Social media gives voice to Egyptian people

February 3, 2011 7:50:58 PM PST
Habib Haddad, 30, had an idea. As Egypt shut down the Internet, he believed that the voice of the Egyptian people needed to get out to the world as they demonstrated in Cairo. He volunteered to assist Google and Twitter to locate more than 1,000 Arabic translators across the globe. As Egyptians call a Google Voice number, Haddad's army of translators swing into action to provide quick translations into English, Spanish, German and French.

Haddad, a Boston area tech entrepreneur, crowd sourced. He put out the word he needed Arabic translators, and before long, he had more than 1,000 volunteers based in North America, Europe and the Middle East. Because they are located on every continent, they are able to assign translators to cover voice messages from Egypt around the clock. The translations are checked twice for accuracy before posting. They developed an online work flow sheet to track incoming messages, urgency, the status of translation, and other important logistics.

"I sent out a tweet, a very simple tweet saying, 'Hey, why don't we start a project and translate those so all the world can understand what Egyptians are talking about,'" Haddad said.

Google declined to talk about its role in providing Internet-based phone numbers for Egyptians to call to leave voice messages. What Google did is provide a way for Egyptians to express their thoughts and to inform a world audience about what is going on at the protest site in Cairo after the Internet was shut down, making it impossible to use Facebook, Twitter or other social media to communicate.

Zscaler, a Sunnyvale Internet security company, saw a sharp spike in Internet use when the protests began, but Internet traffic came to a near halt earlier this week when access was blocked. Some Internet service has since been restored, but the Google Voice project has continued to provide a growing stream of postings.

San Francisco State University Professor Dina Ibrahim says Google Voice is helping at a time when threats against journalists have impacted coverage. She was in Egypt for a month, leaving a week before the demonstrations began.

"It's very difficult to get a complete picture however, Google Voice and other services have been incredibly helpful in terms of providing alternatives for people to get their message out there," she said.

The translations will continue as long as the voice messages come in.