Images of Japan

Going through some photos, I was able to revisit some of the more memorable moments of my trip to Japan earlier this year.

For example, the time I visited Genkai Quasi National Park a beautiful spot in Fukuoka that had a strong resemblance to, but may not actually have been, a national park.

Genkai Quasi National Park

There was the time that I saw a “Saw a curry fault bread.”

Saw a Curry Fault Bread

And a shrine one could pray at in a barcalounger.

Shrine Comfortable Chair

There was the also the fact that we had record snowfall while in Tokyo which left the cities drainage system in a rather unhappy state.

Japan Unhappy Drain

Another Round of Community Data Science Workshops in Seattle

Pictures from the CDSW sessions in Spring 2014
Pictures from the CDSW sessions in Spring 2014

I am helping coordinate three and a half day-long workshops in November for anyone interested in learning how to use programming and data science tools to ask and answer questions about online communities like Wikipedia, free and open source software, Twitter, civic media, etc. This will be a new and improved version of the workshops run successfully earlier this year.

The workshops are for people with no previous programming experience and will be free of charge and open to anyone.

Our goal is that, after the three workshops, participants will be able to use data to produce numbers, hypothesis tests, tables, and graphical visualizations to answer questions like:

  • Are new contributors to an article in Wikipedia sticking around longer or contributing more than people who joined last year?
  • Who are the most active or influential users of a particular Twitter hashtag?
  • Are people who participated in a Wikipedia outreach event staying involved? How do they compare to people that joined the project outside of the event?

If you are interested in participating, fill out our registration form here before October 30th. We were heavily oversubscribed last time so registering may help.

If you already know how to program in Python, it would be really awesome if you would volunteer as a mentor! Being a mentor will involve working with participants and talking them through the challenges they encounter in programming. No special preparation is required. If you’re interested, send me an email.

Community Data Science Workshops Post-Mortem

Earlier this year, I helped plan and run the Community Data Science Workshops: a series of three (and a half) day-long workshops designed to help people learn basic programming and tools for data science tools in order to ask and answer questions about online communities like Wikipedia and Twitter. You can read our initial announcement for more about the vision.

The workshops were organized by myself, Jonathan Morgan from the Wikimedia Foundation, long-time Software Carpentry teacher Tommy Guy, and a group of 15 volunteer “mentors” who taught project-based afternoon sessions and worked one-on-one with more than 50 participants. With overwhelming interest, we were ultimately constrained by the number of mentors who volunteered. Unfortunately, this meant that we had to turn away most of the people who applied. Although it was not emphasized in recruiting or used as a selection criteria, a majority of the participants were women.

The workshops were all free of charge and sponsored by the UW Department of Communication, who provided space, and the eScience Institute, who provided food.

cdsw_combo_images-1The curriculum for all four session session is online:

The workshops were designed for people with no previous programming experience. Although most our participants were from the University of Washington, we had non-UW participants from as far away as Vancouver, BC.

Feedback we collected suggests that the sessions were a huge success, that participants learned enormously, and that the workshops filled a real need in the Seattle community. Between workshops, participants organized meet-ups to practice their programming skills.

Most excitingly, just as we based our curriculum for the first session on the Boston Python Workshop’s, others have been building off our curriculum. Elana Hashman, who was a mentor at the CDSW, is coordinating a set of Python Workshops for Beginners with a group at the University of Waterloo and with sponsorship from the Python Software Foundation using curriculum based on ours. I also know of two university classes that are tentatively being planned around the curriculum.

Because a growing number of groups have been contacting us about running their own events based on the CDSW — and because we are currently making plans to run another round of workshops in Seattle late this fall — I coordinated with a number of other mentors to go over participant feedback and to put together a long write-up of our reflections in the form of a post-mortem. Although our emphasis is on things we might do differently, we provide a broad range of information that might be useful to people running a CDSW (e.g., our budget). Please let me know if you are planning to run an event so we can coordinate going forward.

Installing GNU/Linux on a 2014 Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon

I recently bought a new Lenovo X1 Carbon. It is the new second-generation, type “20A7” laptop, based on Intel’s Haswell microarchiteture with the adaptive keyboard. It is the version released in 2014. I also ordered the Thinkpad OneLink Dock which I have returned for the OneLink Pro Dock which I have not yet received.

