicite and Wikidata“, with Andy Mabbett co-supervising. This project focused on understanding author names for Wikidata items about journal articles – which is really complex since name strings can vary in definitions between countries and cultures. Nirali and Roberto worked on Python scripts to use extra information provided by the authors of the journal articles to distinguish between first and last names, and to add this information to the Wikidata items using the “author given names” and “author last names” properties. It also led to more articles being imported to Wikidata, although this is tricky since items about journal articles weigh heavily on Wikidata’s query service back-end.

The GSoC student – Lennard – worked on a very different project, “Rewrite the Wikidata Infobox on Commons in Lua“. The first version of the Wikidata Infobox that I’d developed and deployed on Wikimedia Commons had been a big success, and was used in over 4 million categories. However, it was not written with efficiency in mind, and it was taking a lot of time to load for complex items. Lennard rewrote the Infobox in Lua, dramatically speeding it up by an order of magnitude, 

Srishti: How was your experience mentoring these interns? How was it mentoring multiple people at the same time?

Mike: It’s always a great experience mentoring students – you get to both share your knowledge, and learn new things as they explore new topics and share their perspectives.

Mentoring several students together can actually be easier than mentoring them individually – since they can help each other out when they encounter problems. The tricky thing is making sure their projects don’t overlap too much, so their work complements each other rather than leading to duplication.

The most time-consuming part of Outreachy is actually during the contribution period, where you can have ~20 candidates all wanting to do your starting tasks. My approach with this was to have a standard mini-course of ~3-6 generic tasks, which could demonstrate the candidate’s interests and capabilities. While the tasks were the same (e.g., code something that does <x>), the subject (e.g., books, science, etc.) was free for the candidate to choose, so they didn’t overlap with editing. Then the most difficult part comes at the end, where you have to pick one of the candidates for the internship! (and being able to select multiple people makes this choice a bit easier!)

Srishti: What steps do you actively take to ensure interns have a good experience? Mainly, how do you foster their engagement with the broader Wikimedia community during and after the program?

Mike: This can be quite difficult. Wikimedia contributors have to be self-reliant and motivating, which is somewhat different from what you get through an intern process. As such, the transition afterwards can be tricky – since the financial motivation is no longer there, and they will often become busy with other things (going back to uni etc.). Some choose to stay around, others move on – but you can keep in touch as a mentor in the future as they need.

Importantly, the internship has to be an experience that gives them knowledge and skills that they’ll make use of in the future, for example, understanding how Wikimedia works, and/or learning a programming language. They may not use those skills to contribute back soon,but they may return in the future, and may use the skills for other things (e.g., to get an open source job in the future).

Srishti: What are some of the challenges you face while mentoring interns? How do you overcome them?

Mike: They can be really quiet at the start! It takes time for them to get to know the project, community, and mentors. Having multiple opportunities and invitations to communicate via different means can help bring them out of their shell – but it does take time.

They will also take longer to go through a full project than you might expect – so make sure there are milestones along the way. The outcomes of the project can also be quite different from what you expect at the start, as they develop throughout the project, so mentors need to have some flexibility!

In general, keep the focus on giving the students a good experience and knowledge base for the future, rather than just aiming to get the project completed!

Srishti: What advice would you give to future mentors to make contributors’ experiences meaningful?

Mike: Co-supervision really helps with making sure the students get to experience different viewpoints, and to make it easier when one supervisor isn’t available for parts of the program. It also helps to have community-facing projects, so that the students get to interact with the wider community rather than working on a project in relative isolation.

Srishti: What advice would you give future interns to thrive at their internship?

Mike: Ask questions! The internship is a learning experience, and your mentors are there to help – so don’t hesitate to ask them anything, there’s no bad question, and it’s a safe environment to learn. 

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