25 May 2009
If you're setting up a shop to sell poodles in Spain, it'd make sense to advertise in the Spanish-language 'Poodles Monthly' rather than in the English-language 'Cats R Us'.
That much seems obvious. Yet all-too-often, Middle East-based social-web projects are not using this simple rule of thumb in the work they do: identify your target audience, and communicate with them.
Take the Royal Film Commission in Jordan's recent creativity workshop, which it set up with Joi Ito (an advisor to Meedan we should add) and a bunch of brilliant Creative Commons people from the Middle East.
The workshop was designed to provide 'talented young Arabs with tools that can enhance their ability to express themselves' and to 'share their creation with people all around the world.'
Looking at Joi's FriendFeed page, the event was a great success, bringing together next-generation web thinkers and producers to achieve great things.
But look again and you'll see that the event curriculum hardly references Arabic - the language of the vast majority of the more than forty million Arab web users in the Middle East.
How do you reach out to creative and talented 'Arabs' when you have no plans whatsoever for speaking with them in Arabic?
It turns out the organizers - including Donatella Della Ratta, a great friend of the Meedan project and herself a fantastic Syrian Arabic speaker - were well aware of this issue and were desperate to do something about it. But, even still, they had been forced to reject Arabic speakers from the conference if they had no English!
Thanks to Meedan - there was an element of Arabic reporting coming out of the workshop.
We ran some 'events' on Meedan.net which allowed attendees to live blog across Arabic and English. This information is still out there on the web, available to millions of Arabic users to search and learn from. Well done and thanks to everyone who made this happen.
Unfortunately, the RFC creativity workshop was not the exception, but - it appears - the rule.
The Palestine Literature Festival is also desperate to connect with a mixed-language audience.
Festival organizers are working round the clock to blog, vlog and tweet out about festival developments, presentations and - most depressingly - issues surrounding Israeli check points and police interference hindering their work.
But, there's apparently very little of this in Arabic. The key with an issue like Palestine is surely to connect Palestinians (mostly Arabic speakers) engaged with the reality on the ground with a wider audience through the web.
Literature seems a fantastic vehicle for doing this, as does a mobile festival that goes to the audience in a part of the world where barriers are all too tall and obstructive.
But there seems to be a massive opportunity here to get the word out in Arabic and English - and connect the two language communities.
This did not appear to be a key part of the festival's plans perhaps because there was low awareness of the options for engaging translation communities on the web.
We at Meedan intend to fill that gap. If you want to help translate feeds coming out of the Palestine Literature Festival - get in touch, now, by writing to @meedan on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org.
We now have good experience of nimble action to help fill the translation gap.
When the AUC's Adham Center organized a Lessons Learned conference to bring together bloggers from the Arab world with their counterparts from elsewhere, they were aware of the trasnlation need.
Translators were at hand in the conference room to translate everything into Arabic as needed.
But when bloggers began twittering out from the meeting, Arabic was nowhere to be seen.
We quickly moved in to translate the twitter feed for the benefit of Arabic speakers who couldn't be there. Larry Pintak - the center director and veteran journalist - was also able to have his conference notes translated into Arabic. These notes are still there for Arabic speakers to read.
It seems to make sense that a meeting to share lessons learned for the benefit of the Arab blogosphere should actively plan on recording those lessons into the language of the vast majority of people in the region - not least for the sake of Arab bloggers.
This, it seems to me, is an absolute fundamental if donor money is to be spent wisely to scale impacts in-region.
The Skoll Foundation talks a lot about scaling impacts - doing a bit for a lot. So the idea is certainly out there. Why more social web projects are not thinking and actively planning for this is very hard to fathom.
Translation doesn't cost much, the technology is becoming more commonplace and its outcomes have real value.
Take this statistic - Google suggests that just 0.4 percent of the web is Arabic language content.
Imagine then that if something like two thirds of new Arabic-speaking web users speak no English, there is a huge potential for locking knowledge in the region and replicating knowledge gaps long reported by UNDP and others.
We have to act now.
That's why Meedan is teaming up with Sharik 961 - a group of Lebanese nonprofits, development practitioners, media people, and techies - to help monitor the Lebanese elections on June 7.
The project, which will use the Ushahidi crisis-monitoring platform, will enable Lebanese voters to collaborate with a wide network of interested communities on the web to track reports from the ballot box.
There's absolutely no doubt translation is key to this.
By combining a network of citizen reporters with translation tools, we can truly start to take the pulse of the Middle East from the Middle East, and share the learning along the way.