W4RA work featured in BBC article

Screenshot of the bBC article
Screenshot of the bBC article “‘Siri, will talking ever top typing?’ By Padraig Belton”

A BBC web article “‘Siri, will talking ever top typing?’ By Padraig Belton features our W4RA work done on voice interfaces for farmer information in Northern Ghana.

Francis Dittoh talks about the need for specific information for farmers in their own language and discusses ongoing research into our Kasadaka system. Anna Bon talks more about the web of voices. Very nice to see our work recognized by international media!

Read more at http://www.bbc.com/news/business-43409952

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Field trip to Ghana, feb 2018

As part of the ongoing W4RA efforts, the VU ICT4D team visited West-Africa once more. This time, we visited Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana. I personally went to Ghana to talk to external PhD candidate Francis Dittoh and his colleagues at the University of Development Studies (UDS) and the SARI institute in Tamale, in Northern Ghana. Francis and myself talking to a shea-butter guideAfter first flying to Accra, I first was able to have a short meeting with my good friend Nana Baah Gyan, who is now an ICT for Development expert in that city. I then flew to Tamale,. where we met up with Francis to talk about his PhD work on information systems for rural farmers.

After colleagues Anna Bon and Hans Akkermans arrived from Burkina Faso, we met with UDS vice-chancellor as well as the Dean of the Faculty of Engineering to  discuss the ongoing collaboration of W4RA and VU with Prof Saa Dittoh, and Francis. We hope to formalize these collaborations in a Memorandum of Understanding between the two universities. We also discuss the ambition of UDS to set up a curriculum in software engineering as part of the undergraduate programs. Such a programme would include a yearly community service courses, where students go into the field. This is very interesting for us as it aligns well with the goals of the ICT4D course at VU. The programmes also include a French language course to allow for smoother cooperation with other Sahel countries (specifically Burkina Faso).The UDS mission statement

We also visited the Savanna Agriculture Research Institute (CSIR-SARI). The situation is comparable to that in Burkina. SARI governs the use of hybrid seeds, which cannot be reused year by year but result in a higher yield. SARI is interested in educating farmers on how to handle these seeds (fertilization, planting etc). There are three classes of seeds: 1) breeder seeds – grown at research institutes, 2) foundation seeds and 3) certified seeds – produced by ~1000 farmers monitored by ~10 seed companies, and certified by an external agency.SARI research institute

Potentially interesting for us is their connection to rural farmers. SARI now mostly does this through extension workers from the ministry of Agriculture. However, because of budget cuts, these are now reduced to roughly 1 extension worker to 2,500 farmers. Therefore, SARI is open to the idea of commucating with farmers directly, for example through a voice-based system. An interesting opportunity could be two-track strategy with a smartphone app for extension workers to allow them to do their work better and a companion voice app for farmers. SARI is very much interested in developing applications in a co-creation process. This would match the research proposal that Francis has submitted to SARI and UDS.

A personal highlight was the 10hr road trip that Francis offered me to join instead of taking a flight back to Accra. Ghana is a beautiful country that changes before your eyes on such a trip. My sincere hope is that the proposed collaborations will lead to many more visits to this great country. 

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A Voice Service Development Kit for the Kasadaka platform

[This post is written by André Baart and describes his MSc thesis]

While the internet usage in the developing world is still low, the adoption of simple mobile phones is widespread. A way to offer the advantages of the internet to these populations is voice-based information systems. The KasaDaka voice-services platform is aimed at providing voice-services in the context of ICT for Development (ICT4D). The platform is based on a Raspberry Pi and a GSM modem, which enables affordable voice-service hosting, using the locally available GSM network. The platform takes into account the special requirements of the ICT4D context, such as limited internet connectivity and low literacy rates.

This research focuses on lowering the barrier to entry of voice-service development, by reducing the skill set needed to do so. A Voice Service Development Kit (VSDK) is developed that allows the development of voice-services by deploying and customizing provided building-blocks. These building blocks each represent a type of interaction that is often found in voice-services. (for example a menu, user voice input or the playback of a message) The researcher argues that the simplification of voice-service development is an essential step towards sustainable voice-services in the ICT4D context; As this increases the potential number of local voice-service developers, hremoving the dependency on foreign (and thus expensive) developers and engineers. This simplification should ideally be achieved by providing a graphical interface to voice-service development.

