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Reflections on PGIP phase 1

I first wrote about the Philip Greenspun illustration project (PGIP), which I was/am coordinator of, in November 2007. PGIP was made possible by a US$20k grant by Mr Greenspun to the Wikimedia Foundation, “for the purpose of creating and improving illustrations on Wikimedia.” I said:

I’m going to be co-ordinating the project, which is both exciting and scary. If it goes well, it will likely open the door to future “targeted donations” and content creation projects. If it goes well, it will get new people involved in a really global SVG editing community that is open, growing and self-supporting. If it goes well, complex and fundamental topics will gain world-class illustrations to rival any “visual dictionary” or “children’s encyclopedia” and the like. What’s more, those illustrations will be able to be translated with nothing more than a text editor. And they will be free to the world to use however they like.

There are two ways it could go poorly. One way is due to lack of interest, which would be disappointing but not disastrous. The other way is spectacular failure, where the introduction of money into a previously volunteer-only cycle reduces or ruins the motivation of those contributors.

It seems I forgot a third way it could go poorly, “disappointing but not disastrous”, which is something like setting itself up to fail by asking to reach standards that required a significantly higher amount of human effort (compared to existing FP processes). Combined with operator failure (creeping perfectionism + decreasing time availability + changing volunteer role on my part). Combined with a manifestly less-than-perfect technical solution.

The latter, an obviously less-than-optimal part of the current project, ended up being wiki pages + overly complex bug tracker software + uploading at Commons + mailing list. That undoubtedly put pretty much everyone off, but I am grateful to the illustrators that did persevere.

The resulting images are here. These 20 images are really superb. As ever I am impressed at what our community is capable of. But they are only 20. At this point, I can’t help thinking that I failed to learn a lesson from Nupedia.

As my original comment makes clear, I had some reservations about “paying volunteers”, but I wanted to take the opportunity to try something. I was familiar with some ideas about how introducing money into a volunteer system could actively kill off volunteer motivation. Naturally that was the last thing I wanted.

I think the original idea for the project was pretty simple — Problem: Wikipedia needs more illustrations. Solution: Pay people to create them. Keeping in mind the known problems, I conceived of it at a different angle; I wanted to solve the meta-problem. Meta-problem: Wikipedia needs more illustrators. Meta-solution: Create a project that helps to grow the international illustrator community, by using payment as the spark of interest. I still think that is ultimately the right answer, if Wikipedia has shown us anything at all. But it was just a tad ambitious to take on as a volunteer project myself, given that around this time I started my first full time job. This ambition and perfectionism also led to a dangerous tendency for too many “bucks” to stop with me.

If money is involved, a project must be (somewhat) professional. It must have standards. Someone must be accountable. I still think these things are true, but where I failed was in failing to hand over bundles of control to trusted people. I failed to gather those people, in part. I let too many people who might have been involved fall through the cracks by taking a REALLY. LONG. TIME. to get the project moving.

I was, it can safely be said in hindsight, overly concerned about answering all the critics before they could open their mouths. Given that it was a ‘paying volunteers’ project. Given that it was the first project like this on WMF’s behalf. Given that Wikipedia already gets plenty of stick for not meeting Standards of any particular description, and errors may already be seized as news stories whenever a writer sees fit. Given all these things, I was a bit frozen in fear of making a wrong move, delaying action by making extra plans, extra guidelines, extra rules, to the point that the criticism that this money was not being used for its purpose became valid. Ack. Didn’t see that one coming.

I wanted to use the money to pay for illustrations to be created that did not compete with existing volunteer motivation. So I thought the best way is to use it for “worthy” topics that are too boring or of little interest to naturally attract volunteer illustrators. It would be a bad idea, I believe, to simply pay illustrators for images they are making already. And as with Wikipedia, where addicted editors find themselves searching for references on topics they have no particular interest in, merely because another editor has requested it, many illustrators also take part in this kind of cooperation, as can be seen at the graphic labs and image request pages. But these open ended request processes are like bug reports: people will fill them if they want to (maybe it piques their interest, or they like you, or you give a usefully detailed request). But there are plenty of requests made this way that won’t go filled either. And I believe, although I hardly have enough data to prove it, that providing nominal payments is not enough reward either. Like a nicely worded request from an appropriately appreciative person, it is an incentive, but that’s it: a carrot, not a stick. As one paper puts it, pay enough, or don’t pay at all.

It is possible that the system I set up could have worked. If I had acted differently. If someone else had run it. If if if if. Basing a project on one person’s force of will is pretty risky, as I have manifestly demonstrated. A better system has more redundancy built in and can work even if one or two bits fail. Especially a volunteer system.

But the thing is, in thinking about a possible phase 2 PGIP, I am having trouble envisioning a working system might look like.

So I am kind of wondering if the idea of paying volunteers is just way more trouble than it’s worth. I don’t think there is no answer to that question, just that this answer is not quite the right one. And it’s good to be clear, is there money for things produced by creators (nice tangible things, like illustrations), or for a creator community (something that might look suspiciously like a community manager salary)? Which is generally less tangible and sexy, and riskier on the part of the donor. But much safer on the part of the community and, if successful, ultimately productive.

Thus endeth PGIP phase 1.

