Projects benefiting rural communities by offering them text to Braille translations, citizen journalism in Tamil and local language job banks, among others services, proved to be the focus of the Information Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) of Sri Lanka as they were awarded Rs. 21,2 million in grants recently.
ICTA, in a statement, indicated that "funds will be provided to 16 organisations on this occasion under the replication assistance grant award programme for replicating community-friendly projects which have been well tried out as pilot projects and found to be full of promise for the benefit of society".
One project, initially launched by Jinasena Properties at the School for the Deaf and the Blind in Ratmalana, will now utilise ICTA’s grant to further add to and improve so that its software could be deployed to six schools - the Braille Press, Maharagama, St. Joseph's Girls’ School, Kegalle, Nissanka Maha Vidyalaya, Kurunegala, Special Education Resource Centre, Anuradhapura, Matara College, Matara and Mahanama College, Colombo. Encompassing a video sign language dictionary, learning software for the hearing impaired, computer-aided speech therapy and text to Braille software for the visually impaired, this programme will eventually lead to disabled children graduating from special needs schools like the Deaf and Blind school in Ratmalana to being integrated into the mainstream of the educational system.
One way this will be accomplished is through the extension of the range of reading materials available, as there is only a very limited collection of Braille books currently in circulation, which will achieved by way of the Digital Talking Books project. Another is through a project which makes it possible for the visually impaired to read the Sinhala content online via software that converts online digital content to Braille which can then be read using a Braille display. An added bonus is that the software also makes it feasible for users to communicate through e-mail with others.
The technology can also be used in the printing of examination papers so that visually impaired children can have examinations given to them instead of the regular practice of papers being read out by examiners. Another project which will be utilising its grant to extend its scope is an existing Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) initiative that was created as part of 2004's 'Voices of Reconciliation' project; a project responsible for setting up Sri Lanka's first citizen journalism sites, www.vikalpa.org and www.groundviews.org.
Awarded a grant to improve the effectiveness of citizen journalists in Kandy, Hatton and Nuwara Eliya, the project intends to single out the four best community based organisations for training to enable them to be better reporters, including providing them with skills pertaining to citizen journalism, publishing newsletters, etc. Further, these communities will also be provided Internet accessibility as the ultimate goal of the project is to use new technology to get society’s views expressed through facilities such as newsletters and community radio programmes webcast over the Internet.
Also awarded a grant was a local language job bank (www.srilankajobs.net), which was developed and maintained by Best Job Opportunities. Offering people in Anuradhapura, Badulla, Matale, Nuwara Eliya and Polonnaruwa access to work in the private and public sectors, the organisations utilises the Nenasala and Samurdi networks, by way of training their staff, to allow potential employees to register and upload their CV’s. The grant is also being used to print 250,000 classified papers and deliver them to key persons across multiple communities, etc, all the while offering job seekers the service free-of-charge.
In addition, initiatives include the utilisation of an ICT based English language teaching tool in two remote villages in the Monaragala - training in graphic design through three-dimensional film animation software for youth in Kuchchweli, Trincomalee; providing to 100 registered farmers via mobile phone data on "cultivation practices - e.g, input of fertilizers, timing of the application of fertilizers in addition to communication of day-to-day market prices of agricultural produce and crop prices, for example, from the Dambulla market"; maintaining a mobile platform which enables the linking of the Dankotuwa District Hospital to the Marawila Base Hospital, and helping fishing communities by tapping satellite data and identifying, by SMS for fishermen registered with the Nenasala in Weligama ,the longitudinal and latitudinal indicators where fish are concentrated.
Finally, it is important to note that, while some of these projects are still in the planning stages, such as text to Braille software which has so far only been deployed to a few institutions, there are others, such as CPA's citizen journalism project, active since 2004, which will be using these grants to take their offerings online while also improving accessibility for the communities they service. So, in a sense, ICT has allowed these projects and communities to take on greater challenges, often even going beyond original, and local, concerns.