Imagine you want to look at a picture of the old souq in Abu Dhabi. Or find information about the 18th-century Ras Al Khaimah poet Salma. Or find out what year the UK withdrew from the UAE. Chances are you'd end up on Wikipedia, but you'd only be in luck for one of those three queries. (The UK left in 1971, right before the Federation of the Emirates.)
The UAE is under-represented on Wikipedia compared to other countries of its size, and on April 1 of this year, a group of volunteer Wikipedia editors launched the Wiki Loves Emirates campaign to drum up images for the UAE’s Wikipedia pages.
The leader of the campaign is Saqib Qayyum, a 28-year-old Pakistani who divides his time between Dubai, where his family is based, and his work with an oil company in Russia. Qayyum previously organised the Pakistani contribution to four of the Wiki Loves Monuments campaigns, through which a whopping 26,000 images of Pakistani monuments were added. At the start of May, Abu Dhabi is hosting its first Wiki edit-a-thon, addressing #WikiGap – the fact that there are four times more pages about men than women – and ensuring UAE women are as represented as UAE men.
Wikipedia is famous among internet entities – depending on how you look at it. It is either in the global top five of the most visited pages or among the top 10 – for the way it has held on to the commitment to free information and crowd-sourced knowledge that marked the early days of the web. They've resisted the temptation to make money (Wikipedia's founder, Jimmy Wales, is known as the only internet non-billionaire) and have focused on non-profit initiatives such as Wikimedia that help grow the community of researchers.
As Facebook's ethos of connecting the world has come under scrutiny, Wikipedia's model of being policed by volunteers – whether contributors, fact-checkers or editors – has continued to function remarkably well. (Perhaps inevitably, the most comprehensive information source on Wikipedia's reliability is on Wikipedia itself.)
At the same time, its content reflects the biases – or, more basically, interests – of its contributors. According to Wikipedia, most volunteers are men, either in their mid-20s or retired, while women make up between 10 and 20 per cent. Although the relation between the gender of the writer and the subject is not direct, this might be another reason you will not be able to find information on the Ras Al Khaimah poet Salma, daughter of Al Majedi bin Dhaher.
Wikipedia also tends to skew towards power centres: people from English-speaking countries are the most represented, alongside those from western Europe, and then a smattering of engaged countries, such as Russia, India, Brazil, the Philippines and Lebanon.
In keeping with the democratic spirit of Wikipedia, over the past few years groups have been hosting editing marathons to redress gaps and imbalances in coverage, often all-day and even all-night affairs, fuelled by coffee and camaraderie, when volunteers come together to enter neglected figures, movements, and facts into the internet's consciousness. The longest took place in 2016 at the Museo Soumaya in Mexico City, where Wikimedia Mexico and museum volunteers added information about artists to Spanish-language Wikipedia for 72 hours solid. This was certified as a Guinness World Record.
As in other forms of grassroots activism, the events foster a sense of social solidarity and responsibility. The US organisation Art + Feminism's fifth annual Wikipedia marathon, held this year at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, involved free childcare. Many events, such as Black Life Matters, organised by the Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture, in New York, also teach volunteers editing and digital literacy.
Other marathons have emerged as part of museums' educational outreach components. The multi-part, multi-venue exhibition and research project Pacific Standard Time, funded by the Getty in Los Angeles to look at LA's art history, hosted a marathon in November 2017 to increase the representation of Latin American filmmakers on Wikipedia. In essence, these are a fast-paced, crowd-sourced version of the global redressing of cultural history that has been taking place since the 1960s, when postcolonialism, feminism, and other advocates began to challenge the privilege of western white males. In May, a marathon for #WikiGap comes to the UAE, in an initiative of Wikimedia – the non-profit arm that oversees Wikipedia and its affiliates – and the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On International Women's Day, March 8, Swedish embassies held Wiki marathons, in which volunteers created and edited pages on key women from each country. Abu Dhabi's will run in early with the support of UN Women – the UN's gender-equality task force – and Abu Dhabi's General Women's Union. So far, Sweden's #WikiGap initiative has edited 2420 articles and added about 450.
Qayyum has been a volunteer editor of Wikipedia since 2012. He has edited more than 1,000 pages on Pakistani politicians, and has won four scholarships from Wikimedia. "I try to spend two to three – sometimes four – hours a day" on Wikipedia, he says. "It has become part of my life. If I don't do Wikipedia one day, it feels like something is missing."
Qayyum is married with a child and says that his wife asks why he spends so much time on the encyclopedia website. “Sometimes she asks, yes. But Wikipedia provides free, unbiased information to everyone,” he says, in a spirit of explanation (he might have noted my sympathies with his wife). “It feels good when you contribute to an institution that gives knowledge to so many people around the world and doesn’t ask for anything back.”
Now two weeks in, the Wiki Loves Emirates campaign has collected almost 700 photographs: images of traditional architecture, the sea, cityscapes (particularly by night), sand dunes and the occasional oil rig. Qayyum notes, however, that some of these will have to be returned because of a statute called "freedom of panorama," by which images of modern buildings – which for the UAE means most structures, including such iconic ones as the Burj Khalifa, the Burj Al Arab and Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – are subject to copyright, although they are in public space.
Freedom of panorama is a little-known and little understood restriction on image usage. It rests on the fact that in situations where a structure's architecture or design is still under copyright, it is illegal to publish images of it without express permission from the owner. In France, for example, where there is no freedom of panorama, this means one cannot publish images of the Eiffel Tower at night. Although the architecture of the building is in the public domain, as Wales wrote in a 2015 article in the Guardian, the "illumination of the Eiffel Tower is considered to be a separate artistic installation".
Most photographers, social media users and even media outlets take and post images of modern buildings in the UAE without running afoul of the law. But Wikipedia has stringent rules to accept only images that have been taken by the user, ones for which there is a free licence or for which permission has been secured.
This matters because Wikipedia has emerged as the go-to encyclopedia for most internet users, meaning the copyright distinction greatly affects the representation of the country. For, say, the Burj Al Arab to be legally pictured, permission would have to be secured from the legal team of the Jumeirah Group – hardly an easy task for an everyday punter.
Although many of the images will be taken down at the end of the campaign, you can catch them on the UAE Wikimedia page for the meantime, or you can sign up to contribute.
The #WikiGap Abu Dhabi edit-a-thon will take place in early May at the General Women's Union in Abu Dhabi. The Wiki Loves Emirates campaign runs until April 30