Fascinating talk the other day by Dr Mark Graham from the Oxford Internet Institute. It covered similar ground to a post he wrote for the Guardian’s development matters blog: In a networked world, why is the geography of knowledge still uneven? He shared his slides, which we plan to combine with a recording and publish as an audio slideshow, so I wont report the whole talk [will add a link as a postscript], but here are a few of the key points, the three anecdotes he told at the end which illustrate the scale of the challenge for developing countries, plus a flavour of the discussion that followed.

Dr Mark Graham

Dr Mark Graham. Photo credit: Russell Watkins

Mark’s research gathers vast amounts of information about information – from the spread, origin and language of academic journals, to internet penetration, access and the number of articles on a topic in wikipedia. He and his team have produced some powerful visualisations which show very clearly the discrepancies between regions.

The most striking illustrations were when he mapped production of wikipedia articles about subjects, for example over 60% of the world’s population live in Asia, and they are responsible for less than 10% of the articles, while around 12% of the population live in Europe, and they are responsible for over 55% of the articles. His research has focused on the Middle East and North Africa region, and his research asked questions such as: what are the discrepancies between the geography of articles there compared to the rest of the world? do local authors comprise disproportionately fewer of the contributors to articles about the region? and asked whether the contributions of local authors were undervalued. Again, visualisations of his findings provided a powerful illustration of the unevenness of coverage.

The three anecdotes he shared were as follows:

He talked about Makmende – a fictional Kenyan superhero – who now has a wikipedia entry. This however was not the case for a long time, as fans of the character were caught in a catch 22 situation: they wrote an article, but western editors kept deleting it because there were not enough other pieces of content on the web to provide adequate citations. This story is told in more detail in The missing wikipedians by Heather Ford.

Second anecdote was about Feodor Vassilyev – who has an article in wikipedia which reports the fact that his wife may have given birth to the highest number of children. Telling here is the fact that the article is about him, his wife is only known as Mrs Vassilyev. In the 18th century when this feat was recorded, history didn’t report her name.

Finally, he told a personal anecdote, remembering a seminar in Nairobi when they were celebrating the arrival of the undersea fibre optic cable, which promises to revolutionise connectivity along the east coast of Africa. Just as the slide showing this was on screen, there was a powercut.

The discussion that followed was wideranging, and included questions about whether the differences in participation extend beyond wikipedia to other social networks eg facebook, we speculated on the reasons why people dont participate – probably beyond connectivity and access to social and others. We talked about not forgetting lessons from developed countries, the issue (another catch 22) around publishing in peer reviewed journals and the fact that there simply aren’t many in Africa, and finally about the opportunities offered in an increasingly networked Africa for what we call feedback loops – the process whereby beneficiaries are invited to record how projects are going from first hand observation and experience, both informing donors as to progress in the programmes they fund, and enabling the local community to hold their government to account.

Thanks to Mark for his talk, and to Micheal Anderson for arranging it.