a few weeks ago, my wife and I were hiking through the beautiful Swiss Alps and
had a lively discussion about the definition of some absurd term. All we had
with us was a cell phone. This was the birth of our idea: Wouldn't it be great
if the Wikipedia content was accessible sending a simple SMS?
Yes, though of course it requires compressing information a lot, even
when concatenating multiple messages. [[World War I]] intro presently is
3465 characters by my count, 22 concatenated SMS messages with 160
One project that is presently in the planning stage (as in, actual
planning, not just on hold) is called MobiLed. We discussed this when
Angela and I were in South Africa. The idea here is slightly different,
namely, based on sending actual audio versions (spoken or
machine-generated) to the user for free.
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Audio Wikipedia by cell phone
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.
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. In order for it to work,
the callback would have to be funded somehow. Teemu is seeking funding
from major companies and institutions for this project as part of a
larger project centering on Mobile Phones in Formal and Informal
Learning. CSIR were interested in this project since they are developing
open source speech recognition programmes to deal with African languages
in the field of telephony. If the project does get funding, Wikimedia
will be given the opportunity to be involved in terms of development,
operation and organization.
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In developed countries, the callback could be paid for by the user, of
course. (One idea is that users in developed countries could sponsor
users in developing ones.) If you want to be involved, drop me or Angela
a line and we'll get you in touch with the relevant people.