I’ve just started experimenting with a rather funky tool called Talkr. Essentially, Talkr is a podcast generator for text blogs, and it has enormous implications for people with visual impairments and limited literacy.
When you look at a typical blog, it’s mostly text. This may be no problem for many people, but if you’re reading skills aren’t strong or you don’t see well, text blogs can be quite a challenge. Meanwhile, thousands of Internet users create their own podcasts, which are basically blogs containing audio files. Apart from being really cool for everyone, podcasts are particularly useful for people who can’t read or see well. But they’re not exactly practical for the hard of hearing, either, who would benefit more from reading a text blog. Theoretically, it would be great if every person who wrote a text blog would record a podcast of it as well, but very few, if any bloggers bother to do this.
Enter Talkr. Talkr is a Web-based speech synthesizer that takes the texts of blogs and generates and MP3 file, with a computer voice speaking the text. For people who just want to visit their favorite text blogs and listens to them, Talkr works as blog management tool; you simply add your favorite blogs to your account, and it will create a computer-generated voice mp3 for each entry. Meanwhile, for all of you bloggers out there, Talkr lets you embed a computer-generatd mp3 into each of your blog entries, and supplies you with an RSS feed for them. This means that users can either come to your blog and click a link to listen to the mp3, or they can use iTunes or another podcast management tool to subscribe to the feed and receive each new mp3 file automatically.
Talkr is still a work in progress, but it’s fascinated me to the point that I’ve decided to take a shot at integrating it into my blog. Each of my blog entries will now have a link at the bottom that says “Listen to a computer-generated podcast of this article.” Clickling the link will bring you to the mp3 file where you can hear the text being read aloud. (Note: I’ve noticed that the mp3 files don’t work immediately when you’ve posted a new blog entry; it takes at least a few minutes to generate the file.) For example, here’s the MP3 file that was generated by my last blog entry, about race and the digital divide.
Meanwhile, I’ve also added a new RSS feed that allows you to subscribe directly to the mp3 via iTunes or another podcast manager:
I will be very curious to hear what all of you think of this tool. The computer voice takes some getting used to – it’s also a woman’s voice, so don’t expect to hear a radio-friendly baritone or anything like that. In practice, though, this tool could be used to help people who experience limited literacy skills or visual impairments, giving them a whole new way to participate in the blogosphere. Please let me know what you think. -andy
Archive for March, 2006
I’ve just started experimenting with a rather funky tool called Talkr. Essentially, Talkr is a podcast generator for text blogs, and it has enormous implications for people with visual impairments and limited literacy.
Today’s New York Times features an article about the rapid pace of blacks and Latinos bridging the digital divide. The article paints a picture that minorities have made enormous progress in terms of gaining Internet access in recent years.
Studies and mounting anecdotal evidence now suggest that blacks, even some of those at the lower end of the economic scale, are making significant gains. As a result, organizations that serve African-Americans, as well as companies seeking their business, are increasingly turning to the Internet to reach out to them.
“What digital divide?” Magic Johnson, the basketball legend, asked rhetorically in an interview about his new Internet campaign deal with the Ford Motor Company’s Lincoln Mercury division to use the Internet to promote cars to black prospective buyers.
The sharpest growth in Internet access and use is among young people. But blacks and other members of minorities of various ages are also merging onto the digital information highway as never before.
According to a Pew national survey of people 18 and older, completed in February, 74 percent of whites go online, 61 percent of African-Americans do and 80 percent of English-speaking Hispanic-Americans report using the Internet. The survey did not look at non-English-speaking Hispanics, who some experts believe are not gaining access to the Internet in large numbers.
The article goes on to note that the statistics shouldn’t necessarily be taken as totally rosy, offering quotes from the president of the Kaiser Family Foundation and myself:
Vicky Rideout, vice president of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which has studied Internet use by race, ethnicity and age, cautioned that a new dimension of the digital divide might be opening because groups that were newer to the Internet tended to use less-advanced hardware and had slower connection speeds.
“The type and meaningful quality of access is, in some ways, a more challenging divide that remains,” Ms. Rideout said. “This has an impact on things like homework.”
In addition, Internet access solely at institutions can put students at a disadvantage. Schools and other institutions seldom operate round the clock, seven days a week, which is especially an issue for students, said Andy Carvin, coordinator for the Digital Divide Network, an international group that seeks to close the gap.
