The Web of Speech

The World Wide Web is for us all, but do we all benefit from it?

Currently, 4.5 billion people in the world do not have access to the Web and all its advantages for publishing, sharing and searching information. Local conditions in developing countries still pose enormous challenges in terms of access and availability of relevant and usable web content. If we take a look at rural communities in West-Africa, communication is mainly voice-based – many people don’t read or write. People may have mobile phones, but these are simply used for talking. Even the SMS function is hardly used.

Great benefits are being attributed to indigenous knowledge sharing. In remote rural areas of the Sahel, subsistence farmers learn from each other how to “regreen” their fields and improve their crops and livelihood. Unsurprisingly, for these farmers the current Web of text and images, and most prominently, the Web for internet-users, is still not their most appropriate platform for knowledge sharing. Unless people are able to create their own content and publish it and share it with each other, the Web does not bring them an added value. Therefore, we must try to add voice functionality to the Web, and make it accessible using simple mobile phones. We must address the fact that there are many different languages spoken in this part of Africa. Languages that have never been written down on paper…

Fortunately, very recently, new research projects have started in support of rural communities in Mali, Ghana and Burkina Faso. This will enable people here to create their own “voice Web content”. This will soon result in the creation of voice web-content, such as community radio programs and voice messages from farmers.

As we all know, spoken text is actually a very different medium than written text. The new challenge will be to make spoken information searchable and retrievable, and enable it to be filtered and presented through voice. If we really want to create a multimodal web with voice content in local African languages,if we want to invent the “Web of Speech”, we will need ways to index and retrieve speech content in user-friendly, reusable and scalable ways. Can we make use of local knowledge and develop methods for social tagging and self-tagging usable e.g. for the rural communities we are working with in the Sahel countries? Are there other ways to annotate voice content, without having to translate this content into written text…?

To be continued…..Mobile telephony in Africa "Zain"


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