September 2009

The graphic element of the BarcampAfrica UK logo

The graphic element of the BarcampAfrica UK logo

BarcampAfrica UK is a gathering of technologically inspired Africans and their friends, to be held in London on 7th November. Barcamps are a form of ‘unconference’, events in which the overall focus is declared, but a detailed agenda is only worked out on the day, and people are encouraged to come along prepared to take part in running a workshop. I’m lending my support to the organising team (thus far my main contribution was the logo design), and I plan to facilitate a workshop on the day.

The first Barcamp Africa was held last year in northern California, the brainchild of Ellen Petry Leanse and Kaushal Jhalla. There have been several since, one recently in Cameroon. Much of the impetus for the UK barcamp has come from young Africans in the BCS. The overall focus of the event will be on what technology (especially computing and communications technologies) can contribute to positive human, economic and environmental development in the African continent.

My Barcamp focus will be on information sharing/publishing. Information design, information sharing and electronic publishing are my personal areas of interest and knowledge. The workshop I intend to run at BarcampAfrica UK will focus on how to make it easier for African institutions to publish and disseminate useful information.

The high cost of publishing software

Ghanaian high school students in the National Museum, Accra. Photo Conrad Taylor

Ghanaian high school students in the National Museum, Accra. Photo Conrad Taylor

A few years ago, I spent a couple of weeks in Ghana. I went over with Ghanaian friends, but spent time wandering around Accra on my own. One of my visits was to Ghana’s National Museum, a small circular building that is not well known even to Ghanaians. If you want to get there by taxi, ask to be taken to ‘Edvy’s restaurant’: located within the museum grounds, it is better known than the museum itself!.

While browsing the exhibitions, I got talking to the museum’s curator, Joseph Gazari Seini, about methods for captioning exhibits; most of theirs were either typed, or hand-written. I explained the kind of work I do, and he invited me to his office.

Pulling out a folder, he showed me the text for a book, a report of some important archaeological work. It had been written on a computer, and the print-out was inkjetted. The folder also contained a collection of colour photographic prints showing aspects of the excavation and the objects found. Joe Gazari explained to me that they would love to get materials like this published, but they didn’t know how to go about it, and they hadn’t the means.

I wondered if there was some way I could help, and later that week I had a meeting with Joe’s boss. I’m afraid it ended up with misunderstanding; in retrospect I think they thought I was some rich oburoni offering to finance the whole venture. But what I did do when I got back to England was contact Adobe Systems Inc. Their software — FrameMaker or InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator — would be excellent tools for book-publishing.

I understood that Adobe had some history of charitable giving; would they donate software to this cause? No. They do support projects, but only in their back yard, for example in San Jose, California. And the amount of money it would cost the museum in Accra to buy legitimate copies of professional publishing software would be way beyond their budgets.

Is free, open-source software the answer?

So this is one of the barriers: the cost of decent software. What about free, open source software? That is certainly a route worth exploring. There is OpenOffice Writer of course, but a word-processing program doesn’t have all the features you would expect of proper publishing software, such as flexible layouts, extensive support of graphics types, and CMYK colour for commercial printing.

There is also the Scribus desktop publishing program. Last time I tried it it was awful, but that was two years ago and maybe version 1.3.3.x is OK. I have to say that the page about installing on Mac OSX doesn’t inspire much confidence…

Another possibility would be to use the venerable typesetting language TeX, invented by Donald Knuth in the 1980s — free implementations are available for a variety of computer operating systems. On the down side, typesetting in TeX is not a WYSIWYG experience: you prepare a file using a text editor, embedding formatting codes, and feed the result to the TeX engine, which does a batch process on the file. The results can be of very good quality and the method has great promise for textbooks, but is difficult if not impossible to lay out publications in which there is an intimate relationship between text layout and graphics.

Fonts for African languages

Another issue that is a barrier for publishing in some of the African vernacular languages is that they require characters that cannot be found in the standard fonts. In early 2000, I conducted a personal investigation of this issue, writing a 55-page illustrated report called Typesetting African Languages, which I have now parked at The Internet Archive as a PDF. (Warning – it is now out of date, and may contain errors.)

In my report, I divided the languages into five grades of difficulty in respect of typesetting them:

  1. Languages which use the same characters as English, without any diacritics — examples include Swahili, Somali, Zulu, Xhosa. These langauges can even be processed using 7-bit ASCII or sent as telex without orthographic compromise!
  2. Languages which use accents but in a way that is similar to Western European languages like French or Portuguese, so can be typeset using standard computer fonts. Examples include Kikuyu and Tswana.
  3. Languages which use ‘ordinary’ letterforms but in unusual combinations, such as a dot under a vowel, or an accent over a consonant. These could be typeset with systems like TeX that build accented characters from components. Examples include the Nigerian languages Igbo, Edo and Yorùbá, the Zambian language Nyanja, and Wolof (Senegal).
  4. Languages which have additional letterforms that are not found in standard fonts — for example Fulfulde, Krio, Twi and Hausa.
  5. Languages which are written with non-latin script systems. Apart from the Arabic script, there is also the Tifinagh script of the Berber people, and the Ge’ez script of Ethiopia and Eritrea.
A passage from a text in Yorùbá, typeset using MacTeX and Computer Modern fonts. Click to enlarge.

