October 2008

"Literacy unlocks the door to learning throughout life, is essential to development and health, and opens the way for democratic participation and active citizenship."

Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the UN

 Literacy Bridge, a non-profit technology startup, is using open source software (OSS), open hardware, and open content to solve some of the world's most challenging problems: global poverty and disease. Through the development and application of a digital audio device, Literacy Bridge's Talking Book Project is designed to make access to information available and affordable to those who have the fewest resources but the greatest need. This article summarizes the Talking Book Project and describes how six aspects of successful open source projects are being applied to improve global literacy and access to information. Most importantly, this project demonstrates the power of combining community and appropriate technology to change the world.

Readers of this issue of the OSBR may not appreciate the ease at which they are able to acquire knowledge to improve their productivity. While one portion of the world takes for granted the electricity and literacy skills required to read publications like this one, another portion lacks these prerequisites, yet has an even stronger need for efficient access to information. Recognizing an opportunity to apply technology and open source principles to this inequity, Literacy Bridge, a non-profit technology startup, launched the Talking Book Project.

The Talking Book Device is a digital audio player/recorder designed for the 2.6 billion people living on less than $2 per day. Most of these people have minimal literacy skills and live in rural areas without electricity or Internet access.

Unlike a common iPod or most other MP3 players, its power source is not dependent on grid electricity, and its audio content distribution is not dependent upon computers. This device also distinguishes itself with its rugged design, variable-speed playback, internal microphone and speaker, and an easily programmable interface. Unlike a common iPod or most other MP3 players, its power source is not dependent on grid electricity, and its audio content distribution is not dependent upon computers. This device also distinguishes itself with its rugged design, variable-speed playback, internal microphone and speaker, and an easily programmable interface.

To understand how this audio player/recorder will reduce poverty and disease, one should consider the problems and opportunities of distributing information and building literacy skills in the poorest regions of the world.

Building Knowledge in the Developing World: Problems and Opportunities

The Talking Book Project approaches global illiteracy with a short-term and long-term view. For the short-term, the Talking Book Project provides access to crucial and locally relevant information in a form that does not require literacy. For the long-term, the project provides a literacy education tool so that text-based information will soon be accessible.

As a critical foundation for education, literacy may be the most important strategic investment to eradicate poverty. However, literacy should not be a prerequisite for the efficient dissemination of knowledge to fight disease and malnutrition - not when nearly one billion adults cannot read, including 40% of all adults in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Access to Information: An Immediate Solution to an Urgent Need

In the poorest regions of the world, the most efficient means of disseminating knowledge is by pickup truck. Each day, thousands of nurses and health officers of governmental and non-governmental organizations climb into pickup trucks and ride out to remote villages. Upon arriving, they gather people together and explain how to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, how to treat a dangerously dehydrated infant, and numerous other life saving messages. Traveling over nearly impassable roads and paying for costly fuel and precious staff time, this method is costly and inefficient, but it is currently the only option.

The Talking Book Device multiplies the impact of existing poverty reduction programs, just as the Internet has multiplied productivity in the developed world. Local organizations support the project because it saves them time and money and allows their health and development messages to reach more people. It also improves the quality of face-to-face visits by allowing a focus on the key messages, leaving detailed audio notes for later reference.

As is true anywhere in the world, people with a visual disability have an especially big challenge accessing information. In the poorest regions of the world, the challenge is even greater. Braille is hard to find, leaving blind children with little hope of obtaining an adequate education.

The Talking Book Device is designed for universal accessibility as no feature requires sight. The embossed buttons are of various shapes and sizes, and the device is designed with a vertical asymmetry to allow one to feel its orientation the moment it is grabbed.

Literacy: The Foundation of Education

Most parents today know how important it is to read to their children at a young age, even before primary school. A child's lack of exposure to reading in these early years can lead to a significant educational disadvantage many years later. For most families in the developed world, building early literacy skills is simply a matter of dedication. But for families without a literate parent, children are disadvantaged even before they begin school. The children who are able to attend school (70+ million children cannot, primarily due to school fees) compete for a teacher's attention, often with 50 or 60 other children in the same classroom. To address this teacher shortage, many governments desperately recruit youth with just nine years of primary and secondary education and no training as a teacher.

