Spreading knowledge around the world

Internet.org is a non-profit partnership of technology companies using their technical expertise to help people around the world gain access to knowledge by accelerating internet access through mobile devices. The initiative, which was kicked off by Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, in August 2013, recognizes the critical importance of focusing on humanitarian content, especially health and educational material, and emphasizing that information should be in local languages.  

For more on internet.org’s scope and activities, we spoke with Facebook Business Development Manager, Bryan Hurren, who manages the initiative.

Mr. Hurren began by describing one of internet.org’s work streams, Free Basic Services. “We’ve seen that 85 percent of the world’s population is already in 2G coverage or better, but only 30 percent are active data users. [With] Free Basic Services, we constructively align with mobile operators to fundamentally shift the ‘calculus’ a person uses to adopt mobile data,” he said, adding, “Connectivity is necessary but not sufficient for the adoption of mobile data services that can carry vital information, and those services must be appropriately local for people to use them.”

Translators without Borders has found this to be the case in West Africa during the Ebola crisis. While mobile uptake in Sierra Leone is high (over 50 percent, according to the International Finance Group), a KAP (Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice) study by UNICEF found that only 10 percent of respondents wanted vital information via their mobile devices. They much preferred to receive information on prevention, care and funereal procedures, via radio. But with so many people actually having mobile devices, the opportunity to convey local key messages via mobile is great and could improve communications with affected populations in the future. 

Naturally, the relevance of any information depends largely on its availability in local languages, as Mr. Hurren explained. “With Free Basic Services, we take a very active partnership approach to this content. Ideally, we work with local creators of content, or global providers that are committed to meeting the relatively high localization requirements. For Free Basic Services, we strive to offer content from partners in languages that provide 90 percent population coverage.” For the launch in Kenya and Tanzania, some of the small health NGOs, such as MAMA (the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action), have worked with Translators without Borders to ensure their health information is available in Swahili, the lingua franca of the region.

“Beyond translation, we actively work with partners that localize content along three dimensions: language, literacy, and culture. There are topics that are so culturally sensitive, it may be appropriate to reframe them in locally-specific ways. An example of this multi-dimensional localization is our work with UNICEF to distribute their general Facts for Life content. We work closely with the local offices, who work with local governments to ensure the content is appropriate. Language translation is one of several localization dimensions we consider to ensure understanding.”

With its approach that allows for complexity and diversity, internet.org helps distribute to wider audiences not only data, but the knowledge that data can carry. In addition to Facebook, the initiative is supported by co-founders Ericsson, Mediatek, Opera Software, Samsung, Nokia and Qualcomm.

Anna Stevenson