The Internet is ubiquitous in most parts of the US and Europe, but in reality, only 25% of the world population has access to the Web. That’s why Tim Berners-Lee, the man widely credited with inventing the World Wide Web, set out to create The World Wide Web Foundation in 2008. Today, the foundation launches two initiatives to expand Internet access where it is needed most, with help from a $5 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
“It’s the third story in Tim Berners-Lee’s trilogy,” explained Steve Bratt, the CEO of the Foundation. First came the World Wide Web Consortium, an organization that develops technical standards for the Web, and then Berners-Lee founded the research-oriented Web Science Trust. The Web Foundation brings a more human aspect to Berners-Lee’s portfolio of organizations, starting with two major projects.
The Web Foundation has already received funding from the Free University of the Netherlands for a project with the Web Alliance for Regreening Africa that aims to give farmers in the Southern Sahara Desert the tools necessary to communicate easily with other farmers in the area. Residents of the Sahel have faced increasingly harsh weather due to climate change, and some particularly enterpising farmers have figured out ways to grow plants and trees that can thrive in this environment. “Previously, they had only been able to communicate through face to face meetings, often by busing in other farmers. We wanted to give them a digital bus,” Bratt said.
So the Foundation is building out a voice XML system (the same system used in call centers) to allow illiterate farmers to navigate the Internet via cell phone. A separate system might allow farmers to access information using text messages. For example, a farmer could dial 1 for planting information or dial 2 for information on harvesting. Finally, the Web Foundation hopes to build regional call centers that act as hubs for information gathered by farmers in the Sahel.
The Web Foundation’s second, as-yet unfunded project is a partnership with the Center for Digital Inclusion (CDI). The CDI already has 800 computer community centers in Latin America and the Middle East, which have until now focused on teaching Word, Excel, and search functions to participants. But the Web Foundation wants to extend the CDI’s reach to teach teenagers how to create Web content, potentially also using voice XML technology. The CDI and Web Foundation partnership will take off in 5 pilot cities around the world.
Once Tim Berners-Lee’s newest organization gets its first two projects off the ground, be on the lookout for more initiatives related to healthcare, illiteracy, disabilities, and web standardization. “We’ve been talking to a number of foundations and companies,” Bratt said. “We’re hoping that after our launch we’ll be busy talking to other parties interested in working with us.”