Ulwazi: A Model for Public Participation Through Digital Technology & Crosscultural Exchange

Born of political shifts and a changing, post-apartheid policy environment that advanced a participatory approach to heritage, the Ulwazi Program is a South African library initiative set up by the eThekwini Municipality’s Libraries and Heritage Department to “preserve and disseminate indigenous knowledge of local communities in the greater Durban area.”

It creates a collaborative online database of local indigenous knowledge as part of the public library’s digital resources, relying on community participation for delivering
content and posting the content on the web. The project is a collaborative, online, local knowledge resource in English and Zulu (the most commonly used languages in Durban), in the form of a “Wiki,” much like Wikipedia, but localized for the eThekwini Municipality.

The program was established in 2008 in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. It was the brainchild of a former senior librarian for software applications at the eThekwini Municipal Library, Betsie Greyling. Greyling worked with McNulty Consulting to translate her conceptual thinking into a practical project. The Ulwazi Program is the first project of its kind in South Africa because it promotes a “democratized collection policy” through the library with the use of basic digital media tools and community participation.

Publisher: University of Southern California
Publication Name: Public Diplomacy Magazine – Winter 2016 Issue

Classifying and Sorting Content

The Ulwazi Programme attempted to put together an online resource around the local history and knowledge of the people of the eThekwini Municipality. To do this, we trained participants in digital media production as well as online content management. An important aspect of this work was sorting and classifying information, to make it accessible to both the end-user as well as indexable by search engines.

Gathering content through methodologies such as oral history and field research is only the first step in creating an accessible and useful body of information. In order to make it easily navigable and retrievable, it is important to apply classification and sorting principles in a logical and consistent way. This ensures that the content follows a set hierarchy and is presented in a way that is most appropriate for the intended users.

Why Classify Content?

Classifying content for the web involves very similar disciplines and systems to those used in bricks and mortar libraries, with the Dewey Decimal System being one of the best-known examples. When using this system, each book is assigned a number based on its content, which dictates its place on the shelf. This system works well for physical texts because it allows for very specific classification that is universally understood and used. 

However, with online content,, a slightly different approach is needed. Digital content tends to evolve more organically as  files can changed, added to and updated as needed.Yet, it still requires the same rigour and consistency in hierarchy. When conducted properly, the process of sorting content also ensures that search engines can properly index the site. This is necessary for the content to be displayed as results in search pages, and helps to increase the readership of the site and its general profile online.

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Digital skills training for South Africa

Digital information and communication technologies have revolutionised the ways in which knowledge is created and shared. Today, global domination of the information economy by the Internet, mobile phones and other digital devices creates the potential to facilitate new ways of recording and sharing knowledge. However, for the majority of South African people, limited digital skills and poor information literacy puts the Internet and online information beyond their reach, even if access to these technologies was available.

Accessing information on a mobile in South Africa

African Content on the Internet

In terms of digital information, African content levels are low, mainly due to a lack of capacity among local communities to record, transfer and disseminate information digitally. This puts Africa at a major disadvantage in the current knowledge economy, and leaves people poorly equipped to make a meaningful contribution to the global information society.

The knock-on effect of limited local content and a lack of local language usage on the Internet is that it slows the uptake of digital resources by local communities, impeding ICT skills development and, thereby, socio-economic transformation. However, African knowledge needs to be part of the global information economy, regardless of the inherent difficulties in collection, preservation and dissemination. This philosophy is underpinned by the Geneva Plan of Action, developed by the World Summit on the Information Society (2003). Three action lines in the plan speak directly to the need to include all people in the access to and generation of knowledge:

  • Access to information and knowledge: This line concerns policies relating to public domain information, community access points, and alternative software models.
  • Capacity building: This covers skills needed for the Information Society, including literacy and ‘ICT literacy’ and the empowerment of local communities to use ICTs.
  • Cultural diversity and identity: linguistic diversity and local content. This action plan line focuses on promotion of respect for cultural identity, traditions and religions and dialogue among cultures as a factor in sustainable development.

There is a tendency for digital divide thinking to focus on getting ‘global’ information resources to the marginalised and on educating the marginalised to consume information in the way the globalised world does. However, in order to decrease the digital divide between the data ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, there needs to be an understanding of the processes by which people can assimilate, and then use, information. ICTs can become a broad enabler of development when used in community informatics, which allow groups to use the resources in ways that are meaningful to them. However, this is not easy to achieve in practice because skills levels are often low at a local level. 

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Gates Foundation Global Libraries Meeting

bill-and-melinda-gates-foundationI am very excited about an event I have been invited to present at next week in Cape Town, the 2013 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) Global Libraries Peer Learning Meeting.

The BMGF’s Global Libraries program supports efforts to supply and maintain free public access to computers and the Internet in ten countries around the world. According to the BMGF, quick and easy access to information and knowledge can transform the lives of individuals and strengthen communities. Yet, approximately 5 billion people – almost 90 percent of the world’s population – do not have access to computers connected to the Internet.

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Ulwazi Programme on The Soul Beat Africa Network

The Ulwazi Programme is an online media project established in 2008, which is collecting and disseminating local knowledge in English and Zulu. It is run from the eThekwini Municipality’s Libraries and Heritage Department in Durban, South Africa, in partnership with McNulty Consulting. The vision of the programme is not only to preserve and disseminate local Zulu knowledge, but to encourage local communities to take ownership of the website and to become actively involved in the developing of a resource of local knowledge.

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