There Exist 23 Indian-Language Wikipedias. The Oldest Just Turned 15

While the Odia Wikipedia community has made great strides, translating it to a digital language of knowledge will require solving technical challenges and enlisting a more diverse set of contributors and editors.

A screenshot of the Odia Wikipedia page. Credit: Wikipedia.

A screenshot of the Odia Wikipedia page. Credit: Wikipedia.

The Odia-language Wikipedia just celebrated its 15th birthday on Saturday, June 3, 2017. It was created in 2002, just a year after the official English Wikipedia, which was the first-ever Wikipedia that went live. Odia, as a language, has yet to find itself on Google Translate. However, as one of the three oldest languages of the Indian sub-continent, it has the oldest Indian-language Wikipedia.

June 3, 2002 marked the first ever edit in the Odia language by an anonymous editor. Along with Odia, the Assamese, Malayalam and Punjabi Wikipedias were also born later that the same year. Today, there exist 23 Wikipedias, the latest entrant to the family being Tulu, in 23 different Indian languages.

The Odia Wikipedia is a compendium of 12,619 encyclopaedic articles written by only a handful of volunteer editors, also known as uikialis (Odia for Wikipedian or Wikipedia editor). Though the project is 15 years old, it was dormant for about nine years until a couple of editors started actively contributing and building a community around it in 2011. Slowly these editors spread out, reached out to more people, and the content sprawled to more subject areas when subject experts started contributing related to their domain expertise.

The type of articles that are currently part of this Wikipedia are reflective both of existing type of editors and a sign of the type of contributors that are yet to get online or participate in Wikipedia’s edit process.

For instance, while there are over 350 articles on topics related to medicine, there are only two articles related to feminism. The reason behind that is both simple and tragic. A Wikipedian often contributes to areas that they are either interested in or an expert on. Therefore, while  a veteran doctor and assistant professor of a medical school translated hundreds of medicine-related articles, there are not many editors to do the same for the articles about feminism or other gender-related issues. This is an issue that needs to be rectified as the Odia Wikipedia continues its journey.

After all, not all editors are subject experts themselves. Many Wikipedians like Pritiranjan Tripathy, who has contributed the largest number of biographical articles, and Sangram Kesari Senapati, who has written several articles on Indian movies, actually contribute for articles that they are personally interested in.

The Odia contributor community has also worked in bringing two other Wikimedia projects: the Odia Wikisource, an online library of freely-licensed books, and Odia Wiktionary, a dictionary with the meanings of native words that are equivalent of foreign language vocabulary. Though the community is small, there is a wide mixture of people of all professions, most importantly open source software developers.

This has helped the community build many tools that they themselves and the larger society is using. One of them is a converter that helps anyone convert text typed in legacy encoding systems into Unicode, a universal and contemporary alphabet encoding standard. There are hundreds and thousands of text in multiple non-standard legacy encodings that has been typed in the recent past, and are being typed currently by writers, publications, journalists and media houses. Because of the use of such diverse encoding systems, the content is never searchable on the Internet nor reproducible.

This converter has transformed the state of the language on the web. This and many other software that have been developed by the community have been released under open licenses along with the source code. Many of the software are also built in collaboration with the global and other Indian-language open source contributors.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons.

When the total number of Odia Wikipedia editors has crossed 40 in March this year, the average for last year and this year has been a little over 27. By March this year, the project had more than 342,546 views a month. When the number of active editors has increased, the total number of visitors from altogether from desktop, mobile app and mobile site has reduced from 674,100 in June last year (this was an exceptionally high peak though) to about 292,700 this year. This could be something to consider as a parameter while promoting the project. The community is already collaborating with media houses for both content development and promotion, and more such effort might increase the visibility of the project.

When all of these contributions are helping grow Odia language a lot on the Internet, there is a lot more to be done to make the language a language of governance, knowledge and scientific research and not just a language of literature. Srujanika, a collective of people working for science and other research have been working on building a science dictionary, and digitise many early publications including the scientific ones. Their work needs to be supported and should be made accessible so that others can build more resources on the top of existing scientific literature. There exists no solid consensus on transliteration (which exists in many other languages) of loan words like scientific and technical terminology in general and individual science domains like medicine in particular. There exists some groundbreaking work in creating a style guide for standardising terminology by the FUEL project but this needs wider consensus.

Globally, there are 285 active Wikipedias in diverse world languages and each of these Wikipedias are looked up by millions of viewers every single moment. In India, Wikimedia India chapter, Access to Knowledge (CIS-A2K) at the Centre for Internet and Society, Punjabi Wikimedians, West Bengal Wikimedians User Group, and Karavali Wikimedians are designated as movement affiliates that operate with some institutional framework managed by either/both volunteers and paid professionals.

But outside these collectives, there exist a few thousand volunteers that have been constantly driving the open movement in their native languages. Just like any other Wikipedia, Odia Wikipedia will never be complete, but will continue to mature. Here’s to the next 15 years.

Subhashish Panigrahi is a Bangalore-based educator, communications, partnership and community strategist, and a long time Free/Libre and Open Source advocate and contributor. He has worked over six years in global nonprofits like Mozilla, the Centre for Internet and Society.