The system is still very new, challenging, and different, but seems to support GNU/Linux reasonably well if you are willing to run a bleeding edge version and/or patch your kernel and if you are not afraid to spend an afternoon or two tweaking things. What follows are my installation notes for Debian testing (jessie) when I installed it in early May 2014. My general impressions about the laptop as a GNU/Linux system — and overall — are at the end of this write-up.

System Description

The X1 Carbon I ordered included the 512GB SSD, the 14.0 inch WQHD (2560×1440) 260 nit touchscreen, and the maximum 8GB of memory. I believe the rest is not particularly negotiable but includes a 720p HD Camera, a 45.2Wh battery, and an Intel Dual Band Wireless 7260AC with Bluetooth 4.0.

For those that are curious Here is the output of lspci on the system:

00:00.0 Host bridge: Intel Corporation Haswell-ULT DRAM Controller (rev 0b)
00:02.0 VGA compatible controller: Intel Corporation Haswell-ULT Integrated Graphics Controller (rev 0b)
00:03.0 Audio device: Intel Corporation Haswell-ULT HD Audio Controller (rev 0b)
00:14.0 USB controller: Intel Corporation Lynx Point-LP USB xHCI HC (rev 04)
00:16.0 Communication controller: Intel Corporation Lynx Point-LP HECI #0 (rev 04)
00:16.3 Serial controller: Intel Corporation Lynx Point-LP HECI KT (rev 04)
00:19.0 Ethernet controller: Intel Corporation Ethernet Connection I218-LM (rev 04)
00:1b.0 Audio device: Intel Corporation Lynx Point-LP HD Audio Controller (rev 04)
00:1c.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation Lynx Point-LP PCI Express Root Port 6 (rev e4)
00:1c.1 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation Lynx Point-LP PCI Express Root Port 3 (rev e4)
00:1d.0 USB controller: Intel Corporation Lynx Point-LP USB EHCI #1 (rev 04)
00:1f.0 ISA bridge: Intel Corporation Lynx Point-LP LPC Controller (rev 04)
00:1f.2 SATA controller: Intel Corporation Lynx Point-LP SATA Controller 1 [AHCI mode] (rev 04)
00:1f.3 SMBus: Intel Corporation Lynx Point-LP SMBus Controller (rev 04)


The BIOS firmware is non-free and proprietary as it the case with all ThinkPads and nearly all laptops. According to this thread there is a bug in the default BIOS that means that suspend to RAM is broken in GNU/Linux.

You can get updated BIOS at the Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Carbon (Type 20A7, 20A8) Drivers and software page by looking in the the “BIOS” section. Honestly, the easiest approach is probably to download the Windows BIOS Update utility (documentation is here) which you can use to run the BIOS update from within Windows before you install GNU/Linux.

If that’s not an option (e.g., if you’ve already installed GNU/Linux) the best method is to download the bootable CD ISO from the same page. Of course, since the X1 Carbon has no optical media, you have to find another way to boot the CD image. I struggled to get the ISO to boot from USB using the usually reliable dd method. This message suggest that the issue had to do with the El Torito wrapper:

“I had to dump the eltorito image from the ISO they provide, after that I was able to dd the resulting image to a flash drive and the bios update went well, no cdrom needed.”

I updated to version 1.13 of the BIOS which fixes the suspend/resume bug. By the time you read this, there may be newer versions that fix other things so check the Lenovo website.

Installing Debian

I installed Debian testing using the March 19, 2014 “Alpha 1” release of the Debian Installer for Jessie (currently testing). I installed in graphical mode. With the WQHD screen, everything was extremely tiny but it worked flawlessly.

I downloaded the amd64 net install image from the normal place and installed the rest of the system using the built-in Ethernet port which required no firmware or extra drivers. I did the normal dd if=FILENAME.iso of=/dev/sdX method of getting the installer onto the a USB stick to boot. I turned off restricted boot in BIOS first. In general, the latest version of the Debian installation guide is always a good source of guidance on installing Debian.

I used the Debian installer wizard to partition and selected “Use entire disk and partition it for LVM and encrypted data” which kept the UEFI partitions around. The system installed with no errors or issues and booted up normally afterward. The grub menu is hilariously narrow on the WQHD screen.

