Technology

Talking Book trial to help 'poorest of poor' in Ghana

Talking Books
Image caption The pilot project involves 2,000 Talking Books, but more will be made if it succeeds

Hundreds of handheld audio computers are to be given to some of Ghana's poorest communities to help spread potentially life-saving information.

The Talking Books will let families play sound files as well as make their own recordings, which can be shared with others or used to give feedback.

Organisers plan to use the kit to teach people about Ebola, how to deal with diseased crops and the importance of breastfeeding, among other topics.

If successful, the trial should expand.

Child-focused charity Unicef and the British computer chip designer ARM are providing most of the funds for the $750,000 (£477,850) scheme.

It is scheduled to run for two-and-a-half years with each device's content updated roughly once every five weeks.

The money will cover the cost of 2,000 devices and the staff to support them, with the goal that they will be used by about 40,000 people.

Image caption Talking Books lack a screen and are designed to be easy to use by people who are illiterate

Listen and record

Literacy Bridge - the charity running the pilot - said its Talking Books had been designed for people who might not be able to read.

"It speaks to you in your local language and local dialect and prompts you to press a button based on what your interests are," Cliff Schmidt, the organisation's executive director, told the BBC.

"The message might be a song, a story, a drama, an interview with a public health officer or a peer in your own community.

"There's also a microphone on every device so people can respond to the knowledge that they are getting.

"They can provide useful feedback like, 'I just didn't understand what you meant here' or 'You mentioned this problem, but let me tell you about another problem that is even more important for our community.'"

Literacy Bridge has worked on the technology since 2007 and has already carried out smaller-scale tests.

The devices store data on microSD cards, meaning they can each hold hundreds of hours of audio.

Image caption Audio can be copied from one Talking Book to another with a USB cable

Their computer chips also makes them programmable. This has allowed interactive quizzes and "audio hyperlinks" to be created, and paves the way for further apps that do not require a screen.

Cheap batteries

Since users are unlikely to have internet access of their own, staff are required to collect the machines on a regular basis and refresh their contents by plugging them into either a net-connected PC or an Android device. Files can also be exchanged between one device and another via a USB cable by the communities themselves.

"We're able to track what people are listening to, for how long, when they move on to another topic and even how loud they listen to a particular recording [indicating how many people listened] - all of this helps us get a sense of what's working and what is not," added Mr Schmidt.

"If you really are focused on the very poorest of the poor and the very hardest to reach, then you can't rely on smartphones or text messages. You are forced to do things a bit differently."

Because many of the targeted users earn less than £1 a day and do not have access to electricity, Talking Books are designed to run off cheap zinc-carbon batteries available from Ghana's local markets.

The original model offered up to 15 hours of use from each pack, but next year a revamped design will use a new chip custom-designed by researchers at the University of Michigan, which should last much longer.

Literacy Bridge hopes the project will eventually be extended to other African nations.

'Missing a trick'

One Africa specialist noted there were already several schemes under way to educate the continent's poorest communities, but added she thought the new one had potential.

Image caption Talking Book users can give verbal feedback after listening to a recording

"Over 80% of Ghana's population is covered by mobile networks, but there are those who are too poor, too young or too old to afford a phone - and this will provide a way to communicate with some of the most vulnerable people," commented Thecla Mbongue, from the tech consultancy Ovum.

"People living in extreme poverty will still have access to the radio, but it is true that the programmes might not provide the exact information that they need."

However, another expert was more critical, suggesting the Talking Books were "missing a trick".

Image caption The Talking Book's volume can be adjusted to suit use by one person or dozens at a time

"An ink-based monochrome screen, which may only cost a few dollars to add, would allow illiterate people to try and read along with the audio, giving them an opportunity to build literacy skills through general use of the device," said Ken Banks, who advises the UK's Department for International Development.

"Rather than just assuming that illiterate people will likely always be illiterate, why not integrate something into this device which will actually help them develop skills, rather than just passively listening and never having the chance to learn to read.

"Older Kindles do text-to-voice, they work offline, their ink-based screens work brilliantly in bright sunlight, and the battery lasts for a month or more. They're a great example, for me, of an appropriate technology in this setting."

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites