The final pilot of Project Lwazi (a Zulu word meaning knowledge or information), which facilitates access for all South Africans to government information and services via land-line or mobile telephones, went live at the Thusong Service Centre in Atteridgeville on Friday.

The project is funded by the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) and has been developed by the CSIR’s human language technologies (HLT) research group, part of the Meraka Institute.
Using Lwazi, South Africans can reap the benefits of information technology 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, including how to apply for a social grant, where to access health care, or how to apply for an identity document.
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 scheduled for 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. Atteridgeville is the final pilot before the system goes live.
The government’s investment in the project through the DAC has led to the development of a unique 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.