If you want to use the built-in wireless and/or Bluetooth, you will need to install the non-free iwlwifi firmware package. It is very lame that we still have to do this to use hardware we have purchased.

What Works and Doesn’t

The following stuff works the first time I booted into the GNOME 3 desktop and logged in:

  • The WQHD 2560×1440 screen
  • The touchscreen
  • Both the TrackPoint and the touchpad
  • Built-in e1000e Ethernet using the dongle
  • The keyboard plus the “adaptive” row of F1-F12 keys.
  • External monitor using the full HDMI or mini-DisplayPort connectors
  • Audio (both speakers and microphone)
  • The camera/webcam

The following stuff works if you install non-free firmware:

  • Internal Wireless
  • Bluetooth 4.0

The following stuff works with qualifications:

  • Suspend to RAM — Works once you have updated the firmware.
  • The adaptive keyboard — The F1-F12 keys work but the “button” that theoretically lets you switch to different sets of function buttons (e.g., volume, brightness) does nothing.
  • Disabling the touchpad — There is a BIOS option to disable the touchpad. It works in Windows and does nothing at all in GNU/Linux.

I have not tried:

  • The fingerprint reader

Disabling the touchpad

As a long-term ThinkPad user, I love the TrackPoint pointing stick. If you plan on using this, the built-in touchpad is incredibly aggravating because it is very easy to brush against it while using the TrackPoint.

In BIOS, there is an option to disable the touchpad. Although this works in Windows, it does absolutely nothing in GNU/Linux. Part of the issue is that, unlike the older X1 Carbon and other ThinkPads, there are no TrackPoint buttons. Instead of buttons, there are regions at the top of the touchpad which are configured, in software, to act like buttons. If you want to be able to click, the touchpad can never be truly turned off.

This is not problem unique to the Haswell X1 Carbon and a number of people have been struggling with this issue on other Lenovo laptops. Essentially, what you need to do is configure your touchpad so that the buttons are where you want them and so that it ignores any input for the purposes of cursor movement.

There are a few ways of doing this but this answer from an question has the solution I ended up using:

Open file /etc/X11/xorg.conf.

Add a section “InputClass” with identifier “Default clickpad buttons”.

Create an option for SoftButtonAreas to values 70% 0 1 42% 36% 70% 1 42%, this is size of the right and middle button.

Enable option AreaBottomEdge and change value to 1, this will disable touchpad movement.

If everything done right, your class should looks like:

Section "InputClass"
     Identifier "Default clickpad buttons"
     MatchDriver "synaptics"
     Option "SoftButtonAreas" "70% 0 1 42% 36% 70% 1 42%"
     Option "AreaBottomEdge" "1"

Essentially, the first Option line will create a middle button that is 36% of the width and 42% of the height, and a right button that is 34% of the width and 42% of the height. The synaptics manpage (man synpatics) will give you more detail on the general way this works.

Fixing the Adaptive Keyboard

The most wild feature of the laptop is the adaptive keyboard strip. The strip is a back-lit LCD that looks almost like E Ink screen and acts as a touchscreen keyboard. The default mode gives you the F1-F12 keys. If you “press” the keys (since they aren’t buttons, you just put your finger on top of them) they act like normal F-keys. You can Ctrl-Alt-F1, etc., to switch to virtual terminals out of the box. There are four modes: “Function” (i.e., normal F-keys), Home, Web, and Chat. The last three overlap quite a bit (e.g., they all have brightness and volume). You can play with an example on the Lenovo homepage.

In Windows, switching programs will apparently change these “keys” so that an appropriate set of buttons is shown for the application you are using. You can also change these keys manually with a big “Fn” button at the far left of the adaptive keyboard strip.

As I write this this, released kernels do not support the adaptive keyboard Fn button which means you cannot use anything other than the F-keys out of the box. I believe it also means that resuming from suspend to RAM breaks these keys.

That said, Shuduo Sang from Canonical has released several versions of a patch to to the thinkpad_acpi kernel module which adds support for the Home mode. The other modes (web and chat) do not seem to be supported. The latest version of the patch is on on the Linux Kernel Mailing List and the relevant commits are:

330947b save and restore adaptive keyboard mode for suspend and,resume
3a9d20b support Thinkpad X1 Carbon 2nd generation's adaptive keyboard

Although this is not supported in Debian testing at the time of writing, a bug was filed in Debian and quickly fixed by Ben Hutchings in Debian kernel version 3.14.2-1 which is currently in sid/unstable. As a result, if you install the latest version kernel from Debian unstable (3.14.2-1 or later), the adaptive keyboard just works.

