UNICEF wiki uses open source, SMS to connect kids

In an emerging effort called UNIWIKI, UNICEF is now using technologies ranging from open source software to SMS text messaging for helping young people from throughout the world to communicate via international social networking sites.

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UNITED NATIONS (BetaNews) - To broaden out access to more geographic areas, communications are taking place not just via PCs but also through mobile phones and radios, according to UNICEF's Terra Weikel, speaking at the UN in New York Wednesday afternoon.

"We give young people a voice. [That is] part of our mission," Weikel said. "We need to open avenues."

In a UNIWIKI project known as Connecting Classrooms, students in New York City and Uganda are now sharing perspectives on their own societies, cultures, and politics with each other over the Web.

In another project, children displaced by conflict are taking part in distance learning through a "collaborative workspace" on the Internet, Weikel said today, in a talk at a UN conference entitled "United Nations Meets Web 2.0 and ICT Entrepreneurs." For that project, open source developers in Cairo built an Arab-language Web site for UNICEF.

The UN-managed organization has adopted open source development to save time and money, as well as out of a desire to be "part of the open source community," according to Weikel. In repurposing components from open source developers, UNICEF can also localize materials and customize them in other ways.

Meanwhile, in Our Stories -- an effort conducted by UNICEF in conjunction with Google and One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) -- UNICEF is collecting and storing five million stories from youth around the world. The stories, which are being recorded in audio on location, are organized into topic areas.

Weikel said that Google built the Web site for Our Stories. Each story will appear as a "peg" on a Google map, accompanied by basic information and a photo.

In researching what kinds of communications tools to use, UNICEF discovered that Internet access via PCs varies widely, from penetration rates of about 59% in North America and 40% on average in Europe to much lower rates in some other sections of the globe.

But, said Weikel, the worldwide access rate for mobile phones is projected to reach 90% by 2010, and about 90% of the world's population already has use of a radio.

On the whole, UNICEF plans to use PCs and mobile phones for "one-to-one" communications, and radio -- and ultimately video -- for "one-to-many" communications, according to the UNICEF official.

"You can [now] input information from your cell phone," she said. "We're [also] working on ways to push [communications] to radio and TVs, to reach the broadest numbers of people."

In rural communities, for example, mobile radio stations can be created. "We can then broadcast out," she elaborated.

Some of the UNIWIKI projects also involve text-to-speech and speech-to-text translation, she indicated. Messages can be entered into the system through either text or speech and received through either text or voice playback.

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