This post was produced as part of the UW Comm Department’s undergraduate Entrepreneurial Journalism course.
By Alysa Hullett
While Americans are tapping away at their iPads, Ghanaians are listening to their “Talking Books.”
In many developing nations, poverty means illiteracy. Without the internet, electricity, or access to doctors, Cliff Schmidt realized many families are ignorant of the help they need from everything from growing potatoes to saving their lives.
So he founded Seattle-based nonprofit Literacy Bridge, aiming to combat global poverty and illiteracy through a simplistic audio computer. Press a button, and vital health and agriculture information plays in the targeted village’s native dialect.
“I wanted to focus on the poorest of the poor,” he says. “So we’re giving families access to a library of knowledge at the lowest cost possible.”
Schmidt received his B.S. in Cognitive Science from MIT and his M.S. in Computer Science and Engineering from UW. While volunteering with MIT’s “One Laptop Per Child” organization—he realized that the $100 plus price tag for laptops distributed to developing nations’ youth was impractical.
So he created the “Talking Book,” costing roughly $25 to $30 to produce. Unlike your laptop—these devices can brave dust storms and rainfall, being tossed and being dropped. The handheld blue, yellow and green boxes might elicit images of an old cassette player rather than a computer—but they are not intended to play Britney Spears tracks.
Patented in 2009, the devices piloted in a remote Ghanaian village and have spread to 11 other villages. Families have one week to “read” the “book” before passing it along to their neighbor.
Whether it’s “during dinner, after dinner, or while taking it out on the farm,” Schmidt says once they have completed the tracks, they are encouraged to record questions, concerns, or contribute information for the next listener.
The device has led 95% users to apply a new health or agricultural practice after its use. Success stories include locals properly nourishing a child, improving crop yields, and treating malaria.
But villagers don’t always receive Talking Book messages gracefully. Program director Bridgette Greenhaw says while messages related to agriculture are rarely resisted, sometimes health-related topics are sensitive.
Directed by the Ministry of Health, the device once told West-African expecting mothers to stop using a traditional plant-based drug used ease pain during labor, “Monsugo,” due to possible danger to the mother and child.
Because of the drug’s longstanding tradition in the community, many African mothers refused or criticized the advice. Rejecting Monsugo also eliminates their one hope of childbirth pain relief—a request too steep for many village women to bear.
Literacy Bridge members stepped back, shifting the message’s tone from commanding abstinence to informing about the drug’s potential dangers, and criticism correspondingly subsided.
“We want to respect a community’s beliefs, but we also need to help the Ministry of Health get out critical messages,” Greenhaw says. “We’re still finding the best way to balance these two.”
Depending on the region, the approach to the message transmission differs, as determined by a Literacy Bridge employee and a local village agent. One village was thought to be musically receptive; consequently a song sung by locals about health services was commissioned by Literacy Bridge and recorded onto the devices.
In September, the organization won the 2012 Tech Award for most innovative use of technology for educational means. So far, Literacy Bridge is unique in promoting knowledge in this affordable, efficient way, but Schmidt hopes it will inspire other organizations to be mindful of the way technology is administrated to impoverished areas.
While attending graduate school at the UW Evans School of Public Affairs, Greenhaw fled to Ghana for the first time, assisting a professor in research about the impact of mobile devices on maternal health care.
Returning her second time with Literacy Bridge, she recalls hearing a local mother’s gratitude about the product’s message of birthing children in a hospital or finding a midwife.
“She couldn’t believe she hadn’t realized the danger before,” Greenhaw says. “It’s such a simple message, but it was something that really impacted her.”
The benefits of simple technology on maternal health care astounded and inspired Greenhaw.
Frequent surveys are conducted to ensure the effectiveness of the product, and much of the digestion of the data is thanks to volunteers from the UW Evans School and Microsoft.
Development director Doris Wong-Estridge says volunteers are able to understand a lot about the communities they are serving by entering data from the devices into the system.
Through various demographic data and assessments, they are able to measure how much users are listening, retaining, and applying the information.
Anyone is welcome to join the fight against illiteracy by showing up to the Literacy Bridge office during volunteer events. The next will be held Sunday February 24th from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“Technology is a powerful tool—but it’s about so much more than technology itself,” she says. Often, “it has to be part of an overall program model, making it a cost-effective way to expand the reach of existing programs.”
Even in the era of the iPad— sometimes, a simple little box that talks is better.