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Web’s inventor aims to improve access in developing nations

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / November 15, 2009

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Only about a quarter of the 6.5 billion people on Earth are using the World Wide Web. But even in poor countries, most people have access to Web-enabled devices - cellphones, mostly. So the Web’s inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, is launching a foundation to deliver online information to the developing world.

Berners-Lee will unveil the World Wide Web Foundation during a speech in Egypt this morning. The foundation will be based in Geneva and have its US headquarters in Boston. It has received a launch grant of $5 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The new foundation’s mission is far different from that of the World Wide Web Consortium in Cambridge, which Berners-Lee heads. The consortium develops and oversees the technical standards that make the Web work. The foundation will focus on creating Web-based news and information services that can provide life-changing assistance to people in developing countries.

Steve Bratt, the Web Foundation’s chief executive, said that cellular networks in such countries often can’t provide the rapid Internet connections most Americans expect. But even a slow connection can be valuable.

“If you’re trying to find out, ‘Where do I go to get the best price for my oxcart full of wheat?’ you might be willing to wait a few minutes,’’ Bratt said.

What’s lacking, Bratt said, are Web-based services that deliver such information to illiterate or semiliterate users, or to people who speak obscure languages. The foundation hopes to develop more Web-based resources written in uncommon languages; languages in Ethiopia, for example, that are spoken by so few people that there isn’t a font for their written characters. The foundation also hopes to use a technology called VoiceXML to create websites that can be spoken aloud by a cellphone, making the information available to a caller who can’t read. “These are all things that can be done,’’ Bratt said. “The technology is there.’’

The Web Foundation has formed a partnership with The Free University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands to help African farmers plant drought-resistant vegetation in Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali. Their goal is to create educational materials that can be published on the Web and downloaded through cheap cellphones.

The Web Foundation has also teamed up with the Center for Digital Inclusion in Brazil, which runs about 800 computer-equipped community centers in Latin America. Together, they plan to provide Web development training to young people, who can then generate original sites of their own. “We don’t want to develop content,’’ said Bratt. “We want to help local people develop it.’’

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.