WikiAcademy Kosovo 2014 or, “This Israeli geek made a joke about hobbits. You won’t believe what happened next.”

In late February 2014 I attended WikiAcademy in Kosovo.

What do most people know about Kosovo? That it’s a place somewhere… um… they kinda heard about in the news some time ago.

What it actually is? It’s a partially recognized country, which was in the past part of Serbia and Yugoslavia. It is mostly populated by Albanians, with small minorities of Serbs, Turks and others.

The ethnic difference between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia caused many tensions. In the 1990s and 2000s the area experienced a lot of violence. NATO and much of Europe supported Kosovo’s independence, Serbia and Russia objected, and after the Kosovo war the region emerged as a de-facto independent state. Some countries recognized it and some didn’t.

Sadly, as it happens very often, what most people hear about such places is a lot of news about violence and very little stories about anything else—history, culture, architecture, language, music. I definitely care a lot about these positive things, and not much about the wars.

I flew via Istanbul, and the lady at the boarding didn’t quite know what to do with my passport: she looked for a visa and when she couldn’t find one, she just asked me whether I need one. I said that I didn’t and she let me on the plane. The passport control guy on arrival also didn’t know whether Israelis need a visa and had to check a table. I guess that not many Israelis come there, which is a shame, really.

Right from the airport my hosts took me to a different event: a BarCamp in Prizren. Prizren is absolutely beautiful. The Byrek—what we call “Burekas” in Israel—is delicious, the beer is fantastic, the streets are beautiful and the buildings are magnificent. Magnificent not like in France, but like in… Kosovo. In the Balkans. Down to Earth and human.

Prizren, Stone bridge and Sinan Pasha Mosque. Tobias Klenze, CC-BY-SA 3.0
Prizren, Stone bridge and Sinan Pasha Mosque. Tobias Klenze, CC-BY-SA 3.0

In the BarCamp there were three talks: two in Albanian, which I sadly don’t know, about… some Open Source projects. The third one was mine, about that-website-that-we-all-know-and-love. I used just one “slide”—xkcd’s famous protester, which, to my surprise, a lot of people in the audience didn’t recognize. I invited people to contribute, of course, and I enjoyed answering a question about how concepts such as “love” can be referenced and fact-checked. The bar is which the event was held is called “Hobbiton”, which is appropriately adorned with multiple Tolkien-themed posters. The Albanian Wikipedia, however, didn’t have an article about Hobbits, which I mentioned in my talk, with hope that it would be written. Was it? Stay tuned.

My second and third day in Kosovo were dedicated to WikiAcademy itself—first in the town of Gjakova and then in the capital, Prishtina.

So what is the WikiAcademy in Kosovo? It’s an event organized by IPKO Foundation, a local organization that promotes modern telecommunications in Kosovo. This event is different from what we call “WikiAcademy” in Israel, which is more like an academic conference with talks—in Kosovo it’s more like a Wikipedia editing workshop for newcomers, but a very large one. The 2014 edition of WikiAcademy is the second edition of this event, and it was held over three weekends in two cities—Gjakova and the capital Prishtina, with participants from several more cities. Over two hundred people participated.

The organizers, some of whom are experienced Wikipedians themselves, prepared the event very well. The logistics were great—working wifi, tasty food and comfortable transportation—but more importantly, the participants were very well-prepared for their task of writing Wikipedia articles: they received clear topics and instructions about writing with correct encyclopedic style and citing sources.

The articles were written in the English Wikipedia. The topics of the articles were all about cities of Kosovo: their architecture and monuments, education, events, festivals, culture, history and nature. Most people probably never heard about cities with unusual names such as Peja (a.k.a. Peć), Ferizaj (a.k.a. Uroševac) and Štrpce and well, now they are not just mentioned in the English Wikipedia by name, but there are several detailed articles about different topics related to each of them.

I’ll reiterate this: It was fantastic to see people sitting with reference books and encyclopedias to be able to cite sources. So often this is the biggest challenge in Wikipedia editing workshops, and the organizers prepared the participants very well. It was also great that everybody knew which articles are they working on.

My role was to give three talks, about Wikipedia’s encyclopedic writing style, about good practices for talk pages, and about translating articles, and other than that—to help people write, cite sources correctly, insert images, and make sure that they don’t violate any policies. It was challenging and tiring, but oh so fun. Hackathons and Wikipedia meet-ups are possibly the only kinds of events where I’m continuously so energized and talkative.

People sitting with laptops in a room
WikiAcademy Prishtina. Katie Chan, CC-BY-SA 4.0.

I also did my best to showcase Wikimedia’s newest software: VisualEditor, which the newbies just loved, and the Content Translation prototype.

During my talk about translation, I created, as a demo, two articles in Albanian: Hobbit (as promised above!), and Haifa, the city that hosted Wikimania 2011.

After I came back, the event continued. I was one of the judges that chose the best articles and photos for awarding prizes. The big winner was the well-deserving Historical monuments in Prishtina, although many others were wonderful: Flaka e Janarit, Rugova Mountains, Health Care in Kosovo, Water in Prishtina. The awards ceremony was held a few days after that.

