User:Deryck Chan/2019/Christopherson scholarship report

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This is a scholarship report submitted to the Christopherson Scholarship board of Magdalene College, Cambridge. It is posted here for Wikimaniacs' consumption.

Sweden called again, two decades apart[edit | edit source]

When I was a toddler, a foreign family visited my dad in Hong Kong a few times and occasionally stayed in our home. They spoke English but had names that were odd by English standards. They had bright blonde hair and hailed from a foreign land called Sweden, from an oddly named place called “Noor-shur-ping” (I would learn, almost two decades later, that it’s spelt “Norrköping”, because Swedish). They were my first contact with Scandinavian culture.

When the Wikimania conference announced that it would be held in Stockholm in 2019 with the theme “Wikimedia and the Sustainable Development Goals”, I saw a golden opportunity. My participation would tie together my research interest in civil engineering and my volunteer interest in Wikipedia, and the location of the conference would give me a chance to visit the family who shaped my family’s understanding of Scandinavia.

Finding the roots of my Swedish influence[edit | edit source]

Admittedly, my prior understanding of Swedish culture came from three sources: my Swedish family friends, Ikea, and my engineering education. In this trip, I sought to get to the root of all these influences, dispel the myths, and experience the authentic Sweden. The first thing I wanted to understand was whether Ikea’s style of Swedish food was genuinely Swedish or just an Ikea invention. To my surprise, I neither ate any meatballs nor set foot in an Ikea throughout my nine days in Sweden, but I got the answer to my questions. My hosts took me to several diners where one pays a fixed price (the price seems to be 89 Krones everywhere, or about £7, across the board in southern Sweden) for a main course of meat or fish, plus an unlimited cold buffet of salads, bread, lingonberry juice and sparkling water on tap, and coffee or tea. It struck me immediately that Ikea restaurants are a mere participant in this tradition; the added twist is not that they Ikea serves bottomless drinks, but that the bottomless drinks are priced independently of the main course.

The second thing I delved into was the perception that Sweden is a strict environmentalist country. On my first day in Sweden I was surprised by the apparent lack of recycling bins. But I was looking too superficially (and when I visited my hosts’ homes, they did sort their waste thoroughly). After all, for a country that sorts their waste so well that they import their neighbours’ domestic rubbish to burn as fuel, having multiple bins in a hotel room isn’t exactly a primary issue. The environmentalism comes from a much deeper understanding of what goes where. It seems that nothing is left by the wayside (both physically and metaphorically) in Sweden. The people knew where every piece of resource came from, what is was doing, and where it will go, be it vehicles on the street, trees in a forest, or food on your plate. It is an academic engineer’s model economy, where a life-cycle understanding of everything appears to be baked into the very fabric of daily life.

As I travelled Stockholm and Norrköping, I was surprised by the blurring of boundaries between theme parks and museums, and between heritage and lifestyle. At Skansen the “open-air museum”, all staff dressed up in traditional Swedish costumes, whether they were performing folk music or selling sandwiches. Reindeer and other endemic animals roam around enclosures, surrounded by houses built in traditional architecture. In Norrköping, the local museum showed weaving machines from a century ago alongside exhibits about the decarbonisation benefits of the latest high-speed trains. To the Swedes, culture is continuous. There is no retro versus modern. Traditional heritage is always passed on as a contemporary experience.

Taking Wikimedia to the next level[edit | edit source]

I realised that this undercurrent of cultural continuity is why Sweden is the perfect host for the Wikimania conference in the year in which the global climate crisis is hitting headlines. The theme of the conference, “Wikimedia and the Sustainable Development Goals”, would bring together the heritage that we are trying to maintain, the exciting developments of 21st-century technology, and how humanity should ride over the cusp of the climate crisis, all from the angle of Wikipedia and open knowledge.

This year, I followed three tracks in Wikimania: the future of Wikimedia, language technology, and environmental sustainability. The track about the future of Wikimedia considered that Wikipedia began two decades ago and had changed the world since then. Wikipedia, and we Wikimedians who maintain this treasure-trove of knowledge, could no longer be gadflies in rooms of knowledge. We should instead take an active role in the production of knowledge around the world, and for that the Wikimedia movement would need a strategy. Many of the strategic recommendations essentially involved Wikimedia taking an active role towards the setting of international standards, from language classification to intellectual property licensing. I was able to provide my input to the decision-making process in my role as a doctoral student and a long-time Wikipedia volunteer.

I also took part in the language technology track, which discussed Wikidata’s plans to centralise information from different language editions of Wikipedia into a structured database so that the curation of factual data could be more efficient. Recent innovations included universal “infoboxes” which are easily translatable and deployable to smaller Wikipedias, helping to bring content to minority languages; and the development of Lexemes, which aims to create a multilingual dictionary in the form of a machine-readable database. As a speaker of multiple languages, I learnt about these developments with much excitement.

What set this year’s Wikimania apart from previous Wikipedia conference is that there was a dedicated conference track on environmental sustainability. I presented in this track, drawing on my recent experience of writing about civil engineering topics on Wikipedia. My doctoral studies turned me into a subject expert in civil engineering and environmental science by Wikipedia standards, a privilege I had not had since Wikipedia had professionalised its content quality a decade ago. I sat on a panel about how to cover scientific content, advocating a return to Wikipedia’s roots where we should focus on getting new, accessible scientific content to as many readers in the first instance and worry about polishing the presentation of content later. This is particularly relevant for climate change and renewable energy topics, where the general public is desperate for content but Wikipedia is falling behind the latest innovations. Scientists should feel a moral obligation to share their work in open knowledge projects like Wikipedia to help civilisation find appropriate solutions to the climate crisis.

Much needs to be done, and time is tight. The session about Wikipedia’s coverage of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s work has highlighted the urgency with which we must take action to save our planet. The chair of the environmental sustainability track of the conference moaned about how many years of work he had done in order to bring environmental activism onto the official agenda of the Wikimedia movement. But we are making progress, and we should be hopeful for as much as we make a conscious effort.

The future as surströmming[edit | edit source]

The main conference ended with a tasting session of surströmming – a Swedish fermented herring delicacy that is so pungent that it is forbidden on airplanes and ruled to be antisocial by a German court, but a Swedish tradition nevertheless. Some conference delegates found it revolting; I thought it was weird but oddly enjoyable. This opinion-dividing food session was followed by an upbeat closing keynote by the founder of Wikipedia, and then a party at the Nordic Museum lasting until midnight.

Perhaps this serves as an eerie illustration of how humanity should work together to solve the climate crisis: the solutions are initially hard to stomach, but once we bite the bullet, it’s probably quite fun. And the person who first connected my family to Swedish culture, now a semi-retired grandfather who drives a hybrid car, loves surströmming, and is a big fan of Greta Thunberg, will mostly agree.