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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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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Msc project: Low-Bandwith Semantic Web

[This post is based on the Information Sciences MSc. thesis by Onno Valkering]

To make widespread knowledge sharing possible in rural areas in developing countries, the notion of the Web has to be downscaled based on the specific low-resource infrastructure in place. In this paper, we introduce SPARQL over SMS, a solution for exchanging RDF data in which HTTP is substituted by SMS to enable Web-like exchange of data over cellular networks.

SPARQL in an SMS architecture
SPARQL over SMS architecture

The solution uses converters that take outgoing SPARQL queries sent over HTTP and convert them into SMS messages sent to phone numbers (see architecture image). On the receiver-side, the messages are converted back to standard SPARQL requests.

The converters use various data compression strategies to ensure optimal use of the SMS bandwidth. These include both zip-based compression and the removal of redundant data through the use of common background vocabularies. The thesis presents the design and implementation of the solution, along with evaluations of the different data compression methods.

Test setup with two Kasadakas
Test setup with two Kasadakas

The application is validated in two real-world ICT for Development (ICT4D) cases that both use the Kasadaka platform: 1) An extension of the DigiVet application allows sending information related to veterinary symptoms and diagnoses accross different distributed systems. 2) An extension of the RadioMarche application involves the retrieval and adding of current offerings in the market information system, including the phone number of the advertisers.

For more information:

  • Download Onno’s Thesis. A version of the thesis is currently under review.
  • The slides for Onno’s presentation are also available: Onno Valkering
  • View the application code at https://github.com/onnovalkering/sparql-over-sms

 

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Kasadaka 1.0

[This post is based on Andre Baart’s B.Sc. thesis. The text is mostly written by him]

Generic overview of Kasadaka
Generic overview of Kasadaka

In developing (rural) communities, the adoption of mobile phones is widespread. This allows information to be offered to these communities through voice-based services. This research explores the possibilities of creating a flexible framework (Kasadaka) for hosting voice services in rural communities. The context of the developing world poses special requirements, which have been taken into account in this research. The framework creates a voice service that incorporates dynamic data from a data store. The framework allows for a low-effort adaptation to new and changing use cases. The service is hosted on cheap, low-powered hardware and is connected to the local GSM network through a dongle. We validated the working and flexibility of the framework by adapting it to a new use case. Setting up this new voice server was possible in less than one hour, proving that it is suitable for rapid prototyping. This framework enables further research into the effects and possibilities of hosting voice based information services in the developing world. The image below shows the different components and the dataflow between these components when a call is made. Read more in Andre Baart‘s thesis (pdf).

All information on how to get started with Kasadaka can be found on the project’s GitHub page: https://github.com/abaart/KasaDaka 

 

The different components and dataflow
The different components and dataflow (see below)

Text in italics only takes place when setting up the call.

  1. Asterisk receives the call from the GSM dongle, answers the call, and connects it to VXI.
    Asterisk receives the user’s input and forwards it to VXI.
  2. VXI requests the configured VoiceXML document from Apache.
    VXI requests the configured VoiceXML document from Apache. Together with the request, it sends the user input.
  3. Apache runs the Python program (based on Flask), in which data from the triple store has to be read or written. Python sends the SPARQL query to ClioPatria.
  4. ClioPatria runs the query on the data present, and sends the result of the query back to the Python program.
  5. Python renders the VoiceXML template. The dynamic data is now inserted in the VoiceXML document, and it is sent back to VXI.
  6. VXI starts interpreting the VoiceXML document. In the document there are references to audio files. It sends requests to Apache for the referenced files.
  7. Apache sends a request for the file to the file system.
  8. The file is read from the file system.
  9. Apache responds with the requested audio files.
  10. VXI puts all the audio files in the correct order and plays them back sequentially, sending the audio to the GSM dongle.

This cycle repeats until the call is terminated.

 

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2nd TMT Workshop in Bamako

2016-05-10 13.14.35.jpg
Kasadaka as presented by AOPP

From 7-9 May 2016, the second TMT-AOPP workshop was held in Bamako, Mali. This workshop was held in the context of the Tailor Made Training project that VU Amsterdam participates in together with the Malinese farmer organization Association des Organisations Professionnelles Paysannes (AOPP).

During the workshop, which was attended by around 25 AOPP members from all over Mali, we followed up on the results of a previous workshop in 2015, where we co-developed a number of use cases around improving the lives of rural farmers in Mali. Specifically, we developed two prototypes services accessible using simple mobile phones:

  1. An online marketplace for seeds. Farmers can call in to the system to place offerings of seeds or browse current offers of seeds of various quality levels in a specific region.
  2. A chicken vaccination service. For this service, an extension worker can register newly born chickens in the system. The system keeps an administration of when farmers need to vaccinate their chickens against specific diseases. The system then calls the farmer and plays a reminder message in his/her language.

