Takeaways from Digital Rights and Inclusion Forum 2023 (DRIF23): A conversation with Wikimedians

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A photograph of Wikimedians at the Digital Rights and Inclusion Forum 2023
Wikimedians at the Digital Rights and Inclusion Forum 2023 (DRIF23). Image by Paradigm Initiative, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

2023 marked another first for the Wikimedia Foundation’s presence at the Digital Rights and Inclusion Forum (DRIF). An annual forum hosted by Paradigm Initiative, DRIF is where digital policies in Africa are debated and shaped, and participants and attendees forge partnerships for action. This year it was hosted in Nairobi, Kenya, under the theme of “Building a sustainable internet future for all.”

Last year, the Wikimedia Foundation provided financial support to the forum for the first time. The initiative was part of our effort to empower those advocating for free knowledge and digital rights in the region, and enabled over 350 additional attendees to join DRIF with the necessary data packages. This year, Wikimedians participated in the conversation for the first time. Volunteers from across East Africa joined Foundation staff to host three sessions (you can find the descriptions of these at the end of this blog post), and members of Wikimedia Community User Group Kenya ran a booth to engage with attendees and share about Wikimedians’ work across the continent. Wikimedians explained how they are closing the digital divide through projects like Art+Feminism and Wiki for Refugees, as well as how communities across the region deal with the reality of internet disruptions. Foundation staff joined the Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative to share lessons from the 20 years of the Wikimedia movement’s existence that can be applied to help build a sustainable internet future for all.

We spoke with the people who made Foundation support of DRIF possible, and with Wikimedians who represented the movement at DRIF about their experience, and why they think that supporting this forum matters to advance rights-respecting digital practices.

Making it happen: Q and A with Wikimedia Foundation staff 

Here is what Ziski Putz (Senior Movement Advocacy Manager), Winnie Kabintie (Senior Global Movement Communications Specialist), Veronica Thamaini (Manager of Regional Programs), and Ricky Gaines (Senior Human Rights Advocacy Manager) from the Wikimedia Foundation have to share about the importance of Wikimedians joining regional forums like DRIF.

What is the role of Wikimedians at DRIF?

The world is grappling nowadays with online issues such as disinformation, growing surveillance of the information that people access and share, and censorship. Forums like DRIF are an opportunity for Wikimedians to meet and discuss with like-minded people who are also working to address these challenges and how they contribute to the infringement of human rights. The Wikimedia movement is uniquely qualified to highlight to other stakeholders in the free and open knowledge ecosystem the constructive role that communities can play, both through the lessons learned from its collaborative community governance model and the critical value of its collaborative community content moderation efforts. These models have much that they can offer, and should be explained and promoted among other stakeholders in forums such as DRIF. 

Why does the Foundation support Wikimedians’ participation at DRIF?

It is important to have the voices of Wikimedians represented in forums such as DRIF, which provides them with an opportunity to strengthen volunteers’ efforts focusing on digital rights and information rights advocacy. DRIF offers spaces to connect with mission-aligned organizations that can support the realization of knowledge equity in their respective regions and communities. It is also a space for Wikimedians to contribute to ongoing critical conversations on digital rights and inclusion, which further shape their efforts. In addition, such experiences are useful in creating and expanding awareness of national, regional, and global discussions that inform participants about how critical their role can be in addressing and rectifying these challenges, even beyond the open and free knowledge movement. 

During the 2022 Wiki Indaba, African Wikimedians expressed the desire and need to engage in public policy matters with external stakeholders. Their participation at DRIF was, definitely, a step in this direction.

Additionally, Wikimedians who spoke at the workshop were happy and proud to share their work with folks beyond the wikisphere. 

DRIF in retrospective: Q and A with Wikimedians

Here is what our partners in the Wikimedia movement had to say about their time at DRIF, and the role that creating and sharing free and open knowledge plays in digital rights conversations in Africa and beyond.

In the words of one participant, attending DRIF made it clear that, “the work we do as Wikimedians is crucial to promote education and cultural preservation, as well as accurate and reliable information. We contribute immensely towards creating a more informed and educated world. The use of the internet in collaborative editing, accessing information, and global distribution of knowledge has made Wikipedia an indispensable platform for knowledge sharing.”

1. What was your overall experience of DRIF?

Teresia “Terry” Boke (Wikimedia Community User Group Kenya) said she was thrilled by “the challenge of speaking at DRIF. It gave me a chance to make new connections and meet fellow Wikipedians with whom I had only interacted with online. The internet has undoubtedly become an essential tool for communication, learning, and business globally, which is evident in how it is utilized in Wikipedia projects. Unfortunately, Wikimedians in Africa face significant challenges that hinder our access to the internet, limiting our potential in contributing to wiki spaces fully. Therefore, there is a need for concerted efforts among government institutions, nonprofit organizations, and the private sector to promote internet access, digital literacy skills, structures, availability of credible information, and address technical barriers that hinder our access and use of the internet.”

