Exclusive Interview with Lane Rasberry

Lane Rasberry February 2019 02

 Lane Rasberry at the University of Virginia lawn in 2019. (Photo copyright by Lane Rasberry; CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Lane Rasberry’s journey with the Wikimedia movement has been almost a decade. Currently, Lane is the Wikimedia-in-Residence at the Data Science Institute of the University of Virginia. Lane has also been involved with a good number of studies related to the impact of Wikipedia projects in the academic sector. In 2013, Lane visited Bangladesh, so his attachment with the Bengali projects is old as well!

After getting the request for an interview with WikiBarta back in Wikimania 2019, Lane immediately agreed. After a prolonged break, in this joyful moment of Bangla Wikipedia, WikiBarta conducted the interview with Lane Rasberry. Here Lane expressed his views and thoughts regarding the Wikimedia movement worldwide. By Ankan Ghosh Dastider.

 [সাক্ষাৎকারটি বাংলা ভাষায় পড়ুন উইকিবার্তায়]

WikiBartaAt first, greetings from WikiBarta. So you have been with the Wikimedia movement since 2008. What is your view about the current movement track? Are we going on the right track, with proper speed? 

Lane Rasberry: I always favor more support for Wikimedia volunteers. Supporting volunteers is the fastest, least expensive, and most ethical way to reach our goal of providing knowledge to everyone in the world. The Wikimedia Movement collects a lot of money globally. I think that most volunteers want to share more of this money to support the growth of Wikimedia volunteer programs in countries that either has small Wikimedia chapters or do not yet have a chapter.

We are at the 20th anniversary of Wikipedia on 15 January 2021. The success to this point is because of volunteers. To be successful for the future, volunteers should always claim the right to determine the values and ethics of the Wikimedia Movement. This includes speaking up about how to share the global movement resources. 

WikiBarta: In a journal paper titled “Why Medical Schools Should Embrace Wikipedia: Final-Year Medical Student Contributions to Wikipedia Articles for Academic Credit at One School”, in which you were a co-author, it was written that Despite its [Wikipedia’s] increasingly prevalent use as a medical information resource in clinical practice, clinical instructors and faculty members often dissuade medical students from using Wikipedia, citing concern for its perceived inaccuracies and lack of traditional editorial controls”. You are continuing your research, as your journal of 2019 suggests. How has the scenario changed since then?

Lane Rasberry: When information is of great public importance I still recommend sharing it through Wikipedia. The paper you mention reports the effects of medical students in various classes sharing medical information in Wikipedia as a class project with their professor. In these cases, the students were able to share good information and also we used Wikipedia's audience measurement tools to count many people reading this information through their computers and phones.

Other people have written papers about how students can share information and get the same good result, which is that when volunteers and students and professionals put information in Wikipedia for public benefit then that accomplishes the public service of educating people. Conventional publishing has good information but very expensive distribution to audiences, while Wikipedia has the best distribution to audiences but its quality is only what editors provide for it to publish.

I am still developing medical information on Wikipedia as are many others, but regardless of subject, I encourage more professors to accept student projects which include publishing on Wikipedia. Since I published that paper some years have passed, and still most people have more respect for paper publications than they do for digital texts. This means that the situation is much the same. However, every year the Wikimedia website gets more content, more software development, and more tools such as for fact-checking, and I think the time will come when both reading and publishing in Wikipedia will become a routine part of university studies.

WikiBarta: You have been a ‘Wikimedian in Residence’ for a long time, first for Consumer Reports and now for the University of Virginia. How is your experience?

Lane Rasberry: Being a Wikimedian in Residence is a communications role in new media. Other comparable new media roles include writing for websites or posting to social media. What all these roles have in common is that for digital media, it is possible to get reports of how many people are reading articles or posts. For example, anyone can see the page views of the most popular articles in Bangla Wikipedia. Getting an exact count of who reads what makes digital media different from traditional printed media.

A Wikimedian in Residence shares information in articles then reports back to the hosting organization how many people are reading the content. A challenge in being a Wikimedian in Residence is explaining the concept of a "page view". I often say that Wikipedia is useful because many people read it and that we prove this by counting page views. People who use apps and online services are accustomed to looking at views, likes, upvotes, retweets, and all such numbers. For many others, the idea of measuring communication success with this kind of audience count is new, and I need to talk it through with them.

Another difficult part of the role is that some people go crazy if I say what I do. Since Wikipedia has articles on everything in the world, some people blame me for everything in the world which they do not like. Also, lots of people ask me to do promotional editing. To prevent this, I recommend that anyone doing any Wikipedia project with an organization start by explaining that Wikipedia editors help with sharing general knowledge but will not edit about the organizations and people providing that knowledge.

