Tablet PCs preserve indigenous knowledge

New Scientist

18 June 2012


Niall Firth

Magazine issue 2869

Tablet computers could help villagers in the Kalahari desert
preserve cultural knowledge and traditional techniques for future

THE Herero people know just what to do
when a horse is too wild or unpredictable: they lash a donkey to it,
which forces the horse to slow down and helps to tame it. Unruly animals
have been dealt with this way for generations by the inhabitants of the
small village of Erindiroukambe, which lies in the heart of the
Kalahari desert in eastern Namibia.

But times are changing and, as young
men leave to work or study in cities like Windhoek, 400 kilometres away,
it becomes much harder to hang on to this kind of local knowledge. Kasper Rodil,
at Aalborg University in Denmark, and his colleagues want to see if
tablet computers can help bridge the gap. “The human race would lose
some colour if we lost this kind of knowledge,” says Rodil.

Typically, young men stay in the city
for a few years before returning to their home village to pick up the
traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle, working the land and keeping cows
and goats. But this gap means that they miss out on much of the
village’s accumulated knowledge, which is traditionally passed on orally
by the elders.

Along with researchers at the
Polytechnic of Namibia in Windhoek, Rodil’s team is working with
Erindiroukambe’s elders to develop a 3D visualisation of the village on a
tablet computer. Their knowledge will be embedded in this virtual
village to be stored for future generations. Rodil is also developing a
drawing app for the tablet which mimics the way the elders draw diagrams
in the sand to explain what they mean. “The idea is that we have as
little friction as possible between the device and the user,” he says.

It is crucial that the elders are
involved in the development of such an app, says Rodil. “The
participatory design is key. We don’t want to just impose our ways upon

For villagers who had never used a
computer before, the intuitive swipes and finger taps of a tablet
interface proved easy to pick up. “If this is how to use computers, then
I have no problems,” said one old woman who tried it out.

The 3D environment, running on an
Android-based Motorola Xoom tablet and based on a 3D video games engine,
shows avatars that depict the villagers as they are engaged in various
tasks. Short video segments, such as the slaughtering of a goat, or the
lighting of a sacred flame, pop up as floating 2D panels in the virtual
village. Other links will access more general knowledge, such as which
herbs can be used to treat specific ailments, how to look after animals
or how to navigate between scattered villages using the sun.

Despite a few teething problems –
elders complained that the colouring of the cows was not accurate
enough, for example – the animations met with overall approval. “They
are good in their look and in the sense that they will be kept there
forever and they will never be forgotten,” said one Erindiroukambe

Rodil will present his latest work at the Participatory Design Conference in Roskilde, Denmark, in August.

Urban migration has disrupted how
information has historically been passed down the generations, says
Niall McNulty, who helps run the Ulwazi Programme in Durban, South Africa. This uses digital technology to enable
communities in the area to record indigenous knowledge and history.

“As mobile devices become ubiquitous
in Africa, the need for this type of regional and language-specific
content, and the tangible link it provides between communities and their
multiple pasts, becomes all the more important,” McNulty says.

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