Candy Khohliwe (Wikimedia Community User Group Botswana) explained “it was quite amazing to have people from different sectors in one space, and to learn more about what the public sector, private, and the civil society organizations are doing to bridge the internet gap. I got to learn what’s working in different sectors and countries, and how Wikimedians might trial the same strategies to protect our communities: for example, by detecting malicious practices.”

Romeo Ronald Lomora (Wikimedia Community User South Sudan) said that DRIF was an amazing platform, and echoed that it brought so many different doers from different communities. “I saw how most of the work we do as Wikimedians connects to all of their efforts. The event was worth attending if only because it demonstrated the power of different stakeholders collaborating together.”  

Carol Mwaura (Wikimedia Community User Group Kenya) explained that “attending DRIF brought a whole new meaning to my role as a Wikimedian. It helped me understand the challenges that people face in different countries in Africa when they have limited access to the internet due to challenges like affordability, digital literacy, and internet infrastructure. I gained more insights on policy debates and discussions around digital rights in Africa and how internet shutdowns affect access to information for citizens. Understanding these challenges can help Wikimedians to create more inclusive and accessible information and reach more diverse communities.”

Sandra Aceng (Wikimedia Community User Group Uganda) said it was great to meet other Wikimedians from East Africa in person for the first time, and that “DRIF was different, the majority of speakers were discussing solutions rather than challenges, which is a very strategic way forward for the work that we do in Uganda and across Africa as Wikimedia Uganda. Being part of the digital rights space, I have no doubt that our participation was very meaningful and impactful to the digital rights folks at DRIF.”

2. In what way do you think other DRIF attendees benefited from Wikimedians’ participation? What do you think they learned from you?

said it was an important opportunity “to address the misconceptions people have about Wikipedia. We are not just editing content without evidence: rather, we have structures that monitor and fact check the articles that editors publish on Wikipedia, so that we make sure to add accurate, reliable, and unbiased content. We were able to build confidence that Wikipedia is a very reliable open-source platform.”

Terry echoed Candy, and explained that Wikimedians “were able to provide a better understanding of how the Wikipedia model works and answer some common questions. There’s still a need for creating more awareness, as well as community sensitization and capacity building that needs to be done. I felt like we did not have enough time to share more on the work that Wikipedians are doing across the world, and hence that there is a need to attend  more forums and provide trainings on the same.”

Romeo said that he was able to “highlight how Wikimedia projects cut across the initiatives that other participants are implementing to solve problems in their communities. I was able to give them useful feedback based on wiki tools and approaches in low-connectivity settings like Kiwix and WikiFundi. Our participation helped them see how we operate—that we do more than just add content—and the underlying solutions we offer to the problems they are also trying to solve, just in different contexts.”

Sandra explained that DRIF attendees learned what Wikimedians are doing across Africa, that anyone can contribute on Wikipedia, and that they can also do so beyond adding content. Attendees saw that we work on diverse issues, many of which align with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and other policy priorities across the continent. Importantly, they learned that Africans, and not just people from the global north, are Wikimedians.”

Carol Mwaura answered that “DRIF attendees had an opportunity to meet Wikipedians from eastern and southern Africa and learn about the role of Wikipedia and its mission in providing free, reliable, and accessible knowledge. They also had an opportunity to learn how Wikipedia can be used as a tool of promoting digital inclusion and knowledge equity. We had a chance to talk to attendees about how they could join communities in their countries and be contributors of free knowledge.”

Day two of the Digital Rights and Inclusion Forum 2023. Video by Paradigm Initiative, standard YouTube license, via YouTube.

3. What key lessons and insights will you be sharing back with your community?

Candy said it is important to “explore, network, be persistent and innovative in the work we do as open-source communities until we see a change to the challenges we face to ensure inclusivity for all. I would also like to invite some of the contacts I made at DRIF to host talks with my community on topics like cybersecurity or best practices to run an open source community.”

Romeo added: “One important lesson is that collaboration is always more powerful than competition: By harnessing the power of working together we are able to create a larger magnitude of impact with the things we do. I will also share with my community how many stakeholders are interested in the work we do, and that we have a far reaching impact than we had imagined as Wikimedians.”

Terry said “Collaboration! Collaboration! Collaboration! I’d also encourage fellow Wikipedians not to let fear hold them back from expanding their knowledge and skills. Embrace the opportunity to join community calls and trainings, as they provide a valuable platform for growth and collaboration, enabling you to become a more confident and knowledgeable contributor to the Wikipedia community.”

Sandra explained that “collaborations between Wikimedians and the digital rights community is key; Wikimedians should prioritize participating in digital rights related conferences, and should also organize local ‘get to know your Wikimedia community’ events to share different Wikimedia-related projects taking place in the region. Most people do not know that Wikipedia is also edited by Black people based in their own communities.” 

