Mobilizing the Web for the Developing World: Inside the World Wide Web Foundation with CEO Steve Bratt, Part 2

Yesterday we ran the first part of our interview with Steve Bratt, the CEO of the new World Wide Web Foundation, which was unveiled on November 15 by Web inventor Tim-Berners-Lee. The foundation aims to empower people in developing regions to access “life-critical information” on the Web using mobile phones and other simplified interfaces.

Bratt, who leads the Geneva, Switzerland-based foundation from offices in Boston, talked in the first half of the interview about the origins of the group, how its mission differs from that of its sister organization the World Wide Web Consortium, and the gaps in content, research, and technology it hopes to address.

In Part 2, below, Bratt details the foundation’s initial projects in Africa and South America, the role of voice technology in broadening Web access, and the foundation’s plans for growth.

Xconomy: What can you tell me about your initial projects?

Steve Bratt: There are two: the Web Alliance for Re-Greening Africa, and Empowering Youth in Inner Cities. Both are in partnership with other organizations. With the first one, the goal is to provide Web systems that will help capture local knowledge about how to plant in very harsh desert environments. There is a group, the Africa Re-Greening Initiative, that has been working for 20 years to take local innovations in how to plant and conveying them to others. This is a great example because it’s not a case of foreign aid coming in and saying, “Let’s build a dam and here’s some chemical fertilizer and some genetically engineered corn.” It’s about what is working for the 1 percent and how to convey that to the other 99 percent. I met this farmer in Burkina Faso, Yacouba Sawadogo, who figured a different geometry for making trenches to grow seeds and plants that turns out to be much more productive—what size hole to use, when to put manure in. He didn’t have any training, he just discovered it. It’s a perfect example. They’ve been busing farmers into to see him; he might see 10 a month. We want to create a digital bus to allow all of the farmers in that area to have the knowledge.

Steve Bratt, CEO of the World Wide Web FoundationWe’re working with VU University in the Netherlands, and we’re going to see if the Web can empower the conveyance of information, and how to use voice to enable the Web. VoiceXML has been heavily used commercially in the West—every call center uses it—but it hasn’t been used as much for development. There are no new standards needed. We just want to work with local developers and local farmers so they can develop something that meets farmers’ needs.

The Empowering Youth project is in concert with the Center for Digital Inclusion, a fantastic organization started by Rodrigo Baggio in Brazil. They started in the poorest areas of Rio de Janeiro and they have close to 800 community centers in inner cities training kids on computers. We’re going in to help them develop a curriculum to teach youth how to develop content and Web applications. Again, we’ll focus on mobile and voice, because those are the predominant technologies available to people, even in poor areas. Even in the Sahel in Africa, we were told that every family has access to a mobile phone and a radio. It’s the same in Brazil and Latin America. So that will be a pilot project in five cities—one in Brazil, one in Latin America, one in the Middle East, and probably one in a Western city. But this is an unfunded project at this point, so we’re looking for partners to help fund it.

X: Do you ever worry that the voice-accessible Web that you’re describing will be an extremely slow, impoverished version of the Web that we enjoy here in the United States? I mean, just to keep things manageable, you’d probably have to limit menu choices at each level of a voice interface to four or five. How do you translate a complex Website into something that can be consumed that way?

SB: We are so spoiled. We have our iPhones and our high-speed Internet. Well, if you’re making a decision about what movie to go to and it starts in five minutes, you need a pretty fast answer. But if you’re making a decision about which direction to walk in when your child has a rash—do I walk a day and a half in this direction to this village or two days in the other direction to the other village?—you are probably willing to wait a minute for an answer. Planting and harvesting is another good example. You can probably wait a minute or two, or even a day, if the answer is going to make your crops grow or die. So we think speed is not such an issue—and that it will grow to meet demand.

X: Are you going to focus on the accessibility projects for now, and go into a phase later where you grow into a grant-making foundation?

SB: No, we’d like to become a grant-making organization right away. We are launching our fundraising campaign this week, with the launch of the foundation. We want to do three or four projects like this, and we will learn a lot from the first two—does our approach make sense for the Web as a whole and for individual and institutional empowerment? We have a lot of other projects we’d like to do, including providing additional funding for W3C and for the Web Science Trust.

X: Does the W3C have trouble raising money on its own for these kinds of projects?

SB: Generally the W3C’s money comes from the annual fees that members pay, so it’s not that scalable. Say we have 400 members paying a certain amount every year; if we want to do 25 percent more work, it’s hard. So there are certain ways we can supplement W3C’s income a little bit that would give them flexibility to start new projects that are important from a social standpoint. Most of the members agree on these things. After all what company would not want to see the potential market increase? Or see a billion new people using the Web?

X: Why was 2008-2009 the right moment to start this foundation? Why not 2000, or 2004?

SB: I know Tim has been thinking about these kinds of things ever since I’ve been at W3C. The Web accessibility initiatives for people with disabilities are a reflection of that. Personally, I felt strongly that I wanted to work on a project and a program that really focused on the people side of things, after focusing on the technology side of things for so long. Another thing is the connectivity problem. We have 25 percent of people using the Internet on computers, and 75 percent with mobile phones. Mobility has been a bigger revolution than the Web itself. So there is this barrier of connectivity, and maybe we can help to fill this gap. The opportunity didn’t exist in 2000, and it only started being noticed in 2004, which was when we started the Mobile Web Initiative and the Mobile Web for Social Development effort.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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