08. Florence Devouard on a mission for open knowledge


Listen to this episode to meet Florence Devouard, a 19-year Wikipedia pioneer who is now leading Wiki in Africa to bring meaningful change to many young people.   (35:25)


This year is the 20th anniversary of the Wikipedia, and Florence has been there for the last 19 years.

You can contact Florence at one of the links shared at the end of this note.


  • Balancing the stories on the internet and Wikipedia through helping Africans represent their real lives

  • Preparing children who are offline today to become our digital global citizens of tomorrow

  • Local partners often cover the last mile in global initiatives

  • Photography is a powerful tool for communicating life

  • Shifting identity and reflecting the values that are important to you

Back story: How Florence got to where she is today

In this episode, she shares with us how she evolved being a specialist in agricultural sciences and biotechnology to becoming one of the pillars of the Wikipedia. In fact, she was elected Chair of the Wikipedia Foundation following Jimmy Wales, and that’s how I learned about Florence. I heard Jimmy talk at an online conference in London many years ago, and he spoke about Florence in detail. Living in France as well, I got in touch and we’ve been off and on involved in initiatives since.

A gig mindsetter who did not fit in

In our conversation here, she shares how she has felt like a gig mindsetter most of her life, not fitting in where she worked, and never satisfied doing the same things over and over, following guidelines and advancing on a theoretical career path.
By the way, Florence told me that when she read my book about the Gig Mindset, she completely recognized herself in it: “It opened my mind. this is me that she’s describing on every single page. It was a comfortable feeling, reassuring for me somehow.”

A gamer who met a Greenpeace activist and the beginning of civil disobedience

Florence is a gamer, and she met a Greenpeace activist in a gaming forum online, who told here about a new website online where ordinary people could contribute and also triggered her awareness in civil disobedience. (Note that this is the title in my book The Gig Mindset Advantage. It’s in the section entitled “The future is at stake”.)
After the terrible events of September 11, 2001 and the ensuing anthrax-in-envolopes attacks, brought increased fear of bioterror and the need for biosecruity. Florence saw that the only information at that time came from the US government, so she began to provide more herself, from her perspective as a scientist.
She also posted information on other topics, some controversial at the time, that were not covered on the internet. This was an evening and weekend activity and she found herself living two separate lives.
She shares more with us about how she reached the point of changing her life completely to find greater satisfaction. I will let you discover what happened next, and jump here to the creating of Florence’s African initiatives.

Helping Africa assume its legitimate place in the digital age

Florence had noticed that participation on the Wikipedia was mostly European and North American and she wanted to “blacken the Wikipedia”, give more visibility to Africans on the internet and allow them to really contribute to the information about themselves. In her words “I wanted to rebalance this story somehow.”

Points we cover in the rest of the episode:

  • Why the Wiki Loves Africa photographic contest, probably the biggest photo contest in Africa, is important. Take a look at the Wiki Loves Africa website.
  • How user groups began to grow in Africa. The special challenges in French-speaking African countries, which have proven harder than in the English-speaking countries.
  • How initiatives were created in schools to give children the experience and skills of being on line even in places where there is no internet, which is critical to do before they become digital citizens as they inevitably will. How to anticipate this practically: getting children to learn how to collaborate, think creatively, write well, understand intellectual property rights.
  • How mini internet worlds inside classrooms with real content that is online in the world, are a tool to teach children how to create new content that will eventually be online and available to the whole planet. Young people write articles about their culture, customs, history, dances, and famous notable figures in their lives.
  • The essential role played by local partners to cover the last mile, the last kilometer. This may be schools, local libraries, community centers or tech spaces in small cities. The Orange Foundation has been an active partner over the past four years for this.

Sharing the wealth and diversity of Africa’s knowledge, history, culture and contemporary reality through online contribution is a mammoth task.

To achieve as broad an impact as possible, the Wiki in Africa association takes a multi-pronged approach – working with aligned partners to activate Africa through a network of grant-funded, staffed projects.
Though each individual initiative is designed to stand alone, they all aim to
accelerate the growth of online African communities,
encourage a culture of contribution from Africa to the Wikipedia, the Wikimedia projects, and more generally the Open Knowledge movement.

The Wiki Challenge Ecoles d’Afrique is one of those initiatives.
A multi-national writing contest that creates a fun, engaging way for primary schools students to learn about how knowledge is built, it is meant for kids to gain new skills, such as digital skills, collaborative writing skills, knowledge sharing, information searching, critical thinking and peer review practices. The goal is to help them grow as informed and active e-citizens.

What makes this project very special is that the schools involved in the process are mostly offline and their students have no access to Internet (yet).
This education project, that seeks to bridge the gap between the online world and the offline world, has been running for 4 years in 10 French speaking countries.
It involved 200 schools, led to the production of nearly 300 unique and wonderful articles as well as 1400 pictures, all published online, and all increasing the visibility of Africa on the Internet. They bring a feeling of pride to under-represented and poorly-served communities.

My identity? A free knowledge advocate

Florence finishes by sharing her struggle to define herself in this new life she is living.
This is a challenge in the job space where people look for a specific skills, titles and roles.
So that’s the challenge Florence and many of her Wikipedian friends face as well.
She summarizes herself as being a free knowledge advocate for lack of a better term, because what drives her on her path is values.

“I think that what is important when I describe myself is the value I carry and what I want to see change in the world, such as the importance of the value of openness, of collaboration, of free access, to knowledge, to everyone, to knowledge equality. So everything I do is done with these values in mind.”

You can reach Florence on LinkedIn.
To learn more about the initiatives mentioned during the conversation, have a look at the Wiki Loves Africa photo contest (1), the offline editing environment WikiFundi (2),  or the WikiChallenge Ecoles d’Afrique (3) on the Wiki in Africa site (4).

First published May 31, 2021

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