Bridging the Literacy Divide with Open Source
Can a $5 iPod-like device help change the world and substitute for the Internet where the Net does not exist? PORTLAND, Ore. -- Cliff Schmidt is a man on a mission -- a mission to help stamp out illiteracy. And his weapon of choice in this battle is a $5 iPod-like device that he says can substitute for the Internet in places that have little to no electricity, where the poorest of the poor live.
Schmidt is the president of Literacy Bridge, a nonprofit whose "mission is to empower children and adults with tools for knowledge sharing and literacy learning, as an effective means towards advancing education, health, economic development, democracy and human rights," according to the mission statement on the organization's Web site.
The Literacy Bridge's core tool is called the Talking Book device and it looks like an elaborate remote control device of some sort. According to the organization, the Talking Book device "offers children and adults a versatile and interactive tool designed for use with locally recorded readings of existing and newly created reading books. As an information system, the Talking Book System offers inexpensive distribution to large numbers of people, enabling individuals to determine what information they want and when they want it."
Schmidt, who has been a consultant in the open-source community -- helping large companies adopt open-source strategies -- is attending OSCON (the O'Reilly Open Source Convention) here to talk about the use of open-source technology in education and to look into open-source software components for the Talking Book Device.
"The idea for this came up about a year ago and has evolved from there," Schmidt said. "I was working with One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) and I was looking at how we could use laptops to help improve literacy. And when I left to go to Ghana I took a few laptops, but I realized then that laptops weren't the solution because of their price point. They are a solution for a specific set of problems, and can be a strategic bet for a developing country over the long term. But for an individual to be able to buy a device that could help them improve the quality of their life ... I said, Could a $5 device be built to help instead of a $200 or $100 laptop?"
So Schmidt set out to see that device built, and the Upper West Region of Ghana will be the first location to get the devices when they are ready. Schmidt said the devices right now cost more like $10 the way they are built today, but he said by the time they become widely available he is certain they will be built more efficiently and could be sold for $5. The goal is to make the device as affordable as possible because in the areas targeted for its use, people live on less than $1 a day, Schmidt said.
Thus far, "We've locked in on the mechanical engineering and the electrical engineering for the device, but we haven't really done the software; that's why I'm at OSCON," Schmidt said.
He said the team has built a layer of software to prove out the features of the device, "but we have to build an operating system. We have a design and we think the open-source world is the right place for us."
Indeed, open-source software plays into one of the three legs of Literacy Bridge's "sustainability stool," Schmidt said. That stool's three legs are environmental sustainability, business sustainability and engineering sustainability, he said.
"We want our code base to live beyond us, so we're working with engineering schools in Ghana and will be working with engineering schools in other developing countries," so there will be engineers knowledgeable about the project and the device, he said.
Moreover, "we'd like to find some embedded C programmers who could build some software for the device," Schmidt added.
The business and engineering legs sort of speak for themselves, but on the environmental sustainability leg of the project, Schmidt said:
Although we will introduce the device as powered by locally available batteries, we are developing a rechargeable battery program for the device. Small businesses and local organizations can get microcredit loans to purchase solar panels to charge rechargeable batteries. These batteries will be rented out to the Talking Book users for a price that is less than what they pay for disposable batteries -- about US$0.25. This will progressively shift users to a more environmentally sustainable option than disposable batteries.
Through this approach, we introduce the system by leveraging existing, available and familiar power sources and then give users an incentive to move toward less familiar but greener energy. Kiosks will be powered by solar energy when grid power is not available. The device is designed to allow local assembly and replacement of parts, rather than throwing out the entire unit when one part is damaged. We are also looking into ways to encourage broken materials[or] units to be returned to kiosks, service centers, and/or points of sale, rather than just thrown out.
The Talking Book device will be showcased at the upcoming LinuxWorld Conference & Expo 's Linux Garage showcase area. "The Linux Garage is a themed area of the show floor that pays homage to the tinkering spirit inside every successful Linux developer," said a description on the LinuxWorld site. However, while the Talking Book device may not necessarily run Linux as its core operating system, the kiosks associated with the devices will, Schmidt said.
