Free Wikipedia-via-SMS is coming to a mobile phone near you

Wikipedia Zero

Ever wished Wikipedia was searchable on that basic phone or in areas with constrained or no connectivity? Perhaps, even available in many languages including majority of your local languages.

Well, you may be glad that Wikimedia Foundation in partnership with Airtel  is bringing free access to 24 million articles on Wikipedia via Wikipedia Zero to over 70 million mobile subscribers through a USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) based  subscription . The three months pilot project that kicked off in Kenya is exclusive to feature phones by dialing *515# and then summaries of articles are sent via text.

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As mobile technology is increasingly the primary opportunity for billions of people around the world to access the Internet, the Wikimedia Foundation is working to remove the two biggest hurdles to access free knowledge –cost and accessibility.

The  need to keep  developing countries up with the joneses in the technological realm is insatiable. The potential of connecting people to a grand habour of knowledge via a very accessible and cost effective platform –mobile– is quite unimaginable given the limitedness of resources.

A couple of years ago, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Whales was mesmerized by the exponential growth of the mobile telephony in Africa especially with the crazy sales of the Huawei Ideos phone in Kenya. The possibility of having a $100 smartphone was close to becoming a reality. All needed to complete the equation was a plausible medium to enable information sharing on mobile.

Sure, the $600,000 grant from Knight Foundation in January 2013 was such a boost. According to a press release from the Knight Foundation, the funding would help Wikimedia develop “features to improve the mobile experience regardless of how feature-rich the device is—including new ways to access Wikipedia via text; increasing the number of languages that can access Wikipedia on mobile; and improving the way feature phones access the platform.”

Takanao Wadhwa, head of mobile and business development at Wikimedia Foundation leads the foundation’s efforts to increase access to Wikipedia, with a focus on developing countries. According to ITNewsAfrica, upon the project’s launch, he said:

Improving access to the Wikimedia projects in Sub-Saharan Africa is a strategic priority for the Foundation and this partnership (with Airtel) is another step forward in our mission to enable everyone on the planet to access free knowledge.

Besides the free access via SMS, Airtel will also be offering free access to m.wikipedia.org on data enabled phones. It should be noted that Orange championed the free access to Wikipedia’s mobile site in Africa and Asia at the commencement of 2012.

Wikimedia has greatly benefited from strategic partnerships with Airtel (to begin with telcos) for deployment and Praekelt Foundation which was responsible for Wikipedia zero’s optimization to mobile and other technical tidbits.

Wikipedia zero was first launched in India in July 2013 and so far there are no clear media reports about it’s performance. However, for Kenya and Africa at large, I am rather  optimistic that it will be  a success. In his signature quote, renown tech  evangelist, Erik Hersman a.k.a White African  acclaims; if it works in Africa, then it will work anywhere else.

What do you think about Wikipedia Zero?

Image via Wikimedia Foundation