Cambodia: KhmerOS to have a social impact
By Javier Sola
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA, 18 September 2007
The goal of the KhmerOS project is to produce the basic computer technology necessary for Cambodia to enter the age of technology. The requirements for this technology are clear: It must be in Khmer (Cambodian) language, sustainable, and well adapted to the socio-economic situation of the country.
Cambodia not being a profitable market for software companies, the only option left to undertake this effort is to base it on Free and Open Source software (FOSS), which allows translation, adaptation and free distribution of the software. Even more, FOSS does not have the high computer-power requirements that proprietary software has, allowing the deployment of low-power-consumption computer solutions that strongly affect sustainability.
The project’s focus on local language is based on two simple concatenated ideas. a) A country can only open its doors to development if its citizens have widespread access to basic technology; and b) Widespread access only happen when the technology is in the country’s own language, otherwise it stays in the hands of a minority that masters a foreign language. The use of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) responds to the need for modifiable, low-cost low-power-consumption software that fulfills the needs of the country.
Starting in 2004 as a NGO project, during its first year of operation KhmerOS translated to Khmer – and adapted to Cambodian culture – a complete set of Free and Open Source computer applications (word processing, spreadsheet, presentation tool, Internet browser, e-mail client, etc.). All these applications worked in both Windows and Linux platforms. The project also standardized and developed Khmer script fonts, designed and manufactured keyboards for Khmer, developed support programs (such as a typing tutor), and edited and printed manuals in Khmer for the applications.
In 2005 KhmerOS became a joint project between the NGO and the government’s National ICT Development Authority (NiDA), starting to reach out to teachers and government officials. From 2005 to 2007 KhmerOS trained, directly or through associated programs, over 1,000 teachers and 3,000 government employees, opening different bodies of the administration to the possibility of working with computers (which they could not do using English language). Installation campaigns took the applications to all provinces of Cambodia, installing them in a large amount of Windows-based computes.
In 2006, a National Typing and Document Development Contest motivated several thousand students and professionals to learn how to type Khmer and how to use OpenOffice.
Also in 2006, translation to Khmer and localization (adaptation) of the Linux operating system was completed, providing a complete computer system in Khmer language. Extensive training to the use of Linux in Khmer started at the Open Institute (NGO that houses the civil society part of the project) and at NiDA.
Intensive work on policy during these years influenced National and Educational ICT policy that now strongly favors the use of Khmer language in ICT (and particularly in education), the use of Open Standards and of Free and Open Source Software.
In 2007, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport has signed an agreement with the Open Institute to create a new joint project (Open Schools Program) that is taking the results of KhmerOS to all the public education system of Cambodia. Through this agreement, all the pre-service teachers (and all ICT teachers who are already working as such) will be trained to the use of Khmer language applications. ICT teachers are also trained for Computer Maintenance. Starting in the 2007-2008 academic year all upper secondary schools, public universities and teacher training centers (which have computers for education) will teach to their students computers application in Khmer language. Textbooks for this academic year have been edited and are presently being printed.
Another crucial part of the agreement is that the Ministry and the Open Institute will work together to develop a Master Plan for ICT in Education that will plan not only the teaching of ICT across the education system, but also the use of ICT for teaching and learning other subjects, as well as the automation of the administration of schools. Sustainability of ICT in education will be a very important part of the plan, taking special interest on low-power-consumption computing, and more generally, low-cost use of ICT in education, considering purchasing, electricity, connectivity, maintenance, and training costs.
Working together with the Buddhist Institute, the governmental institution that has traditional maintained the knowledge on Khmer language, the Open Institute has created the first spell-checker for Khmer language, which will be installed in all schools, training institutions, as well as for all other users of OpenOffice.
KhmerOS also provides resources for other projects of the Open Institute, such as the Open Learning project, dedicated to creating e-learning know-how in Cambodia, and the Women’s Project, focused on using ICT to reduce the gender gap. The Open Learning project will reach out to educational institutions to help them create and start using distance education content. The Women’s Project is working together with NGOs and with the Ministry of Women Affairs to empower (through the use of ICT), staff working on gender issues. The work reaches many other Ministries.
In 2006, building on its expertise on localization, KhmerOS, together with the translate.org.za project in South Africa, started the WordForge project, whose goal is to create the best possible tools for the localization of FOSS in developing countries. A team at KhmerOS has already developed the first versions of this software, and plan to work for at least one more year to reach the objective of producing a tool (a translation editor) that will allow developing countries produce high quality translated software with volunteer or low-trained translators. KhmerOS has also given support to a large number of localization projects in other countries in Asia, as well as participated in some of the most important FOSS projects (such as OpenOffice).
KhmerOS has given support to cell telephone terminal manufacturing companies for them to start producing telephones that can support Khmer language in their interfaces and for SMS. It has also participated in the translation of the software of the terminals.
The Open Institute is also a strong player in the professional ICT sector in Cambodia. Javier Sola, founder of KhmerOS, is the chair of the ICT Development Committee of ICT:CAM, the ICT professional Association of Cambodia. Contacts with computer manufactures, computer vendors and software vendors ensure distribution of the Khmer language software trough traditional software distribution channels.
Sustainability is an important issue for KhmerOS. Physical elements of the project are finding their own way to sustainability. Keyboards which we first had to manufacture by ourselves are now being manufactured and sold directly by computer vendors. The same will happen with books, which will end up being maintained by the Ministry of Education’s Pedagogical Research Department, and printed by commercial editors. Once critical mass is reached, the large effort that is being put now into expansion of the project will no longer be necessary, leaving only a small team of translators and developers in charge of maintaining existing software and translating new versions of existing software which might come out from time to time. With time, the cost of this team can be assumed either by the government or by the ICT:CAM association.
Still, a lot of work still need to be done to fully implement the use of ICT in education, and to ensure that government bodies and civil society can fully profit from this work. At least two more years of work of the full KhmerOS project will be necessary, while the Open Schools Program will need to plan for at least six years, to support the deployment of the Master Plan for ICT in Education.
KhmerOS original vision called for all Cambodians to be able to use ICT in their own language by 2007. This goal has been largely attained, but during time our vision has changed to be more socially oriented. We have understood much better the role of ICT in development and all the other implications of our work, specially in education. We now understand that it has taken us three years to reach the starting line, and that our real work starts now, improving the education system with ICT and preparing students to work on a knowledge-based society, while helping consolidate the basic use of ICT in government and civil society. Students must not only learn the basic use of ICT, but also how to use it as a communication tool (blogging, chatting, forums, wikis, etc.), obtaining a global view of the world that they will have to live in.
The Open Institute’s extensive network of partners in Cambodia and around the world, together with the creation of specialized projects which collaborate among themselves – and with different external institutions – creates very strong synergies that are leading, and will lead in the coming years, to the integration of ICT in everyday life in Cambodia, reducing the digital gap and giving less favored Cambodians equal access to the upcoming job market in which a global view of ICT will be a basic requirement.
The KhmerOS project is supported by the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation, (AECI), Capacity Building Germany (InWEnt) and UNESCO. In the past it has received donations from the Internet Society, Afilias, Mr. Pindar Wong, and from other private donors.