Wikimedia, the parent company of Wikipedia, is expected to launch a Wikipedia zero pilot program in Kenya through a partnership with telecoms company Airtel, which then plans to open it up to at least 70 million new users in sub-Saharan Africa.
To access Wikipedia, users will need to call *515# on their handset and then wait for a text message that requests their first search query. Hit send and a second message will arrive on their phone asking for them to clarify which Wikipedia entry they’re interested in reading. A third asks which section of the page they require first, before sending them all of the relevant text from Wikipedia.
No applications are required. As long as the user has network coverage, they should be able to access Wikipedia Zero. The Wikimedia Foundation partnered with the Praekelt Foundation, a South African nonprofit who specializes in text messaging, to get the service up and running.
The only caveat? It’s only a pilot for now. “We’re launching this service with Airtel Kenya as a three-month pilot in order to learn more about how well this works in practice,” Dan Foy, a technical partner manager at the Wikimedia Foundation said. “From the lessons we learn from this pilot, we hope to eventually make this service widely available to reach the billions of people who have mobile phones, but cannot afford access to the internet.”
The purpose of Wikipedia zero is to “enable mobile access, free of data charges, to Wikipedia in developing countries. The objective of the program is to reduce barriers to accessing free knowledge—one of the largest barriers being cost of data usage.”
The trial will be active for three months, said Dan Foy, technical partner manager for the Wikimedia Foundation. “Throughout most of the developing world, data-enabled smartphones are the exception, not the rule,” he wrote. “That means billions of people currently cannot see Wikipedia on their phones.”
Next five billion
Adoption of cheap mobiles in Africa is widespread, and in many regards the mobile industry across the continent is more advanced than in more developed parts of the world.
For instance, the sending of money via text message is extremely popular – one service, M-Pesa, boasts 17 million users in Kenya alone.
Western technology companies see the region as a major source of future growth. Facebook, for example, is approaching saturation point in its current markets, and so it is looking at methods to adapt its services to suit those with more basic technology.
The social network also launched a drive to get other technology companies looking at ways to make access easier – starting with bringing down costs of accessing mobile data.
Tom Jackson, who edits African technology news website HumanIPO, said Wikipedia’s initiative would be warmly welcomed.
“There has been a steady move towards putting educational material online in many African countries, led mainly by the private sector rather than governments, but access to the internet remains a problem given that most Africans surf on their phones rather than browsers.
“This step increases the chances of access, especially as there is functionality to provide Wikipedia via SMS. Feature phones are still dominant in Africa, so this is a helpful addition.”
He added: “I just hope it comes with the same warnings that European and American kids are given about taking Wikipedia at face value!”