Arab techies collaborate for social and political change

Typing Arabic using Latin characters in Facebook or Twitter status updates might sound like magic to the non-techies among us. Long hours of coding are behind this facility, courtesy of a collective of sharp programmers from different parts of the Arab World.
At a meeting in May dubbed the Arabic Techies' code sprint meeting, the group convened in an effort to remedy Arabic support problems and improve language processing tools. As a result, the programmers issued a series of releases that include search normalization and indexing of Arabic text that include the removal of accents and diacritics from letters as well as stopwords to improve online research findings.
“It was a great opportunity to meet developers who shared similar interests in Arabic language automation, and I believe that similar events will plant promising seeds for active teams,” says Khaled al-Shamaa, the Syrian founder of the PHP and Arabic language open source library “Personally, the code sprint meeting helped me burn steps and save time through rich discussions with participants who shared knowledge, experience and resources.”
Another release from the group's meeting is an Arabic stemmer that includes support tools for Arabic web applications such as transliteration, number spelling and stem-based applications. Those tools generally support developers of Arabic sites and applications to make their work comprehensible to users. Releases also include the creation of a bookmarklet, which is an option in a tool bar, to use Yamli technology in any text area on a web page. Yamli is a well known internet-based solution to type Arabic using the closest Latin characters. An automatic generator of Arabic verbs conjugation is another quite accurate function.
But behind the May meeting lies a bigger aim from the Arab Techies collective. Late last year at a forum–gathering a cohort of 29 software developers, digital activist techies, citizen media initiatives and cyber community hub founders and graphic designers–participants decided to consolidate their support for groups working on social, cultural and political development using information and communication technologies.
“It was the first event for me where we could gather and talk about technology in Arabic,” says Manal Hassan, the Arab Techies coordinator, web developer, IT consultant and long-time blogger. “Participants who came from different parts of the Arab World were excited to talk to each other and learn about each other’s initiatives.”
Last year’s forum was based on an open agenda that was collectively built by the event’s participants. In the course of the forum, interesting debates surfaced about the issues of Arabic content on the web, citizen media, open source software, digital activism, and promising technologies such as mobile telephony and social networks. Participants presented initiatives spawned in their home countries, ranging from online portals offering alternative sources of news, to active communities promoting the use of open source software, and mapping projects documenting geo-political realities and more.
“Besides the fact that we all speak Arabic, there is a culture that gathers us, as well as situations,” Hassan adds, referencing a system of contested or weak freedoms in the Arab world. This environment renders virtual digital spaces a sound alternative–but one that is also prone to state intervention and control.
For Mohamed Hjouij, Moroccan programmer and blogger, the Arab Techies is about collective work.
“Programmers, techies and IT consultants tend to be the least engaged among each other," he says. "This is the essence of Arab Techies, namely to create more interaction and to work together on exchanging expertise and supporting common and needed projects in the Arab World.” 
While he personally benefited from being part of the collective, he says the benefits extend to Arabic users at large.
“Each meeting produces ideas and joint efforts that are largely beneficial to users," Hjouij says. "This is particularly apparent in the code sprint meeting that realized some tools pertaining to digital Arabic support.”
“Arab Techies has several goals; one of them is to get the Arabic community used to open-source technologies and contributions,” says Jordanian and Arab Techies member Waheed al-Barghouthi, who works as a web developer. “That’s why the gathering approach is important because when you meet people who have the same interests and passion, you feel the positive energy toward wanting to help the Arab world move forward.”
Open-source platforms is a common approach of the Arab Techies' initiative and its members, who are against proprietary software that closes its source code to developers through intellectual property rights protection.
Al-Barghouthi hopes to embark on more programming workshops where he and his fellow Arab Techies can work on more Arabic localization tools such as the Optical Character Recognition. Meanwhile, Hassan sees the future of Arab Techies endeavors in a broader context.
“The code sprint meeting was useful at defining some of the goals of Arab Techies as a starting initiative," she says. "I would like to see other types of activities and not just programming.” Those activities include working to close the consistent gender gap at all techies meetings she has attended.
The integration of ICT in societies of the Arab World is taking place at varying paces in the region within different regulatory systems and strategies. The Arab Techies initiative is a grassroots-based model aiming at the unconditional promotion of technology in the Arab World. Its work parallels top-down approaches to technology integration while being instrumental in showing the pivotal role of grassroots-induced change.

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