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Worldreader Aims for ‘Books for All’
Posted On June 4, 2012
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Worldreader is a U.S. and European nonprofit whose mission is to make digital books available to children in the developing world, so millions of people can improve their lives. Reports indicate that 50% of schools in sub-Saharan Africa have few or no books (SACMEQ II), slowing learning and societal advancement. As of May 2012, Worldreader had put more than 100,000 ebooks—and the life-changing, power-creating ideas contained within them—into the hands of 1,000 children in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Recently, Worldreader teamed up with soccer team FC Barcelona to attempt something that’s never before been possible. It is raising money to send 1 million ebooks to the children of Africa. Worldreader has set the goal of raising enough money by Dec. 31, 2012, to send 1 million ebooks to Africa’s children. Donations starting at $5 are sufficient for Worldreader to send one ebook to students in Africa. As part of the project and to help inspire more reading, students in the Worldreader program receive messages from their favorite soccer heroes beamed directly to their e-readers.

Worldreader works with manufacturers, local and international publishers, and communities to get ebooks into the hands of thousands of children and families throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Worldreader works with sponsoring organizations to close the gap between the cost of e-readers and books and the price local communities can pay, until costs become more affordable. Funding also allows the organization to develop and digitize local and international books, as well as manage logistics and support in the developing world, in partnership with local governments, school systems, and related businesses.

Worldreader was founded in 2009 by former Microsoft and Amazon executive David Risher, and former marketing director at Barcelona’s ESADE Business School, Colin McElwee.

The Technology

The first Worldreader projects in Africa involved distributing Amazon Kindle e-reading devices to classrooms. This spring, Worldreader published the results of iREAD, its yearlong pilot in Ghana. It showed that students learned to use the devices quickly, got access to much more content, sought out international news, and showed improvement in test scores. Unfortunately, more than 40% of the Kindles broke (so Amazon worked on reinforced screens and Worldreader provided sturdier cases). As for sustainability, the report “estimates that for the years 2014-2018, using a calculation focused strictly on the provisioning of textbooks, the e-reader system would cost only $8.93-$11.40 more per student over a 4 year period than the traditional paper book system.”

Recently, Worldreader adopted a new technology that doesn’t require an e-reader, tablet, or smartphone. The library of books can be accessed on a device that many users already own—a mobile phone. Worldreader partnered with biNu, an app developer based in Sydney, Australia. biNu’s patented technology effectively turns a low-end feature phone into a smartphone—enabling millions of people in the world’s poorest places access to Facebook, Twitter, local news, Google—and, now, the Worldreader Book App.

Worldreader says that feature phones are the largest and fastest growing segment of the global mobile market, with more than 60% of the global mobile market share of almost 5 billion mobile subscribers. As of April 27, 2012, the Worldreader App is on 3.9 million mobile phones, mostly in India and Africa, and it hopes to reach 10 million by the end of 2012.

The app is reportedly fast and uses minimal data. biNu’s patented technology is 10 times faster than standard mobile browsers and uses 10 times less data bandwidth.

The Content

Currently the Worldreader app allows readers to choose between some 500 public domain classics, such as Pride and Prejudice and A Tale of Two Cities, as well as contemporary fiction and nonfiction from Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, India, and other developing countries. Worldreader partners with international and local African publishers to offer children a wide range of reading choices. The Worldreader App features a built-in dictionary as well as a translate tool, so that readers can translate any book, page by page.

The Worldreader app also features pertinent and potentially life-saving information on HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other important health issues. Worldreader is forging partnerships with international health organizations to continue to bring valuable nonfiction information and books to its readers.

Recently, best-selling author Seth Godin donated his Domino Project books to Worldreader. Then he issued a challenge to publishers on his blog:

Tell me again why a publisher in the privileged world is charging Worldreader for these books … the incremental cost is zero, and the opportunity cost is vanishingly small. What a great opportunity to seed the market, to encourage literacy at no cost to the publishers and to bring education and books to places where they are scarce. What happens to book publishing and to the authors involved if a million or ten million kids grow up reading their books? (Not to mention the impact on the kids and our world …)

Now the real question: what publishers are going to step up and say yes with their entire catalog? If you’re an author, ask your publisher. And if you’re a publisher (even a big New York City one–especially a big New York City one) then this is a great chance to say yes, go!

For More Information

GigaOM, “What happens when you give Kindles to kids in Ghana?,” by Laura Hazard Owen.

BBC, “Turning dumbphones to smartphones,” by Clark Boyd, April 6, 2012.

Download the biNu Worldreader App

biNu and the Worldreader App work on almost any screen size on virtually any device running Java, Android, or Blackberry. Almost any java phone manufactured after 2002 will run biNu and the Worldreader App.

Demo videos of biNu

Video of a conversation with Elizabeth Wood, director of Digital Publishing for Worldreader

Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.

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