Some dudes chat on cell phones in Kenya, where Wikipedia saw 87.7 percent growth in mobile pageviews after partnering with a local carrier to offer the site for free. Image: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images
Even as we all love to debate the scholarly merits of Wikipedia, there's no denying that it's an immensely powerful research and learning tool. That goes doubly so in poor nations, where access to education materials can be limited to nonexistent.
To that end, Wikimedia started the Wikipedia Zero project, which aims to partner with mobile service providers to bring Wikipedia to poor regions free of charge. It's a killer strategy, because while computer and internet access is still fleeting for much of the world, cell phones are far more ubiquitous. Wikimedia claims that four mobile partnerships signed since 2012 brings free Wiki service to 330 million cell subscribers in 35 countries, a huge boon for folks whose phones have web capability but who can't afford data charges.
But because feature phones (like Nokia's new $20 phone, which could be huge in the developing world) are still the most ubiquitous in developing countries, Wikimedia has announced it expects to roll out a service that delivers articles via SMS or USSD messages within the next few months. The system is set up so that users can text a request to Wikipedia and receive the article in return. We'll see how exactly that shakes out–Will texts first list out sections, or can users expect to get scores of texts to complete an article? Will users be charged for receiving texts?–when Wikimedia's text service comes out.
It's got huge potential. As Wikimedia mobile head Kul Takanao Wadhwa writes:
Eighty percent of all new mobile phone subscribers are in developing countries, according to the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union. For now, of the 25 countries that have the highest rate of mobile traffic on Wikipedia, 22 are developing countries. The top eight countries are all in Africa.
Wikipedia Mobile got a huge push in the form of a $600,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, which will help fund Wikimedia's foray into text delivery among other efforts. It's cool work, and whatever you think of Wikipedia in academia, it's got a lot of potential for classrooms worldwide. On a broader note, it's fascinating to see someone harness the distributed power of cell phones in a way that doesn't rely on data plans and smartphone tech.