There was also a bit of a dark side to the contest: Because most of the writers were newbies, and none were English speakers, there were many little innocent mistakes in spelling, referencing and writing style, which the English Wikipedia editors took very seriously. Some articles were even proposed for deletion, although all (or almost all) were kept. This, again, raises the well-known dilemma—it’s important to keep Wikipedia’s standards high, but it’s just as important to remain nice in the process and not “bite the newcomers”.

My thanks go out to the excellent organizers: Arianit Dobroshi, Gent Thaçi, Abetare Gojani, Rineta Hoxha, Altin Ukshini, Lis Balaj and many others. I enjoyed every minute, and learned a lot.


This post mostly uses Albanian spellings of place names. I do that simply because that’s what I saw during my visit. Don’t consider this post authoritative with regards to the preferred English spellings. Wikipedia may use different spellings, and they are not so consistent.

The Software Localization Paradox

Wikimania in Haifa was great. Plenty of people wrote blog posts about it; the world doesn’t need a yet another post about how great it was.

What the world does need is more blog posts about the great ideas that grew in the little hallway conversations there. One of the things that i discussed with many people at Wikimania is what i call The Software Localization Paradox. That’s an idea that has been bothering me for about a year. I tried to look for other people who wrote about it online and couldn’t find anything.

Like any other translation, software localization is best done by people who know well both the original language in which the software interface was written – usually English, and the target language. People who don’t know English strongly prefer to use software in a language they know. If the software is not available in their language, they will either not use it at all or will have to memorize lots of otherwise meaningless English strings and locations of buttons. People who do know English often prefer to use software in English even if it is available in their native language. The two most frequent explanations for that is that the translation is bad and that people who want to use computers should learn English anyway. The problem is that for various reasons lots of people will never learn English even if it would be mandatory in schools and useful for business. They will have to suffer the bad translations and will have no way to fix it.

I’ve been talking to people at Wikimania about this, especially people from India. (I also spoke to people from Thailand, Russia, Greece and other countries, but Indians were the biggest group.) All of them knew English and at least one language of India. The larger group of Indian Wikipedians to whom i spoke preferred English for most communication, especially online, even if they had computers and mobile phones that supported Indian languages; some of them even preferred to speak English at home with their families. They also preferred reading and writing articles in the English Wikipedia. The second, smaller, group preferred the local language. Most of these people also happened to be working on localizing software, such as MediaWiki and Firefox.

So this is the paradox – to fix localization bugs, someone must notice them, and to notice them, more people who know English must use localized software, but people who know English rarely use localized software. That’s why lately i’ve been evangelizing about it. Even people who know English well should use software in their language – not to boost their national pride, but to help the people who speak that language and don’t know English. They should use the software especially if it’s translated badly, because they are the only ones who can report bugs in the translation or fix the bugs themselves.

(A side note: Needless to say, Free Software is much more convenient for localization, because proprietary software companies are usually too hard to even approach about this matter; they only pay translators if they have a reason to believe that it will increase sales. This is another often overlooked advantage of Free Software.)

I am glad to say that i convinced most people to whom i spoke about it at Wikimania to at least try to use Firefox in their native language and taught them where to report bugs about it. I also challenged them to write at least one article in the Wikipedia in their own language, such as Hindi, Telugu or Kannada – as useful as the English Wikipedia is to the world, Telugu Wikipedia is much more useful for people who speak Telugu, but no English. I already saw some results.

I am now looking for ideas and verifiable data to develop this concept further. What are the best strategies to convince people that they should use localized software? For example: How economically viable is software localization? What is cheaper for an education department of a country – to translate software for schools or to teach all the students English? Or: How does the absence of localized software affect different geographical areas in Africa, India, the Middle East?

Any ideas about this are very welcome.

Palestinian geeks and RTL bugs

In the last few months i opened a bunch of MediaWiki bugs related to writing from right-to-left. If you click on the non-stricken-out numbers there, you’ll see my name at a few pages. Unfortunately i’m not yet much of a MediaWiki developer, but i’m quietly learning it at home.

This flood of right-to-left bugs was noticed. Mark Hershberger, Wikimedia’s bugmeister, wrote a blog post inviting developers who know RTL languages to fix the bugs. In the recent MediaWiki Hackathon 2011 in Berlin, which i attended as a member of the MediaWiki Language committee, i had the pleasure to meet Mark and many other MediaWiki developers in person – they taught me MediaWiki hacking tricks and i taught them the basics of RTL language handling in computers.

MediaWiki Hackathon 2011 participants, Berlin
MediaWiki Hackathon 2011 participants, Berlin. Photo: Tobias Schumann, CC-BY-SA-3.0-DE. Click to enlarge.

After the hackathon Mark’s blog post was made available for translation in, the software localization hub for MediaWiki, Wikipedia-related projects and other Free Software. It makes sense to translate it, especially to RTL languages. I translated it to Hebrew. It was also translated to Macedonian and Bulgarian; to Bosnian and two types of Serbian; to French, Danish and German; to Latin, Albanian, Dutch, Chinese and Japanese.

