Tag Archives: Literacy

Is Radio Tuned in to Our Needs?

There are estimates that say between 80-90% of family households in Africa have access to a functional radio. Radio, in many aspects, has been an amazing tool for development in many countries, particularly for those in Sub-Saharan Africa.  In an area where large percentages of the population are illiterate, radio is often the main way in which people receive current information. The information given through radio broadcasts can include weather reports, news reports, or other pertinent information. Electricity in many of these rural areas is also often very limited or nonexistent, giving battery-powered radios another major benefit.  But there are some important aspects to radio use that can’t be ignored.

Radio, in its common and traditional form, is a one-way flow of information from broadcaster to listener. As a consequence, this doesn’t necessarily foster any engagement or communication between the two parties. Imagine having a conversation with a friend where you weren’t able to ask them questions but could only passively listen to them.  While you might gain some valuable knowledge, this kind of communication has its limitations. With the rise of other technologies such as mobile phones and internet, is radio on its way out? There are many other types of ICT that allow for two-way exchanges, but could they fully replace radio? Have you heard of any initiative that attempt to somehow combine the two? Radio has so many benefits including its affordability and its prevalence and availability in these rural areas. I’d be curious to know what other people think about radio’s future role in the ICT4D world.


Automated Texting Services for Low-Resource Languages

Following our class period with Robert Munro, I found myself browsing through his Twitter and found an article describing his PhD topic in an August 9th Tweet. Within the article, he elaborates on some of the concepts discussed in class; as he explains, so many of the 5,000+ languages of the world are being written for the first time ever with the proliferation of mobile telephony, but the technology to process these languages cannot keep up. Compounding the problem, these phone users are of varied literacy levels, making for spelling inconsistencies among users. However, he concludes that automated information systems can pull out words that are least likely to vary in spelling (ie people, places, organizations) and examine subword variation by identifying affixes within words as well as accounting for phonological or orthographic variation (ie recognize vs. recognise). The article goes on to provide more technical prescriptions for automated text response services, and he even links to another article in a separate Tweet, which describes Powerset, a natural language search system that ultimately failed, but utilized a few valuable processes.

Ultimately, Dr. Munro implies that the capacity for automated text services in “low-resource languages” is well within reach, particularly because the messages are generally just one to two sentences. Because spelling variations are predictable, they can be modeled, and hopefully reliably answered by automated systems. However, the use of these systems will not be realized until they become more reliable and efficient than human responders, which, as he explained in class, can be extremely effective.

IBM’s ViaVoice / Dragon Naturally Speaking

Unwin mentioned IBM’s VIAVoice software package in the latest reading. This software was originally called ViaVoice by IBM but sold to Nuance and now is now called Dragon Naturally Speaking. It is a speech recognition software that takes the complicated task of learning how to use a computer, and essentially makes it more user-friendly for beginners who may have trouble typing. This program advocates the following
“You talk, and it types. Use your voice to create and edit documents or emails, launch applications, open files; control your mouse, and more. Quickly and easily capture your thoughts and ideas while Dragon helps you get more done faster” (Nuance).
Typing may seem like an easy task to the average westerner, who learned to type in Kindergarten, but as I have seen from experience, it is much harder for an adult to learn how to type (I interned at a non-profit this summer called Refugee Resetlement and had to spend a great deal of time helping a refugee from Sierra Leone struggle with learning how to use the computer/type).

Although this software seems beneficial, Unwin believes that it can also be detrimental. He says that,  “the use of ICTs [like the aforementioned] may be reducing the dependency that people have on the traditional literacy skills such as reading and writing” ( 65). He then argues that, because this specific software negates the need for someone to be literate by creating text out of the spoken word, this might in the future cause people to abandon the need to learn to write (65).

I disagree with this notion and think (at the risk of sounding too harsh) Unwin’s concern that this may cause people to not learn to write is a far fetched assumption. Literacy allows one to communicate, creates a better quality of life, leads to more opportunities in terms of acquiring knowledge, provides for a wider array of job opportunities, allows one to better participate in society, etc. This software could definitely be used in terms of literate people wanting to get things done faster and not spending time to type, but it is improbable that it ever take the place of literacy.  Literacy is a vital aspect of education and furthering one’s knowledge and will never be abandoned regardless of how many cutting edge technologies are created year after year.

Cellphones Help Maternal Health in India and Literacy in Niger

According to Professor Sachs, from Columbia University, “extreme poverty is almost synonymous with extreme isolation. Mobile phones and wireless Internet end isolation and will therefore prove to be the most transformative technology of economic development of our time”. The Catholic Relief Services projects in India and Niger have taken full advantage of this through use of the cell phone. The Sure Start Project in India uses cell phones to report on child health and maternal health in the Gorakhpur district. In this poor rural area of India maternal and neonatal mortality rates are very high. The trained CRS workers work in the area to help council women and bring them to clinics in emergency situations. In addition, they collect a lot of information on things such as births and maternal health. Before the use of cellphones, they would have to travel an average of 30 kilometers to report this information to their supervisors. However, now with the use of cellphones, they can send in their data which is much more efficient. They also hope that the cellphones will help them in other ways. They hope to start getting telephone alerts about things such as disease outbreaks so that they can respond faster and in better ways. They also want to receive data via their cell phones on how they are doing in comparison to other districts.

CRS also has initiated Project ABC in Niger.  This project uses cell phones to teach adults in rural areas how to read and write, and helps households use information on the market to sell and buy their crops. This project works by using smartphones with interactive lessons to teach literacy in their languages. Data proves that this has helped improve literacy rates 28% in villages that use cell phones to teach literacy as opposed to villages that teach literacy in traditional ways. Furthermore, the continued use of these cell phones after people have learned to read has helped them to continue practicing through texting and the digital textbooks on the phones. The cell phones have also helped families do better in the market because it also has digital textbooks that teach about agriculture, health, and natural resource management. The phones also provide information on market trends, which has proven to be extremely helpful as well.

While both of these projects seem to be extremely beneficial in theory, after the readings we have done for class and our class discussions this week, I can’t help but wonder how well these projects have actually worked. The post never mentions complications these people must face with these phones such as battery life. Seeing as they are in extremely remote and poor villages they most likely don’t have much access to reliable electricity to charge their phones frequently enough to spend hours every day working with them. Furthermore, in a video we watched a few weeks ago in class, a man brought up the issue that knowing market prices is great and all but when your crops are about to go bad if you don’t get them to market, how is knowing the market price supposed to help you since you have to sell them right then no matter what. Furthermore, I can’t help but wonder how expensive these phones are with these extra programs on them and whether they are really all that affordable to the people in Niger that need them most. However, I do believe that if these people using the cell phones have solved the problem of battery life, and are not too costly, then these two projects indeed can be very beneficial.