If you aren’t using Debian and if kernel you are using does not have support, you might be patching your kernel.

General Impressions

As I have described in my interview with The Setup, I have been a user of ThinkPad X-series laptops for many years. This is my sixth X-series ThinkPad.

Overall, I quite like the hardware! Once things mature a little bit, I think that this will be a great laptop for running GNU/Linux. That said, I ordered the laptop without realizing that the X1 Carbon had gone through a major revision! The keyboard was quite a suprise. I think that changing a system so radically without changing the model name/number is a very bad move on Lenovo’s part.

There are two remaining issues with the system I’m still struggling with: (1) the keyboard layout is freaky and weird, and (2) the super high resolution screen breaks many things.

The quality of the keyboard itself is great and worthy of the ThinkPad name. That said, there are two ways in which it is strange. The first is the adaptive keyboard strip. Overall, it works surprisingly well and I think it is a clever idea. My sense is that the strip is more annoying in Windows because it changes out from under you all the time. In GNU/Linux, only manual changing of modes is supported. This, in my opinion, is a feature. I do miss the real feedback you get from pressing keys but for F-keys and volume-keys that I don’t use often this isn’t too important. On the downside, I have realized several times that I had been holding down a “button” for several seconds and not noticed.

The more annoying issue with the keyboard is the way that the other keys have moved around. Getting rid of the CapsLock is wonderful! How has this taken so long? Replacing it with a split Home and End keys is nuts. I’ve remapped the Home and End to put Control back where it should be. My right Control to now Home but I still don’t have an End key. The split Backspace and Delete is not a problem for me. The tilde/apostrophe is in a very bad place. There is no Insert, Print Screen/SysRq, Scroll Lock, Pause/Break or NumLock. They are all just gone. Surprisingly, I haven’t missed any of them.

The second issue is the 2560×1440 resolution on the 14 inch screen. I use a 27 inch external monitor with the same native resolution laptop but, by my arithmetic, the pixel density on the laptop is 210 DPI instead 109 DPI on the external monitor. The result is “the scaling problem” and it’s a huge pain that seems mostly unsolved on any operating system.

Fonts and widgets that look good on the laptop look huge on my external monitor. Stuff that looks good on my external monitor looks minuscule on the laptop. I routinely move windows between my laptop screen and my large monitor. Until I find a display system that can handle this kind of scaling effectively, this requires changing font size and zooming all the time. At the moment, I’m shrinking and expanding my font size using the built in hot keys in Emacs, Gnome Terminal, and Firefox/Iceweasel. I love the high resolution screen but the current situation is crazy-making.

Finally, this setup will not get you into the Church of Emacs and it’s not about to find its way onto the FSF’s list of endorsed hardware. For one, I paid the Windows tax. Beyond that, there is the non-free BIOS and the need for non-free firmware to use the wireless and Bluetooth. This is standard for ThinkPads but it isn’t getting any easier to swallow. There are alternatives in the form of Gluglug’s X60 laptops running CoreBoot, Lemote Yeelong laptops, Bunnie Huang’s Novena and others that are better in these regards. I am very excited for these projects but, for a number of reasons, these just weren’t an option for the laptop I use for my research computing.

Update: I’ve changed he configuration option for the synaptics touchpad to match what I’m now actually doing.

Google Has Most of My Email Because It Has All of Yours

Republished by Slate. Translations available in French (Français), Spanish (Español), Chinese (中文)

For almost 15 years, I have run my own email server which I use for all of my non-work correspondence. I do so to keep autonomy, control, and privacy over my email and so that no big company has copies of all of my personal email.

A few years ago, I was surprised to find out that my friend Peter Eckersley — a very privacy conscious person who is Technology Projects Director at the EFF — used Gmail. I asked him why he would willingly give Google copies of all his email. Peter pointed out that if all of your friends use Gmail, Google has your email anyway. Any time I email somebody who uses Gmail — and anytime they email me — Google has that email.

