4:42 pm - Saturday January 18, 3913

Crowdsourcing to help Bangladesh’s blind pupils

A Facebook group is helping thousands of blind school children in Bangladesh continue their education. DW honored the project known as Bangla Braille with its Best Innovation award as part of the Bobs.

Bangladesh, a country of about 160 million people ranked among the world’s least developed by the UN, has earned international recognition for providing all school children with textbooks without cost. Most of the students get their books at the beginning of the school year. But for visually impaired students, things are different.

BlindIn most cases, blind students were not getting their school books even halfway into the school year due to a lack of materials in Braille – a tactile writing system used by the blind and the visually impaired. The sole government-owned press in the country couldn’t meet the demand. Compounding the matter is that Braille textbooks are very expensive to produce. A full set of Braille readers can cost as much as 20,000 Takas (about $250), which represents a huge amount of money for those concerned.

In June 2012, US-based Bangladeshi activist Ragib Hasan read online about the plight of visually impaired school children in his home country. Hasan considered ways to use his background in computer science to support learners at home. He realized that the first step involved digitizing the textbooks, which meant typing them out from cover to cover.

Considering there are more than 100 textbooks from grade one to grade 10, Ragib turned to crowdsourcing to get the job done. He posted a message on Facebook, Bangladesh’s most popular social media site, asking people to help. Within hours, nearly a thousand people signed up to work on his project as volunteers.

The Bangla Braille project involves two sub-projects: the digitalization of texts and the creation of audio books. Volunteers use the the digital texts to create Unicode versions, which can later be used on Braille printers privately owned by many organizations.

Books are also recorded for the visually impaired people who cannot work with Braille. Hasan said that by the end of 2013 “we ended up recording 25 percent of the textbooks, while another 50 percent were almost fully recorded.”

For the audio books, volunteers read the works aloud page by page, recording them on their phones or computers. Later, a volunteer combines the recordings and uploads them to the Bangla Braille website.

Social media is the driver for the entire project. “For each book, we start a new thread and document on Facebook,” Hasan explained. “Interested volunteers take over a range of pages. Then, they type and combine the pages.”

Nearly a million visually impaired people, including 50,000 children, live in Bangladesh. There are only a few government-operated schools for the blind, while some NGOs operate their own schools. Bangla Braille has made the digital content freely available on the web, so that a host of organizations can access it.

“My son is in grade 10, and he lost his eyesight this year,” said one father who hopes to continue receiving support for his child’s education. “He does not know the Braille system. In ninth grade, he was dependent on the audio system.”

Many other parents are also in search of online content suitable for their visually impaired children. They regularly contact Bangla Braille volunteers for specific support.

“Some parents have reached out to us and thanked us for our efforts,” said Ishtiaq Rouf, another volunteer for the project. “Others shared heartbreaking stories of their children’s struggles. Some have requested audio versions of specific textbooks, and countless others have asked how they can join the effort.”

In the 2014 edition of the Bobs, DW’s social media activism awards, the Bangla Braille project won both the jury’s and people’s choice awards in the Best Innovation category.

Bobs jury member Shahidul Alam thinks that this project provides hope for millions. “Where education is a luxury for those with sight, the opportunities for the visually impaired are particularly slender,” he said. “Superstition, prejudice and the realities of survival are obstacles they would have little chance of surmounting if this innovative project had not materialized.”

Computer scientist Hasan said he hopes the recognition from DW will draw attention to the problem in general. That would, he added, make more people as well as the government aware of the ongoing struggle of the blind to successfully complete their education.

“Social media can be effectively used to rally people around a philanthropic cause,” said Hasan. “Bangla Braille’s innovation lies in doing just that.”