I’m slowly but surely shifting my activity over to ivansigal.net. Burning Bridge will remain up but I won’t be updating it regularly.

This post was originally published on Global Voices.

Pakistan today would seem primed for rapid growth in internet use. The country has had explosive growth of FM radio, satellite and cable TV set in motion by regulatory changes that allow non-state ownership of mass media. Cell phone use has also skyrocketed, with over 90 million subscribers. With a growing middle class that numbers some 30-40 million in a country of some 180 million people, Internet use should also see similar growth.

However, there are several constraints that mitigate that expansion, both structural, as in chronic electricity shortages, and social, particularly focused on language. Literacy hovers at around 50% in Pakistan, but while most people understand Urdu, Pakistan’s national language, less that 10% of the population speaks and writes it as a native. Provincial languages such as Sindhi, Punjabi, Pashto, and Balochi, as well regional languages such as Seraiki and Kashmiri are native languages for the majority of the population, and English is the official language of governance.

This language fragmentation has consequences for internet use. No one Pakistani language effectively serves both the reading and content creation needs of Pakistan’s netizens. As a consequence, English remains the popular choice online. In an interview, Adnan Rehmat of Intermedia Pakistan says that English is an “aspirational” language, a marker for education and access to resources, and because English provides access to a global linguistic community. Additionally, several regional Pakistani languages such as Punjabi are primarily oral languages, without strong literary cultures.

Fouad Bajwa, writing on Internet’s Governance, describes the problem further:

A key pressing issue with relevance to both the local Internet and Mobile Technology scenario in Pakistan has been availability of local content and making the local content widely accessible to the community at large across Pakistan and the entire world using a variety of currently available technology platforms.

There have been few concerted efforts to create Unicode fonts for Pakistani language scripts. Nastaliq, the popular font for Urdu, is not yet widely adapted in Unicode. Online writing in the main either uses an Arabic font, as with the relatively popular BBC and Google fonts, or it uses image files pasted into text.

There is not yet a broadly accepted font in use for either mass media of citizen media production. Many mainstream media still use image files, which requires that the text be composed on another platform, and discourages hyperlinking, as with a recent issue of the Daily Jang online.

Screenshot of Daily Jang ePaper, May 2010

The Pakistani government has provided little policy guidance for language use. In an interview Ahmad Shahzad of Bytes for All notes that the National Language Authority of Pakistan lacks resources, knowledge of digital issues, and a sense of urgency or policy priorities for Pakistani language expansion online.

There are a number of projects that have been working to fix this problem over the past decade. Perhaps the most comprehensive comes out of the Centre for Research in Urdu Language Processing, at Lahore’s National University of Computer & Emerging Sciences (CRULP). The Centre’s director, Professor Sarmad Hussain, has been working to support Nastaliq in Unicode since 2002. They describe their objective to ”conduct research for the evolution of computational models of Urdu and Pakistan’s other regional languages.” Their projects develop standard character sets, localize popular software and online applications, such as Microsoft Word, Firefox, and Open Office, and script processing for fonts that can support all Pakistani languages.

They are also working on optical character recognition and speech processing  tools such as screen readers for the illiterate and blind users, and language processing tools such as spell checkers and machine translation. CMS platforms in Nastaliq, as well as mobile scripts.

Additionally, CRULP’s PAN Localization project is working to develop local language computing capacity in a dozen Asian languages, including Urdu, Pastho, and Bangla. The project seeks to develop tools to facilitate the use localization of advanced applications.

These scripts and their wider promotion, as well as the availability of content management systems in Urdu and language processing tools, has gone some way to making Urdu a functional language of content creation.

Other tools now available facilitate the shift from English to Urdu, including Google’s Urdu transliteration tool and the Dynamic Language Tools Bookmarklet, which supports transliteration of Urdu to both English and Hindi. Syed Ghulam Akbar, the bookmarklet’s creator, describes his motivation in a post on the Pakistani science blog STEP:

The main inspiration behind this tool development was not actually Urdu writing. In fact, there are many existing tools and applications which let users type Urdu either using a special keyboard layout or by using roman script transliteration. What actually inspired me to develop this tool was to provide a way to easily convert the roman content on all the existing web-pages to Urdu script so that it is more readable.