Since our conversation, I have often wondered just how much of my email Google really has. This weekend, I wrote a small program to go through all the email I have kept in my personal inbox since April 2004 (when Gmail was started) to find out.

One challenge with answering the question is that many people, like Peter, use Gmail to read, compose, and send email but they configure Gmail to send email from a “From” address. To catch these, my program looks through each message’s headers that record which computers handled the message on its way to my server and to pick out messages that have traveled through,, or Although I usually filter them, my personal mailbox contains emails sent through a number of mailing lists. Since these mailing lists often “hide” the true provenance of a message, I exclude all messages that are marked as coming from lists using the (usually invisible) “Precedence” header.

The following graph shows the numbers of emails in my personal inbox each week in red and the subset from Google in blue. Because the number of emails I receive week-to-week tends to vary quite a bit, I’ve included a LOESS “smoother” which shows a moving average over several weeks.

Emails, total and from GMail, over timeFrom eyeballing the graph, the answer to seems to be that, although it varies, about a third of the email in my inbox comes from Google!

Keep in mind that this is all of my personal email and includes automatic and computer generated mail from banks and retailers, etc. Although it is true that Google doesn’t have these messages, it suggests that the proportion of my truly “personal” email that comes via Google is probably much higher.

I would also like to know how much of the email I send goes to Google. I can do this by looking at emails in my inbox that I have replied to. This works if I am willing to assume that if I reply to an email sent from Google, it ends up back at Google. In some ways, doing this addresses the problem with the emails from retailers and banks since I am very unlikely to reply to those emails. In this sense, it also reflects a measure of more truly personal email.

I’ve broken down the proportions of emails I received that come from Google in the graph below for all email (top) and for emails I have replied to (bottom). In the graphs, the size of the dots represents the total number of emails counted to make that proportion. Once again, I’ve included the LOESS moving average.

Proportion of emails from GMail over timeThe answer is surprisingly large. Despite the fact that I spend hundreds of dollars a year and hours of work to host my own email server, Google has about half of my personal email! Last year, Google delivered 57% of the emails in my inbox that I replied to. They have delivered more than a third of all the email I’ve replied to every year since 2006 and more than half since 2010. On the upside, there is some indication that the proportion is going down. So far this year, only 51% of the emails I’ve replied to arrived from Google.

The numbers are higher than I imagined and reflect somewhat depressing news. They show how it’s complicated to think about privacy and autonomy for communication between parties. I’m not sure what to do except encourage others to consider, in the wake of the Snowden revelations and everything else, whether you really want Google to have all your email. And half of mine.

If you want to run the analysis on your own, you’re welcome to the Python and R code I used to produce the numbers and graphs.

Community Data Science Workshops in Seattle

Photo from the Boston Python Workshop – a similar workshop run in Boston that has inspired and provided a template for the CDSW.
Photo from the Boston Python Workshop – a similar workshop run in Boston that has inspired and provided a template for the CDSW.

On three Saturdays in April and May, I will be helping run three day-long project-based workshops at the University of Washington in Seattle. The workshops are for anyone interested in learning how to use programming and data science tools to ask and answer questions about online communities like Wikipedia, Twitter, free  and open source software, and civic media.

The workshops are for people with no previous programming experience and the goal is to bring together researchers as well as participants and leaders in online communities.  The workshops will all be free of charge and open to the public given availability of space.

Our goal is that, after the three workshops, participants will be able to use data to produce numbers, hypothesis tests, tables, and graphical visualizations to answer questions like:

  • Are new contributors to an article in Wikipedia sticking around longer or contributing more than people who joined last year?
  • Who are the most active or influential users of a particular Twitter hashtag?
  • Are people who participated in a Wikipedia outreach event staying involved? How do they compare to people that joined the project outside of the event?

If you are interested in participating, fill out our registration form here. The deadline to register is Wednesday March 26th.  We will let participants know if we have room for them by Saturday March 29th. Space is limited and will depend on how many mentors we can recruit for the sessions.

If you already have experience with Python, please consider helping out at the sessions as a mentor. Being a mentor will involve working with participants and talking them through the challenges they encounter in programming. No special preparation is required.  If you’re interested,  send me an email.


