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Free Voice-to-Twitter Services Kept Egyptians Connected

By Leonard Klie - Posted Mar 1, 2011
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In the wake of the Egyptian government’s late-January blocking of Internet access for millions of its citizens during 18 days of violent political uprising, Google and VoiceCloud came forward with services that allowed Egyptians to continue posting updates to Twitter.

Through Google’s speak2tweet, which was designed to help Egyptians stay connected during the mass anti-government protests, people in Egypt could leave a voicemail, which was automatically turned into a sound file and published on speak2tweet’s Twitter feed. It essentially let people in Egypt connect to Twitter, hear tweets, and leave tweets without having Internet access.

According to a Google blog post, the company worked with engineers at Twitter and SayNow, a platform provider for voice messaging, one-on-one conversations, and group calls that would be instantly integrated into Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Android, or iPhone applications, to create speak2tweet. The service could be accessed using any phone through special phone numbers in the United States, Italy, or Bahrain. To create a tweet, users had to leave a voicemail and the messages would be posted with the #egypt hashtag.

“Like many people, we’ve been glued to the news unfolding in Egypt and thinking of what we could do to help people on the ground,” Ujjwal Singh, co-founder of SayNow (which was acquired by Google in January), and AbdelKarim Mardini, Google’s product manager for the Middle East and north Africa, wrote in the post. “We came up with the idea of a speak-to-tweet service—the ability for anyone to tweet using just a voice connection.”

“speak2tweet is allowing Egyptians to keep the outside world up to date with occurrences during this period of political unrest,” said Martin Reber, CEO of speech recognition and text-to-speech software provider SVOX, which provides the speech synthesis technologies for Google Translate. “This innovative technology is a great example of how the way we communicate with people and devices is changing. Using sound files that post automatically on Twitter or technology that can turn voice messages directly into text can enable people to keep contacts updated and allow them to communicate with devices in a new and innovative way.”

VoiceCloud set up a similar service using telephone numbers in Bahrain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. VoiceCloud used live agents to translate and transcribe the voice messages and then post the text and audio to a special Twitter feed, located at www.Twitter.com/egyptianvoices.

“With our improved method, the text can be read and keyword searched. Because VoiceCloud employs live transcription and translation agents instead of voice recognition software, the messages are extremely accurate,” Sammy Afifi, chief technology officer of VoiceCloud, said in a statement.

VoiceCloud does offer voice recognition software, but its CEO, Gerald Marolda, says accuracy is always an issue with this kind of service. Recognition accuracy is normally at around 70 percent, but Marolda says it was lessened further by the noisy environments of the protests themselves and the strong accents Egyptians have when speaking English. In the case of this application, he feared accuracy would only come in at 30 percent or 40 percent.

VoiceCloud also set up another page at voicecloud.com/egypt, where messages of more than 140 characters could be posted.
Marolda says the application posted hundreds of Twitter updates during the political turmoil in Egypt. He plans to leave the service and the phone numbers active for the time being. “There are a lot of areas where things could get ugly as protests build around the region,” he explains.

VoiceCloud is also looking at ways to expand the service to include other social networking sites, such as LinkedIn and Facebook.
“The way that we communicate with others online has changed dramatically over the past few years with social networking and microblogging sites, such as Twitter, increasing in popularity,” Reber added.


News Editor Leonard Klie can be reached at lklie@infotoday.com.


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