Computerworld Honors 2013: Life-changing lessons via mobile device

This may be the Information Age, but there are 750 million illiterate adults worldwide who can't take advantage of today's wealth of data to better their lives. In fact, illiteracy, poverty and a lack of electricity impede millions from learning and benefitting from the technology advances that have marked our era.

That's clearly evident in many developing countries, where 800 million farmers live on less than a dollar a day and 1.5 billion people have no electricity. Yet access to knowledge and new skills are critical to successful development efforts aimed at lifting them out of poverty and improving their lives.

Literacy Bridge, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization, developed a way to work around these obstacles: The Talking Book.

As its name suggests, the Talking Book delivers information orally, an important teaching strategy that's particularly relevant because many of its users come from cultures with oral traditions.

Individuals living in remote rural communities without electricity can use the Talking Book to access on-demand audio lessons recorded by local experts, selecting from a library of lessons that address the critical issues they face. Its audio content management system enables local organizations to arrange recordings by language and topic, such as livestock diseases or malaria prevention. They can also use the system, along with usage statistics and a user feedback application, to make improvements to the lessons.

The Talking Book doesn't rely on computers, the Internet or mobile networks for distribution of the audio lessons. Lessons can simply be played or recorded on the device itself and can be copied from device to device, allowing them to reach greater numbers of individuals in need.

Additionally, the mobile device doesn't need to be plugged into the electrical grid for charging. Unlike standard mobile phones, the Talking Book is powered by disposable and rechargeable batteries.

Trials started on the Talking Book's core technology back in 2009, when it was first deployed during a pilot study in rural Ghana. Development of the device's current technology system was completed and deployed in 2011, when Literacy Bridge kicked off its integrated health and agriculture initiative designed to improve the health of 24,000 women and at-risk children in remote rural Ghanaian communities.

Currently, Literacy Bridge is improving the efficiency of content development and delivery. Additionally, it's working on its content management software to allow it to track geographic-based contextual information, such as resource constraints, and to break down usage statistics by client, community and group.

Literacy Bridge also is developing a new custom chip for the Talking Book, which will help it lower both production costs and energy use.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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