"We also plan to build kiosks that act as your local library," for people in villages where the devices will be made available, Schmidt said. "It makes sense to build on Linux because we want the cheapest hardware and no software licenses."
In addition, one of the open-source projects Schmidt's organization plans to build is a Windows-based authoring tool for content for the device.
According to the Literacy Bridge's Web site, the Talking Bridge device includes the following features:
Users can store and play multiple audio programs; Users can record new audio programs (to reduce costs for most users, this feature may not be available on the most basic version of the device); Users can copy the audio content to/from the device; Users can play back the audio at slow speeds for reading practice of an associated text document; Users can audio-hyperlink to another portion of the program for more detail or a related piece of information; Users can answer multiple-choice questions, enabling interactive learning; The audio program can optionally contain another file containing the content in text form -- this enables future transfer of the textual information to another computer for display, processing, or printing; The device can redirect the sound to an external, loud speaker (uses FM transmission to a nearby radio; The device accepts power from standard, locally available batteries, but also accepts new batteries that can be recharged with solar power at local kiosks; and the device interoperates with the XO computer (also known as the $100 Laptop).
Schmidt said he thinks the devices "can revolutionize the way knowledge is disseminated in the very poorest parts of the world and can drastically improve literacy skills ... I think it's going to be used similarly to the way we use the Internet but applied to the user's world. We're trying to leverage local organizations to provide health care information -- such as how to prevent the spread of HIV and malaria, agricultural information, and economic information, such as how to run a small business."
Schmidt cited studies that say more than 40 percent of adults in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa cannot meet the United Nations' basic definition of literacy, which is to be able to read and write a simple sentence about themselves.
"A device like ours has the power to address illiteracy from another side -- you don't wait until a person is literate to give them help," Schmidt said.
Meanwhile, Schmidt said he took a prototype of the device with him on a recent trip to Ghana to get feedback from the people who will use it. Upon his return his team came up with a new prototype that comes in three colors, bright orange, blue and green, because "in areas where there is no electricity, the bright colors will help people see [the devices] better," he said.
The next step is to do a pilot test with the latest version of the device and take 50 to 100 devices to the Ghanaian villagers who will be using them, Schmidt said.
Moreover, Schmidt said on his last trip to Ghana he took a bunch of digital voice recorders and distributed them to local universities so that they could record content useful for the villagers.
For its part, Literacy Bridge chose Ghana as its first target because it "had the right balance of need versus support" for literacy learning and knowledge sharing, Schmidt said. He acknowledged that the need is probably greater in places like Afghanistan or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, "but there is less support and also more challenges" in those locations. Schmidt said India is the next country Literacy Bridge will go to, followed by Kenya.
Showing his conviction, Schmidt cited former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan as stating in 2003 that the U.N. was kicking off the literacy decade. Back then studies showed there were more than 880 million illiterate people in the world, and yet more recent studies say by 2015 there will still be more than 600 million illiterate people.
"That's two years after the U.N. literacy decade is to end," Schmidt said. "And that's not fast enough for me."
Cliff Schmidt is a determined man. He is certainly a man capable of making this effort a success. I count him among my actual friends in the industry. He is a multifaceted guy -- an MIT graduate who later put in time protecting the free world by serving as an officer on nuclear submarines on missions bordering hostile waters. Or maybe, in fact more likely, he even entered hostile waters. He doesn't give a lot of information about those days. However, Schmidt is not one of those fake-ass "If I told you I'd have to kill you" types who have worked in mostly innocuous military and intelligence situations. He's the real deal. The tall, slight, soft-spoken Schmidt is no softie. Well, he did formerly work at Microsoft on some of its more illustrious projects, and also at BEA Systems. Schmidt has also done a stint in film making.
Maybe we'll even see a movie about this some day if Literacy Bridge achieves the success it envisions. Just who will play Schmidt? Take Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan, make him a geek and put him in charge of a nonprofit aiming to help the world ... and you'll have Cliff Schmidt.