As I note above, the article mentions recent data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project that suggests a surge of access, particularly by Latinos. According to their data, a whopping 79% of English-speaking Latinos access the Internet, beating out African Americans and whites – and perhaps even the Nordic countries, which generally have the highest Internet access rates in the world. However, it’s worth noting that this 79% represents English-speaking Latinos only. According to the US Census Bureau, there are around 41.3 million Latinos in the US. Of these, nearly 14 million don’t speak English well or at all. It’s vital we collect better statistics about this community; otherwise, policymakers and philanthropists might hear a soundbyte that says four out of five Latinos are online and assume the problem is solved. Unless we address those who are most marginalized in our society – those that don’t speak English – we’re not tackling the problem adequately.
Moreover, it’s worth noting that the Pew data looks broadly at Internet access, asking respondents if they use the Internet at all, whether at home, school, work or elsewhere. These numbers are generally higher than the numbers of people who have Internet access at home. The US Department of Commerce’s NTIA office has collected digital divide data for over a decade. In their surveys, the most recent of which was almost three years ago, they researched the percentages of households that had Internet access. According to their data, white households were far and away more likely to be online than African Americans or Latinos. For much of the 1990s, Latinos fared better than African Americans, but that pattern appeared to reverse in the year 2000, when African Americans surpassed Latinos.
Why does any of this matter? As I suggested in the NY Times story, people may have Internet access, but if it’s not at home, that access may be inadequate. Nearly 100% of US schools are online today, which would suggest that nearly all students would at some point or another have Internet access. But if some of them don’t have access at home, they’re at a severe disadvantaged when compared to their wired peers. Access through libraries and community technology centers are very important, but they don’t solve all our problems, given the fact they tend to have limited operating hours and limited capacity. Some libraries are only open one or two days a week, and for a few hours at a time; imagine asking every kid in that community without home Internet access to complete an online course using such limited infrastructure.
So is it possible that nearly 80% of English-speaking Latinos are online? I have immense respect for the folks at Pew, and they don’t have a political axe to grind, so I’m inclined to give them the benefit of a doubt. I’m still scratching my head a bit, but they’re the statiticians and I’m not. However, it’s still important to take into account the value of at-home Internet access, not to mention issues such as literacy, computer skills and the availability of high-quality, cuturally relevant content. Meanwhile, with each new technological leap, we’re facing another digital divide, whether it’s the broadband divide, the wifi divide, what have you. As long as there are socioeconomic divisions in our society, there will always be haves and have-nots – and the have-nots are the last to get the latest gear and benefit from it.
A note to Magic Johnson, in case he’s reading this: You used to be an activist for bridging the digital divide, and now you’re saying “What digital divide?” I’d be curious to know what changed your mind. -andy
Chris Lydon live on Open Source last night
Last night I had the pleasure of being a guest on Christopher Lydon’s public radio program, Open Source. The focus of the show was genetics and genealogy, which has been a hobby of mine for six years now.
I arrived at the studio just before 7pm, when the program airs live. I sat in the studio with Chris, who was busily jotting down notes for the show, peppering me with interesting questions about the subject. I’d met Chris once or twice at Harvard Berkman events, but this was the first time we’d ever really chatted. You can tell he’s done thousands of interviews in his long career; he really makes you feel comfortable. I think it was particularly helpful that I was with him in person. Sometimes I’ve done radio interviews in which I’m over the phone or checking in via another studio, and the lack of eye contact can affect the rapport of the conversation. So it was great being able to sit at the same table with Chris, microphones bobbing six inches from our noses; it would make for a very comfortable, casual conversation.
I didn’t come on for the first 40 minutes; Chris interviewed Spencer Wells of National Geographic and John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin first. This allowed me to observe his interview style and take notes. During music breaks, Chris would talk simultaneously with the control room as well as with me, taking advantage of every moment to prepare for the next segment.
Eventually, it was my turn to appear on air. Chris opened things up by asking me how I started my own family tree odyssey, and the brick wall I hit in terms of a lack of a genealogical paper trail beyond my great-grandparents. I talked about how I learned about genetic genealogy in early 2000 and tracked down the founder of Family Tree DNA, which was just getting off the ground as one of the first commercial providers of DNA tests for genealogical purposes.
