Two quick Timbuktu posts – Timbuktu Chronicles, that is. Emeka Okafor’s brilliant blog is one of my every day reads: it keeps track of engineering, science and business developments across the continent, showcasing a never-ending series of African innovations, and shaming anyone who would argue that there’s a dearth of creativity and entrepreneurialism on the continent.
Tuesday, Emeka featured a link he’d found on Global Voices – props, Sokari – to AfriGadget, a new site that hopes to feature creative, amateur engineering solutions that Africans have designed to solve everyday problems. The site’s author credits Emeka, in part, with the idea for the blog, and a recognition that projects like Make magazine represent a return to everyday problemsolving that’s uncommon in the US and Europe, but an aspect of daily life in Africa. (Make, I know from conversations with its creators, is very much looking to feature stories about African Makers – I hope this new project will help creators from the continent get featured online and in print.)
Today, Emeka’s pointing to a fascinating mobile phone application built by a team of Ethiopian software developers. Feedelix came about as a way to allow Ethiopian mobile phone users to send text messages in Ethiopic/Amharic. This has required not only supporting Ethiopic character sets, but designing new text predictive algorithms. Many English-language mobile phones use a predictive algorithm called T9 – when I press 469 on a T9 enabled phone, it concludes that the most likely sequence of characters is “how”, not “gny” and puts those characters in my message. This is critically important for Ethiopic, because 345 characters and variations are possible – the system designed by Feedelix supports the 210 most imporant characters via multiple cellphone keystroke, predicting common character sequences in Ethiopic.
But sending Ethiopic SMS messages also involves modifying your phone to support this new character set and these algorithms. The Feedelix team has solved the problem by creating a java application that can run on many phones, which supports the character set and the keyboard mapping – it’s unclear whether it includes a predictive algorithm, or if that’s a future step. The application then uses the ability of many phones to transmit data via GPRS through internet protocols to mimic SMS. The user experience is of sending and recieving SMS messages in Amharic, but the data is transerred through the public internet. You’re not billed by your cellphone carrier for sending SMS, but for transfering data via GPRS, which is cheaper on most major carriers.
Feedelix has launched a Hindi product as well, and is promising a Chinese Pinyin version later this year – the technology that supports the comparatively small Amharic market is very similar to the technology neccesary to support much larger userbases in India and China.
There’s another fascinating implication for carrier-independent SMS – avoiding content filtering. Ethiopia has evidently begun filtering the Internet in an especially hamhanded fashion – Andrew Heavens reports that his blog is one of only eight Ethiopia-focused blogs still readable in Addis Ababa via ETC, the national phone company. It’s not difficult to imagine that ETC – which has a monopoly on telecommunications – might try filtering SMS in the future. Technology exists to block spam SMS messages – in the same way that tools which were designed to block viruses have been used to block freedom of expression in China, it’s not hard to imagine anti-spam SMS technology being co-opted to prevent street organizing in Ethiopia.
Feedelix’s solution makes SMS operator-independent – the local telecom operator (ETC) just ships bits to a Feedelix website, and it handles the content from there. This would allow users of this product to avoid SMS filtering in Ethiopia, assuming ETC doesn’t do something truly boneheaded (blocking all GPRS access to the Feedelix tool) or extremely complicated (packet filtering the traffic via GPRS to detect “sensitive” packets sent to Feedelix.) Deeply speculative, I know, but worth thinking about as Ethiopia appears to be in a real hurry to catch up to other repressive nations in closing off access to the generative internet.