Wiki-ing into Africa?

By   |  April 25, 2005

Wiki – an online system for collaborative publishing – has proved to be very popular among the technically literate and the connected around the world. But what of the many millions of global citizens that don\’t have access to the Internet, or don\’t speak English? And those that aren\’t even able to read or write? The huge benefits of a collborative knowledge base such as Wikipedia is all but useless to these less privileged citizens.It is, however, something that developers in the free and open source world are looking to address.

Let\’s take a step backwards: Wiki is a collaborative publishing system. It allows anyone from anywhere in the world to add to, edit or approve articles published on a website (or Wiki in this case). The best example of a wiki in action is the Wikipedia project which today boast more than 1,5 million articles on anything from acid to Zurich and in any of almost 100 active languages.

Articles are contributed and edited by thousands of authors from around the world, many who are experts in their area of contribution. And although Wikipedia has its critics – most of whom site the volunteer and disparate nature of its contributors as a liability – Wikipedia has become an extremely accessible and affordable reference work.

Wikipedia, however, is not available to the many millions of users across the world that do not have the means to access the Internet. In Africa that may be as many as 673 million people(6.31 million online out of an estimated 680 million African population). For these users, the benefits of projects such Wikipedia are far from real.

Which is why a report by two members of the Wikipedia Foundation that attended the recent FLOSS Conference in Pretoria caught my eye. (report here). In the report they identify the exact same problems and look at some of the possible solutions to the challenges most Africans face.

Angela Beesley and Erik Moller write that \”interestingly enough, many areas of Africa have relatively high cell phone coverage. For example, according to a person working on cell phone services in Nigeria, there are 6-7 million users in that country alone. These are very simple devices without Internet access, but with SMS
support.\”

In South Africa – where Internet conectivity is still in its infancy (3,5 million in 2004) – the cellphone industry is booming and there are as many as 18,7 million cell phone users (ref).

\”It therefore seems like a good idea to make Wikipedia accessible to these devices. One obvious approach would be to send articles by SMS. However, SMS is very limited in size, and long articles would have to be
split up into tens or even hundreds of messages. Teemu Leinonen of the University of Art and Design Helsinki is working on a project to create another access possibility: The user sends an SMS with the article title to a phone number. A few seconds later, they get a call on their cell phone with a spoken version of the article they requested. In most cases, this would be generated by text-to-speech software like Festival (which is free software), though a version spoken by a Wikipedian could be used if available. While listening to the spoken version, the user could use the keypad to navigate (fast-forward, skip to next/previous section, read only tabular data, etc.).

\”If the article does not exist, the user would be given a special message: \”An article on this subject is not available. Would you like to record one?\” These audio submissions would be automatically uploaded to the Commons and could be vetted and transcribed by volunteers.

\”The most important aspect of this idea is that it would make all of Wikipedia (and potentially other projects) immediately accessible, almost for free, to anyone with a cell phone.\”

There were also a number of discussions on the distribution of Wikipedia in Africa. What seemed most important to most users was the need for an offline version of the encyclopedia, particularly because of the lack of connectivity in most African countries.

\”Where people were interested in print projects, they wanted to focus on printing out particular topics, rather than having a copy of the entire encyclopedia. A way of easily printing out selected topics for school classes was asked for. Self-printing or a print on demand service were seen as more desirable options than being presented with a ready-selected print edition.\”

Other ideas that were discussed at the conference included the need for a repository of legal terminology – particularly terminology in local languages. The other the use of Wikipedia and e-learning in Africa.
Read the full report at http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Conference_reports/FLOSS%2C_South_Africa_2005

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