Cliff Schmidt


Former Microsoftie offers “Talking Book” solution to global illiteracy | 

Literacy Bridge

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.

Literacy Bridge

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:

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