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Sunday, August 23, 2009

FOSS and the Digital Divide - Reducing it one phrase a time

Wikipedia says that the "Digital Divide" is the gap between people with effective access to digital and information technology and those with very limited or no access at all. You should think of this word whenever you feel great about "Technology being an enabler". The Digital Divide is an essential roadblock to that dream. For, technology can't be a true enabler unless it is in reach of everyone.
So what is reach? Reach is not about being able to purchase a technology. I know for sure that even an auto-wallah can purchase a cell-phone and benefit from technology, but I'm sure many can't reach my blog even though many have enough money to avail a cyber-cafe for an hour. It isn't more than Rs.20/hr if I am correct. That alone doesn't ensure whether they can utilize it well or not. This is where Digital Divide comes into picture.
Now coming to the software side of it. We all have observed that majority of all software that we've used ever, was either in English or in some other major languages in use, but not in our own. There are reasons for that, if a software company A wants to push their product B into the French market, only then would they bother about spending resources on its French translation. Business is not always about doing good for others. McDonalds won't change just because your kids have grown obese eating they burgers with extra cheese.
Something similar happens in a closed-source proprietary software scenario. Consider this example - You purchase a software X for $YYY.YY, no cut that, you get a closed-source shareware for free and the license says that "you're free to share it with anyone, provided you retain the copy of this license... bla bla". That's just half of the story. Think a little more over the sharing part, you will realize that you can share it only with a fraction of people. The fraction that understands the languages that software X supports. Maybe you got it for free. Maybe you thought you were free to share it with others. But all that freedom was so incomplete!
But FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) on the other hand solves this problem in a very practical manner. It invites people to make changes to it, so as to suit their needs. Code being open source, you're always free to modify and customize to great extents. To that, many people reply back with this - "Okay, so the average Joe still can't get this working in his own language for his non-english cousins." Well, friends that's a question fair enough, but one thing I learnt from my experiences is that you should not deny anything unless you've thoroughly explored its deniability.
Let me show you how easy it is to translate a free software to your language, even if you're an average Joe. All you'll ever need is some free time to do something good, to bring a change in the world of many. Enter - An open source code hosting and software collaboration platform by Canonical Ltd. It lets developers and yeah not just them but everyone collaborate over software projects and improve them, be it bug tracking, be it translation, feature request, anything at all. So in this context we would take a look at the translation part. Here's the tour for it which gives an overview -
Let's say you're running Ubuntu as I do, and happen to use 'GNOME Do' a lot. Wouldn't you like to make it easy to use for people of your native language?
First, make an account on Once done, head on to and search for "GNOME Do". This would take you to translation page for GNOME Do -
You can see an informative report on what progress on translation has already been made in different languages. Look for any untranslated entries in your language, click on the language to contribute.

I will take Hindi as an example. So once you've selected the language, you're presented with a list of required translations. The English for is presented on the top, below you have other suggestions submitted previously by users. Now the beauty of collaboration comes out when Launchpad suggests translations from other projects. That is, there are some commonly used words like "Close", "Open" etc, Launchpad is intelligent enough to pull off their Hindi translations into suggestions list for me. There's a big difference in outright crowdsourcing and crowdsourcing done right in Launchpad's way. You can also mark a suggestion for review if you're unsure of anything.
Okay one important aspect I forgot to talk about, how do I type in my language, I use English usually as I happen to know it? As for Hindi, you can use Google Indic to type out and Shabdkosh to find definitions you're unsure of. However a smarter method, which works for any language, was suggested by a friend - SCIM (Smart Common Input Method). Checkout Ubuntu Community Documentation for SCIM to know more. or just do a 'sudo apt-get install scim'
That's it, by going one phrase a time you've actually contributed into translation of a project which is used my many people, and in fact by your efforts yet many more people are going to use it! After sometime your Launchpad profile would show an increase in your Karma ranking and show your contributions in "Most Active in" heading.
Amazing isn't it, instead of sitting idle and getting bored you can actually help free software and your own community, even if you aren't a geek.

Also Sankarshan from DGPLUG points to an important check-list to must-have a look at before you proceed - How to get your translations/localization contribution integrated with existing communities
All the best.

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