Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Monmouth becomes the world's first Wiki Town

My weekend was spent with a crowd of Wikipedia enthusiasts enjoying the smart town of Monmouth. It enjoys a long history from being the site of what may be the earliest Roman fort in Wales (Blestium), a 10th century Norman castle and the birth place of King Henry V. It has become even smarter as the town Council decided to become the first town in Wales to roll out free wifi, and at the same time ensure there is relevant and fun open knowledge content about their town by partnering with Wikimedia UK to establish a world wide volunteer network (my buzzword is "e-volunteers") to write interesting Wikipedia articles about everything of interest in many, many languages.

Around the town, most visible in shop windows and public information and direction signs, there are beautifully made plaques with a name of an attraction and a two dimensional bar code. These can be scanned by anyone with a smart phone or tablet using applications like Google Goggles to whisk them off to a Wikipedia article about the relevant cultural attraction or profession. The really clever bit, is that if your mobile device uses a non-English language (such as Welsh, Spanish or Hungarian) then you are automatically directed to an article in your device's preferred language by the free QRpedia service. In terms of tourism, this last bit is very interesting indeed. Rather than the Council or Tourist Board going to the lavish expense of making brochures in many languages to help a non-English or non-Welsh speaking visitor enjoy the history of the area, they can now rely on  volunteers around the planet collaborating in making engaging and constantly updated information. For me, even more exciting is that some of those tourists will update the articles (or photographs) in their own language, while on holiday, as part of their own exploration of Welsh culture and history.

On Saturday morning I had fun working with other Wikipedians to meet various members of the public in Monmouth Library. The Library (who happen to be located in a delightful restored historic building) have quietly have got on with their experiment of adding QRcodes to books and the tops of shelves so that the public can use their mobile devices to read Wikipedia articles on author biographies and topic areas (such as the history of Monmouthshire). While I was there John Cummings (our Wikimedia "ambassador" for Monmouth) was demonstrating to the librarians how to use a mobile application to use global positioning to overlay the world around you with pointers to Wikipedia articles and images.
Monmouth Library outreach session. CC-BY-SA Rock Drum

The afternoon had a similar event in Monmouth Museum though I had to drag myself away to take part in the more ceremonial side of things going on at the historic Shire Hall, where in my role as the Wikimedia UK Chair, I got to meet a couple of the local councillors (Stuart and Giles), the Mayor (Gerry, I noted that the position of Monmouth mayor has lasted for 750 years, quite a responsibility) and the lovely boys and girls who happen to have fun managing the libraries, museums and cultural heritage of the area. As we always seem to discover when us Wikimedians get a chance to chat with GLAM professionals (that's jargon for Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums), we share the same values and mission to deliver free and open access to the world's knowledge. After a signing ceremony and posing for the cameras, I got to have some quiet chats to swap our stories and enthusiasm over cheese and biscuits. [You can see some videos from the event at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Monmouthpedia_Day]

Dr Old, who has been part of running the Regimental Museum for the last two decades, filled me in on being a new convert, after one of our experienced ambassadors (Harry) had spent the previous afternoon helping their volunteers put up their first QRcodes inside the exhibition, making it "mobile interactive" for the first time, along with an in-house training session answering their questions about how to edit and improve Wikipedia articles for themselves. I mentioned our programme over the coming year for World War I and II history and how important it is for archives that exist in Regimental Museums such as his are, as a treasure trove of future digitisation which will enable those in other countries with a family connection or interest in these events to research and discover new things for the first time via the internet. 

Another enthusiast was Linda Tomos (director of CyMAL - Museums Archives and Libraries Wales, part of the Welsh Assembly Government), who has responsibility for Welsh cultural programme and funding. She was interested to hear about our progress inside the British Library and The National Archives, and she had some lovely case studies to consider on how open knowledge principles should apply to her projects of 3D digitisation of Welsh historic artefacts and the mapping and documentation of preserved historic buildings. As Linda is heavily involved in the funding side, I suggested we work together on promoting a set of shared values for the access, preservation and openness that might become expected criteria for funding of public projects. It's the sort of thing our on-wiki collaboration works well with, so I have knocked up a stub at Open Knowledge manifesto for Wales for everyone interested to help with creating.

Back home in leafy London, on Monday I was called by a journalist I bumped into on Saturday asking for a chat in Bush House. My radio interview about Monmouthpedia was put out on the 22nd on the BBC World Service, World Update programme. Considering the massive international press interest in Monmouth becoming the first Wiki Town, it will be fascinating to find out who gets to be the first Wiki City, Wiki State or Wiki Country. I will be happy to volunteer to help with the judging panel, just remember that I'm an unpaid volunteer so someone better offer me a cup of tea and a biscuit. :-)