My friend Noah mentioned the game VVVVVV. I was confused because I thought he was talking about the visual programming language vvvv. I went to Wikipedia to clear up my confusion but ended up on the article on VVVVV which is about the Latin phrase “vi veri universum vivus vici” meaning, “by the power of truth, I, while living, have conquered the universe”.

There is no Wikipedia article on VVVVVVV. That would be ridiculous.

Aaron Swartz — A Year Later

My friend Aaron Swartz died a little more than a year ago. This time last year, I was spending much of my time speaking with journalists and reading what they were writing about Aaron.

Since the anniversary of his death, I have tried to take time to remember Aaron. I’ve returned to the things I wrote and the things I said including this short article — published last year in Red Pepper — that SJ Klein and I wrote together but that I forgot to mention on my blog.

I’m also excited to see that a documentary film about Aaron premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week. I was interviewed for the film but am not in it.

As I said last year at a memorial for Aaron, I think about Aaron frequently and often think about my own decisions in terms of what Aaron would have done. I continued to be optimistic about the potential for Aaron-inspired action.

My Geekhouse Bike Frame

In 2011, Mika and I bought in big at the Boston Red Bones party’s charity raffle — supporting MassBike and NEMBA — and came out huge. I won $500 off a custom frame at Geekouse Bikes.

For years, Mika and I have been planning to do the Tour d’Afrique route (Capetown to Cairo), unsupported, on bike. People that do this type of ride sometimes use an expedition touring frame. I worked with Marty Walsh at Geekhouse to design a bike based on this idea. The concept was a rugged steel touring frame, built for my body and comfortable over long distances, with two quirks:

  1. It’s designed for 26 inch mountain bike wheels and mountain bike components to ensure that the bike is repairable with parts from the kinds of cheap mountain bikes that can be found almost everywhere in the world.
  2. It includes S&S torque couplers that let me split the frame in half to travel with the bike as standard luggage.

As our pan-Africa trip kept getting pushed back, so did the need for the bike. Last week, I finally picked up the finished bike from Marty’s shop in Boston. It is gorgeous. I absolutely love it.

Picture of Geekhouse frame (1)Picture of Geekhouse frame (2)Picture of Geekhouse frame (4) Picture of Geekhouse frame (3)

I’m looking forward to building up the bicycle over the next couple months and I’ll post more pictures when it’s finished. I am blown away by Marty’s craftsmanship and attention to detail. I am psyched that his donation made this bike possible and that I was able to get the frame while helping cycling in Massachusetts!

“When Free Software Isn’t Better” Talk

In late October, the FSF posted this video of a talk called When Free Software Isn’t (Practically) Better that I gave at LibrePlanet earlier in the year. I noticed it was public when, out of the blue, I started getting both a bunch of positive feedback about the talk as well as many people pointing out that my slides (which were rather important) were not visible in the video!

Finally, I’ve managed to edit together a version that includes the slides and posted it online and on Youtube.

The talk is very roughly based on this 2010 article and I argue that, despite our advocacy, free software isn’t always (or even often) better in practical terms. The talk moves beyond the article and tries to be more constructive by pointing to a series of inherent practical benefits grounded in software freedom principles and practice.

Most important to me though, the talk reflects my first serious attempt to bring together some of the findings from my day job as a social scientist with my work as a free software advocate. I present some nuggets from my own research and talk about about what they mean for free software and its advocates.

In related news, it also seems worth noting that I’m planning on being back at LibrePlanet this March and that the FSF annual fundraiser is currently going on.

Settling in Seattle

Seattle from the airI defended my dissertation three months ago. Since then, it feels like everything has changed.

I’ve moved from Somerville to Seattle, moved from MIT to the University of Washington, and gone from being a graduate student to a professor. Mika and I have moved out of a multi-apartment cooperative into into a small apartment we’re calling Extraordinary Least Squares. We’ve gone from a broad and deep social network to (almost) starting from scratch in a new city.

As things settle and I develop a little extra bandwidth, I am trying to take time to get connected to my community. If you’re in Seattle and know me, drop me a line! If you’re in Seattle but don’t know me yet, do the same so we can fix that!

Doctor of Philosophy

On Wednesday, I successfully defended my PhD dissertation in front of a ridiculously packed house at the MIT Media Lab. I am humbled by the support shown by the MIT Sloan, Media Lab, and Harvard communities. Earlier today, I finished up paperwork and submitted my archival copies. I’m done.

