Conference reports/FLOSS, South Africa 2005/Workshop 1

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This is a report from the first FLOSS and Free Knowledge Conference in South Africa, April 2005, by Angela Beesley and Erik Möller.

For details of the second workshop, see Conference reports/FLOSS, South Africa 2005/Workshop 2 by user:Anthere.

Watch this space for an update on the thinking and activities around Libre Knowledge.

In April 2005, Angela and Erik attended the international "Free/Libre and Open Source Software" (FLOSS) and Free Knowledge workshop in Pretoria, South Africa. Angela had been invited to give a presentation about the Wikimedia projects there, and Erik was given the opportunity to hold a workshop about wiki technology. The event was organized by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in cooperation with the South African State Information Technology Agency (SITA). The byline for the conference was Knowledge for all, Education for all, so the Wikimedia projects fitted in perfectly.

This report details the conference, and also many potential areas for Wikimedia to work on and to collaborate with the people we met there.

Conference[edit]

Day 1: Context[edit]

The first day was made up of formal presentations.

Welcome and opening
Joe Mazibuko
FLOSS and Free Knowledge Communities
Kim Tucker, Meraka Institute (CSIR)
CDAC and FLOSS in India
M. Sasikumar, CDAC Mumbai
Fostering South-South Collaboration in FLOSS for Education – A perspective from New Zealand
Wayne Mackintosh, University of Auckland
AVOIR - African Virtual Open Initiatives and Resources
Derek Keats, University of the Western Cape
Digital Commons - Making Public-Domain Digital Content Work in Southern Africa
Achal Prabhala, Access to learning materials in South Africa
Digital Commons - Free Knowledge Issues and Challenges
Heather Ford, Creative Commons South Africa
Heather was not able to attend, so Teemu Leinonen from the University of Art and Design, Helsinki presented instead.
Digital Commons -- Wikipedia – A Vision in the Making
Angela Beesley, Wikimedia Foundation
FLOSS Deployment in Education - FLOSS in Education in Finland
Riikka Rahikainen, Häme Centre of Expertise
FLOSS Deployment in Education - TuxLabs – Progress and Methodology
Hilton Theunissen, The Shuttleworth Foundation, South Africa
FLOSS Deployment in Education - FLOSS and i-communities in South Africa and India
Clive Smith, HP

Day 2: Aspirations[edit]

Mimos and FLOSS in Malaysia
Afrezeal Tahrin, MIMOS
Promoting and Deploying FLOSS and the Knowledge Society in the Public Sector
Vusi Magugula
EC-Funded Research on FLOSS and Skills Development
Rishab Ghosh, MERIT/Informatics.

The rest of day two was divided into two workshops. One was on Regional and Internation Collaboaration, and then other was on Free Knowledge Communities. In the latter of these, Erik led a workshop on the MediaWiki software, giving people a rundown on the installation, showing the various features and extensions, and answering questions.

Day 3: Actions and Impact[edit]

The two strands of workshops continued on day 3. Angela and Erik focused on Free Knowledge Communities, discussing ways in which the Wikimedia projects could collaborate with existing initiatives, and new ideas for using Wikimedia content. Problems of illiteracy, and ways of working with the Bridges to the Future project, were discussed. Erik explained the Wikiversity proposal, and the members of the workshop discussed how Wikimedia could become part of the larger E-learning community, which is very important in Africa. The workshop highlighted the need to explore existing E-learning platforms before making any software decisions about Wikiversity. If the project does go ahead, there is potential for collaboration with CSIR, who are working with the e-campus project, and other groups (see below).

Potential projects[edit]

Perhaps most interesting were the conversations that took place during the conference, which gave us important new perspectives on the challenges associated with bringing Wikimedia content to the developing countries, and opened up some potential for future collaborations and grants.

Audio Wikipedia by cell phone[edit]

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.

Distributing Wikipedia to Africa[edit]

Wikipedia is actively being installed on South African school systems by volunteers. Most people we talked to were more interested in offline electronic versions of Wikipedia than in a print edition. Andy Rabagliati (en:User:Wikiwizzy), who very actively works on bringing Wikipedia to schools, argued that both a static HTML dump on DVD as well as an offline application with some method of feeding back edit submissions would be highly desirable. Hilton Theunissen of the Shuttleworth Foundation was particularly interested in an update feed like rsync to maintain offline copies. We pointed him to the work on an OAI-PMH implementation that Brion Vibber has been working on. When this is developed, it may be possible to authorize the use of the feed for such projects.

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.