The VSDK was evaluated during the ICT4D course at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, where students built applications for various ICT4D use-cases using the VSDK. Afterwards a survey was conducted, which provided insight on the students’ experiences with voice-service development and the VSDK. From the results of the evaluation is concluded that the building-block approach to voice-service development used in the VSDK, is successful for the development of simple voice-services. It allows newcomers to (voice-service) development, to quickly develop (simple) voice-services from a graphical interface, without requiring programming experience.

The VSDK combined with the existing KasaDaka platform provides a good solution to the hosting and development of voice-services in the ICT4D context.

More details can be found in the complete thesis.A slidedeck is included below. You can find the VSDK code on Andre’s Github: http://github.com/abaart/KasaDaka-VSDK

 

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ICT4D at Sustainability day

During the National Day for Sustainability (Nationale dag voor duurzaamheid in het hoger onderwijs 2017), the ICT4D team presented our current research and educational activities to the many participants of this event, hosted at VU. Anna Bon and myself presented our work on sustainable methodologies for ICT4D as well as current work on small and sustainable ICT platform (Kasadaka), see the slides below.

After this, the participants got a chance to meet our students and their very nice projects up close in an interactive demonstration session. Selected ICT4D students presented the voice-accessible services.

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All photos by SURFSara, more pictures of the event can be found on Flickr.

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VU’s 4th ICT4D symposium: a look back

Yesterday, 18 May 2017, the 4th International ICT4D symposium was held at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.  The event was organized by the W4RA team and supported by VU Network Institute, the Netherlands Research School for Information and Knowledge Systems SIKS, VU Computer Science Department and VU International Office. Invited speakers from Ghana, France and the Netherlands highlighted this year’s theme was “Sustainability and ICT4D”.

Keynote speaker Gayo Diallo from Universite de Bordeaux discussed the possibilities of ICT for African Traditional Medicine (ATM). In his talk, he showed how semantic web technologies can play a role here to connect heterogeneous datasets for analytics and end-user services. Such services would need to be based on voice-interaction and localized technologies. His slides can be found here.

Chris van Aart from 2Coolmonkeys discussed a number of smartphone applications developed in the context of W4RA activities, including Mr. Jiri a tree-counting application. He proved there is a market for such applications in the African context (Slides).

After the break, Francis Dittoh from UDS Ghana discussed issues around sustainbility for a meteo application he is currently developing for Northern-Ghana (slides). Wendelien Tuijp from VU’s CIS then presented multiple perspectives on ICT4D (Slides). The symposium was closed by a video presentation from Aske Robenhagen, showcasing the ongoing work in Nepal around mapping knowledge networks and developing a smartphone application supporting information exchange for local accountability extension workers. More information on that project can be found at nepalnetworks.org/

The presentations of the day can be found through the links above. The entire symposium was live-streamed and you can watch it all on youtube or below.

Below is a lost of the approximate starting time of the various speakers in the video

  • 6m19 Dr. Gayo Diallo – Université de Bordeaux (FR): Towards a Digital African Traditional Healthcare using Semantic Web.
  • 56m28 Dr. Chris van Aart – 2CoolMonkeys BV (NL) : Developing Smartphone Apps for African farmers.
  • 1h30m00 break.
  • 1h52m00 Francis Dittoh – University for Development Studies (Ghana): ICT business development in rural Africa.
  • 2h23m00 Wendelien Tuyp – CIS-VU : Sustainable Community Initiatives and African Farmer Innovation.
  • 2h52m00 Aske Robenhagen Network Institute Academy Assistant VU – Building resilient applications for sustainable development. Better video of this can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hzRSo4TJtA

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ICT4D 2017 promo video

As a teaser for our upcoming ICT4D students. Have a look at this nice video that André Baart made

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Web of Voices and W4RA video at the Webscience@10 TV Channel

For its 10th anniversary, the Web Science Trust organized an event Webscience@10. For this event, a Webscience@10 TV channel was launched to showcase different research and education initatives around the world. On behalf of the VU Network Institute and W4RA, we submitted our Web of Voices video as well as a short introduction to the W4RA team.

