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The travelling Wikipedia salesperson

Wikipedia is the internet we were all promised. Knowledge available to all, free of charge. Mike Dickison has spent the year showing New Zealand institutions how they can set tax payer funded-material free from cabinets and hard drives for all to learn from.

For a year Mike Dickison has been New Zealand’s highest-profile, and possibly only, encyclopaedia salesperson.

With his life in boxes in the boot of his car he's clocked up 16,000 km, lived in 55 different places and despite the nomadic year left his toothbrush behind only once.

He wasn’t selling sets of hardbound books, or even Encarta cds. He has been trying to sell New Zealand organisations on the value of sharing their treasures on Wikipedia.

With the internet being the first port of call for information, and with Google often serving up Wikipedia pages as the first result in a search it’s a no-brainer as a free way to share material. New Zealand though, has lagged behind other countries publishing content to the free online repository of knowledge.

He often uses Dame Whina Cooper’s Wikipedia page as an example of poor coverage.

“Every talk I give I say Dame Whina Cooper’s page is worse than some character pages in Game of Thrones.”

Dickison thinks part of the problem lies in the small number of people creating and editing pages in New Zealand. Wikipedia runs mainly on the volunteer efforts of people. Anyone can create or edit an article.

According to the Wikimedia Foundation when Dickison started, there were only 250 regular New Zealand editors.

“That's a small number to cover an entire country. In the Northern Hemisphere they will have thousands of editors over the same sort of turf.”

There’s also a lack of institutional awareness and support.

“It really just feels like we're lagging, culturally lagging. There hasn't been a strong push or a user group or any real publicity or funding gone into promoting Wikipedia in New Zealand until now.”

Dickison had been the natural history curator of Whanganui Museum. Last year he successfully applied to the Wikimedia Foundation for a $61,000 grant to be New Zealand’s Wikipedian-at-large to try and shift thinking and behaviour.

“It’s cheap and easy to put stuff online. Institutions that are publicly funded have an obligation I think to share the stuff that belongs to the New Zealand public with the public.”

Last week his year as New Zealand’s Wikipedian-at-large officially ended.

Highlights: Insects, capturing the response of a nation and equity

Dickison’s work has helped set free a wealth of knowledge from 33 organisations, including images and information trapped in museum filing cabinets, and hard drives at science organisations.

A bug-obsessed teenager from Belarus can now view exquisitely-detailed pen drawings of New Zealand insects by artist Des Helmore. During his time at Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and Landcare Research Helmore produced over 1000 insect drawings.

Dickison said the drawings were languishing in a hard drive. Landcare Research wasn’t really sure what to do with them.

“I said do you have any plans for them like t-shirts or greeting cards? They liked the idea but they’re research scientists - not set up for marketing.”

They agreed to release the images with an open licence on Wikimedia. Dickison organised volunteer events to add them to pages where he said they are now being viewed thousands of times.

“In most cases they are the best depictions of that species of beetle or wasp or fly under an open licence.”

(Coleoptera: Anthribidae) Notochoragus crassus. Illustration: Desmond W. Helmore - Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, CC BY 4.0

When horror struck in Christchurch on March 15, Dickison put a call out for New Zealanders to help create a record of the country’s response to attacks on Christchurch’s mosques

The plea published on Wikipedia called for photographs:

“Images are important. They’ll define these attacks to people around the world, to our descendants, to the history books. Too often the only images repeated after a tragedy are ones of anger and fear and hatred. We need to make sure all the story is told.”

He asked images to be shared to Wikimedia Commons with an open licence so they can be used by anyone.

“We need images of mosques piled with flowers; of people comforting and helping survivors; of police doing their job; of rallies and vigils and people standing together; of editorial cartoons and street art and graffiti.”

The public responded with 147 photographs. The most iconic image, a photograph of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern taken through a window by photographer Kirk Hargreaves has been viewed millions of times. Dickison spent some time working with the Christchurch City Council to gain approval for this to be included with an open licence.

Other images capture the wall of flowers and cards, chalk messages of love and sorrow scrawled on footpaths, flags at half mast, and crowded vigils.

Photo: Kirk Hargreaves - Supplied by Christchurch City Council, CC BY 4.0

One of Dickison’s goals at the beginning of his year was to increase the number of women editors in New Zealand.

Anybody can become a Wikipedia editor and create and edit articles on the site. There’s a skew though. Editors have been mainly white males and articles are often about white males.

He held free edit-a-thons and wiki-blitzes throughout the country. Participants bring along a laptop, log in to the wifi and Dickison would teach you how to edit articles.

He helped with five 'Edit for Equity' events aimed at increasing the number of Wikipedia pages related to women. Each event had a different theme. One for example focused on creating pages for women scientists.

He said most of the dozen attendees at the events who were taught how to create pages were women.

“Some of those editors - I’ve watched them over the last year - have become some of the highest-powered Wikipedians working in New Zealand right now. They’ve just gone bananas.”

Chalk messages of love were captured in photographs. Photo: John Darroch CC BY-SA 4.0

In house Wikipedians

Now the grant is over, a question remains.

Should New Zealand have to rely on one person, funded by an overseas organisation, with his life packed in the boot of his car and sleeping at Air BnBs, house-sitting and even at times in a tent to document and share our history?

Dickison said overseas there are institutions with a devoted Wikipedian on staff.

As far as he knows, despite some organisations including government departments having a comms team, there are no full-time Wikipedians in New Zealand.

“There’s a couple of institutions, like Auckland Museum, that are very Wikipedia friendly and have hosted a Wikipedian in the past, but currently nobody in a New Zealand’s institutions job is to work with Wikipedia.”

He thinks his nomadic year at the different organisations has helped sell the importance of using Wikipedia.

“This has been a good proof of concept. I think we need to go to the next stage and start getting Wikipedians working inside large institutions.”

Another thing he would like to see is university students' assignments being Wikipedia pages rather than essays.

“There’s a lecturer at Massey in entomology who just set weta articles for four of her students. I’ve just been grading those and they’re great.”

Common weta species currently have “pathetic little articles” on Wikipedia.

“The students have bulked them out with links to the latest research and better photos.”

Editors making Wikipedia edits at Edit for Equity event, Wellington. Photo: Kelly Pendergrast CC BY-SA 4.0

What’s next

Dickison’s travelling days aren’t over yet.

He’s off to Europe soon to attend Wikipedia events in Stockholm and Berlin. He also plans to spend time in Slovenia and Lithuania while working on a children’s book about nature.

He’s returning to New Zealand in November to run a Wikidata workshop.

He hopes by then after his nomadic year in tents and borrowed beds he'll have a full-time job to settle into and can unpack the car boot.

Read more:

Auckland Museum taking Wikipedia by storm

New Zealand's own Wikipedian-at-large

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