A passage from a text in Yorùbá, typeset using MacTeX and Computer Modern fonts. Click to enlarge.

At the time that I wrote my study, the options for Level Three and Level Four languages looked quite problematic. I did have a go at typesetting a passage of Yorùbá using the MacTeX system and the Computer Modern type family. In this system, the accents and letters are composed by TeX macros, rather than stored as precomposed letterforms, so with a bit of hacking I was able to produce the result illustrated here

But a lot has happened since. For a start, more publishing software now encodes text in the Unicode system, which allocates a unique character identification number to each letter in all of the world’s languages. There are now fonts available in the extended TrueType and OpenType formats – fonts like Arial Unicode, Lucida Sans Unicode and Adobe’s ‘Pro’ font families – which contain hundreds or even thousands of characters, though usually not the ones which are needed for the African languages I have mentioned.

The growth in the number of ‘large glyph set’ fonts has in turn led to the development of mechanisms which make it easier to insert characters for which there is no keyboard keystroke. A good example is the Glyph Palette in Adobe InDesign, and the Character Palette system utility for Mac OSX.

A Twi (Akan) proverb typeset in two free-of-charge fonts, Gentium and SIL Charis

A Twi (Akan) proverb typeset in two free-of-charge fonts, Gentium and SIL Charis

What Africa really needs is fonts which contain the glyphs for African languages – and which are free of charge! Fortunately this is now beginning to happen. Gentium, a beautiful font, was designed by Victor Gaultney, originally I believe as part of a research project at The University of Reading. Victor started the drawings for Gentium (the name means of the nations in Latin) in the same year I was conducting my informal research. It now encompasses full extended latin, greek and cyrillic alphabets, is hosted by SIL International, and is available at no charge under the SIL Open Font License, which allows modification and redistribution.

SIL International is a Christian organisation with a 75-year history of documenting and supporting the world’s less well known languages. Originally a summer school (Summer Institute of Linguistics’), SIL has grown into an organisation with knowledge of 2,550 languages. It publishes The Ethnologue and has also created a number of fonts that supprt African languages well. Charis is a family of four fonts – roman, italic, bold and bold italic. It is based on Bitstream Charter, originally designed by Matthew Carter, which in 1992 was donated by the Bitstream foundry to the X Consortium.

It’s a good start, and there are other initiatives along these lines of which I am aware. A friend of mine, Dave Crossland, recently obtained his Masters at the University of Reading, in the course of which he created a font which he intends to release using an Open Font license. The other day, Dave showed me the font running on his Google Android ’phone, and very crisp and legible it looked too. Although Dave’s font doesn’t have the character support for, say, Twi and Yorùbá, the licensing provisions he has chosen make it possible for other type-wranglers to take the baton and run the next mile.

Even TeX doesn’t stand still. In the course of preparing this blog post I found a reference to a brand new version of TeX – XeTeX – which supports Unicode, OpenType and Apple Advanced Typography. It’s also being looked after by SIL, see here!


THIS WEEK, the British Computer Society launched its new identity, as part of what it calls the ‘transformation’ programme. In fact it now wants to be called only ‘the BCS’, along the lines of BAA and HSBC. But I predict that those of us who have been BCS members for some time will find it hard to drop the habitual mention of British, or Computer, or for that matter Society (BCS now wants to be called a ‘Chartered Institute’ instead).

On Wednesday, 23 September, the BCS held a Member Groups Convention at the Royal Society’s building in Carlton Terrace. The BCS is home to scores of local branches, some International Sections, plus more than fifty Specialist Groups. The ‘SGs’ are volunteer-run societies, embedded within the BCS, which cater to special interests such as Fortran, computer history and conservation, project management, health informatics, security, interaction design, information retrieval, artificial intelligence… the list is a long one. In addition, there is a very active Young Professionals Group.

The activities of the member groups form a vital part of the life of the BCS, and the Convention was held so that the elected and employed officers of the Society, I mean the Institute, could tell a collection of the organisers and activists from those member groups about the BCS’s new orientation and aspirations for the future. It also gave an opportunity for those of us who work as volunteers within the BCS member groups to think about how we can contribute to these goals.

Adrian Walmsley, BCS vice-president for member services, stands beside one of the two London cabs sporting BCS marketing messages.

Adrian Walmsley, BCS vice-president for member services, stands beside one of the two London cabs sporting BCS marketing messages.

The new visual identity of the BCS is a strong green colour, suffused with yellow glowing bits, and a half-shield logo device — as illustrated on one of two taxis currently carrying the BCS’s advertising messages on the streets of London. (Appropriately, the taxi shown has WiFi inside and a satellite data uplink!). There is also a new slogan to accompany the logo — Enabling the information society — and it is this new mission statement that I want to comment on here.

