Data is mostly seen as a tool: for decision-making, micro-targeted advertising, surveillance, and in some cases for social good, e.g. to increase transparency. However, little is done so far about data as a critical infrastructure, especially with regard to the global South. Building on the example of open voice data collection in Rwanda, a project in collaboration with Mozilla’s Common Voice Project, we would like to explore the possibilities and challenges for communities to build common data infrastructures.
Why do we focus on open voice data? The future of human-machine interaction lies in voice control. According to Gartner, by 2020 30% of web browsing sessions will be done by voice interaction. However, developers, researchers and startups around the globe working on voice-recognition technology face one problem alike: A lack of freely available voice data in their respective language to train AI-powered speech-to-text engines. Although machine-learning algorithms like Mozilla’s Deep Speech are in the public domain, training data is limited. Most of the voice data used by large corporations is not available to the majority of people, expensive to obtain or simply non-existent for languages not globally spread. The innovative potential of this technology is widely untapped. In providing open datasets, we aim to take away the onerous tasks of collecting and annotating data, which eventually reduces one of the main barriers to voice-based technologies and makes front-runner innovations accessible to more entrepreneurs. With voice interaction available in their own language, we may provide millions of people access to information, make technologies more inclusive and ultimately foster a just, locally rooted yet global digital transformation. What do we need to realize this vision? Open voice data in local languages and committed communities, which care to create data as commons for the greater benefit of all.