From there, we talked about some of the findings I had, including the connections on both sides of my family with the Middle East and northeast Africa. I also talked a bit about my father-in-law, Dave Cornwall, who got tested last year and ended up connecting with other DNA customers who happened to be named Cornwell and shared a similar story of how their families came to America. Chris wrapped it up by asking me what I plan to tell our first child about our family’s history and what we’ve learned from the DNA testing. I said I hoped that it would give them an appreciation of how we’re connected to people from all over the world, and that we’re all one large human family, all equally deserving of dignity and respect.
The hour was over quite fast – it’s amazing how these things fly by when you’re into it. Chris said he’d be getting tested soon; I can’t wait to see the follow-up show and learn what he discovered.
In case you didn’t catch the show, here’s the podcast of the full hour. It’s about 24 megabytes, so it may take a while to download. My segment is about 40 minutes into the show – not that you should skip ahead or anything. -andy
Tonight I’m going to be a guest on Christopher Lydon’s public radio program, Open Source. The show will focus on genetics and genealogy for the full hour; I’ll be talking about my own personal experiences with DNA testing for family tree research. Other guests include “Journey of Man” author Spencer Wells of National Geographic’s Genographic Project and anthropology blogger John Hawks.
Open Source is syndicated over public radio international. It airs live at 7pm ET/4pm PT in many communities, though sometimes it’s recorded and aired at other times. Check their schedule for station air times near you.
Otherwise, you can go to hear the program streamed live over the Internet. -andy
My blog traffic experiences the Digg Effect
For many months now, Digital Divide Network member Phil Shapiro has been singing the praises of the technology news digest Digg. Unlike many news digests, where news blurbs are posted chronologically or by the whim of a particular editor, Digg determines story placement by voting. Anyone who joins the Digg community can submit a link and summary of a news headline from elsewhere on the Internet. Digg members then get to vote for it – or “digg” it – and make comments about the story. The more diggs a story gets, the higher profile the story has on the website.
I’ve been playing around with Digg for a little while now but yesterday was the first time I felt the power of Digg in action. I posted a digg headline about my blog entry on student vandalism of Wikipedia. Previous Digg headlines of mine had only garnered a handful of Diggs, but this story took off. In less than 24 hours the headline received over 800 diggs and 100 comments, placing it on the Digg homepage for much of the day. My blog traffic spiked because of it; rather than getting a modest average of 1,000 page views a day, the blog received over 10,000 page views.
Apart from generating the extra traffic to my site, I was quite happy with the comments posted by Digg members. While some of them were sarcastic or dismissive, many of them were constructive commentary on the subject discussed in the blog entry. I was particularly surprised by the number of students and educators who posted comments about their own experiences with Wikipedia vandalism, including:
“Wow, we made the news! The Timmins school is my school board – and yes, this entire school board, geographically the size of *FRANCE*, shares the same IP for every school in the board. I’m a teacher at this board and spend a lot of time showing my students how to find things in Wikipedia. I was always hoping our board would make the news for technology, but always thought it would be for ’shop’ or ‘welding’”
“My school was banned from editing Wikipedia because a student conducted a test to see how long it takes to correct information by adding false information. After one student tried it others did too including the library staff, therefore getting the school banned from editing articles. My school doesn’t allow us to use it for any research because apparently a few hours is too long for a correction to be made.”
“In truth, institutions concerned with the quality of source material choose not to accept Wikipedia because of its lack of quality controls and fact checking. Anyone on the planet can submit articles and revisions, with no party truly accountable for accuracy. The fact Wikipedia is corrected within only a few hours is a testament to how good it is, but the fact that none of it can be trusted as truth or fact is its biggest problem. That is why it should be taken with a grain of salt, and used as only a *starting* place for research.”
“My college has been banned. I went to fix an article and it said that my IP had been banned due to multiple acts of vandalism.”
“Long ago I put a block in place to stop children from editing (well, vandalising) pages on Wikipedia – as it can be useful as a resource, but there’s no need for them to be editing it. However, since our single IP is shared among 50+ schools it can get a bit hairy. I dont want to ask Wikipedia to block us from editing, because it’s not my decision to ask Wikipedia to block so many schools. Many other schools don’t have the kind of advanced filtering system we have in place that will allow them to just block the editing alone. Kids are kids, they’re going to vandalise stuff. It’s just not something schools can police on their own.”