Of information and computers

As Alan Turing predicted, the conversion of data and information into numbers allowed glorified electronic adding machines to evolve into general-purpose information appliances. The Lyons catering company took a revolutionary step when it commissioned the creators of the EDSAC machine at Cambridge University to design a general-purpose business computer, which made its début in 1951 as the Lyons Electronic Office, or LEO computer. This was pressed into service collating the requirements of Lyons’ nationwide chain of tea-rooms, managing the inventory, and controlling the production and dispatch of baked products to the tea-shops.

Today, only the smallest enterprises are run without computers, and the management of data and information using computers is central to the operations of government and public services too. But computing is also essential to scientific research and technology development — and has itself become the object of scientific research and technology development.

I have no idea just when the term ‘Information Technology’ or ‘IT’ started to be used as a synonym for computing, but I suspect the reason was to ‘big up’ the image of computing and its practitioners to business bosses and politicians. Personally I do not like the term. Firstly, because there are many other uses for computers apart from in managing information, and calling all computing ‘IT’ ignores that. Secondly, many non-computing technologies have been employed through the centuries in connection with information, for example in the writing and printing of books.

Hence my reservations about the BCS’s move to suppress pronuncation of the C-word, while describing itself as the Chartered Institute for IT.

The information society

On the other hand, I feel very positive about the adoption by the BCS of ‘Enabling the information society’ as a statement of its mission; which I find both humble and ambitious at the same time.

Why humble? Because the slogan does not claim that computer people are the only heroes of the information society. There are, after all, other people who know a thing or two about how to deal with information: researchers, teachers, writers and editors, publishers, library and information science people.

Consider my craft practice as a writer, information designer, illustrator, photographer, typographer and media producer. I used to practice all these crafts without a computer, but without a doubt the Apple Macintosh, the PostScript language, digital cameras, all that lovely software, and of course the Internet, have been very enabling indeed.

The computer and communications industries, now thoroughly converged, are providing the world with the infrastructure and tools which information and media workers like me rely on to create, manage and disseminate information products, and various cultural creations too. And it’s not only about production: in the last two decades, what I prefer to call CCTs — computing and communications technologies — have also become the means by which ordinary people access information, enjoy cultural media creations like films and music, and communicate with each other. Thus CCTs, and the people who know how to create them and make them work, are essential enablers to all these practices.

It’s true, ‘information society’ is more of a sloganeering term than a clear definition. There is some reasonably authoritative precedent for it, however. In 2003 in Geneva and 2005 in Tunis, the United Nations held a two-part conference called WSIS, the World Summit for the Information Society. It was managed by UNESCO and the ITU, and I’m afraid the British Government didn’t take it very seriously, but at least I can say that the BCS Specialist Group community did.

Led by John Lindsay, then chair of the Developing Countries Specialist Group, a group of us held a workshop in January 2003 to consider the WSIS challenge and themes, and what might be the response of professional societies working within the information sphere. (Full account of the meeting as PDF, available at the Internet Archive.)

Certainly on the UNESCO side of the WSIS organisation, the concept of the Information Society carried with it a commitment to promoting wider access to the technical means of accessing and sharing information. In preparatory papers for WSIS, UNESCO also identified the need to promote what they called ‘information literacy’, the skills people need to be able to find the information they need, evaluate its worth and make critical use of it. And information literacy was the topic we focussed on in the January 2003 BCS-DCSG workshop.

The BCS as enabler

In explaining the importance of the new mission statement, BCS President Elisabeth Sparrow spoke to the Member Groups Convention of several ways in which the BCS can work towards enabling the information society.

For a start, society needs information-oriented computer systems that are fit for purpose, and one of the BCS’s principal aims is to promote professionalism among computing practitioners. The BCS has also committed itself to bridging the gap between education, practice and research. I would expect the member groups to contribute a lot to this bridging process, because they already provide a focus for collaboration between academics and practitioners.

The BCS is a charity and has a Royal Charter which commits it to working for the public good. One of the commitments described in the transformation launch document (also entitled Enabling the information society) is to ‘Informing public policy on how IT can contribute to society’ and another is to ‘Ensuring everyone benefits from IT’.

To be honest, in recent years the BCS and its member groups have had a difficult relationship; the groups have felt under-appreciated and over-controlled, and there is suspicion that there are some BCS staff who wish the groups would just go away and let the staff get on with running the whole show. But the mood at this week’s Member Groups Convention was much more positive, and with this new expression of the BCS’s role as helping to enable the information society, we have an agenda with which the member groups can engage with enthusiasm, and to which we have a lot to contribute.

This I think is particularly true for the Specialist Groups, many of which are engaged with external ‘communities of use’ for computer and communications technologies and information-handling systems (health informatics is a good example, and so is electronic publishing). In a way we act as a natural interface between the BCS and wider communities of information users.

One informal project that I have been involved in running is the discussion community KIDMM (on Knowledge, Information, Data and Metadata Management), which started as a collaboration between members of a dozen or so BCS SGs, held a founding workshop in March 2006 and now, three and a half years on, has held three other events and has eighty members of its discussion list. Most are BCS members, but many have joined us from other communities equally committed to enabling the information society.