Wikipedia to be run from French village

12th February 2007, Comments 0 comments

MALINTRAT, France, Feb 11, 2007 (AFP) - Far from the power-broking of Silicon Valley, the new boss of the Internet giant Wikipedia is a soft-spoken French mother of three, who runs the global success story from a home office in a village in central France.

MALINTRAT, France, Feb 11, 2007 (AFP) - Far from the power-broking of Silicon Valley, the new boss of the Internet giant Wikipedia is a soft-spoken French mother of three, who runs the global success story from a home office in a village in central France.

Florence Devouard, 38, an agronomist by training who took on the top job at Wikipedia last October, first came across the user-written online encyclopaedia in 2001, when it was still a fledgling.

"What got me hooked was the idea of being able to write articles that left nothing out," she explained from her home in Malintrat, a village of 900 souls outside the city of Clermont Ferrand -- a region better known for its extinct volcanoes and pure spring water than its Internet start-ups.

She started editing entries on genetically-modified organisms -- her field of expertise -- and was gradually drawn into Wikipedia's community of volunteer editors, who complete and correct each other's entries.

"At that point there were just a handful of us. We had to create the whole site architecture. Pretty soon I started focusing on internal organisation rather than writing articles," Devouard said.

Three years on -- having made a name as a bridge-builder between the project's French- and English-speaking communities -- she was elected to the board of the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit body that operates Wikipedia.

Last summer it was agreed she would step into the shoes of Wikipedia's founder, the US Internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales, as chair of the board.

"What Jimmy Wales does best is public relations -- he just didn't have the time to look after the executive side of things as well," she explained.

On extended maternity leave from a job developing tools for sustainable agriculture, she took on the volunteer role -- which she says demands the energy of a full-time job -- until July 2008.

"My job is to help 'professionalise' the project, and at the same time act as custodian of the Wikipedia community's founding principles."

With six million articles and counting, in 249 languages from English and Arabic to Tagalog or Wolof, Wikipedia is used each month by more than 100 million people and was last month voted one of the world's five most influential brands.

Since its launch in 2001, it has become a powerful symbol of a new generation of Internet service based on collaboration and information sharing -- referred to collectively by the tag Web 2.0.

"We're part of Web 2.0 -- we're an example of it -- but most Web 2.0 projects are commercial. We don't operate in the same sphere at all," Devouard said.

Internet giant or no Internet giant, in many respects Wikipedia -- which neither charges its users nor takes advertising -- is run on a shoe-string.

The Wikimedia Foundation's task is to work out ground rules and editorial policy as Wikipedia expands and -- crucially -- raise funds to pay for IT investments and development projects.

"On January 15 we raised a million dollars, but ideally we need three times that" to cover the cost of new servers, Devouard said.

"As far as possible, we operate on a bottom-up principle. If an editor tells us we need to add a new software function, we go away and look at what's possible. But we also impose some things, like regular calls for donations."  

Beyond pure IT costs, the foundation would also like to send out copies of the encyclopaedia on CD for people without web access, or make it accessible to the visually-impaired -- all impossible without extra funds.

So Devouard is experimenting with new economic models -- such as matching user donations with corporate funds -- but must tread carefully to avoid upsetting editors fiercely attached to their independence.

She admits laughingly to the challenge of juggling school runs and nappy-changing with high-level web strategy: "It's quite simple, I spend all my time running around."

"But that's just life: there are millions of women who have children and who work. It's wonderful when you have young children to be able to watch them grow up -- and a whole lot more interesting than a 12-hour day in a city office."

"France has the highest birth rate in Europe -- we have to find some kind of solution!"

Once the children are in bed, she flips open her laptop and links up via Internet chat with the other board members -- three in the United States, two in the Netherlands and one in Germany.

"I work mainly in the evening and part of the night. Fortunately I don't need a lot of sleep, and that's when most of the Wikipedia community is online." Every six to eight weeks the board gathers in a European or American city for a face-to-face meeting.

She admits Malintrat is a far cry from Microsoft's leafy corporate campus in Redmond, Washington, but then, she says, Wikipedia is also "another world" from its big business counterparts.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news, IT, Wikipedia

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