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Technology

Google rushes to grow new content in Africa

A Google China  logo of  in front of its headquarters in Beijing. The search engine’s comprehensiveness is an edge against a new, well-financed competitor, Bing from Microsoft. Reuters
A Google China logo of in front of its headquarters in Beijing. The search engine’s comprehensiveness is an edge against a new, well-financed competitor, Bing from Microsoft. Reuters 

The farmer and the cowman should be friends” is the hopeful refrain of Oklahomans in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma. After all, their activities rhyme: “One likes to push a plough; one likes to chase a cow.”

Alas, the cultivators and the grazers seem destined for conflict. The largest online grazer of them all, Google, has repeatedly come upon fences as it roams the Internet seeking new material for search results.

There is China’s corner of the Internet, for example. The government there allowed Google to enter but insisted that its computers ignore writing and photographs about the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, say, or the status of Tibet or political dissent in general.

Google agreed to those conditions — that material simply doesn’t show up when someone looks for it at google.cn — though it says it is now refusing to abide by those rules in light of a hacking attempt emanating from China. Another barrier Google recently ran up against involves authors and publishers concerned by the company’s effort to digitise books in university libraries.

Many of these are so-called orphan works, for which copyright holders could not be found, and so without securing permission, Google unleashed its page scanners. Only recently has it tried to settle with the authors and publishers so it can put the works online. Then there are the gaps in the Internet, barren because large populations in the Arabic world, Africa and much of India lack the means or education to create Web sites and other online content. But Google can do something that cowboys can’t: create more real estate.

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The company is sponsoring a contest to encourage students in Tanzania and Kenya to create articles for the Kiswahili version of Wikipedia, mainly by translating them from the English Wikipedia. The winners are to be announced on Friday, with prizes including a laptop, a wireless modem, cell phones and Google gear. So far the contest, Google says, has added more than 900 articles from more than 800 contributors. “Our algorithms are primed and ready to give you the answer you are looking for, but the pipeline of information just isn’t there,” said Gabriel Stricker, Google’s spokesman on search issues. “The challenge for searches in many languages for us no longer is search quality. Our ability to get the right answer is hindered by the lack of quality and lack of quantity of material on the Internet.”

Creating forests

Sitting in a Google cafeteria, Stricker outlined all the ways information eludes the search engine — wrong language, not digitised, too recent, doesn’t exist but should. Feeding the maw is clearly an obsession of Google’s. After all, the search engine’s comprehensiveness is an edge against a new, well-financed competitor, Bing from Microsoft.

In e-mail interviews, two of the finalists in the Swahili contest said the arrival of Google on their campuses changed them from passive users of Wikipedia to active contributors. Still, they expressed mixed feelings about receiving material rewards for sharing knowledge.

One of the finalists, Jacob Kipkoech, a 21-year-old from the Rift Valley of Kenya who is studying software engineering at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, has created 17 articles so far that were given points. Among the topics were water conservation, al-Qaida and afforestation, the process of creating forests.

“Wikipedia has been a good online research base for me,” he wrote, “and this was a way I could make it possible for people who can’t use English to benefit from it as well.”
Another finalist, Daniel Kimani, also 21, is studying for a degree in business information technology at Strathmore University in Kenya. He said that contests were an effective way to attract contributors but that “bribing,” or paying per article, “is not good at all because it will be very unfair to pay some people and others are not paid.” “I believe in Wikipedia,” he said, “since it is the only free source of information in this world.” Swahili, because it is a second language for as many as 100 million people in East Africa, is thought to be one of the only ways to reach a mass audience of readers and contributors in the region. The Swahili Wikipedia still has a long way to go, however, with only 16,000 articles and nearly 5,000 users. (Even a relatively obscure language like Albanian has 25,000 articles and more than 17,000 contributors.)

Kimani and Kipkoech represent one of the challenges for creating material in African languages. The people best equipped to write in Kiswahili are multilingual university students. And yet Kimani wrote that he used “the English version more than Kiswahili since most of my school work is in English.”

Translation could be the key to bringing more material to non-English speakers. It is the local knowledge that is vital from these Kenyan contributors, the thinking goes, assuming that Swahili-English translation tools improve.

Kimani wrote one entry in English and Swahili about drug use in Mombasa, the second-largest city in Kenya. It says that the “youth in this area strongly believe that use of bhang or any other narcotic drug could prevent one from suffering from ghosts attacks.” Now the article lives in English and Swahili, although the English Wikipedia editors have asked for citations and threatened to remove it. It is yet another obstacle as Google the cowboy becomes Google the farmer. Meanwhile, China widened its attack against US criticisms of Internet censorship, raising the stakes in a dispute that has put Google in the middle of a political quarrel between the two global powers.

China has stepped up its defence of curbs on the Internet nearly two weeks after the world’s biggest search engine provider, Google Inc., said it wanted to stop censoring its Chinese Google.cn website and was alarmed by online hacking attacks from within China. Google’s complaints received backing from the White House, but China countered with accusations that Washington was using the Internet to support subversion in Iran.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama may meet the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled Buddhist leader, in coming months, Reuters reports. Beijing calls the Dalai Lama a dangerous separatist for seeking Tibetan self-rule, and is sure to be angry about such a meeting.

Dangerous separatist

Washington has also unveiled arms sales to Taiwan, the self-ruled island Beijing regards as a renegade province. The State Council Information Office is the cabinet arm of China’s propaganda apparatus, which is steered by the Communist Party, and is one of several agencies behind Internet policy.

The latest comments from China made no direct mention of Google or Clinton.

They appeared intended to amplify the government’s case that its Internet controls are for it to decide, and expressing non-violent views online can be a crime in China.

China has jailed dissidents and advocates of self-rule in Tibet who have used the Internet to challenge Communist Party policies and one-party rule.

Late last year the country’s most prominent dissident, Liu Xiaobo, was jailed for 11 years on charges of “inciting subversion”, largely through essays he published on overseas Internet sites. On Sunday, the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, accused the United States of exploiting social media, such as Twitter and YouTube, to foment unrest in Iran.

-New York Times Syndicate. Additional reporting by Reuters

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