While the latest editions of Windows or Microsoft Office are quick to hit the shelves in the US, major tech developments are often slow to reach the Arab world. Three years after Apple launched Siri, the firm has only just started working on an Arabic version of the voice-recognition software. Meanwhile, it wasn't until 2009 when Yahoo! finally expanded into the MENA region by acquiring Maktoob, the first Arabic webmail provider.
In an age of "big data", when so much information is so readily available, it becomes all the more important that global populations can access it--regardless of what language they speak. And so, earlier this year, when the opportunity arose to translate key parts of Ushahidi's popular mapping platform into Arabic, Souktel sprang into action. Having been close partners with Ushahidi for more than five years--helping launch a first-ever SMS citizen reporting campaign in Gaza, and an interactive ‘sentiment mapping’ campaign called Somalia Speaks--Souktel's team recognized the importance of making this technology more accessible to Arabic speakers.
Spearheaded by international non-profit IREX and funded by the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), the project was launched as a response to requests from leaders at civil society organizations across the region--such as Tunisia’s youth-led iWatch--who were interested in building data maps but didn't know where to begin.
"They were stumped when it came to set-up," says Catherine Highet, past IREX staff member and director of the project, "because technical issues such as right-to-left alignment and Arabic script required amending, and users needed instruction in their own language."
Mohannad Zalloom, Souktel’s Senior Manager for Systems and Software, led the translation effort--converting key Ushahidi modules into Arabic, and creating a first-ever Arabic user manual. Then, CTO Michael Moszczynski travelled to Morocco to lead a three-day training workshop for 11 local organizations--showing them how to use the new Arabic mapping tools in their daily activities.
Thanks to these efforts, says IREX’s Highet, "the NGOs were able to build dynamic maps illustrating everything from disability access to bribery occurrences to truancy levels…They were able to better organize their activities and engage their respective audiences through mapping."
"Considering there is still such a lack of online tools and resources the Arab community can use, I think our contribution here was very helpful," says Zalloom. "Ultimately, this will make it easier for Arab voices to be heard on an international scale."