Carol said that she wants to “contribute to policy discussions and collaborate with Wikimedians to create articles that reflect the diverse perspectives and needs of African communities. I would like to engage with other Wikimedians in my region and around the world to discuss how we can collectively work towards building a more sustainable and inclusive internet for all. The networks of policymakers, civil society organizations, and technology experts that DRIF exposed me to provide valuable opportunities to collaborate and build partnerships for driving digital inclusion and to support knowledge equity on Wikipedia.”

Alice Kibombo (Wikimedia Community User Group Uganda) explained that “DRIF clearly illustrated how important it is for Wikimedians to participate in the digital rights space. I will keep reminding my community of this!”

4. If you could participate again next year, what would you present?

Candy said that she “would prefer we do a mini edit-a-thon in order to give people the experience and opportunity to learn how to edit, and so that they grasp what we mean by being a Wikimedian.”

Romeo answered that he “would talk about Wikimedians building tools for sustainable knowledge sharing and distribution,” and Terry that she would talk about “strategies for promoting multilingualism in Wikipedia and ensuring language diversity in online content.”

Sandra highlighted the importance of focusing on Wikipedia and the Sustainable Development Goals, to explore “how do Wikimedians across Africa contribute to the SDGs? Who are the excluded? How is inclusion a priority on Wikipedia in this context?”

Carol said that she would present on “the role of Wikipedia in promoting digital inclusion and knowledge equity in Africa, as well as strategies for creating more inclusive and accessible content on Wikipedia.”

Alice answered “a workshop that aims at sensitizing participants on what the Wikimedia projects are, what facets of information they deal with, and the intersection between these projects, digital rights, and inclusion.”

Wikimedia movement sessions at DRIF23

For more details on the three sessions in which Wikimedians and Foundation staff participated during DRIF23, read below.

What Does Digital Inclusion Look Like on Wikipedia? 

Gender inequality is rife across Africa and beyond, especially online, where there is a shortage of fact-based news, information, and knowledge about women and their experiences on Wikipedia. Refugees’ and women’s knowledge and contributions to the world are invisible online due to the continuous digital divide that exists across the continent. This session intends to narrate practical stories of what is being done by East African Wikimedians through Art+Feminism in Botswana and Wikipedia For Refugees in Uganda to advance digital inclusion on Wikipedia and build a sustainable, open, free, safe, and secure environment/space for all. This panel discussion will help the audience understand the work of East African Wikimedians in closing the digital divide on Wikipedia to amplify work in other countries. The session will be captured in the form of a blog post and published on Diff to share future learnings with Wikimedians across the world.

Speakers: Candy Khohliwe (Wikimedia Community User Group Botswana), Sandra Aceng (Wikimedia Community User Group Uganda), Carol Mwaura (Wikimedia Community User Group Kenya), Alice Kibombo (Wikimedia Community User Group Uganda)

Moderator: Romeo Ronald Lomora (Wikimedia Community User South Sudan)

20 Years Later: What the Wikimedia Movement Can Teach Us about the Future of a Sustainable Internet

How can Africa build a sustainable internet that remains open to everyone’s participation? This question is pertinent at a time when online spaces for discussion are shrinking, regulated through centralized platform policies, bought by billionaires, or built around targeted advertising and data-tracking. In this panel conversation, we will explore what insights the Wikimedia movement in Africa can offer. Individual contributors across the continent create and maintain knowledge projects like Wikipedia, Wikidata, and Wikimedia Commons. Their everyday actions and the projects that they launch reflect what they believe the future of the internet in Africa can look like. The decentralized, community-led model of the Wikimedia movement can be one approach to building a sustainable internet for the continent—an internet that serves and includes local communities who can actively shape the future that they want. This panel will feature members from the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikimedia movement in Africa, who will share stories and lessons from 20 years of Wikimedia projects, and how these can help identify solutions to building a sustainable internet future for all.

Speakers: Winnie Kabintie (Wikimedia Foundation), Veronica Thamaini (Wikimedia Foundation), Ricky Gaines (Wikimedia Foundation)

Moderator: ‘Gbenga Sesan (Paradigm Initiative)

Internet Sustainability in Practice: Experiences from Wikimedians in Eastern Africa

This is a panel discussion featuring Wikimedians from South Sudan, Uganda, Botswana, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where they share their experiences with network and internet connectivity disruptions. The objective is to help the audience understand the general East African context and how communities in the region try to deal with the reality of internet disruptions. Stories from Wikimedians in various countries around the region—including South Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, Botswana, Cameroon, and others—will be shared. Wikimedia projects have a huge impact on the availability of content and knowledge around East Africa. There is no internet without content and community, and this panel discussion is an opportunity for the audience to advocate policies that can reform the availability and ease of internet access in East African communities from the perspective of Wikimedians.

Speakers: Terry Boke (Wikimedia Community User Group Kenya), Romeo Ronald Lomora (Wikimedia Community User South Sudan), Candy Khohliwe (Wikimedia Community User Group Botswana)

Moderator: Winnie Kabintie (Wikimedia Foundation)

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