Together, the advancement of scripts, applications, and platforms in Urdu will go some way to advancing a culture of online production in Urdu. The relative lag in their availability does, however, highlight the general sense that English will continue to be the language of choice for many in Pakistan’s online world.

This lag can be addressed in several ways, including wide promotion of available tools and their application, support for both mass media and citizen media communities to discover, learn about, and implement creative use of these tools, and support to build bridges and networks among communities. For this reason, Fouad Bajwa is seeking to build an Online Urdu Encyclopedia:

It will create a converged environment overtime for presenting updated knowledge that is usable through reading, listening and visuals for both social and economic awareness, education, knowledge application in various fields, higher education, competitive exams, expert resources and endless Urdu language options.

At present there is no Urdu Wikipedia community, and few Urdu-language blog aggregators, such as http://urdublogs.co.cc/, capacity among mainstream media to produce searchable-text, Unicode-based online media, and a lack of mobile telephony platforms and applications for Urdu.

Correction: Wikipedia in Urdu is available at http://ur.wikipedia.org.

  • "Google has undertaken a bet-the-farm confrontational communications approach in China. They will not have made this decision lightly. Dressed up in the polite language above is what is essentially an ultimatum: Allow us to present uncensored search results to our Chinese users or we'll walk."
    (tags: China Google FOE)
  • "Google's decision was tough and is going to have a great deal of of difficult fallout. Still, based on what I know, I think Google has done the right thing. They are sending a very public message – which people in China are hearing – that the Chinese government's approach to Internet regulation is unacceptable and poisonous."
    (tags: china google FOE)
  • "last night Google announced it would lift the censorship, the Chinese internet users flooded to the website to search for all the sensitive terms they never had a chance to access. In twitters, forums, discussion boards, we witness an explosion of talks about Google and its possible departure, or exile, from China."
    (tags: china Google GV)

We’re getting first takes on citizen media response on Haiti. Blogs, photos, video, Twitter, mapping platforms, beginnings of collaboration between citizen initiatives, development organizations, and mass media. Today’s going to be a busy day.

I’ve been adding links to this post throughout the day. Noticing, due to the lack of access to telephony and internet, a relative paucity of sources. That will change quickly as the relief effort gears up. I hope that we see efforts to include and amplify Haitian voices and perspectives as the relief machinery kicks into gear. Please send links if you know ’em. Categorizing:

Links from citizen media blogs and platforms:

Global Voices special coverage page Haiti earthquake 2010, and selected posts:

Ushahidi platform setup on Haiti at haiti/ushahidi.com. An Ushahidi blog post details other tracking information mapping and tracking efforts and platforms, including OpenStreetMap, GeoCommons, Sahana, and InSTEDD.

Haitifeed.com, a Haiti-based blog, providing a range of content.

Dan Kennedy roundup at his blog Media Nation: Citizen media and the earthquake in Haiti.

Reuters Alertnet Haiti earthquake liveblog.

NYT”s The Lede: Wednesday: Updates on Haiti’s Earthquake.


Curated Twitter feed from Georgia Popplewell focusing on content from inside Haiti.

Another curated feed from Jillian York, with content from Haiti and relief agencies.

Miami Herald Tweets from and about Haiti after the earthquake.

Wikipedia: 2010 Haiti earthquake page.

Links in French:

Live audio stream in French/Creole.

Radio Metropole reports, including citizen perspectives, and a list of damaged buildings.

Le Monde du Sud/Elsie News


Espas Ayisyen Toulouse


Haitian Times, online news source

A useful BBC story and video: Earthquake devastation emerges in Haiti.

Listindiario.com, from Santo Domingo in DR across the border, in Spanish.

USGeological Survey podcast, for the science behind the quake.

UN ReliefWeb, general information and latest updates.

