August, 2010

  • Inspiration at the Imagine Cup

    Posted by Aben Kovoor
    Director of Developer & Platform Ecosystem Group, Middle East and Africa, Microsoft

    It’s amazing how a little imagination and forward thinking can change the world. Where would we be today without advances in medicine like the MRI, technology like PCs and the Internet, or communication devices like cell phones?

    To help cultivate creativity from around the globe, Microsoft annually hosts the Imagine Cup, a student technology competition created to showcase innovative ideas that can change the world. The 2010 event has just recently concluded; where more than 100 countries competed in Warsaw, Poland. This year’s theme was to imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems.

    Looking over the innovative solutions created by our three African finalists, it is indeed easy to see the new perspective that students can bring to the world:

    • Team Indwell, Nigeria: Providing access to quality education for all is an extensible platform that allows the development of computer educational applications. The system includes a desktop application, a web application and a central XML Application Programming Interface (API).
    • Team Simulacrum, South Africa: “Simulacrum” looks to address disasters that have occurred from poor crowd management. The software provides a full crowd simulation system that predicts the way crowds will behave at large events such as the 2010 Football World Cup. 
    • Team Zenj Coders, Uganda: “Saving Tomorrow” is an SMS based system that focuses on improving prenatal and post natal care of expectant mothers in developing world. The solution allows doctors to predict date of birth, automatically schedule both postnatal and prenatal visits and automatically sends SMS reminders two days before a visit.

    While we are inspired by the student projects at Imagine Cup, we should also use that inspiration to spark discussion on serious issues like education and skills across Africa. Education is the cornerstone of economic opportunity, so any efforts to help young people realize their full potential must begin there. For Sub-Saharan Africa’s 800 million people, especially the 500 million who are under 30 years old, enhancing education is vital if the continent is to reach the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

    When talking to national leaders we find a common theme around their wish to create diverse economies based on knowledge and with a global reach. The wish is to create doctors, engineers, scientists, technologists, entrepreneurs, lawyers, accountants, publishers, and the vast range of specialists who are needed to accelerate economic development.

    Working towards achieving this needs efficient, diverse, and flexible learning programmes that go beyond addressing basic literacy to provide access to specialist knowledge and learning infrastructures, to help overcome the shortages of qualified teachers, and to forge learning communities that can share knowledge on a local, regional, and global scale.

    This is why ICT has a special role to play in education - an objective that Microsoft has supported for several years, engaging with governments, educators, IGOs and NGOs across Africa to increase access to technology that can improve the quality of teaching as well as the learning experience for students of all ages – literally shaping the way education happens. In Uganda we have partnered with the Government to equip more than 200,000 teachers with computer skills, helping to improve learning through the use of technology in schools. The project also sees technology subjects integrated into the school curriculum from primary school to university level.

    Implementing national education e-strategies is challenging in most countries and Africa faces specific and profound economic, geographic and infrastructure issues. We are involved to help break down barriers in access to education through effective education technology tools.

    There is a lot of talk about the arrival of the undersea cable.  It is frequently described as connecting Africa to the rest of the world.  I like to look at it a little differently.  I think of it as providing a pathway to a new and dynamic future for Africa, where education and skills development can be accessed easily by all and where young people will be able to develop groundbreaking software for Africa. But there are a number of factors that need to be in place for this to be effective. Models derived from countries that are ICT and bandwidth rich cannot be replicated in Africa, and nor should they. Africa has its own needs and aspirations and any use of ICT should be adapted to help developing the society each country aspires to.

  • We Speak Your Language

    Posted by Hennie Loubser
    Regional General Manager for West, East, Central Africa & Indian Ocean Islands

    Language preservation is a familiar debate for many government leaders, policymakers and humanitarians searching for development solutions in Africa. With their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, and education, languages are the vital, but fragile, ties that can bind cultures, economies or countries. Yet UNESCO estimates that half of the 6,700 languages spoken today are in danger of disappearing before the century ends. 
    We believe technology has an increasingly important role to play in the maintenance of linguistic diversity, not only to promote mutual understanding and dialogue, but also to strengthen local economies. All too often communities are excluded from IT skills fluency, and the accompanying job opportunities, for lack of technology in their local language.  Through the Microsoft Local Language Program, we are committed to supporting our software in as many languages as possible in cooperation with governments and communities around the world. Currently our Windows and Office products are available in 15 written and spoken languages in Africa:

    • Afrikaans
    • Amharic
    • Arabic
    • English
    • French
    • Hausa 
    • Igbo
    • isiXhosa
    • isiZulu
    • KiSwahili
    • Portuguese
    • Sesotho sa Leboa
    • Setswana (Tswana)
    • Spanish
    • Yoruba

    That means Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office are available in the first and/or second language of the majority of Africa’s 1 billion people.

    So, how do we do this? Hard work and strong partnerships is the short answer.

    The longer answer begins with a glossary. We create a glossary in cooperation with local governments, universities, language experts, and others to standardize technical terminology in a local language. The terminology collected in the glossary acts as the basis for the development of an application we call a Language Interface Pack (LIP). This LIP enables you to install a local language version as a "skin" on top of an existing installation of the Windows operating system and standard Microsoft Office system applications. And finally, we support the local IT ecosystem by helping developers build solutions on top of the LIPs, such as spell checkers, translation dictionaries, screen savers, collaboration tools, and online services. When completed, the LIP is available as a free download or distributed by the local government.

    Over the last five years, we have worked with partners across the continent to bring local languages to life.

    For example, in Nigeria, we partnered with the government to make Microsoft Windows Vista available in three of the country’s most widely spoken languages: Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo. Nigeria’s Minister of Science and Technology, Dr Alhassan Zaku, called the 2009 release, “A turning point in the history of technology in our beloved country. This initiative is a long-awaited vehicle that will take the benefits of ICT to people at grassroots level in every nook and cranny of Nigeria. It also represents a breakthrough in Nigerian linguistic and literary studies.”

    In South Africa, we are fortunate to have a number of Local Language Program partners, but one innovative example comes from the Siyafunda Community Technology Centres in the Gauteng province. By using the Setswana and isiZulu LIPs, these centres are now able to offer their computer literacy training in the local vernacular for members of the rural community.

    There are hundreds of similar examples across the world. To add your voice, please visit the Microsoft Local Language Program Web site.