Commentary: Wikipedia, The Encyclopedia Anyone Can Read!

March 22, 2016

Wikipedia is the encyclopedia anyone can edit, and soon it will also be the encyclopedia anyone can make accessible. Researchers at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden have partnered with Wikimedia to develop a speech engine that will read Wikipedia articles aloud. This will be a crowdsourced effort, meaning that anyone can contribute to building the speech engine. The tool will be optimized for Wikipedia, but will also work on other websites running the MediaWiki software. It will be free and open sourced, making it accessible to anyone who would like to use it.

Without a doubt, Wikipedia is considered one of the most popular sources of information on the Internet. It is available in more than 280 languages, making it widely accessible to virtually anyone in the world. Many of us turn to Wikipedia to find information about a favorite artist, sport team or historical event. It is estimated that around 125 million – or 25 percent – of Wikipedia users need or prefer speech to text technology to access the website.

When I first heard about this project, I immediately thought about how it would help people like me who are blind or have a significant visual impairment. We already use magnifying or talking software on our computers or mobile devices, so having an online tool readily available to read articles on Wikipedia will give us more access to information. On second thought, not only will people with visual impairments benefit. Those with learning or other disabilities who need or prefer to listen to written materials will also find this tool useful. Even people without disabilities who would rather listen instead of read could potentially find the speech engine helpful.

The most exciting aspect of this new tool is that it will be free of charge to everyone. Text to speech software can be extremely expensive, often costing hundreds of dollars. Most people – especially those in third world countries – will probably never be able to purchase such pricy equipment. This creates a tremendous accessibility barrier that otherwise could easily be eliminated with today’s technology. It is great to see that Wikipedia also wants to make sure that everyone has access to the worldwide web.

People often say that knowledge is power, but unfortunately not everyone has access to written information. Wikipedia’s effort to make a speech engine for everyone to be able to read its content is very fitting. After all, this virtual encyclopedia has allowed us to have a wealth of information literally at our fingertips. I sure am looking forward to the day when Wikipedia also becomes the encyclopedia anyone can read.

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