Audio data & Assange

2013-02-14 19.38.42

One of the so-called “passion projects” I’m currently working on involves tagging and organizing a vast number of audio clips – almost all of them in Hindi and various regional dialects.  These clips were recorded by rural folks for whom Internet and smartphones are still several years away, but whose mobile phones are already a big part of their lives.

Several social enterprises have come up recently that build audio networks over mobile phones (Imagine an all-audio and stripped-down version of Facebook or Twitter, and you’ll get the idea).  Audio eliminates the pesky problem of language, and it can be straightforward to administer.  Allowing people in rural areas to dial into central phone banks could also help track the delivery of goods, services and government transfers.

Unfortunately, tagging, translating and verifying this data is a monumental task, as we’ve discovered.  Existing technologies and apps are all made for English-speakers.  Basic phones don’t have GPS-tagging ability, and anyway, as the controversy over Arun Jaitley’s phone tapping shows, the Indian government might not take kindly to people tracking users’ phones without their written consent.

Finally, one of the big areas where we want to provide value is by comparing some of this data to official figures.  Official figures on government transfer programs are hard to get hold of, and when they do exist, they’re rarely organized in the neat csv format that developers apparently prefer.  (Cleaning and organizing a data set can take forever.  To be fair, efforts to release govt data in a more usable form are ongoing.)

It’s interesting how many people – particularly young ones – now see the access to data and information as part of their political rights.  As part of a story I’m working on, I recently read an article in the Economist that tracks the emergence of “open source” and “pirating” as a political movement.  Everyone’s favorite leaker, Assange, is mulling a Senate bid in Australia (which I personally find absurd, but people might actually vote for him.)  With the passing of Aaron Swartz, the proponents of the open source movement found a very visible symbol of everything that is wrong with the system. The Internet has changed people’s attitude towards knowledge and data.  Increasingly, people feel entitled to information, and  governments and institutions will have an ever harder time justifying withholding it.

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