Wikipedia is one of the most significant open source software projects, in part because it's a lot bigger than you may realize. And yet anyone can contribute content, and anyone can contribute code to many technical areas of the projects that work behind the curtain to keep Wikipedia running.
Over 870 Wikipedia and umbrella sites are available in different languages, and all of them operate with a common goal of “developing free educational content and disseminating it effectively and globally.” For example, Wikimedia Commons is a repository of free media files, and as of today, it has over 68 million images. Wikisource is a free library of textual sources with over 5 million articles and website subdomains active for 72 languages. Wikidata is an accessible repository of over 99 million data items used across several Wikipedia-related sites.
These projects are supported and maintained by Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organization headquartered in San Francisco. The organization also empowers hundreds of thousands of volunteers worldwide to contribute free knowledge to these projects. Behind this community of knowledge gatherers and producers, a lot of work goes into maintenance, technical support, and administrative work to keep these sites up and running. From the outside looking in, you might still wonder what more work could remain in developing Wikipedia’s software. After all, it’s one of the top ten most visited internet websites in the world, and serves its purpose well and provides access to the best possible information.
The truth is that every article on Wikipedia leverages thousands of software tools for its creation, editing, and maintenance. These are crucial steps in ensuring equitable, reliable, and fast access to information no matter where you are in the world. When you browse Wikipedia or any other Wikimedia sites, the software you interact with is called MediaWiki, a powerful collaboration and documentation software that powers the content of Wikipedia. It comes with a default set of features. To further enhance the software’s capabilities, you can install various extensions. They’re too numerous to mention, but two notable extensions are:
- VisualEditor: A WYSIWYG rich-text editor for MediaWiki-powered wikis
- Wikibase: Allows storing, managing, and accessing structured data which Wikipedia pulls from Wikidata.
All of this apparent ancillary tooling makes the modern Wikipedia, and each one is important for its functioning.
Wikimedia and Mediawiki
Overall, Wikipedia’s technology ecosystem is vast! As MediaWiki, one of the most popular software in the Wikimedia world, is available under an open source license, over four hundred thousand projects and organizations use it for hosting their content. For example, NASA uses it to organize its content around space missions and their knowledge base!
In addition, there are many other bots, tools, desktop and mobile apps that help with content access, creation, editing, and maintenance. For example, bots in particular help drastically reduce the workload of editors by automating repetitive and tedious tasks, such as fighting vandalism, suggesting articles to newcomers, fact-checking articles, and more. InternetArchiveBot is a popular bot that frequently communicates with the Wayback Machine to fix dead links on Wikipedia.
Tools are software applications that support various contributors in their work. For example, organizers can access tools for conducting editathons, running campaigns, educational courses around Wikipedia editing, and so on. As of May 2022, bots and tools contribute 36.6% of edits made to 870 Wikimedia wikis, demonstrating their significant impact on the ecosystem.
Kiwix is a well-known offline reader and a desktop application that provides access to Wikipedia in limited internet access regions, particularly in educational settings. Mobile apps for Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons allow editors to contribute articles and media files through their devices too, making our knowledge platforms accessible to a larger audience around the world.
The next time you are browsing a Wikipedia article and notice frequent changes being made to it in real-time in the wake of a recent event, you might be able to visualize better what might be happening behind the scenes.
Wikipedia’s technical community
Wikipedia was launched in 2001. It had about ten developers at that time. Since the inception of the Wikimedia Foundation in 2003, the developer pool has vastly grown over these years. About a thousand developers are now contributing to various projects within our knowledge movement. This number fluctuates yearly, depending on the number of active contributors and staff members, initiatives supporting volunteer developers, global events such as the pandemic, and so on.
Members in the technical community contribute in various ways and roles. There are code contributors, documentarians, designers, advocates, mentors, community organizers, testers, translators, site administrators, and more.
According to a survey conducted for new developers, Wikimedia draws a lot of contributors from the United States, Europe, and India like other open source projects and is growing in different regions of the world.
Volunteer developers have similar motivations as Wikipedia editors. They join as contributors to support the free knowledge mission, learn and gain new skills, improve the experience of other editors, and so on. One of the volunteer developers from India says, “While I joined as an editor, I started to familiarize myself with the tech behind Wikipedia because there were significantly fewer contributors in the Hindi Wikipedia community who could address our local language needs through technology.”
Between July 2021 and June 2022, looking only at code repositories hosted in Wikimedia’s Gerrit instance, 514 developers contributed 45,621 merged software changes to 1225 repositories. Of these contributions, 48.52% came from outside the Wikimedia Foundation by other organizations and independent developers. Some of these developers are also part of various user groups, chapters, and affiliate bodies working in different regions to promote the use and encourage contributions to Wikimedia projects. These numbers do not include the additional developers who chose to host their code externally instead, or code that is hosted directly on wiki pages, such as gadgets or modules.
Making a difference
Wikipedia is a vast repository of knowledge, available to everyone. In many ways, it’s the embodiment of the original vision of what the internet can and should be: A source of information, understanding, and collaboration.
You can be a part of Wikipedia as a contributor, either by sharing your knowledge in articles, or by helping to build the software that makes it all possible. If you’re interested in joining Wikimedia’s technical community, then explore the resources on our developer site, and learn how to get involved.