Do you notice any right-to-left languages except Hebrew here? No, me neither. After i poked a few people, parts of it were translated to Persian, Urdu and Khowar, a language of Pakistan. And not a single line of it was translated into Arabic yet.

And i just don’t get it. It is a fact that there are Arab Free Software hackers on both sides of Jordan, as well as in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and other countries. Judging by the tweets with the #palgeeks hashtag in Twitter, there are more startups in Ramallah than in Herzliya. There are Arab Wikipedia editors in Israel and the West Bank, not to mention the rest of the Arab world. There are a lot of translations of software messages into Arabic in the same website, But not of this blog post, which could bring more fixes to RTL bugs, which would in turn benefit all the people writing and reading in the Arabic alphabet – that’s hundreds of millions of people.

You could say: Why bother translating it from English into Arabic? After all, someone who has the skill to fix bugs in PHP code, probably knows English. But the fact is that translating it into Hebrew was worth the few minutes i put into it, because it caused the Israeli MediaWiki developer Rotem Liss to fix one RTL bug. (Thank you, Rotem.) Just think what it may do if it is translated to Arabic, which is spoken by many, many more people.

So, dear #palgeeks and Arabic-speaking geeks in other countries! If any of you are reading this, please invest a few minutes to do the following:

  1. Go to
  2. If you don’t have an account: Create one by clicking “ادخل / أنشئ حسابا” or “Log in / create account” at the top. Then follow the instructions on the screen to request Translator permission.
  3. Go to Mark Hershberger’s post translation page.
  4. Start translating into Arabic.
  5. Copy the result to your own blog, publish it on Twitter, invite other Arab hackers to fix RTL bugs in MediaWiki.

Oh, and you are also cordially invited to Wikimania in Haifa and to the Hackathon that will take place for two days before it, starting on the 2nd of August. It’s not about politics; it’s about improving Wikipedia’s support for your language. And you’ll also get to meet Wikipedians from all around the world, which is even more fun in real life than it sounds. Really. (If you need assistance with getting into Israel, please contact me privately.)

Miloopa in Unicode, ya mama

In my last day in Gdańsk i had a few Złoty left and there was a record store near the bus stop, so i spent the Złoty on CD’s. There’s only one Polish band with which i was actually familiar – Myslovitz, whose lovely song “The Sound of Solitude” was played quite a lot on MTV in the early 2000’s:

The original Polish version of the same song is just as nice:

After i got “The Best of Myslovitz” CD, i had money for a couple more. I didn’t have any time to search for anything in particular, so i just tried picking something with a nice cover and immediately came upon this:

the cover of the album "Unicode" by the band Miloopa. The letters in the word Unicode are made up of small symbols.
Miloopa - Unicode

A record with such a title cannot be bad, i thought, so i immediately got it. And indeed, it is very good. Miloopa‘s music strongly reminded of the Israeli band J.Viewz: a female singer with a nice voice, singing in English, mostly electronic beats, good for chillout. Probably every non-English-speaking country has such a band.

The last one i bought was a record named “No! No! No!” by a band called “No! No! No!“. It’s a rather conventional and good indie band, singing in Polish. The lyric sheet for one song literally cites the Wikipedia article Voight-Kampff machine – that couldn’t be more appropriate.

Swap languages

I returned from Wikimania 2010 in Gdańsk. Wikimania is the annual world convention of enthusiasts of Wikipedia and related projects. It was the first time i attended it. My reason to attend this time was that Wikimania 2011 is scheduled to take place in Haifa and i’m on the organization committee, but the event was so intense and fun, that i hope to attend it every year in the future.

The best part of Wikimania is meeting the people behind the Wikipedia accounts and the names on the mailing lists. One of the people whom i looked forward to meeting is Gerard Meijssen, one of the multilingualism gurus of Wikipedia.

Time permitting, i’ll write many more things about Wikimania, but i really had to reply to Gerard’s post about Google Translate. Gerard and i slept in the the same dormitory for the first days. The receptionists there, as well as at the other dormitory in which i slept later, didn’t know a word of English. Luckily, i know Russian, so Polish is not completely foreign to me, but for people without Slavic background it is indeed tough.

On the second day of Wikimania i passed by the receptionist on my way out. There was a Wikimedian who tried to explain something to her. And she didn’t understand. I offered my help. He said that he forgot his key inside the room. I explained it to her in half-Russian half-bad-Polish; she understood me, checked the room number and said that that room has a lock that doesn’t lock the room when the door is shut. I told it to the guy, but he probably didn’t quite understand me and tried to communicate with her again.

So she opened Google Translate on her desktop computer, carefully selected Polish as “from” and English as “to” and wrote something. He approached the computer, pressed the “Swap languages” button, so he would be able to write an answer in English and translate it into Polish; at that point the receptionist took the mouse from him and “helped” him: she selected English as “from” and Polish as “to”. She didn’t see that the “Swap languages” button already swapped languages. This ritual repeated several times. As far as she was concerned, she was an expert Google Translate user.

Eventually they succeeded at understanding each other and he found his key, but i was really baffled by this lesson in software usability.