Africa: The Invisible Continent

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Advocates for African countries often complain that Westerners treat the continent as if it was a single, monolithic entity—a mind-set rooted in ignorance that results in negligence. One would think, then, that the high-speed spread of information technology would offer hope. In the case of the hugely influential online encyclopedia Wikipedia, however, Africa isn’t merely oversimplified; it’s nearly invisible.

Oxford University Internet specialist Mark Graham dug through Wikipedia’s user-generated geographical entries and emerged with a map, published in The Guardian (Dec. 2, 2009), demonstrating the encyclopedia’s geographic blind spots. For Germany there is an average of one entry for every 40 square miles. For Chad, the average is one entry for every 10,500 square miles. “Remarkably,” writes Graham, “there are more articles written about Antarctica than all but one of the 53 countries in Africa.” That oasis of Wikipedia entries in this desert of information is Burkina Faso. 

The information gap exists in spite of the fact that more than 8,000 English-language editors sign up every month and more than 1,000 articles are added every day. Still, Graham writes, “there are more articles written about the fictional places of Middle Earth and Discworld than about many countries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.”

As technology improves in developing countries, new Internet access may mean new editors for Wikipedia—and a lot fewer blank spots on its information map. Unfortunately, Graham argues, “it is equally conceivable that as peer-produced projects . . . become our primary sources of knowledge, we could begin to see permanent information inequalities.

“In any case, it is clear that we are far from running out of topics to write about.”