“I hate Wikipedia vandalism. At my friend’s school, as part of “investigative research” to show how inaccurate wikipedia is, some kid deliberately put misinformation in that school’s entry. My friend edited it back promptly, but the punk kept editing in the misinfo over and over again, saying that it was proof that anything can be put on wikipedia, even misinformation.”
“As IT manager for a school district. I get the displeasure of seeing this kind of stuff happen quite often. I love letting the HS kids have the opportunity to use the internet for learning and seeing new things. Unfortunately, teachers(not all of them mind you) think computer labs are great “babysitters” They go BS with their peers while the kids do as they please. Proxy servers are great, but you can never stop everything:(”
“i teach computer class for 3rd – 5th grades. i push and use wikipedia in class ALL THE TIME! however, the district went and bought a (i’m sure) expensive subscription to World Book Online this year. our school district is in need of cash so badly right now. i questioned the high school librarian who initially pushed for World Book as to why they don’t use wikipedia. her response was that it’s too easy to edit and there is too much incorrect information. i challenged her points, but it was too late anyway. the schools had already forked over the dollars for World Book. i was given the user/pass for World Book and told to teach the kids how to use it, but i refuse. i’ll stick to wiki, and i don’t give a shat if the administrators would like it otherwise… it’s my classroom.”
The comments go on and on – 103 of them at last count.
Right now, Digg is set up to focus on high-tech subjects like hardware, gaming, robots and Linux, but the creators of the site have been talking about adding other topics. I’d love to see topics like “education,” “human rights,” “economic development” or even “digital divide” be added, so it would be more amenable to sharing and debating topics that go beyond traditional geekery. Until then, I’ll keep placing my stories under the vague category of “technology” and see what happens. -andy
Taran Rampersad has just authored an insightful essay on what it means to be a technology activist. (Yours truly gets a mention in the article, which was mighty nice of him.) I’m going to snip heavily from his essay, since he sums up his train of thought better than I can.
Really – what is a technology activist? This has been something I’ve been trying to figure out, as it is presently a primary description of me… I joked about it, saying that the ‘pay sucks’ (and it does), and that there’s little room for advancement.
Andy Carvin is someone I would use the label on. So is Bonnie Bracey. In fact, when I think about it, the entire DigitalDivide.net is really about technology activism, and it’s certainly not limited to that one group. There are technology activists everywhere.
And I still can’t quite put a finger on what a technology activist is. At the end of the day, it’s a very broad and ill defined area which is a bit scarey, because perception might lead people to believe that technology activism is limited to a select group, when in fact I believe it isn’t. I believe that it’s a part of the natural course of technology.
For my part, I see it as an issue related to quality of life. I know that a lot of other people feel the same, though most I do know of would be categorized as Digital Divide Activists. Which, of course, gets us to what a Digital Divide Activist is and may help define Technology Activism.
The Digital Divide is pretty hard to divide, by itself, but generally speaking I think we could say it has to do with Information and Communications Technologies (ICT), globalization, and a divide in technology usage which affects areas of development. Just like development itself, the definition of the Digital Divide changes every day.
I suppose that means that Digital Divide Activists are doing something. And in the broader context, technology activism isn’t limited to Digital Divide Activism.
Taran goes on to say that technology activism in itself is “a pretty poorly defined area.” Generally speaking, he concludes, it means “trying to bring about change with technology.”
I think that hits the nail on the head. Being a technology activist and working to bridge the digital divide isn’t about putting an Internet PC so we can grow the market for e-commerce, online gaming or entertainment. If that’s all we’re doing, I might as well start looking for another job. (Wait a sec – I’m doing that already. Scratch that.)
Instead, being a technology activist is something more basic: fostering equitable access to tools that will improve people’s quality of life – quality as they define it, on their own terms. For some people, that means gaining access to education for the first time. For others, it’s plugging them into the democratic process so they can become a voice for change. Still others, it’s making sure that their children have more and better opportunities to prosper than they ever did.