The Talking Book Device enables children and their parents to practice reading when a literate parent or educator is not available. When paired with a book or any other source of text, such as an alphabet written on a blackboard, the user can engage in active reading practice and even reading comprehension questions and other interactive exercises. Once an educator or member of the community has recorded a reading, the student can listen to the recording, control the speed of playback, choose to have particular words defined, and jump from page to page, line to line, or word to word.

Applying Open Source Principles to the Talking Book Project

The Talking Book Project utilizes six open source principles: i) user-driven adoption; ii) open development; iii) open source applications; iv) decentralization; v) release early and often; and vi) acknowledge your contributors. The benefits provided by these principles are discussed here.

User-Driven Adoption

Users drove the open source adoption phenomenon. Acquiring and using OSS did not require purchase orders, strategic planning, or executive approval. If the user saw value in OSS, he or she had the power to acquire and start using it. Since OSS is more likely to fit into an existing heterogeneous infrastructure than proprietary alternatives, millions of users found it added immediate value to their environment.

Similarly, the Talking Book Device is designed to fit the context of its users at a cost that is within their power to purchase directly. Targeted at $5 to $10, depending on volume, the price of a Talking Book Device will compare with that of a radio, the most commonly owned electronic device in rural areas. Some governments and aid organizations may choose to subsidize the device for the very poorest families, but the device's technology choices are aimed at individual ownership.

The Talking Book Device is powered by the most common and least expensive form of available energy: disposable, D-size batteries, typically used in flashlights and radios. Without access to electricity, rechargeable batteries would require new infrastructure. Literacy Bridge is actively researching various options for affordable and renewable energy. To spur adoption, priority was given to fitting into the existing context, then transitioning to a new power solution.

Open source users are more likely to promote the adoption of the software simply because they can easily distribute it to their friends. Likewise, Talking Book users are critical to its content distribution system. Although electronic networks are rarely accessible to the poorest rural areas, "people networks" can be leveraged for the same job. Therefore, each Talking Book Device includes an integrated USB plug and receptacle so that users can give audio content to their friends at no cost by simply connecting the two devices. This allows the user community to make the system more valuable.

Open Development

Many thriving open source projects owe their success to the contributions of a broad base of developers. Source code is available for anyone to review, test, and patch, and the code tends to be more modular, allowing for concurrent development. This, in turn, allows developers of varying skill sets to participate in the project.

The Talking Book Project includes several software projects, one of which encompasses the functionality of the Talking Book Device. Built around a small microcontroller designed for audio processing, the core functionality is programmed in C and low-level assembly code. Testing or patching this level of software requires having a chipset or Talking Book Device at your computer. To broaden the potential developer support, Literacy Bridge did the following:

  1. To expand developer support beyond C developers, most device functionality was moved to a declarative XML-driven layer. Changing system menus, content navigation, and volume control are all possible by editing a text file. Just as the early stages of the Web attracted thousands of new HTML programmers, this similar markup language opens the door to a broader base of device programmers.
  2. To test and run these XML-based features that control the device's audio interface, a Flash application was developed to simulate the hardware and low-level software. A text file can be run on the device or the Flash application with identical results. This expands development and testing beyond people who own the right piece of hardware.

One of the objectives of the Talking Book Project is to instill ownership in the project throughout various entities in the host country. Part of the reason is to promote the long-term engineering sustainability of the project. This open development model invites social workers, budding programmers, as well as embedded C programmers to participate in the engineering and maintenance of the device.

Open Source Applications

Building a platform in any industry requires an understanding of the importance of application development and distribution. Open source platforms not only provide easy access to interested application developers, but they sometimes even host repositories of applications or plug-ins built on their platform.

Likewise, the Talking Book Project relies on audio content for success. While Literacy Bridge believes that audio content is best left to the experts and citizens who speak the local languages and understand the local problems, facilitating the creation and distribution of that content is just as critical as designing the platform on which it runs. This philosophy led to the following actions:

  1. Every device includes a microphone, so that every user can potentially become a content creator.
  2. Audio content includes a control track that uses the same format and has most of the same flexibility as the system interface described above. Audio content can include embedded hyperlinks from one segment of content to the next. Content-programmable buttons allow interactive and entertaining applications--a universally important driver of user adoption.
  3. For people who would like to develop interactive audio content but prefer to avoid declarative programming, Literacy Bridge is developing a Windows application with a graphical user interface for creating and editing control track files. Users of this application will include university students, employees of non-profit organizations, and district officers of the ministries of health, education, or agriculture.
  4. Content that can be useful to multiple regions of the world will be hosted on a web site to allow local governmental and non-governmental organizations to select and download the recordings that they believe will be useful for their regions and domains.