Many people had questions regarding the accuracy and reliability of the Wikipedia, though these concerns came mostly from people not as aware of the project. Those who already knew Wikipedia were more interested in getting copies. Given the slow Internet connections even in business centres in Africa, creating and distributing a DVD version of Wikipedia should be a high priority. Interestingly, despite the constant flamewars on the mailing lists about inappropriate content being uploaded to Wikipedia, no one who was involved in distributing Wikipedia to schools in Africa felt there was any concern about this and were not aware of any schools objecting to the content.

In terms of languages, the only content being actively distributed was the English version of Wikipedia. The people we spoke to felt it was more useful to distribute this since it already had a critical mass of content, than it would be to distribute the versions of other African languages in the hope of building them up. It was felt there would not be enough literate people with access to computers and sufficient knowledge to make versions such as Zulu and Xhosa into useful resources.

Wiktionary[edit]

Two ideas relating to Wiktionary were discussed. The first relates to the need for a repository of legal terminology in the 11 official languages of South Africa. Wiktionary would be perfectly placed to develop such a resource if there were users available who could edit in these languages. Meryl Ford at CSIR explained to Angela the need for this repository since courts, which are required to deal with all of the official languages, often rely on untrained interpreters who need a reference guide for dealing with unfamiliar terminology from any of the languages they were not native speakers of. The second proposal was from Wayne Mackintosh, who has been involved with a dictionary of Biblical Hebrew which he would like to place in a collaborative editing environment.

Wikibooks and E-learning[edit]

E-learning is a big topic in Africa. Many community centers are trying to use computers in order to help people to acquire basic education. We talked to several people working in that field, with particular focus on Wikibooks and the Wikiversity proposal idea. With the price of textbooks much higher in South Africa than in developed countries (often 2-3 times more in absolute terms), free textbooks are of extreme importance, and Wikibooks could provide the content needed for initiatives to deliver this. The vision of a global free E-learning institution for every human being on the planet was seen as very attractive and the topic was intensively explored during the second and third day. Kim Tucker of CSIR, who organized the conference, is in the process of applying for a substantial grant from the World Bank for a free knowledge project in Africa that could potentially include an e-learning project such as Wikiversity.

To make Wikiversity happen, interfacing MediaWiki with existing Learning Management Systems (LMS) like Moodle or Kewl.NextGen (the latter of which is a new system that was introduced at the conference) was seen as a requirement. Alternatively, similar functionality for developing courses would have to be added to MediaWiki either natively or as an extension. The necessary development work could be covered by the above grant. Whether this is something we want to pursue will have to be decided by the board in the coming weeks.

Wayne Mackintosh of the University of Auckland (New Zealand) was particularly interested in interfacing his "E-learning editor" eXe with MediaWiki/Wikiversity. He sees eXe as an ideal authoring an environment, and MediaWiki as an ideal collaboration environment. Erik is interested in the underlying methodology of eXe for creating pedagogical modules, and intends to follow up on this with Wayne.

MediaWiki development[edit]

Erik talked to several people, notably M. Sasikumar of the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC) in India, Esa Kähäri (an expert on E-learning), a professor from the University of South Africa, and several representatives from a large IT company about the possibility of working together on improving the MediaWiki software for various purposes, particularly E-learning. All of these people expressed basic interest in doing so, and there is a possibility that students enrolled in the i-communities learning programmes could become involved with such a development.

Meetup[edit]

On the evening of the third day, we organized the first African meetup in a small cafe called "Cafe 41" near the conference hotel. Besides ourselves, four Wikipedians from South Africa participated. Three were regular editors of the Afrikaans Wikipedia, and one was an editor of the English Wikipedia:

Several people from the conference, including Wayne Mackintosh and Kim Tucker, also joined us. We discussed ways to promote the Afrikaans Wikipedia (which currently has 3,700 articles, only about 1,500 of which are "real ones", according to the contributors) and methods to distribute Wikipedia to Africa. Alias has written two magazine articles about Wikipedia and MediaWiki which were published in South Africa, but these have not yet brought in any regular new users. Laurens talked about his work in the area of machine translation into African languages, and how he had been translating articles into Afrikaans as part of his research into this. Issues surrounding translation rather than localization of the interface were brought up, since the western metaphors used don't always translate well. We also continued our conversations about E-learning (see above). The meetup lasted about 3 hours and was very enjoyable.

Future conferences[edit]

Several upcoming conferences were mentioned as being of possible interest to Wikimedia. Most notable of these are WSIS (November 2005), at which Wikimedians are going to be present, and the World Conference on Computers in Education in South Africa (July 2005), for which no Wikimedia attendance is currently planned.

Final words[edit]

Unfortunately, with exhaustion from the flight and three days of talks and meetings, we did not see much of South Africa besides the roads we travelled on and the restaurants we went to. Nevertheless, the visit was very productive and led to many new contacts and insights. Hopefully, we will be able to follow up on the discussions, and turn some of the ideas above into reality soon.