Opening up the open source community

As Wikipedia faces a decline in contributors, engineering community manager Sumana Harihareswara works to make the organization a more welcoming place.
Written by Audrey Quinn, Contributor

“No, that is not okay,” Sumana Harihareswara tells me, her face losing its smile for the first time since we met.

I've mentioned the reported decline in Wikipedia contributors, and wondered out loud whether the organization sees the dip as an acceptable price to pay for heightening the standards for content contributions to its open source encyclopedia. “Our No. 1 strategic priority, as a movement,” she continues, tapping the table for emphasis, “is to increase contributorship."

We're at Il Bambino in Astoria, Queens. The cafe sits on a bustling street a few blocks from the apartment Harihareswara shares with her husband, another technologist. Harihareswara works from home as the engineering community manager for the Wikimedia Foundation, the group behind Wikipedia.

Wikipedia lives and breathes largely through volunteer-contributed information and insight, Harihareswara explains between alternating sips of orange juice and coffee. Appropriately, that content exists on an open platform of publicly contributed computer code. It's Harihareswara's job to ensure Wikipedia's community of engineers, about half of whom code as volunteers, find satisfaction. Happy coders mean better code that translates into easier edits and modifications to encyclopedia entries, which she hopes will facilitate a resurgence of contributions.

We've come to the cafe at 11:30 on a Monday morning, that odd time of day in restaurants when lunch food preparations have begun in the absence of diners ready to consume them. Harihareswara and I make up the only occupied table in the narrow dining room, with our glasses of orange juice and Harihareswara's coffee in a traveler cup she's brought along. "Open Source Bridge," it reads in white, a souvenir from last year's conference, where she delivered the keynote address.

Harihareswara gazes into the corner of the restaurant as she tells me of her concern that new content contributors may sometimes feel unwelcome when their additions to Wikipedia are retracted without explanation. Oftentimes, she says, this happens because people supply information that lacks a citation. She hopes to address that problem through better coding.

"If we can make the software friendlier," Harihareswara explains, "so that the defaults are friendly, we can make it easier to say nice things."

For example, she's working with the Wikipedia engineering team to create code that by default prompts the person initiating a retraction to notify the previous contributor that their addition lacked the proper citation.

Our waiter comes over, apologetic for the interruption. He wants to make sure we weren't waiting to order food.

“I appreciate that,” Harihareswara assures him. She inquires about the soup of the day (Tuscan white bean), and promises to order a bowl to go on her way out.

As a freshman at UC Berkeley in California, Harihareswara first learned about open source technology from fellow classmates and was immediately attracted to its ideology of sharing and altruism.

“Another appeal of open source is when you see a problem, you can fix it,” she adds, looking off again into the back corner of the restaurant. “And how many times in our lives have we seen a problem where we were prevented from fixing it by nonsense?” She faces me again, “In open source you can fix the problem. I love that empowerment.”

Harihareswara says many people voluntarily contribute to open source platforms to do just that: gain the satisfaction of fixing something they saw as broken. Some volunteer coders, Harihareswara adds, also contribute to gain recognition and affirmation of their skills.

“If you show up and you want to learn, you'll have a place in this community,” she says, underscoring her pride in the group's open-armed inclusion of women and minorities. “We don't put up with inhospitable nonsense,” Harihareswara pinches her fingers together, “around people's gender or sexual orientation or gender identity. We don't.”

“Code is law,” she tells me flatly. I tell her I don't follow, and she explains. “The idea is when you are making a place, if you want to affect how people act in a physical place, then you might change the architecture of that place. And similarly with code, when you are architecting what people can and cannot do [in a software application], you can empower people with what is possible.”

By directing what people can do on the website, the software code can influence the overall behavior of Wikipedia contributors.

Harihareswara sips her orange juice and continues. “The volunteers and the staff have all been working on the code side of the social problems. Like talking to experienced editors and finding out, 'Alright, what are the problems that are keeping you from being friendly to new editors?' And saying, 'Ok let's fix that.' ”

The inclusiveness of Wikipedia also contributes to its credibility as an encyclopedia. “I can appreciate,” she says with her chin propped up by her fist, “that people might worry that open source means anything goes. But that's not the case.” She points to the site's strict requirements for citing sources, and the fact that anyone who sees an error in the content can immediately address it by clicking the “edit” button in the upper right corner of every entry.

“We trust you,” Harihareswara adds. “We empower you with the ability to edit, to upload a photo, to proofread a page. You are empowered to hit that button, to then hit save, and to have an effect on hundreds of millions of people worldwide instantly. And if you like fixing problems, if you like improving things just because you like making things better, then we are the best place in the world to do that. Because everyone can help you and you can help everyone.”

“That must be really satisfying,” I comment.

“Yeah,” she says, shaking her head as if amazed by her good fortune, “Oh gosh, yeah.”

Photo: Guillaume Paumier / Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-3.0

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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