Knowledge unlocked

Written by Kamla Bhatt | Updated: Apr 28 2008, 05:25am hrs
Kamla Bhatt, is a researcher and a technology trend watcher. She is also the host of a popular Internet radio show:

How do you like the concept of a universal digital library You are probably thinking what an outdated concept since you have access to Wikipedia and Britannica and other online resources. But, it was not so long ago when the concept of a universal digital library with free (well almost free) access to information and knowledge in the online world was a far-fetched idea. But in the last 15-20 years, technology has made it possible to digitise, create and collaborate information and share it almost free on the Internet.

There is a lot happening in the area of technology and education as I discovered. I took a peek behind the scenes by talking to Neeru Khosla, founder of CK12, a Silicon Valley-based non-profit organisation and Gloriana St Clair, Dean of University Libraries, Carnegie Mellon University. How is technology being harnessed to help create better and cheaper access to knowledge and information

CK12 is a young non-profit organisation whose aim is to create FlexBooks for high school students, teachers, and parents in the US and around the world. FlexBooks, which is in beta, are collaborative, open-source text books that can be printed by teachers and students at a low cost. The content for creating FlexBooks is drawn from a variety of sources including Wikipedia. A passionate believer in making good quality textbooks accessible to students and teachers, Neeru and her small team have been working on the FlexBooks projects since 2006. Later this year they plan to make FlexBooks available for the first time in some schools in the US and gradually in other parts of the world, including India.

A few weeks ago Neeru and her husband Vinod Khosla, the legendary venture capitalist and entrepreneur, contributed $500k to the Wikimedia Foundation. The Wikimedia Foundation is a non-profit organisation that is focused on creating, developing and distributing free, multilingual content. One of their well-known projects is Wikipedia, which for many has become the default reference or universal library, if you please.

Then there is the Million Books Project (MBP) led by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) that was created over 10 years ago. MBP was the brainchild of Raj Reddy of CMU who conceived the idea to digitise books back in 1992, when the Internet was still in its infancy. The digitisation of books has set them free and people in all countries can have access through the web. So, digitisation has freed knowledge, says Gloriana. The future of libraries is digital and that was my platform when I came to CMU and I met Raj Reddy, who had already started the Million Book Project, adds Gloriana.

Last year MBP digitised over one million books that are now freely available on the Internet. Included in the digital repository are thousands of books in various languages from English and Chinese to Telugu, Kannada and Urdu. Many of these books were scanned in various scanning centres in India, including the mega scanning centre in Hyderabad, points out Gloriana.

As I discovered most of this information is being made available through open access. But, what is open access Open access is material that is on the web free to read, says Gloriana. Technology has provided a platform, and then there is the Intellectual Property issue. And Intellectual Property (IP) issue is not open access and you need to get licenses, she points out. The IP issue is being addressed by many organisations to help make knowledge and information freely available and the recent initiative by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is a

case in point.

NIH is the largest funder of medical research in the world and its budget runs into billions of dollars. Recently NIH announced that recipients of funding will have to deposit a copy of their work to NIH, which will then put that research work on the web for free. This is being dubbed as one of the biggest initiatives in the open access movement in the US. Now, with that kind of open access initiative it is bound to accelerate and spur new research and development in different parts of the world. But, what is needed to get to this almost free knowledge for millions of people around the world is easy and economical access to the internet. That is one of the key show stoppers for millions around the world and there are a band of dedicated volunteers, technologists, and others working on creating cheap and robust solutions to provide that easy Internet access.

I wonder what Gutenberg would think of all this He unlocked knowledge over 500 years ago with the introduction of the printing press. The open access movement is taking the job that Guttenberg started to the next level.