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Illiterate? Not a problem with voice applications

November 25, 2009  »  Mobile & Web2 Comments

voiceToday  (Nov 25, 2009), Uganda’s Monitor Online is running a story on how the Internet will soon be an option for the illiterate and disabled. Currently, such individuals are limited to basic SMS functions and in most cases, are unable to effectively browse the Internet. However, that is all about to change with the advent of voice and super-graphical applications. Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web Foundation, has big plans in mind. He explains:

We will create voice applications where one does not have to read or write at all to access the internet but by speaking.”

Essentially, the foundation aims to empower people living in developing areas to access beneficial information, such as health information, new commerce opportunities, government happenings, and news events. For example, an illiterate rural Internet user could potentially ask where to walk for medical aid or query how to properly plant certain type of crop – all via mobile phone voice interface and with minimal reading or writing comprehension required.

Berners-Lee has a great idea and substantial funding. He knows that voice communication is popular over the radio and that most Africans will soon have access to a mobile phone. Additionally, the popularity and success of iPhone applications has shown how even savvy Internet users are drawn toward simplicity. If a university educated iPhone user relies on voice applications on a daily basis, why wouldn’t an illiterate African farmer?

The short terms benefits of this exciting project are wonderful and apparent, but the long term impact is not yet clear. It’s great that simple voice applications will boost the Internet penetration rate and make millions of lives easier and more productive. The excitement alone can have innumerable benefits. Statisically speaking, African ICT usage will look much better than it does today. However, only so much progress can come from a user base who lags behind the rest of the world in online skills. Africans cannot forever live in the shadow of the developed world and must always be willing to take the next step for better ICT training. In the case of the World Wide Web Foundation project, the challenge will be imparting more advanced ICT skills after engaging the less literate members of society.

We must remember that the Semantic Web looms on the horizon.

  • Hmm… I find your analogy here quite lacking:

    “If a university educated iPhone user relies on voice applications on a daily basis, why wouldn’t an illiterate African farmer?”

    First, I don’t know of any power iPhone users who thinks of their device as a conduit to voice applications. Most iPhone users are connecting with the device through its touch screen – visually absorbing data. If its audio, its music, not web browsing.

    Next, the two groups you speak of – global elite and African farmers – do not have the same daily info needs, not by a long shot. While I might make or loose a sale based on my speed in replying to an email or catching a Tweet before others on a minute-by-minute basis, a farmer is more concerned about input costs, weather, disease/pets, and output prices over a 3-6 month (at least) growing season.

    Last but not least, yes, farmers do need data, and yes, voice data can be more accessible to them – in fact radio + voicemail in local languages has been successful in multiple countries. So make the case for voice-accessed Internet boosting information dissemination in Africa, but leave out the weak comparisons to iPhone users

  • OA

    Well argued, Wayan. I appreciate the critique and have come to realize how that specific point is rather weak. I initially saw a comparison centered around the universal attraction to graphical interfaces, but that was all. Considering the vocal scope of the main argument, the comparison is unnecessary and untrue.