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- Tell us about some potential barriers your user may encounter. Why are you focusing on words rather than letters? Would it also be good to have the letters implemented so words can be spelled out - or is there a literacy issue as well? Would you consider pre-recorded phrases in both sign and voice instead of the live translation? How can this also be used as a learning tool?
We anticipate potential barriers to be primarily technical in nature. We have no doubt that Deaf persons will download SignApp (but only if it’s free), as most Deaf persons who are literate have smart phones. Given the Ethiopian Ministry of Education policy of inclusive education, the number of Deaf children and youth going to ordinary primary and secondary schools, and learning ESL, is rapidly increasing. Our interviews during feedback phase also indicated that persons working in service occupations – health, education, social services, transportation, law enforcement, airline and travel agencies, and of course government officials and development workers – would mostly likely download and use SignApp to increase their ability to communicate with members of the public who are Deaf. It is less likely that significant numbers of members of the general public would be motivated to do so. The potential barrier of lack of knowledge of the existence of SignApp can be overcome via publicity and advertizing, especially via social media, and potentially through a demonstration on Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC), watched by millions of Ethiopians daily – some programs have simultaneous ESL interpretation. ECDD has media contacts to facilitate such programming.
Concerning the issue of letters vs. words – it’s important to understand the nature of the Amharic language and alphabet, which is made up of 126 vowel and consonant combinations (called Fidel) used alone or together to form words. Not all 126 Fidel are commonly used – SignApp would only include the most commonly used Fidel for spelling and words in its spoken Amharic. Similarly, ESL is made up of signs representing words rather than Fidel. Although the use of finger spelling of individual Fidel will be possible in SignApp, it is foreseen that only the most common words and phrases will be included. Thus the idea of pre-recorded words and phrases will definitely be used, especially in the initial SignApp software development phase. However, the ultimate goal of SignApp is real time interpretation.
During the feedback stage, the ECDD Team came to the conclusion, during in-depth discussions with Team members experienced in software development, that development of SignApp required an intermediate stage, developing a Sign to Speech, and Speech to Sign, computer application before developing the SignApp mobile phone application. This is due to the fact that to capture sign language motion, a 3D camera is required, using for example Kinect technology from Microsoft. Most mobile phones are not yet equipped with a 3D camera – but it’s only a matter of time. As a 3D camera can be installed on a computer, it was decided to first develop the required software technology for a computer, while waiting for 3D camera capability on mobile phones.
 Yes, SignApp will most definitely include a modality for teaching/learning ESL! Although several mobile phone applications already exist in Ethiopia for learning ESL, in order to increase the attractiveness of SignApp, such a modality will be included – and publicized. The use of existing ESL teaching applications for SignApp will also be explored, but may involve licensing constraints.
 
- Besides Deaf persons, who else might download and use SignApp? Could it be adapted to apply to oral Deaf persons too?
As noted above, persons working in service industries, especially those relating to customers and members of the general public, would be most likely to download and use SignApp. For example, persons coming into regular contact with Deaf persons – health workers, teachers, shop-keepers, police, etc. Also, hearing friends of Deaf persons would likely download and use SignApp.
Most educated Deaf persons in Ethiopia have knowledge of ESL. Although Deaf children in school today are only taught ESL, members of an older generation learned to speak orally, and have limited knowledge of ESL. It may be possible to include in SignApp a modality for converting Amharic speech to Amharic text, thus enabling Deaf persons without knowledge of ESL to read a moving text on the mobile phone screen of what is being spoken, instead of the ESL interpretation. The Team will consider this as SignApp software development proceeds.

- Tell us more about your technical expertise. Are you collaborating with a technology and/or app company to help develop this idea with you?
Our organization, the Ethiopian Center for Disability and Development (ECDD), has limited technical expertise in terms of software development. ECDD is a local development organization working in the fields of inclusive heath, education and livelihoods for persons with disabilities and their families. Our expertise comes from working closely with Deaf persons, in promoting the use of Ethiopian Sign Language (ESL), and in hiring ESL interpreters. For SignApp development, ECDD has formed a team composed of the following individuals:
Members present:
1. Bob Ransom, ECDD Senior Advisor
2. Retta Getachew, ECDD Executive Director
3. Tesfu Equbeyonas, ECDD Training, and Communications Director
4. Melaku Tekle, ECDD Program Director
5. Liya Solomon, Packard Project Coordinator
6. Eyasu Hailu, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopian Sign Language and Deaf Culture, University Lecturer
7. Alemu Worku, Ethiopian National Association of Deaf (ENAD)
8. Abdulhatif Teglegn, Addis Ababa university Student, Software Developer
9. Tigest Taddesse, Hawassa University, Software Developer
10. Hiwot Samuel (partial visually impaired female University Student)
11. Getachew Gebeyaw (physical Impaired University student)
12. Kirubel Ashanfi, youth with Hearing impairment (self-employed)
13. Amanu Ekubay, youth with Hearing impairment (Self-employed)
14. Etetu Bayelegn, Sign Language Interpreter (Ethiopian National Association of Deaf (ENAD)
      
From the above list, it can be noted that 2 of our Team members are software developers. It is envisaged to also contract with a local technology company to help in the development of the SignApp software. But given the complexity of the proposed application, we would require advanced technical support from OpenIDEO. In fact, the possibility of such support is what first attracted ECDD to the OpenIDEO competition.
 
- We are curious to know your envisioned scope of your idea! Do you have hypotheses you want to test and implement? How are you going to develop the actual sign cues for the app?
We have no hypotheses to test. From interviews with both Deaf and hearing persons, as well as sign language teachers and interpreters, we have become convinced that the SignApp would be useful and be used. Ethiopia is a very large country with a population approaching 100 million, of which it is estimated that 1% - at least 1 million children, youth, and adults - are Deaf. This is a significant number who are confronted daily with a major communications barrier that SignApp can help overcome. In addition, our initial estimate of the number of mobile phones already in use in Ethiopia was wrong – there is today over 40 million users, not 1 million. The Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation has now connected virtually the entire country to the mobile phone network. Most educated Deaf persons own smartphones for text and video communication – via Viber, WhatsApp, IMO, etc. – especially with other Deaf persons. As for ESL cues for SignApp, an ESL Dictionary already exists and SignApp developers will make use of the signs depicted in the dictionary, with support from ESL teachers and users. An Amharic Dictionary also exists.

Dear Tesfu, The SignApp will be easy to use and much effort will be put to be user-friendly with enhanced features and interactive as opposed to static contents.