Monday, June 27, 2011

Help Illiterate People by Using EasySMS - The Switzerland Team for Imagine Cup NY Final

Give your attention to "People's Choice Award" for this team!!!

Even though today we are facing such an information society, about 800 million illiterate people - mostly in developing countries - are currently excluded from this communication medium. They often need to have some difficulties even when they want to express some simple but lovely emotions such as “I miss you”, or “I love you”. 

In order for those illiterate people to have a really easy tool to communicate with each other, Texting4All, the team from Switzerland, has come up with an innovative solution by using the technology of Microsoft.  

The below is about the interview I’ve done with them for their project.

What is your project is about??
Our project is creating an innovative solution to improve communication between people, to reduce illiteracy, and to help developing countries by using our EasySMS application.

How does it work??
We use EasySMS application, that is, specially arranged SMS application on mobile phones. Since most illiterates live in rural areas in which mobile phone coverage and ownership is growing rapidly, people there can use SMS in very cheap price or even for free. The application has mainly four features for those illiterate people.
  1. Allowing illiterate people to “read” all the SMSs they receive thanks to the available text-to-speech access on Windows Phone 7
  2. Helping them to understand the meaning of each word of the SMSs they receive
    • By playing the message in “Karaoke” style
    • By making each word of the message a playable button
      (The users can click on each word to hear it)
  3. Composing SMS in unique ways
    • By using icons with sound support
      (and these icons are transformed into text messages
      when sent to the recipient)
    • By using SMS re-composition from previous SMSs
      (That is, each word of previous message can be played
      and re-used through simple drag and drop into new messages)
  4. Allowing them to be able to search and manage contacts visually through visual traits of avatars
What was the inspiration for your entry?
Our inspiration started during one of our courses at EPFL (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, the name of the institute where they are studying): "Personal interaction studio". We had to come up with an idea and create a prototype of a mobile application that could help illiterate people in their every-day life. We received interviews conducted in India by researchers from the EPFL’s Media and Design lab with farmers. The interviews revolved around the main problems they rural farmers are facing. We also watched lots of videos about the life in rural areas there.

Later, we visited a school for illiterate people in Switzerland: "Lire et écrire” and met illiterate people and their teachers. We interviewed a number of them and realized that none of the existing mobile technologies were suitable for them - since almost all phone’s menus are based on "text". A woman from Morocco was particularly touching. She arrived in Lausanne five years ago. She didn't know how to speak French and she was illiterate. Her daughter was still in Morocco. She missed her daughter a lot: "It is very hard for me to keep in touch with her, I cannot go back to Morocco very often because flights are expensive. The only way for me to hear from her is to call her. I call her every Sunday at 3pm. However, it is very expensive and not very convenient for all of us because we need to cancel all the plans we have every Sunday in order to call each other." We wondered if she would like to send SMS to her daughter and she immediately answered: "I would love to. But it is far too complicated for me ... If I could send her only 'I miss you', it would be wonderful..."

Moreover, for almost all the people we interviewed, it was impossible to manage a contact list on their mobile phones: they identified people through their previous calls, the last two digits of the phone numbers or the country codes of the phone numbers. We discovered that just near to us, in one of the richest countries of the world. These encounters raised our awareness about the needs illiterates have. From this time, we decided to create an easy application with which illiterate people could send SMSs and manage their contacts without any problem."

Since now that it has been very important to communicate with each other by using technologies like mobile phones, the gap between literate and illiterate has become increasing. In such a situation, their challenge sounds so important that more and more people should pay attention to the problem, in my opinion.

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