Where do Wikis — the official ones, like Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Wikibooks, Wikimedia Commons, and all their Wiki brothers and sisters — come from?

They are established and managed by the Wikipedia Foundation, the official world repository of all things Wiki.

Joining their rank this year as the “coolest Wiki project” will be an Israeli invention, WikiAir, a project that will show the world, via free high-resolution aerial photos, the nicer side of Israel. Eventually, as the project is adopted in other countries, WikiAir will bring beautiful bird’s-eye views of all the world’s most interesting sites. The photos will be available via Wikipedia Commons.

WikiAir is more than just a collection of photos of pretty places; it’s a system of agreements to enable Wiki volunteers to take advantage of air travel in order to easily and cheaply take high-resolution photos of interesting and unique sites from the air.

Volunteer photographers hitch a ride with private planes and on short-range commercial flights that fly at lower altitudes, and take photos from the air using long-distance lenses. The photos are then uploaded to the WikiAir site as hi-res photos, where anyone can view or use them, within the parameters of the usage agreement common to most wikis (no cost to use for informational sites, educational use, and publications; attribution required).

Ashdod Port (Photo credit: Courtesy Amos Maron/WikiAir Israel)

Ashdod Port (photo credit: Courtesy Amos Meron/WikiAir Israel/Wikimedia Commons)

While somewhat similar to Google StreetView, WikiAir is less about mapping the world than about highlighting important and interesting places, said Amos Meron, director of WikiAir Israel. All of the sites being photographed are under established and legal civilian air routes, so unlike Google StreetView or Google Earth, there is no danger that a secret security installation will inadvertently show up in the photo mix.

WikiAir is the first project of its kind, and it was good enough to beat out dozens of other wiki projects for a top award at an annual gathering of wiki volunteers. Wikis, of course, are the user-editable encyclopedias that have become the go-to source for information on a wide range of topics.

While wikis can seem very “free form,” official wikis are managed by the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization which Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales established after discovering that the amount and types of information listed in Wikipedia proved too unwieldy for just one Wiki site.

The Ramon Crater (Photo credit: Courtesy Amos Maron/WikiAir Israel)

The Ramon Crater (photo credit: Courtesy Amos Meron/WikiAir Israel/Wikimedia Commons)

Today, the Wikimedia Foundation manages 14 projects, including Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Wikiquote, Wikibooks, Wikisource, and so on, each concentrating on a specific type or body of knowledge: Wikiquote is an encyclopedia of quotations, Wikiversity a collection of educational materials, and so on. Most of the editing and maintenance work on these projects is done by the nearly 400,000 volunteer editors who review articles and information for accuracy.

Once a year, volunteers get together to discuss the state of Wiki at Wikimania. Held in a different location each year, Wikimania features talks, lectures, and events on the social impact of wikis, getting funding for projects, the proper balance between open editing and professional accuracy, and so on. The number of participants has been climbing steadily in the nine years that Wikimania has been held, with a record 1,400+ people attending the 2012 event in Washington DC. In 2011, Wikimania was held in Haifa and was attended by 720 volunteers from 56 different countries, including some that have no diplomatic relations with Israel.

Besides discussing Wiki technology and reviewing Wiki policy, Wikimania participants (in their usual free-form style) occasionally grant wikiship to creative projects by local Wikimedia foundations around the world. In a contest held in advance of this year’s Wikimania, 77 projects were submitted for consideration by Wiki volunteers in 40 countries around the world – and the big winner this year was WikiAir, which got the title of coolest and most unique Wiki project of the year.

Rishon Lezion (Photo credit: Courtesy Amos Maron/WikiAir Israel)

Rishon Lezion (photo credit: Courtesy Amos Meron/WikiAir Israel/Wikimedia Commons)

Other Wikimedia Foundation groups around the world are expected to establish their own WikiAirs, and eventually all of them will be connected on a single site, allowing users to easily search and download photos. For the first time, said Meron, a large body of high-resolution photos of some of the world’s most interesting and beautiful sites will be available to professionals and the general public, for free.

So far, some 1,500 photos have been snapped and uploaded, said Meron. “We were very pleasantly surprised to win. We knew we had a unique project, but we didn’t think we had a chance against the many great projects coming from around the world.

“For us, WikiAir is an excellent example of how organizations and industries can collaborate with Wikimedia groups in Israel and elsewhere to enrich Wikipedia, in our case by uploading beautiful pictures of Israel. Picture a world in which everyone has free access to the world’s store of knowledge,” said Meron. “That is what we are trying to do.”

Ashdod Marina (Photo credit: Courtesy Amos Maron/WikiAir Israel)

Ashdod Marina (Photo credit: Courtesy Amos Meron/Wikiair Israel/Wikimedia Commons)