Free Voice-to-Twitter Services Keep Egyptians Connected

When the Egyptian government shut down the Internet in that country in hopes of quelling the political uprising, Google and VoiceCloud came forward with services that will still allow Egyptians to post updates to Twitter.

Google launched speak2tweet, which is designed to help Egyptians to stay connected despite the Internet being shut down during mass anti-government protests across the country. People in Egypt can leave a voicemail, which is then automatically turned into a sound file and published on speak2tweet’s twitter feed. It essentially allows people in Egypt to 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 with its engineers from SayNow to create speak2tweet. The service can be accessed using any phone by dialing 1 (650) 419-4196 or +39-0662207294 or +973-16199855. To leave a tweet users just leave a voicemail and the messages will be tweeted with the #egypt hashtag. The service is up and running now and was developed over the weekend.

"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," Google's blog post explained. "Over the weekend we came up with the idea of a speak-to-tweet service—the ability for anyone to tweet using just a voice connection. We hope that this will go some way to helping people in Egypt stay connected at this very difficult time."

"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, the company that provides the speech synthesis 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 which post automatically on Twitter or technology that can turn voice messages directly in to text can enable people to keep contacts updated and allow them to communicate with devices in a new and innovative way.”

VoiceCloud has set up a similar service using telephone numbers in Bahrain, the United Kingdom, and the United States, but its service does not use speech technologies. Instead of speech recognition software, VoiceCloud uses live agents to translate and transcribe voice messages and then to 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, unlike a simple audio file. Because VoiceCloud employs live transcription and translation agents, instead of voice recognition software, the messages are extremely accurate,” says Sammy Afifi, chief technology officer of VoiceCloud.

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 noramlly at around 70 percent, but it's lessened even further by the noisy environments in which many Egyptians currently find themselves, and the strong accents they have when speaking English. In the case of this particular application, he fears accuracy would only come in at 30 percent or 40 percent.

VoiceCloud is also setting up an additional page at http://voicecloud.com/egypt where messages can be read beyond the 140 character Twitter limit.

To get the word out to Egyptians about the service, VoiceCloud had issued a number of press releases and was hoping to have it featured on al-Jazeera, the leading Arabic TV station.

“We hope this will help the people in Egypt to have their voices seen and heard throughout the world,” Marolda said.

“The way that we communicate with others online has changed dramatically over the past few years with social networking and micro blogging sites such as Twitter increasing in popularity," Reber said. "Instant channels of communication have come to be expected, and new technology is constantly being developed to ensure that people can stay in touch, even if circumstances prevent users from updating online contacts using the traditional methods of typing an update and posting it online."

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