2016-05-08 12.03.55.jpgThese services were developed on Kasadaka, the cheap and low-resource rapid-prototyping platform for knowledge-rich and voice-accessible services. During the workshop we were able to further test the Kasadaka in the field. A field trip to local farmers and a milk cooperation in nearby Ouelessebougou gave us further context and information in how these services can support locals (see also the video embedded below). Chris van Aart from 2coolmonkeys demonstrated his progress on the Senepedia wiki and two Android applications that allow farmers and organizers to use geo-services to count cows, trees or other objects in the field.

2016-05-09 09.37.40
Chris van Aart shows his apps

In addition to these two services, we also presented seven services on the Kasadaka, developed by students of the VUA ICT4D M.Sc. course. These included a weather information service, two vetirenary services, general-purpose knowledge sharing platforms, farmer alert services and a milk market. These services were all very well received and allowed the workshop participants to really see the full potential of voice-enabled information services.

The presentation below shows more information, my personal highlights from the workshop (hence the title) as well as feedback received on the seven student projects.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAoXpvkdx5w

 

 

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Dr. Nana Baah Gyan and the Web for Rural Development

Freshly minted dr. Nana flanked by his two paranimphs receives the laudation from supervisor prof. Akkermans.
Freshly minted dr. Nana flanked by his two paranimphs receives the laudation from supervisor prof. Akkermans.

On 5 april 2016, Nana Baah Gyan successfully defended his PhD thesis “The Web, Speech Technologies and Rural Development in West Africa, An ICT4D Approach” in front of the reading committee at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Dr. Nana worked as a PhD researcher mostly in the context of the FP-7 VOICES project and was supervised by prof. Hans Akkermans and dr. Victor de Boer.

Nana investigated the history of speech systems in developing countries. He discussed and developed strategies for requirements harvesting for an instance of an ICT4D project under rural conditions, the results of which led to an actual implementation of voice-based ICT tools for rural farmers in Mali.

frontpage Nana
Nana’s thesis is available online.

His thesis furthermore deals with evaluating the impact of the project on the lives of stakeholders involved as well as the potential such tools and systems hold for future research. The thesis also discusses what ICT4D generally means for education in West Africa and beyond.

You can read more about Nana’s research in his thesis [PDF] or on the http://w4ra.org site.

 

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A look back at the 3rd VU ICT4D symposium

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VU Rector Prof. Subramaniam opens the symposium

On 6 April 2016, the Third International Symposium “Perspectives on ICT for Development (ICT4D)” was hosted by the VU Network Institute, the Netherlands Research School for Information and Knowledge Systems SIKS, the Computer Science Department and VU International Office. This year’s theme was “Community Service & Education”. A great team of invited speakers from India, Ghana, South-Africa and the Netherlands discussed the merits, challenges and research agendas for ICTs for Development, presenting case studies from various contexts: rural development, health, and education.

2016-04-06 10.39.25The symposium showed different technical solutions, including mobile technologies and small and cheap hardware to cope with local contexts in developing countries. Different speakers also discussed bottom-up methodologies designed for the local context to discover and co-develop interesting ICT solutions and services.

You can watch the entire event through the recorded livestream as presented below. Speakers presented in blocks of 2 around a single topic or location and engaged in discussion after the second speaker. We here present a list of speakers, their timestamp in the recording (including a direct link) as well as PDF slides for their presentations (all rights remain with the original authors).

0.00 Welcome by Symposium Chairs Victor de Boer and Anna Bon (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) [Slides: Victor Introduction]

0.00.40 Opening address by the VU Rector Prof. Dr. Vinod Subramaniam

0.06.40 VU-Informatics/ICT4D: Gossa Lô & Romy Blankendaal (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)  [Slides: Gossa Lo Romy Blankendaal]
0.24.39 VU-Informatics/ICT4D: Dr. Stefan Schlobach (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)  [Slides: Stefan Schlobach]

1.18.52 Ghana: Prof. Dr. Saa Dittoh (University for Development Studies, Tamale, Ghana)  [Slides: Saa_Dittoh]
1.39.46 Ghana: Dr. Nana Baah Gyan (Accra, Ghana)  [Slides: Nana_Baah_Gyan]

2.05.59 India: Prof. Dr. Maneesha Ramesh (Amrita University, India)  [No slides available]
2.32.16 India: Prof. Dr. Jacqueline Broerse (Director Athena Institute VU)  [Slides: Jacqueline_Broerse]

3.49.48 Water and Data: Frank Annor (TU Delft / TAHMO)  [No slides available]
4.10.42 Water and Data: Annabelle Poelert (AKVO, Amsterdam)  [Slides: Annabelle Poelert]

4.51.40 South-Africa: Prof. Dr. Mmantsae Moche Diale (University of Pretoria, South-Africa)  [Slides: Mmantsae Diale]
5.18.10 South-Africa: Prof. Dr. André Ran (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)  [Slides: Andre_Ran]

5.48.30 Wrap up by Symposium Chairs 

 

 

 

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3rd ICT4D Symposium at VU

[Cross-posted from http://w4ra.org]
On 6 April 2016, the Third International Symposium “Perspectives on ICT for Development (ICT4D)” will be hosted by the VU Network Institute, the Netherlands Research School for Information and Knowledge Systems SIKS, the Computer Science Department and VU International Office. This year’s theme is “Community Service & Education”. Invited speakers from India, Ghana, South-Africa and the Netherlands will highlight the theme, presenting case studies from various contexts: rural development, health, and education.ict4dposter2016_wide.png