WikiBartaHow the importance of ‘Wikimedian-in-Residence’ can be described easily to the university authorities?

Lane Rasberry: Wikipedia is the most requested, published, accessed, and consulted source of information on most topics in most languages. If you want to share information to benefit the public, then posting educational material to Wikipedia is the easiest way to make information free and accessible for most people. To prove it we will show pageviews. 

WikiBartaWe all are present in a very difficult time, the COVID-19 pandemic. Do you want to share a few words with respect to the contribution of Wikipedia in the pandemic time?

Lane Rasberry: Wikipedia is the world's most consulted source of information on COVID-19 information. Wikipedia was the only communication platform to collect information from every country's science and medical experts. We adapted that information to be understandable and then translated it into as many languages as possible. As with all Wikipedia articles, within seconds after writing it, it was available through search engines for anyone, anywhere in the world to access for free.

The COVID-19 development project in Wikipedia was not only about medical information. Part of the strategy has been quarantining, so any media which helped people to learn something, be happy, and to become a better person is part of the Wikipedia effort. Editing Wikipedia content on any topic is part of the COVID-19 response strategy because readers need to enjoy themselves. Even when people are editing society, history, sports, movies, music, or anything else, they are also giving reviews and conversations for the content that everyone else is publishing. In this way, we make a community where everyone supports everyone else.

WikiBartaMany years back, in 2013, you visited Bangladesh. Now it is almost 2021. From your observation, how much progress did the Bangla community make since then? What’s your perception about the involvement of Wikimedia Bangladesh in the global Wiki movement?

Lane Rasberry: I am American, so first let me say something about how Bangladeshi Americans make Bangla language visible. I mostly collaborate with Wikimedia New York City where there is a Bangladeshi community. In New York City there are seven main languages that get some recognition: English, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Korean, Haitian Creole, and Bangla.

This recognition means a few things. Although the main subway signs are in English, whenever there is a special alert there will often be signs in Bangla also. They have copyright so I cannot put them into Wikimedia Commons, but there are examples available. These signs make everyone aware that people in the community use Bangla.

Another place where Bangla appears is in elections. Only American citizens can vote of course, but there are enough American citizens in New York City who prefer Bangla to justify putting that language on signs. Since 2016 there have been Bangla language ballots available. There is a neighborhood called Jackson Heights which has a Little Bangladesh neighborhood. Now that I look, we hardly have pictures of it for Wikimedia Commons, but what is noticeable about the neighborhood is that stores have their signs in Bangla.

Lots of people travel through the Bangladeshi neighborhood because there is a major subway there. This is the closest subway to the international LaGuardia Airport, so many people taking or returning from both domestic and international flights pass through this Little Bangladesh when they use the train station. Since so many families here use Bangla, near this neighborhood the public school has a dual language option for children who will have classes in both English and Bangla. 

I am telling all this about New York City to explain that although there are people using different languages in the city, typical people who wander around will only see some languages in routine life. Bangla is one of those languages, so even people who know nothing about Bangladesh see the text and have some awareness about it.

Of course not everywhere in the United States has a Bangladeshi community, but wherever there is at least a small group of Bangladeshis, something else unusual happens. When the time is right, and when there is a large community festival in a public place, and if there are a few Bangladeshis around, then they will set up a display or celebration area for Mother Tongue Day

Currently, I am living in a town of about 45,000 people. We have the University of Virginia here and students organize such things, but I thought it was interesting that non-students also care enough to promote a holiday for language even in a small town. The perception of Wikimedia Bangladesh in the global Wikimedia community is in part a reflection of the perception of Bangladeshi people in the global community. Bangladeshi culture obviously values literature, writing, language, and cultural preservation. These things are very important for the Wikimedia community, which values these things also and wishes that more cultures had such strong feelings to preserve the language and somehow carry it around the world.

The Wikimedia community in Bangladesh has a reputation for reporting programs every year, staying friendly while still making reasonable demands for volunteer editor rights and grant funding, and having fewer weird problems as compared to other Wikimedia chapters. I want Wikimedia Bangladesh to grow, and I would recommend the chapter as a model organization for projects of the Wikimedia Foundation or any other potential collaborator.

WikiBartaBangla Wikipedia has just crossed the milestone of 100,000 articles. Do you want to say something to them?

Lane Rasberry: Congratulations! The more articles you have, the easier it is to get more supporters. I hope that Bangla Wikipedia grows to get respect from every school, NGO, and government agency in Bangladesh and Jackson Heights. When this happens, there should be special credit to all the editors who believed in the project early and edited those first 100,000 articles.

WikiBartaThank you very much!

Lane Rasberry: You are welcome.

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