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There Are 23 Indian-Language Wikipedias. The Oldest Just Turned 15.

Screenshot of Odia Wikipedia page.

While the Odia Wikipedia community has made great strides, translating it to a digital language of knowledge will require solving technical challenges and enlisting a more diverse set of contributors and editors.

The Odia-language Wikipedia celebrated its 15th birthday on June 3, 2017. It was created in 2002, just a year after the official English Wikipedia, which was the first-ever Wikipedia to go live. Odia, one of the three oldest languages of the Indian sub-continent, has yet to find itself on Google Translate. Yet it is the oldest of the Indian-language Wikipedias.

June 3, 2002 marked the first ever edit in the Odia language by an anonymous editor. The Assamese, Malayalam and Punjabi Wikipedias were born later the same year. Today, there are 23 Indian-language Wikipedias, the latest entrant to the family being Tulu.

The Odia Wikipedia is a compendium of 12,619 encyclopaedic articles written by a handful of volunteer editors who are also known as uikialis (Odia for Wikipedian or Wikipedia editor). Though the project is 15 years old, it was dormant for about nine years, until a couple of editors started actively contributing and building a community around it in 2011. Slowly these editors reached out to more people, and the content expanded to include more subject areas when subject experts started contributing items relating to their expertise.

Odia Wikipedia stats. CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons.

The selection of articles currently on Odia Wikipedia reflect both of the existing types of editor and the categories of contributor who are yet to participate in the Wikipedia process. For instance, while there are over 350 articles on topics related to medicine, there are only two related to feminism. The reason for that is both simple and tragic: Wikipedians usually contribute in areas they are either interested in or experts on. Therefore, while a veteran doctor and assistant professor of a medical school has translated hundreds of medically-related articles, there are not many editors to do the same for the articles about feminism or other gender-related issues. This is an issue that needs to be rectified as the Odia Wikipedia continues on its journey.

For after all, not all editors are necessarily subject experts. Wikipedians like Pritiranjan Tripathy, who has contributed the largest number of biographical articles, or Sangram Kesari Senapati, who has written several articles on Indian movies, contribute on topics they are personally interested in.

The Odia contributor community has also worked on launching two other Wikimedia projects: the Odia Wikisource, an online library of freely-licensed books; and Odia Wiktionary, a dictionary pairing Odia words with their equivalents in other languages. Though the community for these projects is still small, there is a wide array of people of all professions, most importantly open source software developers.

This has helped the community build many tools for their own use which are also used by the wider society. One of them is a converter that converts text typed in legacy encoding systems into Unicode, a universal and contemporary alphabet encoding standard. There are hundreds and thousands of pages of text encoded in multiple non-standard legacy systems both currently and in the recent past by writers, journalists and media houses, which are not searchable on the Internet nor reproducible in their original form. The converter, along the other software tools developed by the Wikipedia community, have been released under open licenses, along with their source code. Many of the tools were also built in collaboration with international and other Indian-language open source contributors. These tools have transformed the state of languages on the web.

When the total number of Odia Wikipedia editors has crossed 40 in March this year, the average for last year and this year has been a little over 27. By March this year, the project had more than 342,546 views a month. When the number of active editors has increased, the total number of visitors from altogether from desktop, mobile app and mobile site has reduced from 674,100 in June last year (this was an exceptionally high peak though) to about 292,700 this year. This could be something to consider as a parameter while promoting the project. The community is already collaborating with media houses for both content development and promotion, and more such effort might increase the visibility of the project.

While all of these contributions are helping tremendously to grow the Odia language on the Internet, there is a lot more to be done to make Odia not just a language of literature, but also a language of governance, knowledge and scientific research. Srujanika, a collective working on scientific and other kinds of research, has been building a science dictionary and digitising many early publications. Their work could benefit from greater support to make it more accessible, so that others can build further resources on the top of existing scientific literature. There also exists no solid consensus on transliteration (which exists in many other languages) of loan words like scientific and technical terminology in general, and from domains like medicine in particular. There is nevertheless groundbreaking work being done by the FUEL project on creating a style guide for standardising terminology, but this needs wider consensus.

Globally, there are 285 active Wikipedias in diverse world languages, each of which are visited each day by millions of viewers. The Wikimedia India chapter, Access to Knowledge (CIS-A2K) at the Centre for Internet and Society, Punjabi Wikimedians, West Bengal Wikimedians User Group, and Karavali Wikimedians have been designated movement affiliates, operating within an institutional framework and managed by either volunteers or paid professionals, or a combination of the two.

But working outside these collectives are few thousand volunteers that have been continuously driving the open movement in their native languages. Just like any other Wikipedia, Odia Wikipedia is an eternal work in progress, and will continue to mature. Here’s to the next 15 years.

A version of this article was previously published in The Wire.

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