At its root, it’s not about the technology. Being a technology activist is being a community activist, a social justice activist, a political activist, an education activist, a development activist. We’ve got these amazing tools that are revolutionizing the way we all live, learn, earn and interact. Shouldn’t everyone have the same opportunity to benefit from these tools, so they too can make a better life for themselves?
That’s what it’s all about. -andy
The European Commission has published a new report urging the equitable deployment of broadband Internet services across Europe. The report, available as a PDF document in English, French and German, examines the current state of broadband in Europe and offers policy recommendations for expanding access.
“Broadband internet connections are a prerequisite for e-business, growth and jobs throughout the economy. Competition and open markets are certainly the best drivers of broadband in the EU,” said Viviane Reding, Commissioner for Information Society and Media, in a statement released by the commission. “However, broadband connections must not be limited to the big cities. If the EU and its 25 Member States make a clever use of all policy instruments, broadband for all Europeans is certainly not out of reach by 2010. But the time to act is now.”
According to the report, broadband has almost doubled in the past two years. “In October 2005 there were about 53 million connections in the EU25, corresponding to a penetration rate of 11.5% in terms of population and to roughly 20% of households,” the report reads. “These developments have been mainly market driven and enhanced by increases in competition.” Rural access continues to lag, with only eight percent of households subscribing to broadband.
Exploring the deployment of wireless access, the report states
The emergence of new wireless platforms particularly suited for rural areas is an interesting development. However, it requires that sufficient spectrum is made available, which in turn reinforces the importance of moving to more efficient and flexible forms of management of this scarce resource. The optimal mix of technologies depends on the characteristics of each particular location. The cost of technologies varies according to the number of potential users, the distance of the dwellings from the point of presence, and the presence of the backhaul. A scarcely-populated isolated area may be better off with a wireless solution and a small town with a wireline solution. Some radio solutions require a line-of-sight path which may not always be available in hilly regions.
No specific technology option will offer the best connectivity in all situations. The optimum is often achieved by a combination of technologies and solutions. In conclusion, best solutions can only be identified at the local level. Investment and choice should be made on the basis of current availability and effective demand.
Regarding the role of government in bridging the digital divide, the report continues:
Action at all government levels can help to increase coverage in under-served areas. Nevertheless, the assessment of market failures is a difficult task, particularly when there is uncertainty over the pace of broadband deployment. The benefits from government intervention must therefore be clear and substantial, compensating for the risks of undesirable consequences. One risk is that, by picking particular technologies or defining particular services, some government programmes may inhibit technological development. Another risk is that government intervention may distort competition and affect commercial incentives to invest. Finally, given the current gap between coverage and take-up, people may simply not be willing to use the technology.
All these risks should be assessed when designing broadband initiatives involving demand stimulation and aggregation, grant and loan programmes, municipal initiatives and competition, etc. The analysis requires policy makers to review reliable broadband data on an ongoing and timely basis. Availability of mapping of infrastructure is particularly relevant.
Local governments are well placed to collect local information and aggregate local demand for broadband services. They know the local topography and may determine the optimal technology mix. They may facilitate the development of local services or launch pilot projects to explore new technologies. They may support the rollout of future-proof high-capacity infrastructure that is open to competitive service providers on non-discriminatory basis.
In conclusion, local/regional authorities are best placed to plan a broadband project that takes into account local needs and technological requirements. National broadband strategies need to be strengthened to involve and reflect local needs. As projects are scattered, local and regional authorities will also largely benefit from an increased exchange of best practices.
Though the report focuses on infrastructure improvement, it does at least touch on broader aspects on the digital divide, including literacy, content and accessibility. “The geographical broadband digital divide is only one aspect of a wider social and economic development issue,” they write. “It requires demand-side actions that support skills, accessibility, use of online services, etc.”
For more info about the report, visit the Europa website. -andy
I’ve created a news digest that collects the latest news and blog entries regarding the detainment of Chinese blogger Hao Wu. The digest includes all blog references to Hao Wu, indexed by Technorati, as well as news stories displayed on Google News. The page is automatically updated several times an hour, so check back to this page regularly for the latest updates. You can also receive this news as an RSS feed. The feed was created using the tool FeedDigest, which also powers my sites Tsunami-Info.org and WSISBlogs.org.
For more information on Hao Wu, please visit FreeHaoWu.org. -andy
There’s been so much talk among educators on whether Wikipedia should be banned from school, that it may come as a surprise to some that a school has actually been banned from Wikipedia.
