Building a local community in the Czech Republic

This article is available also in Czech translation. / Tento článek je dostupný také v českém překladu.

Some countries are just as large to have a single population hub – the capital – while others have enough space and history to sustain a competitor. In the Czech Republic, there are active Wikimedia communities in both Prague and Brno, the second largest city. This article demonstrates how competition between two communities in the same region can stimulate growth and prosperity.

Map of the Czech Republic in Europe, with marks showing the location of major cities, including the two largest: Prague (Praha) and Brno.

Let me open with a quote which expresses the desire for a second academic institution in the Czech lands back in 1885, several decades before it could eventually be created:

Whoever knows university life will agree that if we are to have one university, we need two.
Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, first president of Czechoslovakia, professor at Charles University in Prague, initiator of Masaryk University in Brno (founded in 1919)

A volunteer from the second largest city edit

Wikipedians of Brno meet every third Wednesday of the month in a befriended restaurant situated in the baroque cellar of a medieval monastery.

Czech Wikipedia's history has traditionally evolved mostly around Prague, but it is a fact that it was started in 2002 by an Esperantist in Brno. I met him there in 2005, when I became a student at Masaryk University and joined the local Esperanto club.

Being an idealist is what counts when you look for a volunteer to write articles they are not going to be paid for, for a young encyclopedic project that should never be finished. Esperantists, in their effort to promote a neutral easy-to-learn second language for all, are "idealists by definition". It is therefore no wonder that Esperanto Wikipedia was the 11th language version to come into existence and is still thriving these days. It was there that I as a Wikipedian initially contributed the most: With the international community of Esperanto speakers, we documented there our language, its 120 years of history, its professional applications and regular events, original and translated literature etc. – plus all the general knowledge you would expect to find in an encyclopedia.

However, even idealists don't enjoy being alone, chiefly if they are participants of an international collaborative movement. It was this urge for collaboration that has turned me from an introvert IT student to the leader of a countrywide youth Esperanto association in 2005–2014. Following all that, it was rather easy for me to collect the necessary confidence and recyclable skills and start developing the local Wikimedia community in 2014.

But there would not be any Wikimedia community in Brno today, hadn't it been for Prague, where Wikimedia Czech Republic is based since 2008. When they first came and convened the Wikipedians of our city in 2012, I immediately joined the association. My experience from the Esperanto movement told me that even a diaspora of enthusiasts needs a layer of formal organization above it in order to work efficiently.

At this moment, the Wikimedia story started resembling the historical tale of the two universities. When we were entrusted with the responsibility of organizing the 2014 Czech Wikiconference in Brno, we had to start meeting more frequently than just three times a year. Participant numbers never reached the 23 of that initial meetup again, but there was a small stable core group to start with. These were people ready to work on achieving a common goal also offline, provided there was someone to guide them. This turned me into an non-elected leader once again. Our meetings ceased being simply chat and beer, as we formulated commons visions, divided tasks and brought a projector to increase engagement. And Prague had given birth to a competitor.

Let's create a wikiuniversity, or the importance of team initiatives in building a community edit

Wikimedians of Brno teaching Wikipedia at a University of the Third Age in April 2016 – the Senior Citizens Write Wikipedia program is one of the ideas successfully transplanted from Prague.

The community spirit lived on in 2015, when Masaryk University stepped in. Its alumni association had been showing interest in featuring notable alumni on Wikipedia for two years already, but only the visionary lecture by its president at the Brno Wikiconference, in which he described the idea of a "wikiuniversity", combined with the newly born enthusiasm among local Wikipedians finally succeeded in breaking a path through the university structures towards formal recognition. The rector made a declaration in support of Wikipedians writing about the university, who soon got a new activity to engage in: The university decided to hire a team of ten Wikipedians to improve articles on closely linked topics, such as the university's faculties, buildings, history, notable teachers and alumni. In total for 2015, this partnership amounted to 450 hours of article writing and 630 hours of community building, networking and educational activities. That second part was my responsibility in the role of a Wikipedian in residence, more colloquially "university Wikipedian". I recruited the editors, followed their work, helped identifying reliable sources, mediated contact with relevant university staff, organized a Wikipedia training on Wikipedia for public relations officers, advised teachers on employing Wikipedia in the curriculum etc.

Towards the end of 2015, the project resulted in the signing of a long-term partnership between Masaryk University and Wikimedia Czech Republic. This made the possibility of co-funding the project in 2016, with university funding focused on improving Wikipedia topics of their interest and Wikimedia funding for continuation of the background work, such as helping the university switch their press communication and photography to Creative Commons. The extra funds made it possible to engage other institutions as well, such as the regional library. We are also trying to target other universities and provide support to emerging communities in other cities, such as Olomouc. New and old individuals are actively sought and invited to our monthly meetups and of those 32 people who showed up at least once last year, some have already identified their very own roles in the Wikimedia movement – such as trainers, liaisons in similarly aligned movements and relevant political bodies, technical facilitators or vigorous photographers.

Mutual aid and transfer of innovation edit

Marek Blahuš (left) during a panel discussion with Masaryk University teachers who employ Wikipedia in the curriculum. Part of the seminar "Masaryk University is Getting High on Wikipedia" held on 14 September 2015.

All in all, community building is like language learning: everyone has a mother tongue and the most difficult task is to learn a second language, after which it gets easier. Analogically, having an active local community in the capital comes quite naturally; building a second one somewhere else is a challenging process. But once that goal has been accomplished, the experience can be readily replicated to reach even more places. And more communities produce more ideas – some of ours have caught up very well in Prague, and we are glad about that. Our successful exports includes the Wikipedia Club, originally an idea by a teacher who decided to sit down in a library once a week to edit Wikipedia and invited the public to join him, or the concept of meetups which observe an easy-to-remember recurrence rule ("every third Wednesday of the month"), follow an announced program and include a reminder system for subscribed regular participants.

At the end of 2016, Brno will see its second Czech Wikiconference (on December the 3rd), which will once again mobilize the local community and will be an opportunity to review the achievements made in this year. With regard to the starting professionalization of Wikimedia Czech Republic – enabled by Wikimedia Foundation's 2016 APG grant, which entails a dedicated part-time position of "Wikipedian in Brno" to further develop the local community – one can be sure that there will be a lot to report when the year is over.

Marek Blahuš,
Wikipedian in Brno
at Wikimedia Czech Republic