Africa: Free Software to Assist Indigenous Access to Computers

Mexico City — Indigenous communities may benefit from new computer technology that allows them to access educational resources and the internet using their own language, says the software's developer.

The innovation comes from an international, interdisciplinary group that is currently working on using the technology to reduce the digital gap and help protect cultural diversity in Mexico.

This effort is part of a wider project called Heliox, which is developing a free, inclusive operating system using a version of the existing fully open-source GNU/Linux system.

New features such as translation software to assist indigenous speakers, as well as archives and educational content in local languages and direct links to websites are being added to this operating system.

"Free software is allowing us to serve people; minorities, who are not the goal of companies," says Roberto Feltrero, a researcher in cognitive sciences at the National Distance Education University, Spain, and the project's director.

Feltrero first developed assistive Heliox to help people with disabilities access computers, designing innovations such as a screen magnifier software and a device to handle the mouse using head movements.

When he visited Mexico and met a group of philosophers of science interested in promoting the autonomous use of technology in indigenous communities, they began to work on the Mexican version of Heliox.

Heliox guides users to applications, files and websites through text and voice messages that appear in their chosen language when the cursor is pointed at icons.

This helps guide users without them needing much computing knowledge.

"If you tell a person 'Firefox' or 'open file' even in their native language, they will not understand because it is a computer language. In fact, 96 per cent of the words used in a computer system do not have a translation," explains Feltrero. "We do not want only to translate because we want to reach people who have probably never used a computer."

Heliox is saved on a memory stick along with software that automatically configures it to any computer in less than two minutes. "You do not have to do anything," Feltrero explains, adding that Heliox can work on old computers.

With a budget of nearly US$8,000, provided by Mexico's National Institute for Indigenous Languages, Feltrero and his team have already translated Heliox into Mexican Spanish, and indigenous tongues Mayan, Náhuatl and Mixe.

But Luz Lazos, the project's diversity consultant, who is based in Mexico, says: "It is not restricted to these languages. It is a system for any community anywhere in the world to develop their own Heliox and revitalise their language."

Heliox's creators expect that the Mexican version of the software will be released for free later this year. At the same time, indigenous communities will be given 20 old computers with Heliox installed.

In addition to the translation software, the team is developing educational and scientific content in indigenous languages to be included as archives in Heliox.

The objective is to show communities they can use text, video and audio editors to jointly create and share content based on their own cultures, values and traditions.

"There is a surprising connection between the principles and values in free software communities and the ones in indigenous communities, such as communal work or meritocracy," says Lazos.

Gustavo Gómez Macías, a Mexican expert in programming and free software, says Heliox will be a "wonderful tool".

But he adds that it is important to make sure there are no compatibility problems between GNU/Linux and hardware, which is often a problem due to its complexity, and to ensure automatic updates are available.

Feltrero is confident that these challenges will be adequately addressed.

Link to Heliox project (in Spanish)

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