You can watch the ~10 hours of video content at  http://www.webscience.org/webscience10/tv-channel-webscience10/. You can find us (listed under Netwerk Institute Amsterdam) at 2h31mins:

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W4RA research displayed in Museon

In modern day research, dissemination is key and it is therefore always nice to see research results being shared with the public in new and unforseen ways. Our work within the Web for Regreening in Africa (W4RA) is now part of a exhibition in the Museon museum in the Hague. The exhibition focuses on the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030. As content partner of the Museon, the W4RA programme of VU has contributed ideas, visuals and texts for the exposition related to SDG No. 15, entitled “Plant in het Zand” (Plant in the sand).museon exhibition images

From the press release: Land degradation and desertification are increasing due to both natural and human causes, including climate change and population pressures. Areas can no longer meet the needs of their populations, with famine and poverty as a result. There are various solutions, but regreening – the natural (re)generation and protection of trees by local farmers themselves – is a highly successful one. Belts of trees act as windbreaks, helping to stop soil blowing away, keeping it moist for longer, and providing a micro-climate that is better for people, animals and plants. Trees also provide food and many other economically useful products.

Within the W4RA programme, we integrate local ICT web and mobile app innovations to support local knowledge sharing around regreening efforts.

 

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VU looking further in Mali

[This post by Anna Bon is cross-posted from W4RA.org. See also the VU press release: VU looking further in Mali]

On 13 October 2016, the W4RA team organized and co-chaired, a Green Climate Funds workshop together with Malian farmer organization AOPP (l’Association des Organisations professionnelles paysannes). The objective of the meeting was to form a consortium and prepare a project plan, which will be submitted in the framework of this United Nations program.

The workshop was attended by representatives from the Dutch Embassy, the Swedish and Norwegian embassies, and by development (donor) agencies from the EU, Germany, the United Nations Capital Development Fund, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and a range of Malian and Dutch development organizations.

The workshop in full effect (photo Anna Bon/W4RA.org)
The workshop in full effect (photo Anna Bon/W4RA.org)

 

Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world, plagued by the effects of climate change and a civil war in the northern regions. The effects of land degradation and desertification are a serious threat to the food security of millions of people, especially those living in rural regions.

Recently, the United Nations prioritized its support to Mali in the framework of the Green Climate Funds, a new programme to fight the effects of climate change on global scale. In response to a call for proposals, organizations in Mali are forming consortia, to prepare project proposals for funding by the Green Climate Funds.

Through ongoing interdisciplinary research collaboration, W4RA has obtained extensive experience in socio-technical field-based action research in West Africa. Building on partnerships with local partners (AOPP, Sahel Eco and Radio Rurale – Mali, Réseau MARP -Burkina Faso, University for Development Studies – Ghana) VU’s research programme W4RA wants to contribute to regreening, local knowledge sharing, local innovation and emerging rural agro-forestry value chains.

Meanwhile the W4RA is training students, through community service education, in rural Africa. This is done through the ICT4D master course (artificial intelligence, information science, computer science,) and various master research projects (Network Institute Academy assistants, various master research projects).

 

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Downscale2016 proceedings published

 

Proceedings screenshotI chose to publish the proceedings of Downscale2016 using Figshare. This gives a nice persistent place for the proceedings and includes a DOI. To cite the proceedings, use the text below. The proceedings is published using the CC-BY license.

Victor de Boer, Anna Bon, Cheah WaiShiang and Nana Baah Gyan (eds.) Proceedings of the 4th Workshop on Downscaling the Semantic Web (Downscale2016). Co-located with the 4th International Conference on ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S) Sep 1, 2016, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. doi:10.6084/m9.figshare.3827052.v1 

 

 

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