10 June, 2009 •

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Podcast fame: PGIP; GFDL/CC-BY-SA harmonisation

Being mentioned in the New York Times (or more accurately, their blog) is one thing, but I only really felt famous when Andrew Lih invited me on Wikipedia Weekly. WW is a podcast: not quite weekly, and not just Wikipedia, but close enough. IMO it is usually twice as long and half as frequent as it should be, but the discussion is typically quite interesting, as a Wikimedian.

It can be downloaded from this page: Episode 38 (42 min)

I certainly don’t enunciate my words as clearly as Liam and Andrew. :) And maybe I have a bit too much of that high rising intonation, but at least it’s more interesting to listen to than a monotone. (Possibly more annoying, though.)

So, I discussed two topics: the first is the Philip Greenspun illustration project. I talked a bit about my broader hopes and plans for the project, and asked people to please submit illustration requests. If you are interested in seeing some of the existing illustrator efforts within Wikimedia, please check out the Community links.

The second topic is the GFDL/CC-BY-SA harmonisation effort. A good report on the initial Wikimedia community reaction is the Signpost article, and Creative Commons’ blog post Wikipedia and Creative Commons next steps summarises where the situation is now. So in this part I talk about the benefits to the commons and some of the issues that have been raised that will need to be addressed in this process. I mentioned the metaphor of “silos” of content caused by different-but-similar sharealike licenses (“and never the twain shall meet”), which I am repeating after hearing from Evan Prodromou.

NB: I mistakenly said that the GPL has a “any later version” clause. However this is not true: some project choose to make this a requirement of contributors, to license under GPL vX “and later version”.

In closing: Sealand.

14 December, 2007 • , , , , ,

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Interested in the Philip Greenspun illustration project?

Hello travellers,

If you are as the subject says, you should begin your reading here: Philip Greenspun illustration project

And if you are a potential illustrator who wants to be informed and updated about the project, you should join the greenspun-illustrations mailing list.

07 December, 2007 •

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Philip Greenspun illustration project and misc. notes


(Jimmy caption contest?) © Philip Bachmann, CC-BY-2.5

fundraiser

Is anyone else refreshing Wikimedia pages all the time just to read new donor quotes? It’s a cool way of keeping Wikimedians interested – who have to see the banners more than anyone else, after all. Despite some initial hiccups, it now seems to be going very smoothly and the video is helping to get quite a bit of interest. But the burning question remains unanswered – do pick-up lines from Wikipedia actually work?! (Perhaps he meant Wikiquote?)

Schmap

Apparently a Flickr image of mine has been used in something called Schmap!! Melbourne. It’s like Google maps + Flickr geotagged images + tourist writeups. It’s not a particularly interesting or good image, but it does have half the word “Melbourne” in it. That counts for something I suppose.

Audiophile

Audiophile, an “audio portal/listening library”, was announced a few weeks ago, and is looking for contributors, especially “young and emerging producers”. Their default license is CC-BY-NC-SA. Sigh.

Libre Graphics Meeting

The third Libre Graphics Meeting is being held in Wrocław, Poland in May 2008. It’s “free to attend, and open to all”. I know there are some talented and dedicated SVG editors at Wikimedia Commons, so I certainly hope some of them will be representing. :)

Wikijunior roundup

Randy Wilson wrote an interesting round-up of Wikijunior, a project within Wikibooks to create children’s books. Their work is different to most Wikimedia projects, in that their intended audience would not be the ones writing the material.

linux.conf.au

My submission for LCA’s LinuxChix miniconf, “Who’s Behind Wikipedia?”, was accepted. That will be January 29th, 2008. The idea for it came about when I went to the Freebase meetup and we ended up talking about people’s experiences editing Wikipedia. The good thing is that the audience is geeks, so I won’t have to explain the FLOSS/free-content ethos, or “what is a wiki”, or even “what is Wikipedia”. Likely many geeks have edited Wikipedia at some time, even if it’s just correcting typos. But unless you follow it all closely I imagine it can be difficult to tell what’s consensus and what’s cabal. :) And there are likely to be the odd few that, as Wikipedia Weekly say, “know their RfA from their AfD”, so that will keep me on my toes.

Maybe in the future we could be organised enough to hold a wiki/freecontent miniconf.

A picture is worth a thousand words: the Philip Greenspun illustration project

The Wikimedia Foundation has officially announced their approval of a substantial donation by Mr Greenspun for the specific purpose of funding the creation of illustrations. This is the first time the Foundation has been involved in funding content creation, although related groups like the German chapter have held similar kinds of projects. I’m going to be co-ordinating the project, which is both exciting and scary. If it goes well, it will likely open the door to future “targeted donations” and content creation projects. If it goes well, it will get new people involved in a really global SVG editing community that is open, growing and self-supporting. If it goes well, complex and fundamental topics will gain world-class illustrations to rival any “visual dictionary” or “children’s encyclopedia” and the like. What’s more, those illustrations will be able to be translated with nothing more than a text editor. And they will be free to the world to use however they like.

There are two ways it could go poorly. One way is due to lack of interest, which would be disappointing but not disastrous. The other way is spectacular failure, where the introduction of money into a previously volunteer-only cycle reduces or ruins the motivation of those contributors.

It will be careful path to walk, but we’ll never know if we don’t try.

PS, donate. :)

03 November, 2007 • , , , , ,

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