Open source projects tend to be open to decentralized models of control. Open source licenses encourage creation of derivative works, improving the ease at which software enhancements can be made.

Following this principle, the Talking Book Project encourages each local implementation to experiment with what works for their communities, sharing feedback with other implementations. The low-cost and scalable nature of the project also makes it easier for implementations to spring up wherever the demand is greatest. This is particularly important with respect to Talking Book kiosks.

The Talking Book Project includes networked kiosks to improve content distribution and discovery. These kiosks might be considered a cross between Wikipedia and the iTunes Music Store. They serve as community centers for uploading and downloading knowledge recorded in audio, and they also help users discover the content that is most likely to interest them. Kiosks may host complementary businesses, such as support businesses or solar-powered stations for renting rechargeable batteries.

If Literacy Bridge distributed kiosks across one entire country at a time, the bias to pick countries based on overall literacy and poverty statistics would cause pockets of severe need to be missed in otherwise less severe countries. By developing the kiosk system without a top-down command and control structure, new implementations can be driven by a more granular assessment of need.

Decentralization also reduces the ability for any one central force to attempt to shut down or control the distribution of information, just as the inclusion of a microphone on every device decentralizes the power to produce content.

Release Early and Often

The most successful open source projects publish their work as frequently as possible. Projects that hold back a release until they believe they have solved every problem tend to be less productive than the ones who take lots of small steps, accepting feedback along the way.

It is much more expensive to perform each development iteration for a hardware project than for pure software, but it still saves money and improves quality in the long run. After less than a year of research and development, Literacy Bridge is preparing to produce 100 Talking Book Devices for field testing in West Africa, followed by another 100 devices tested in India (contingent on individual donations). This small volume of 200 units will cost Literacy Bridge approximately $35,000 -- a significant investment for a small non-profit. However, skipping these pilot trials and relying only on a few small focus groups would have bypassed invaluable feedback to improve the future devices for hundreds of millions of other users.

Acknowledge Your Contributors

People contribute to open source projects for a variety of reasons. Some developers are just "scratching an itch", some are guiding a product they want to use, but most appreciate any public acknowledgment of their contributions.

As a startup non-profit charity with a small budget, Literacy Bridge does not have a single paid employee, but it has benefited from over 5000 hours of volunteer work. These volunteers are acknowledged on our web site, in our newsletters, and during public events.

Although Literacy Bridge has no payroll expenses, it must pay for prototype production, pilot program costs, and outsourced engineering work. These expenses are entirely funded by individual donors. As with volunteers, donors are recognized for their willingness to step forward and have their donations invested to make access to knowledge available to people with the greatest need.

As is probably true for most contributors to Apache, Linux, and other notable open source projects, Literacy Bridge's 160+ volunteers and donors are not contributing for the public acknowledgement. They are contributing their time and money to be a part of something that they believe will change the world.

Applying Community and Technology to Change the World

This article has focused on two key areas: community and technology. The power of these two forces has been demonstrated throughout history, with the OSS phenomenon as one recent example. Literacy Bridge is simply applying the same concepts to fight global poverty and disease. Throwing technology at a problem has often failed to produce results, but when technology is used as a multiplier of existing community efforts, significant and sustainable change can be accomplished. In the case of the Talking Book Project, Literacy Bridge is using a community of individual donors, developers, and other volunteers to produce technology that multiplies the efforts of other communities throughout the world--communities of teachers, nurses, agriculture experts, and others. Together, these communities are applying technology to bring an end to global poverty and disease.

You can be part of this new approach to help end global poverty and disease by volunteering or donating to Literacy Bridge. See this list for volunteer needs or go to our website by December 31st to learn how you can become a Founding Donor of Literacy Bridge.

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