Sharing Knowledge via Mobile Devices at the BoP

Wikimedia Foundation is a non-profit organization founded in 2003 with a mission to make information widely accessible to the global community. Many of Wikimedia’s projects, such as Wikipedia, Wiktionary, and Wikimedia Commons have become indispensable sources of user-driven, open access information around the world. The most popular of these, Wikipedia, an online crowd sourced encyclopedia, boasts more than 23 million articles in 285 languages. The Foundation has 160 employees and currently operates out of San Francisco, California.

Wikimedia has placed special emphasis on enabling consumers to access its sites through mobile technologies, and is working to break down the barriers that prevent users from reading and contributing to Wikipedia on their mobile devices. Wikimedia recognizes that as mobile phone usage surpasses PC usage in much of the world, and that a large potion of its next 500 million users will come via mobile.

Description of the business model how is it collaborative?
While the price of mobile devices continues to fall allowing for virtual mobile ubiquity in the developing world, the cost of data and slow connection speeds are major barriers to accessing Wikipedia. Wikimedia collected results from a mobile readers’ survey in 2010 and found that 21% of users listed data usage and 44% noted connection speeds as a critical barriers to accessing Wikipedia on a mobile device.

Wikipedia Zero, launched in April 2012, is an initiative of the Wikimedia Foundation that partners with mobile phone operators in developing countries to provide ‘zero-rate,’ or free, access to Wikipedia’s user-driven content through mobile devices. The project seeks to solve the cost of data and network speed barriers. Wikimedia Zero hopes that by allowing greater access to Wikipedia, it can attract new readers and contributors to Wikipedia. Wikimedia Zero is currently operational in Botswana, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Malaysia, Montenegro, Niger, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Tunisia and Uganda.

How is it sustainable?
The Wikimedia Foundation is a non-profit organization committed to offering all of its products for free, and sustains itself primarily from small reader donations at a global scale. Last year, Wikimedia’s donation campaign raised a total of $25 million in nine days. The average donation was $28 per person, which highlights the grassroots nature of Wikimedia’s reach. In January 2013, Wikipedia Zero was selected as a winner of the Knight News Challenge and received $600,000 over the next two years to develop and expand its program. The Wikimedia team expects to cover Wikipedia Zero’s operational costs through a combination of donations and grants.

What is the social impact?
Based on preliminary findings, the Wikipedia Zero team has found a significant increase in readership from mobile users in developing countries. Mobile access to Wikipedia grew 40% year-over year in 2012, while non-English mobile usage increased 66%. Wikipedia Zero is estimated to provide free access to 483 million mobile users in 12 countries around the world.

Success factors
Kul Wadhwa, the head of Mobile and Business Development at Wikimedia Foundation, attributes Wikipedia Zero’s success to thorough planning and management. Each partnership with mobile operators requires undergoing a rigorous operational procedure: the Wikimedia team supplies partners with a technical overview, clarifies the local languages used for landing page, and discusses at length the launch procedure and how to manage legal guidelines, administer software updates, run bug fixes and implement marketing strategies. Wadhwa also emphasizes the vital role user feedback plays in allowing Wikimedia to expand mobile reach through Wikipedia Zero and improve the user experience in new and different ways for contributors and readers. As an open organization committed to open source and open processes, Wikimedia believes that its commitment to transparency will enable others to benefit from and improve upon its knowledge base.

Wikipedia Zero originally spearheaded a top-level marketing approach that concentrated on forming partnerships with mobile service operators and web and mobile handset developers. Then, the team was notified that a group of South African high school students who successfully lobbied their mobile provider for free access to Wikipedia so that they could use it for their studies. Wikimedia realized that its marketing strategy needed to expand to build grassroots interest in the offering. It raised awareness of Wikipedia Zero by using its established collaborative platform to engage end-users and empower them to become ‘digital activists’ in the free knowledge movement. The Wikimedia team recently brought in marketing help to create a toolkit for community members to do their own outreach to local mobile operators. Additionally, small mobile operators in developing countries were impressed by the early results on mobile usage and viewership and contacted Wikimedia in hopes of offering Wikipedia Zero as a special service to attract new users.

Lessons learned

  • Designing collaborative applications for mobile users at the base of the pyramid requires a re-evaluation of the basic assumptions in how users access information.
  • Corporations can be incentivized to enter into partnerships with social development organizations if there are positive marketing benefits.
  • Wikipedia is successfully reaching the BOP through a top-down and bottom-up approach to marketing and distribution.
  • Social causes can leverage volunteers to build a grass-roots demand for a collaborative impact economy product or service.

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