Abstract Wikipedia/Updates/2020-09-30

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Abstract Wikipedia will be a long journey, and I expect the project to shift and pivot over time. Our ultimate goal is clear: a system that allows more people to share more knowledge with more people, across languages. And we have an idea which path we are going to take.

Runa Bhattacharjee, the lead of the WMF’s language team made the suggestion to keep a journal or blog of our journey, and I will try to follow the suggestion. The posts will be personal, reflective, aspirational, trying to capture unfinished thoughts. Maybe we’ll have guest posts. These might, over time, morph into more structured weekly updates. We see how it goes.

I also will try to not have the posts be too long and meandering, which is particularly hard in the beginning, when there is so much still undiscussed. I constantly feel like I want to say more about everything in here, but I will try to keep these posts succinct, and will come back to many of the topics later. If there is anything you are particularly interested in, let me know!

So, how have our first three months been? We are a small team, so the code base development is going on slowly. The advantage of things moving slowly is that we have the time to think through different options, and to socialize the idea of what we are doing more widely with the communities, with the many related teams, and others. I have been busy with writing documents, getting settled into a new job, and giving presentations to a wide number of stakeholders.

At the same time, I was trying to read up the discussions on the mailing list and the wiki, and follow up on what the enthusiastic community is doing. We had a volunteer, ZI Jony, create Facebook pages and Telegram chats and IRC channels and more pages on-wiki, and it was all great to watch. It looks like we as a community are figuring out our communication channels, and it’s looking like a great start: in July, our mailing list has been the most active public mailing list across the whole movement.

Things have cooled down since then, but community members are busily working on gathering the state of the art in natural language generation and other tasks – thanks for the volunteering effort by GrounderUK, Chris Cooley, and Adam Sobieski for their contributions. Nick has caught up on the ongoing conversations and existing documents, these will be the crucial link between the development team and the communities. He has now started and is leading the vote for the name of the wiki of functions – the first voting round started yesterday, spread the word and join the voting! So far, more than 150 proposals have been collected, displaying the amazing creativity of our community.

Adam has been invaluable in helping me navigate the Foundation, and setting up meetings with people inside the Foundation. There are so many teams whose work will be paramount to the success of Abstract Wikipedia, and we are starting to have some of the meetings. Be it legal, be it comms, be it the community relation experts, be it partnerships, be it the language team, be it site reliability engineering, design, security, performance, analytics, or one of the many other teams we are working with – a project like Abstract Wikipedia obviously doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but in the context of a larger organization, which in turn is embedded in an even larger movement. And in fact, this is the only way such a project even has a shot at succeeding. Adam is also leading to find our first new hire and has posted the job description for a full-stack software engineer. We hope for more positions opening soon.

Screenshot of Arthur's patch.

Regarding our code base, James has been turning requirements and vague wishes into architecture and code. Thanks to James’s in-depth knowledge of the MediaWiki code base, he was able to set up the WikiLambda extension and build a solid foundation for further development quickly. We have defined eleven phases to take us to the launch of the wiki of functions, and so far we have finished the first one, phase α, which allows us to store objects in MediaWiki. Phase β is currently in full swing, and allows for the objects to be typed and types to be created. We are also very thankful to Arthur P. Smith, a volunteer, who has created frontend components in Vue that provide a first version of an editing interface. His first patch landed last week. Arthur is also joining our daily stand-up meetings once a week. If you want to help with development, please reach out. A screenshot of Arthur’s results is on the right – and also a demo system, set up by Lucas Werkmeister (in his volunteer capacity), is up and running. Lucas and Arthur, you're awesome!

There are currently so many ideas floating and being discussed and so many wishes and hopes being projected onto Abstract Wikipedia, that it is almost a given that we will disappoint some of those. Apologies for that. I as well have great expectations as to where the project will lead to, and when I allow myself to dream, I imagine that this will be groundbreaking and change fundamentally not only the way Wikipedia works, but have impact well beyond that. But then I remind myself that projects like these have a terrible history of failing, and I plan to get to some of these failures in the following posts. And what we can learn from them.

I am extremely grateful for the very warm welcome to the project by the communities. Now, one of the steps for us is to manage expectations. First, we are a very small, exploratory project – so don’t expect us to launch a wiki next week. Or next month. Next year? That’s our current plan. Also, even when we launch, we will launch with a very minimal project. There won’t be any integration into local Wikipedias yet. There won’t be any support for natural language generation (that is planned for 2022, if all goes well). And in fact, I am afraid, it will be even confusing, because we’re starting with a wiki for the collaborative curation of a catalog of functions, and there might well be the question, why are we doing this and not focusing on the generation of text for the local Wikipedias? And what is a function anyway and why do we need a catalog of these? I will come back to this in future posts. You can see our current best attempt at a clear and concise explanation of functions at the main project page.

I want to end each post with a list of things that can be done right now, things as actionable as possible. Feel free to send suggestions my way. So, some things to do at this point in time:

  1. Vote in the first round of the Wiki of function naming contests (new proposals are also still allowed).
    The first vote ends October 13.
  2. Work on lexicographic knowledge in Wikidata. I will come to how central this is in later posts, but this will be needed for Abstract Wikipedia to succeed and can be worked on right now.

Cheers,

Denny