Recently I wrote about Internet-in-a-Box, an educational computer that provides offline access to a wealth of content, including Wikipedia, for students, teachers, and others who don't have reliable internet access. An integral piece of the project is Kiwix, which brings the richness of web content to areas of the world not served by broadband. In Kiwix's words: "Kiwix is an offline solution that allows you to access educational content like Wikipedia, the Wiktionary, TED talks, and many others on any computer or smartphone—without the need for a live internet connection."
I had the opportunity to speak with Emmanuel Engelhart, who, with Renaud Gaudin, developed Kiwix and released it in 2007. We talked about how the project got started and what lies ahead; our interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Don Watkins: How did you get started in open source?
Emmanuel Engelhart: I'm a French software engineer; I studied in Paris but have been working mostly in Germany and Switzerland as a freelancer. I started to deal with free and open source software (FOSS) at the University, fairly late compared to others. I was lucky to have a few mentors and friends to lead me in programming before the university, but not lucky enough to get introduced to FOSS. Most of the workstations at my university had NetBSD. A few months later, I was presented with GNU/Linux. I then switched to Debian and later to Ubuntu.
DW: I read that you consider access to information a basic human right, much like access to water. Why is that so?
EE: Each human should be concretely free to choose his own path in life. To achieve this, most of them need first to emancipate themselves from external and cultural powers. This is what knowledge and education are for.
DW: Why were you interested in offline content in an age of broadband? Why did you launch the Kiwix project?
EE: I first joined the Wikimedia movement [in 2004] as a regular editor. After a few years, it became clear to me that the project had become sustainable, and I started to wonder if I could do something more valuable for it using my core skills, i.e. software programming.
At that time in France, broadband access was not [in widespread use], in particular in the countryside, where I'm from. A few projects had already failed to bring Wikipedia on CD/DVD, and I thought [offline Wikipedia] could be something useful and doable. This is how I started. As far as I remember, I did not have strong global thoughts about poverty, the digital divide, and censorship at that time.
Fun fact: Renaud, the co-founder of Kiwix, had pretty different reasons to start a Wikipedia offline project. He was living in Mali at the time and still is. Without knowing each other, we started in parallel, almost similar solutions, at the same time, and using the same technologies. We merged our projects shortly afterward, after meeting at FOSDEM.
DW: What kinds of content, in addition to Wikipedia, are offered by Kiwix?
EE: Kiwix is an offline reader for static web content. While it's true that Wikipedia offline is our flagship product, we offer a lot more content, for instance:
- The full Project Gutenberg library (public domain books)
- All the other Wikimedia projects: Wiktionary, Wikiquote, Wikibooks, Wikiversity, Wikisource, Wikivoyage, etc.
- Other Mediawiki-based free wikis, like the Vikidia encyclopedia for kids
- Many YouTube-based channels, but also TED, TEDMed, and a few TEDx videos
- Interactive science simulations by PhET
- All the Stack Exchange websites
And, there are a few other things. We have a permanent pipeline of new websites we want to provide offline.
DW: What are the next steps for the project?
EE: The first software we wrote was the kiwix-desktop for Linux/Windows and OS X. But this software is now 10 years old and we need to revamp it.
We've also decided to focus on improving usability, in particular with mobile. That means a lot of efforts on the Kiwix side, but it's also leading us to repackage content in smaller chunks, as well as to start thinking about incremental updates.
That said, our main challenge at this point is not on the tech side. We are mostly supported by the Wikimedia movement, and Wikimedia Switzerland, in particular. As our audience keeps on growing (we had more than a million downloads last year), we need to grow and diversify our sources of funding in order to keep the project sustainable.
DW: What operating systems are supported?
EE: We officially support Android, Windows, GNU/Linux, macOS, and iOS. We also just released extensions for Firefox and Chrome. Plus, Windows mobile is in the pipe and will be released this summer.
A lot of our users access Kiwix on Android through our custom apps, which are bits of specialized content (as opposed to the whole Wikipedia, for instance). The most famous of them is our medical encyclopedia, WikiMed, which is used on a regular basis by approximately 100,000 doctors, students, and health workers. Access to up-to-date medical content (books or professional resources) seems pretty easy here in rich Switzerland, but 80% of our users are in the [Southern Hemisphere], and for them, this makes a huge difference.
DW: Where does the code reside and how is it licensed?
EE: All the code we produce is available on GitHub, but we also participate indirectly to other FOSS projects. Most of the code is GPL, with a few exceptions.
DW: How can someone get involved?
EE: For developers, the easiest entry points are either Kiwix or openZim on GitHub. We also really need skilled and motivated people in web design, communications, and fundraising. Anyone motivated should get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.