Although I’ve often heard PhDs described as emotional roller coasters, I feel enormously blessed in that I honestly can’t relate. My eight years at MIT and Harvard have been almost universally positive and I have learned and grown indescribably. As excited as I am about my next chapter at the University of Washington, I’m going to miss my life here. Deeply.

My dissertation was three essays on volunteer mobilization in peer production. Once I have a chance to catch up and recover, I’ll be posting the previously unpublished pieces. The Remixing Dilemma was included in the dissertation and is already online. The Media Lab AV team shot professional video of the talk. When I get a copy of the video, I’ll post that too.

But because I think it’s important, I’ve formatted and published the acknowledgments section of the dissertation today. Although there are too many folks to thank, I’ve highlighted the contributions of my co-authors, and friends, Aaron Shaw and Andrés Monroy Hernández and my almost unbelievably incredible group of advisors: Eric von Hippel, Yochai Benkler, Mitch Resnick, and Tom Malone.

The Wikipedia Gender Gap Revisited

In a new paper, recently published in the open access journal PLOSONE, Aaron Shaw and I build on new research in survey methodology to describe a method for estimating bias in opt-in surveys of contributors to online communities. We use the technique to reevaluate the most widely cited estimate of the gender gap in Wikipedia.

A series of studies have shown that Wikipedia’s editor-base is overwhelmingly male. This extreme gender imbalance threatens to undermine Wikipedia’s capacity to produce high quality information from a full range of perspectives. For example, many articles on topics of particular interest to women tend to be under-produced or of poor quality.

Given the open and often anonymous nature of online communities, measuring contributor demographics is a challenge. Most demographic data on Wikipedia editors come from “opt-in” surveys where people respond to open, public invitations. Unfortunately, very few people answer these invitations. Results from opt-in surveys are unreliable because respondents are rarely representative of the community as a whole. The most widely-cited estimate from a large 2008 survey by the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) and UN University in Maastrict (UNU-MERIT) suggested that only 13% of contributors were female. However, the very same survey suggested that less than 40% of Wikipedia’s readers were female. We know, from several reliable sources, that Wikipedia’s readership is evenly split by gender — a sign of bias in the WMF/UNU-MERIT survey.

In our paper, we combine data from a nationally representative survey of the US by the Pew Internet and American Life Project with the opt-in data from the 2008 WMF/UNU-MERIT survey to come up with revised estimates of the Wikipedia gender gap. The details of the estimation technique are in the paper, but the core steps are:

  1. We use the Pew dataset to provide baseline information about Wikipedia readers.
  2. We apply a statistical technique called “propensity scoring” to estimate the likelihood that a US adult Wikipedia reader would have volunteered to participate in the WMF/UNU-MERIT survey.
  3. We follow a process originally developed by Valliant and Dever to weight the WMF/UNU-MERIT survey to “correct” for estimated bias.
  4. We extend this weighting technique to Wikipedia editors in the WMF/UNU data to produce adjusted estimates of the demographics of their sample.

Using this method, we estimate that the proportion of female US adult editors was 27.5% higher than the original study reported (22.7%, versus 17.8%), and that the total proportion of female editors was 26.8% higher (16.1%, versus 12.7%). These findings are consistent with other work showing that opt-in surveys tend to undercount women.

Overall, these results reinforce the basic substantive finding that women are vastly under-represented among Wikipedia editors.

Beyond Wikipedia, our paper describes a method online communities can adopt to estimate contributor demographics using opt-in surveys, but that is more credible than relying entirely on opt-in data. Advertising-intelligence firms like ComScore and Quantcast provide demographic data on the readership of an enormous proportion of websites. With these sources, almost any community can use our method (and source code) to replicate a similar analysis by: (1) surveying a community’s readers (or a random subset) with the same instrument used to survey contributors; (2) combining results for readers with reliable demographic data about the readership population from a credible source; (3) reweighting survey results using the method we describe.

Although our new estimates will not help us us close the gender gap in Wikipedia or address its troubling implications, they give us a better picture of the problem. Additionally, our method offers an improved tool to build a clearer demographic picture of other online communities in general.