Karthik Nadar, an avid Wikipedia editor from Mumbai, fires up the official Android app of the free, crowdsourced encyclopaedia on his slick, new smartphone whenever he needs to refer to it. Though the app doesn’t support editing, he finds it an efficient way to access Wikipedia on the move. Srikanth Ramakrishnan, another prolific editor, from Coimbatore, uses the browser and 2G connection on his basic Java phone to look up Wikipedia. Long and frequent power cuts prevail in his town and the mobile phone is sometimes the only means to access the Internet. Mohammed Shahin spends most of his day on the move and finds using the Wikipedia iOS app convenient. The fifth most visited website on the Internet reached three billion monthly pageviews on mobile devices at the end of January owing to the burgeoning tribe of mobile users such as Nadar, Srikanth and Shahin.

The statistics released by the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit organisation that runs Wikipedia and sister projects, show that the number of mobile pageviews went up by 83 percent on all Wikipedias put together from over a period of one year starting from January 2012. The growth of non-mobile visits was 19 percent globally for the same period. In India, mobile pageviews went up by 57 percent compared with a 20 percent increase from non-mobile devices. What does this growth mean for Wikipedia readers and contributors, especially those living in countries where mobile access is growing and is often the only way to access the Internet for a major chunk of the population? Pushing the envelope with a freely accessible website such as Wikipedia means reaching more people and more demographies in more locations, which in turn is another step towards democratising access to knowledge and information.

Wikipedia on Mobile

Wikipedia on mobile, 2009. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Why mobile?

The continuing spurt in the number of visits can be broadly attributed to the spread of mobile networks, greater mobile penetration and access to cheaper mobile data plans.  Also, Wikipedia is becoming more “mobile-friendly” and is often the reference of choice for mobile users due to its convenience and easy availability.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Akapoor (WMF)

Mobile phones across the world have been progressively getting cheaper and mobile Internet is making headway where fixed line broadband connections haven’t. Figures published by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) show that there were 10 times as many mobile subscriptions (six billion) as broadband ones in the world in 2012. In developing countries, the mobile phone is sometimes the primary or preferred means of accessing the Internet. Mobile traffic on Wikipedia grew three times from October 2011 (one billion) to January 2013 (three billion), a period of 15 months. An interesting trend is that the increase in the percentage of traffic to non-English Wikipedias on mobile was higher than that of the English Wikipedia. Visits to 22 Indic languages from mobile devices registered staggering growth from January 2012 to January 2013. The Bishnupriya Manipuri Wikipedia, a very active regional language Wikipedia, registered 1,715 percent more pageviews. The Pali language has no native speakers, but the Pali Wikipedia saw 1,421 percent more pageviews on mobile. In comparison, pageviews from desktops showed lower growth and, in some Wikipedias, even decline. Views from desktops increased the most in the Assamese Wikipedia (85 percent); pageviews from the Telugu Wikipedia declined by 22 percent. Out of the 25 countries that had the highest ratio of mobile to overall traffic on Wikipedia, 22 belonged to the developing world, with India being ranked 20th. As mobile phones become more ubiquitous, they have turned into an important tool to bring open access to knowledge and information to those who have had limited means to access them.

Driving accessibility

Traffic on the most visited websites such as Facebook and Wikipedia has experienced a major tilt towards mobile devices. For websites attempting to reach people with access largely through mobile phones, low Internet speeds, or costly data connections, this means pruning down the website until it can be loaded on basic phones. It also means finding more ways to reach mobile users, driving discoverability. Official Wikipedia apps are available for Android, iOS, BlackBerry, Windows 8 and Windows RT. The WMF claims 40,000 device installs every day on Google Play and 10,000 on the Apple Store. A nifty feature of the apps, “Search Nearby”, identifies the user’s location and displays information about everything located or happening nearby from geo-tagged Wikipedia pages on a map. Another initiative, Wikipedia Zero, enables 330 million users in 11 countries to access Wikipedia free of cost. The programme is set to be deployed in 20 more countries.

In the offing are SMS or USSD services to search and read Wikipedia articles, a J2ME app, and an RSS feed for the “Today's featured article” or the “In the News” sections. Big and small upgrades mean Wikipedia is now more accessible to more people across the barriers of language and device: an HTML player was introduced in November 2012, guided tours now show the way to those who wish to edit. As Wikipedia aims to reach four billion mobile pageviews by June 2013 and one billion users by 2015, tech tools driving accessibility aid physical and virtual outreach efforts.    

wiki mobile and wiki app

Menu of the English Wikipedia on a mobile browser (left); Homescreen of the official Wikipedia app in beta (right)

Contributing to Wikipedia using mobile devices

Mobile access is also tied to editor recruitment and retention. Ease of access should yield more edits by more people, but the practical difficulties of editing by using a small screen, keypad and maybe a slow connection means losing current and potential editors. In the last week of January this year, features for editing were introduced in the mobile version of Wikipedia (en.m.wikipedia.org) in beta. Beta users can now log in to Wikipedia using a mobile browser, make edits, view their contributions and do almost everything they could do from a desktop computer. With the English language Wikipedia witnessing a decline in the number of editors, readers gained with greater mobile access could potentially become contributors.

The author is a Wikipedian and a member of the Wikimedia India Chapter.

Cover image: Getty Images

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