It is estimated that some 10 million South Africans (almost a quarter of our population) are functionally illiterate. For these people and others who live in areas with low technology penetration, challenges presented by physical distance and having to use a language other then their own, become obstacles in the quest to access information and services currently available from South African government departments.
Researching ways to change how people live
The development of a telephone-based, speech-driven information system by the human language technologies research group of the Meraka Institute at the CSIR may soon make these obstacles a thing of the past.
Tebogo Gumede is a researcher and project manager engaged with a big team of systems engineers, electronic engineers, computer scientists and linguists on project Lwazi, funded by the Department of Arts and Culture. Her role complements that of her colleagues, some of whom are responsible for producing technological innovations such as automated speech recognition and text-to-speech technology to ensure interaction in a language of choice (in this case, one of the 11 official languages). “We have a really strong team with assorted strengths from different backgrounds,” she confirms.
A medical sociologist by training, Gumede has the expertise, experience and strong human interest to engage with potential stakeholders throughout South Africa to secure their commitment to the system and to surface the most relevant content in each domain.
“We plan to pilot in one domain,” she explains. “This means that a limited user group will focus on a particular domain such as the 2010 Soccer World Cup.” By piloting in a community, she is confident that the team will test the system for understanding, usefulness and usability. For her part, she says, “I want to make sure that end-users are understood by the system.”
She is determined to enthuse the project with an alternative, exciting angle to provide the necessary drawcard for users to engage, “I love the thought of taking our work directly to people who can benefit from it. We're planning to provide something totally different, which is informative and easy to use, interactive and 'really cool'. I would like everyone out there to appreciate how fantastic human language technologies are!”
Gumede is no stranger to working in communities. She spent two years in the far-flung reaches of Limpopo in the village of Agincourt near Bushbuckridge, where she visited rural households to determine the cost of coping with chronic illness. “I see myself as an experienced black social scientist who loves interacting with people. Given my own background and the fact that my extended family lives in rural areas, I have a unique and personal insight into current social conditions,” she reveals. She is familiar with different cultural practices in various parts of South Africa, and sensitive to the 'do's and don'ts' of requisite social etiquette.
When 'talking the walk' becomes necessary
Gumede brings a basket of skills to the table: She is also a talented multilinguist able to converse with people in their own mother language. She is fluent in isiZulu, Sesotho, English, Afrikaans, isiNdebele, Xitsonga, Setswana and isiXhosa. This, she explains, is the happy outcome of her upbringing, her schooling and tertiary education environment, and her ability to assimilate languages easily, “I learnt isiNdebele from my grandmother who raised me. I was schooled in KwaZulu-Natal in isiZulu, although my schoolfriends and friends at university spoke only Setswana and Sepedi. I have a best friend and a close family member who speak isiXhosa. I studied at the Rand Afrikaanse Universiteit – now the University of Johannesburg – where I learnt Afrikaans in our residence and used English at my part-time workplace and for my postgraduate studies.” During her sojourn in Agincourt, she easily picked up Xitsonga to communicate with the community. “I think I have good first-hand knowledge of the social context in which Lwazi hopes to make a difference and the wherewithal to explain its benefits,” she quips.
Gumede is Proudly South African. She believes in the efficacy of presenting opportunities in a new and exciting way to reach and enthuse people with the will to change their lives. She draws her own inspiration from her partner and her daughter as well as her siblings, “I have a wonderful family, who provides me with all the support I need.”
She is passionate about Lwazi, “It's an amazing project with huge potential.” She looks forward to travelling on behalf of the project with visiting researcher Dr Madelaine Plauché to present the first Lwazi workshop in Pietermaritzburg and Jozini, KwaZulu-Natal, in March this year.
Read more about Lwazi in the section on health and disabilities of the CSIR's ScienceScope themed Science for Society