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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.