I discovered the situation this morning, when I was conducting my daily review of my Wikipedia watchlist. For those of you who aren’t Wikipedians, a watchlist is a personalized collection of Wikipedia entries that you’ve selected for monitoring future edits, often because you’re one of the editors of those pages. For example, my watchlist includes entries I’ve created, like Ksar Ouled Soltane and Hao Wu, as well as entries relevant to me personally, like Andy Carvin and Digital Divide Network.
As I perused my watch list, I saw there had been a change to the entry for the video blog Rocketboom. On a previous occasion I’d caught someone vandalizing that entry, so I added it to my watchlist. So it came as no huge surprise when I discovered that the entry had been vandalized again, using a word that I won’t mention so this story won’t get blocked arbitrarily by school district Web filters. Fixing it was easy – I simply reverted the entry to its pre-vandalized state. But the vandalism annoyed me enough that I felt it was important to post a warning on the vandal’s user talk page, which is sort of a notice board that each Wikipedian has to dialogue with other Wikipedians.
Reviewing the page, it became clear that they had a long history of vandalism complaints – so much so that their IP address had been banned on several occasions, preventing users of that computer from making further edits. Throughout the talk page there are warnings from other Wikipedians saying they must cease vandalizing the website immediately. Most interestingly, though, there’s a note at the bottom of the page from one of the people behind the IP address in question:
Hi, this IP adress is that of my schools. Please dont block us from wikipedia complety, but do go ahead to block us from editing.
As it turns out, the IP address is owned by a school in Canada, with many students and teachers sharing the same Internet access point. If you review the list of all edits made from the address, you’ll find dozens of instances of vandalism going back to November 2002. They’ve managed to vandalize pages ranging from Gaia Theory to the 1995 Quebec Referendum to even the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake.
It’s quite understandable for Wikipedians to want to block this IP address to prevent any more vandalism on the site. But it makes me wonder just what, if anything, about Wikipedia was being taught in the school where all of this took place. Since I didn’t find any constructive edits made by the IP address in question, my guess is that there was no curricular activity in which students were encouraged to examine Wikipedia critically. In many ways, this incident should serve as a teachable moment for this school and others. Wikipedia is far from perfect, but that’s what makes it such an interesting tool when it comes to teaching media literacy. By democratizing the role of editor, Wikipedia raises important questions regarding credibility, the wisdom of crowds vs the sovereignty of experts, trust and anonymity, among other topics.
Students and teachers should debate Wikipedia and even contribute to it; remember, it’s a work-in-progress, not a finished body of work. But all too often, the debate over Wikipedia’s merits is left among the educators only, with students left out of the conversation and operating on a simple directive: don’t use it. By ignoring Wikipedia rather than teaching critical, responsible uses of it, schools are practically inviting students to edit Wikipedia at their own peril. We should be preparing students for constructive participation in the Read/Write Web; otherwise it might as well be the Read/Vandalize Web. -andy
Taran Rampersad recently posted a message to his blog about the fact that he’s recently been added to Wikipedia.
While reading the discussion on his Wikipedia entry’s talk page, it occurred to me that there wasn’t a category on Wikipedia for listing entries about digital divide activists. There are probably more digital divide activists in Wikipedia than I realize; just searching for a few Digital Divide Network members and other colleagues I found several including Bonnie Bracey, John “maddog” Hall, MS Swaminathan and Randal Pinkett. (I’m in Wikipedia as well.)
So, I went ahead and created a new Wikipedia page for digital divide activists.
This page is automatically updated whenever a wikipedia entry has a tag added to the bottom of the page designating that entry as a digital divide activist. For example, I was able to add Bonnie’s name to the list by editing her wikipedia entry and adding this code at the bottom:
[[Category:Digital Divide activists|Bracey, Bonnie]]
As you can see, the format is fairly simple; you just edit the last section of it to include a person’s surname, followed by their first name. So if you know of anyone who’s a digital divide activist and happens to be listed in Wikipedia, please feel free to add this category tag to their wikipedia entry so they will be added to the digital divide activists page. And if you know a well-known activist who should be added to wikipedia, please feel free to create a new entry from scratch – the more the merrier…. -andy