How often do you reach into your pocket for your smartphone and use Wikipedia to settle an argument? Whether you’re using mobile data or Wi-Fi, it’s unlikely you ever stop to think about how much that data actually costs.
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But for some people those costs are very real and when it comes to a choice between eating and looking up something on Wikipedia, eating’s going to win every time.
There have been various attempts to make sure no one has to make that choice over the past few years, the latest of which sees South African-based NGO the Praekelt Foundation teaming up with the Wikimedia Foundation and Airtel to bring the service to Kenya.
Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit organisation that runs Wikipedia, said: “Wikipedia is an important service, a public good, and so we want people to be able to access it for free, regardless of what device they’re using”.
Wikipedia will be using Praekelt’s mobile messaging platform, Vumi, to further expand its free service to even more mobile subscribers – making it available to anyone with a basic mobile phone in Africa and other developing countries around the world.
Taking advantage of universally-accessible Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) technology, Praekelt’s Vumi platform allows any mobile phone subscriber to dial a short code to access a multiple choice menu that they can use to search through the encyclopedia across any topic as they would online.
Vumi, an open source product developed by Praekelt Foundation, is a USSD and SMS mobile messaging platform offering connectivity in Africa and serves NGOs, corporations, and entrepreneurs. Vumi has been used in partnership with Sisi Ni Amani to promote peace during the recent Kenyan elections. It is also the engine behind MAMA, which brings vital health information to pregnant women in South Africa.
“Vumi will automatically adapt Wikipedia entries for the text-based interface, making sure the information is as accessible on any handsets, regardless whether it has data capability. It will provide millions of people with access to a basic, text-based version of the Wikipedia service, with further information delivered through subsequent SMS messages,” said Gustav Praekelt, Founder of Praekelt Foundation. “People who ordinarily do not have access to vital information across a diverse range of topics will now have access to the rich Wikipedia content via their mobile phone. This, we believe, has the potential to greatly improve people’s lives.”
News of the programme comes among renewed interest in a bid by South African school children to have the country’s mobile operators provide free Wikipedia access to their users. The pupils have set up a petition on Change.org which currently has over 5 000 signatures.
Their cause has been picked up by the Wikimedia foundation, which helped them make a video around their concerns: