Former Microsoftie offers “Talking Book” solution to global illiteracy

Talking Book

Talking Book

It can be difficult to make lasting gains in the ongoing effort to fight disease, improve health, boost a poor farming community’s output or sustain most humanitarian efforts if none or few in the community can read.

“Fighting disease or knowing how to improve agricultural productivity often involves long-term behavior change,” said Cliff Schmidt, founder of a Seattle-based organization called Literacy Bridge. Many humanitarian projects turn out to be unsustainable, Schmidt says, simply because those most in need cannot read or follow written instructions.

Words, it turns out, can be just as important as vaccines, drugs or better seeds when it comes to helping the world’s poorest. Schmidt has created a device to get these valuable words out to the world’s poorest. It’s called the Talking Book.

Kids in Ghana trying out the Talking Book

Today is International Literacy Day, which the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) notes is perhaps hardly not cause for much celebration since nearly a billion people on the planet still remain illiterate.

Here’s a story out of Zimbabwe, published today by ONE, about the transformative power of literacy and another report on the educational needs in Haiti by Seattle-based journalist Peter Constantini based on his recent visit to the troubled island nation.

But I digress. This is mostly a story about Schmidt, a former Microsoft super-geek (I can say that. I know him and he has a degree in cognitive science and artificial intelligence from MIT) who years ago had an idea.

Schmidt started drifting away from his tech job at Microsoft many years ago, doing volunteer work for humanitarian organizations like CARE and RESULTS. In 2007, he went along with some UW students on an international studies project to Ghana. Schmidt also talked about his extracurricular poverty interests with Microsoft colleague Arthur Tao, who shared his interests.

To make a long story short (here’s a longer version I wrote for the Seattle PI in 2008), Schmidt recognized that literacy was critical to almost every kind of effort aimed at helping get people out of poverty. And he wanted to put his tech talents and brainpower to work on finding a solution.

Thus, Talking Book — a fairly inexpensive ($35, with plans to cut that in half), portable and durable talking computer that can be easily programmed to “speak” in local languages, instructing mothers on safe childbirth, telling farmers how to improve their crop productivity and so on. It can also answer some questions in an interactive fashion.

Here’s Schmidt’s pitch:

It’s a pretty cool device and seems like a good idea, a potential solution for a massive global problem often neglected when we talk about what’s needed in the fight against poverty.

But Schmidt and Literacy Bridge are still struggling to get the Talking Book out to more of those who need it. Part of the difficulty is that they launched this project at about the same time the global economy collapsed.

“That didn’t help,” said Schmidt.

Another potential hurdle might be the failure (so far anyway) of the One Laptop Per Child scheme to get very far. As many may recall, the idea behind that well-intended project was to get cheap ($100 or so) laptops out to poor kids to improve literacy and bridge the “digital divide.”

The project appears to have stalled, for a variety of reasons, which won it a not-much coveted 2011 Fiasco Award.

Schmidt and his colleagues on the Talking Book project are well aware of the One Laptop project and believe their approach avoids many of the pitfalls that can often doom techno-fix approaches in poor communities. Others seem to think so as well.

Literacy Bridge and the Talking Book project was the only Washington state organization newly invited to join as a complimentary member (i.e., without having to pay $20,000) of the Clinton Global Initiative this year. The Seattle International Foundation and have supported the project financially and the Microsoft Alumni Foundation recently awarded them a $25,000 social impact prize.

Currently, Schmidt and his colleagues have been able to distribute about 500 Talking Books, mostly in Ghana. It’s obviously a tiny drop in a very large bucket, but he sees much of what they’re doing as still proof-of-concept.

“We have the funds to do this in about 20 communities right now, impacting about 1,100 families,” Schmidt said. The latest project focuses on distributing Talking Books to poor communities in Ghana to instruct mothers in safe childbirth and neonatal care.

In 2009, he said, they distributed 350 Talking Books to Ghanaian farmers with instructions on how to improve crop productivity and ran a year-long study comparing these farmers with others not given the devices.

Schmidt said the farmers with the devices increased their productivity by 48 percent while the other farmers (due in part to unusually bad weather) saw their crop production decline by 5 percent overall. He presented the study results at a major meeting in London.

“Our goal right now is to expand the project on maternal and child health, to try to reach 75 communities involving about 24,000 and 100,000 people overall,” Schmidt said. He said he’s actually spoken with Bill Gates three times about his project, but thinks it’s still at too small a scale to interest the world’s largest philanthropy. Yet.

Schmidt is clearly determined to see the Talking Book spread across the developing world like, well maybe not quite like, the cell phone or radio. He believes it could become a powerful tool for combatting illiteracy.

“Our goal isn’t really literacy,” Schmidt says. That, like the Talking Book, is just the tool. “Our goal is empowerment and spreading knowledge to people who need it most.”



About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • I do think the idea of spreading such useful information, which can be repeatedly listened to (while doing other things) and shared between people, is valuable – just yesterday I was vaguely imagining a book myself which would cover rational use of medicines, but concerned about literacy, production cost and usability. However, without wanting to immediately gun down new initiatives – I wonder about how many advantages this Talking Book has over existing technologies such as tapes (which cost less than €2 when bought in bulk?), and even digital content which can be passed on from mobile phone to mobile phone (via e.g. bluetooth).
    The phones which have bluetooth and at least some memory to hold digital content are much less prevalent than tape players, but they are still surprisingly prevalent (from my unscientific observations in the north of Burkina Faso), and often used to pass on music, sometimes complete with video.
    Even the tape however, can quite easily be distributed (and this has been a tool for religious and other communications for quite a while now). For recording of new material, copying, and re-dissemination, it does require some extra interventions (especially to then put it on the Internet), but it seems like that could be organised.
    It just seems like for something that would be widely distributed, a price difference of something like €10 (if the price can be brought down from $35) makes quite a difference in terms of funds needed (also with the logistics as tapes are less bulky), which partially be spent on addressing the extra organisation needed to complement the tape’s functionality, and partially on reaching out to more people. 

    (also the post title is a bit misleading: it does not offer a solution to illiteracy, but circumvents it to still be able to spread information)

    • Hello Alix,
      This is Cliff S

      • Sorry for the false start before…

        Hi Alix,
        Thank you for your thoughtful post about other potential technologies. I hope I can address some of your points here:

        The biggest problem I see with tape is that it requires some expense for every copy of every new piece of content.  It’s also difficult for local organizations to keep track of dozens of hundreds of pieces of audio content in lots of languages.  I didn’t realize how difficult some of these problems were until after talking with hundreds of people about how they deal with these issues today.

        Using digital content means that there is virtually no cost to making as many copies as is needed for each new recording, and there is no inventory of tapes to keep track of.  

        We have also created a software application to help our partners manage all their recordings.  We call it an Audio Content Manager (, but it basically works like iTunes but allows you to organize these spoken recordings by language (our partners are usually working with communities that speak multiple languages) and category (e.g. health, agriculture, business, or more specific, such as “Malaria prevention”). 

        As we’ve continued to refine the technology to match what is being asked for by our local partners and what individual farmers and mothers (who are also farmers), the biggest thing we’ve learned is the importance of the content.  This may seem obvious, but what we’ve realized is that we can do a lot to help improve the content.  
        The Talking Book tracks what people are listening to and when they give copies to someone else.  After listening to a message, the user is prompted to indicate whether the message was helpful and whether they intend to apply what they’ve learned.  They are also prompted to record their own views or feedback about the recording.  All of this info allows us to track what content is most effective and why.  Our partners can then view this data and listen to the feedback and learn how to improve the content they are creating.  See for more information.

        Of course, the vast majority of cell phones that are in use today in the rural areas of developing countries are not capable of most of these functions and many others that we have found to be important.  They require frequent charging, which is fine if you have access to electricity or if you only use your phone infrequently for a brief call to a relative (which is quite common in the poorest regions where we focus).  In contrast, the Talking Book can be powered by batteries that people use in radios and flashlights.  You can use rechargeable batteries too if you have access to a means of charging, but it’s not necessary.

        I don’t see many people living on $1 or $2 / day with a bluetooth cell phone and memory for playing audio.  That kind of phone costs more than a Talking Book does today, even at our small production levels, and is not very intuitive to an older adult who has had no formal education. Usability by this group of people is extremely important to the whole project, which is why we have refined our device numerous times to fit their needs.

        There’s much more I could say on this topic, but I think the key point is that this is not an easy problem to solve.  I believe that the best approach is to design technology to meet the exact needs of the very poorest and those with the least access to education.  And on top of that, it requires lots of time evaluating your progress, doing more refining, and being open minded to where your work needs to change.  

        The “solution” isn’t really about technology.  If a future smart phone can do all the things that we have found important to include in a Talking Book, we can easily apply our Talking Book software to that smart phone.  But it will be a long while before the unit costs and network costs make that cost-effective.  And more importantly: technology is just one part to the solution.  Understanding how that technology is best used within the context of the existing social structures and how content can be created to be most compelling and to address the current social norms of a community — that’s even more important.

        Thank you again for your examples of other possibilities.  I hope my views on this helped address your concerns.


  • Anonymous

    I worked with Cliff Schmidt as a volunteer for RESULTS, and was very impressed with his intelligence and his common sense.  He is a humble, genuine man with a big heart.  The awards he and his organization have won attest to their brilliant work, and the huge difference he and his organization are making.  The sky is the limit for his technology, and for the assistance it provides.  Further, his work lets the people who are benefiting from it work to make it better.  With more people like Cliff working on technology to benefit the poorest, the world would be a much better place.