The final pilot of project Lwazi (a Zulu word meaning knowledge or information) took place last week at the Thusong Service Centre in Atteridgeville.

At the heart of this project, which facilitates access for all South Africans to government information and services, lies a winning combination of funding commitment by the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) and the skills of a group of researchers at the CSIR’s human language technologies (HLT) research group. The HLT research group is one of the research groups of the CSIR’s Meraka Institute.
Using Lwazi, South Africans can reap the benefits of IT, despite limited access to the Internet. Once implemented, the system will play an important part in promoting the process of social development in all its different facets.
Using a land line or mobile telephone, free of charge, any South African will in future be able to speak directly to the system, in any of the 11 official languages, to find out how to address pressing everyday needs. These include how to apply for a social grant, where to access health care, or how to apply for an identity document, to mention a few.
The partnership between the CSIR and the DAC over the past three years has led to the development of this multilingual, telephone-based information system with a simple speech-orientated interface that is suitable for users with limited or no literacy. Delivery of the system is due at the end of September 2009.
Four rural communities in South Africa were selected to pilot the Lwazi service before delivery. In each case, researchers worked closely with the local Thusong Service Centres in those communities. These centres were chosen because of their credible track record of implementing development communication and information, to integrate government services into rural communities.
The first pilot took place in the rural community of Vredendal in the Western Cape. This was followed by Sterkspruit in the Eastern Cape and Tshidilamolomo in the North West.
The government’s investment in the project, through the DAC, has led to the development of an asset in terms of language resources and technology, which will enable service delivery by government to the people of South Africa through the innovative utilisation of technology.
The Lwazi system consists of open-source HLT software and open linguistic resources, such as pronunciation dictionaries available to all South African researchers via a web-based interface. In addition, it incorporates the first synthesised voices in African languages to be made available on an open-source platform.
The work builds on human language technology research undertaken at the CSIR’s Meraka Institute. The open platform can be used by government to provide information and services in any of the official South African languages via the telephone.