@VU Tuinzaal, W&N building, (Ground floor, between S/T/U corridors) De Boelelaan 1081, 1081 HV Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Symposium chairs: Dr. Victor de Boer (VU/FEW/INF) & Drs. Anna Bon (VU International Office/CIS). For more information and registration (free), visit http://w4ra.org/

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Inspiring TMT Workshop in Bamako

From 9-13 October, the W4RA team visited Bamako in Mali for the Nuffic-funded Tailor Made Training (TMT) workshop at the offices of AOPP (Association des organisations professionnelles paysannes). This association brings together agricultural innovators in the country. The attendees are very interested in using ICTs to improve communication and knowledge sharing among their members.

Kasadaka in Bamako
Kasadaka in Bamako. This version has a built-in touch screen.

Digivet demonstration
Digivet demonstration. Alou Dolo from local IT club Yeleman is helping us.

During the four-day workshop, we demonstrated a number of applications developed in the context of our W4RA research, including the VOICES demonstrators, Mr Jiri and the Kasadaka voice platform which was based on a Raspberry Pi. We also showed the DigiVet application developed by Gossa Lo. In a number of breakout sessiosn, the AOPP members then developed a number of new use cases. These included an information system for seed information. In various locations in Mali, farmers develop and enrich seeds (sesame, sorghum, etc.) and sell these to other farmers. These seeds are adapted to fit the local soil and climate. To improve the effectiveness of this seed information, better sharing of this information is required. Other ideas included a veterinarian service and a marketplace application.

Field trip: visiting the champs ecole
Field trip: visiting the champs ecole. We are standing inbetween sesame plants.

To deepen our understanding of the use cases and the local context, we visited a “Champs Ecole” (testing field) where new types of sesame and sorghum plants and new planting strategies were monitored. We also visited an organisation “Femmes en action” who organize trainings for local women on how to fabricate products out of raw plant materials, such as Baobab-bonbons and the always-delicious Bissap (Hibiscus lemonade). The head of the group, Fatim, was a very inspiring lady and she also showed us tubs full of fish that could be farmed in town residencies. We even got to take home some of the produced dried fish flakes.

Discussing the use casesa
Discussing the use cases

The final day we demonstrated a number of applications. Specifically, we showed a very early prototype of a voice-accessible seed market, as was explored in the workshop. For this, we used Kasadaka as the rapid-prototyping platform. It fulfilled its purpose quite well as the farmers were triggered by this demonstration ad provided valuable feedback and questions to further specify the use case and requirements. Of course, we are still running into some issues, specifically with regestering key presses (DTMF) on the Malian network. We also showed Senepedia.org, a wiki for agriculture (sene, in the Bambara language). In the next months, the AOPP staff will experiment with this wiki to register and share information that concerns their members.

All in all, this was a very successful and inspiring meetup and we are looking forward to going back to Mali in the beginning of next year with new prototypes and demonstrations.

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MSc Project: The Implications of Using Linked Data when Connecting Heterogeneous User Information

[This post describes Karl Lundfall‘s MSc Thesis research and is adapted from his thesis]

sms phoneIn the realm of database technologies, the reign of SQL is slowly coming to an end with the advent of many NoSQL (Not Only SQL) alternatives. Linked Data in the form of RDF is one of these, and is regarded to be highly effective when connecting datasets. In this thesis, we looked into how the choice of database can affect the development, maintenance, and quality of a product by revising a solution for the social enterprise Text to Change Mobile (TTC).

TTC is a non-governmental organization equipping customers in developing countries with high-quality information and important knowledge they could not acquire for themselves. TTC offers mobile-based solutions such as SMS and call services and focuses on projects implying a social change coherent with the values shared by the company.

We revised a real-world system for linking datasets based on a much more mainstream NoSQL technology, and by altering the approach to instead use Linked Data. The result (see the figure on the left) was a more modular system living up to many of the promises of RDF.

Overview of the Linked Data-enabled tool to connect multiple heterogeneous databases developed in the context of this Msc Project.
Overview of the Linked Data-enabled tool to connect multiple heterogeneous databases developed in the context of this Msc Project.

On the other hand, we also found that there for this use case are some obstacles in adopting Linked Data. We saw indicators that more momentum needs to build up in order for RDF to gradually mature enough to be easily applied on use cases like this. The implementation we present and demonstrates a different flavor of Linked Data than the common scenario of publishing data for public reuse, and by applying the technology in business contexts we might be able to expand the possibilities of Linked Data.

As a by-product of the research, a Node.js module for Prolog communication with Cliopatria was developed and made available at https://www.npmjs.com/package/prolog-db . This module might illustrate that new applications usingRDF could contribute in creating a snowball effect of improved quality in RDF-powered applications attracting even more practitioners.

Read more in Karl’s MSc. Thesis 

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