I remember the first time I found Global Voices. In 2004 I had been living in the former Soviet Union and was about to move to Bangkok. For the past few years I’d been working with local TV and radio stations in Central Asia and Afghanistan, and it was a big shift to focus on Southeast and East Asia. I needed a crash course in Asian current affairs. In the course of my research I came across a curious project called the North Korea Zone that aggregated and distilled information about North Korea, and functioned as a platform for conversation about that coverage. I was drawn to the site because it helped me to grasp a complicated international story quickly, and because it treated news coverage less as a product and more as a process.

Sadly, NKZone didn’t last long, but while it did, I was a fan. And when Rebecca MacKinnon, its author, helped launch Global Voices together with Ethan Zuckerman in the end of 2004, I followed from afar. At the time my work was all about helping local communities in Asia to gain access to media production, and to learn the skills necessary to build and run media outlets. As Global Voices emerged, I noticed that it had a similar ethos, but that it was able to link people without media institutions mediating their perspectives. As with NKZone, it became a go-to site to ground-truth my understanding of countries and news stories.

Afghan theatre returns after the Taliban, Kabul, 2002. © Ivan Sigal

As I followed GV in its first years, something else happened: blogs went from being a peripheral Internet phenomenon to key tools to democratize media production and distribution. Internet access in the developing world also expanded enough have a mass impact on information flows. If media development had been all about creating media institutions and training professional staff to run them, suddenly, it was also about encouraging mass use of simple, nearly free tools to increase conversation, and disseminate all kinds of perspectives.

Global Voices was uniquely situated to take advantage of that shift. As a community made up primarily of volunteers, it could tap into diverse enthusiasms and ideas. It didn’t need to be guided by a complicated strategy, but simply to set out a few basic principles for action, as captured in its manifesto, and allow people to experiment, and play, in its space.

After years of benefiting from the enthusiasms and writing of GVers, 18 months ago I had the pleasure to become part of the community. I joined just as GV began a new phase of existence, leaving its original home at the Berkman Center and becoming an independent nonprofit organization. It’s been my job in that time to help GV to continue, and to preserve the spirit and energy of the project even as we’re faced with the reality of funding needs, increasing global presence, and the pressure that funding brings to articulate both a vision and a strategy. I’ve quickly learned that at GV, leadership is primarily expressed by listening, and by ensuring that the way we work is indicative of the kind of media we’d like to have – transparent, enthusiastic, open, considerate, and joyful.

In the past five years, GV has grown tremendously. It’s now a community with some 350 authors, editors, and translators all working together to prove the premise of GV that we can write the media we want into existence. In the last year alone, we’ve produced unique and vital coverage on stories from Gaza, Madagascar, Fiji, Iran, Guinea, Honduras, and Cuba. We now translate GV into 18 active languages, with another 10 in beta. Collectively, the GV family of sites has an average of 500,000 unique visitors per month. This year, we’ve also launched innovative new projects that explore the boundaries of citizen media, such as our Translation Exchange research initiative, our online freedom of expression advocacy platform, Threatened Voices, our Russian blogosphere project, RuNet Echo, our new collaborative research project, the Transparency and Technology Network, and finally, our new online freedom of expression award, Breaking Borders, in collaboration with Google.

GV is strong on participation, community, and new ideas, but it needs your help to continue. With the marking of our 5th anniversary, we both celebrate our origins and look forward to a future of innovations, new initiatives, and a strong, vital community that continues to grow size and diversity.

Our future may include a user community, original content in multiple languages, and initiatives that take advantage of emerging tools of media production. We’re certain to continue to tell the story of citizen media, as it morphs from blogs, to micro-blogging, to social media, to mapping, to collaborative, multi-user production.

We’re excited by all the things we don’t know, and we’re looking forward to helping to create the future of citizen media. We also want you to join us, whether as an author or translator, collaborator, financial supporter, or active reader.

Twitter Updates



The World is Talking, Are You Listening?
I'm Attending Global Voices Citizen Media Summit 2010