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“Tablet PCs preserve indigenous knowledge” by Niall Firth, published 18 June 2012 in New Scientist Magazine issue 2869.

Tablet computers could help villagers in the Kalahari desert preserve cultural knowledge and traditional techniques for future generations

The Herero people know just what to do when a horse is too wild or unpredictable: they lash a donkey to it, which forces the horse to slow down and helps to tame it. Unruly animals have been dealt with this way for generations by the inhabitants of the small village of Erindiroukambe, which lies in the heart of the Kalahari desert in eastern Namibia.

But times are changing and, as young men leave to work or study in cities like Windhoek, 400 kilometres away, it becomes much harder to hang on to this kind of local knowledge. Kasper Rodil, at Aalborg University in Denmark, and his colleagues want to see if tablet computers can help bridge the gap. “The human race would lose some colour if we lost this kind of knowledge,” says Rodil.

Typically, young men stay in the city for a few years before returning to their home village to pick up the traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle, working the land and keeping cows and goats. But this gap means that they miss out on much of the village’s accumulated knowledge, which is traditionally passed on orally by the elders.

Along with researchers at the Polytechnic of Namibia in Windhoek, Rodil’s team is working with Erindiroukambe’s elders to develop a 3D visualisation of the village on a tablet computer. Their knowledge will be embedded in this virtual village to be stored for future generations. Rodil is also developing a drawing app for the tablet which mimics the way the elders draw diagrams in the sand to explain what they mean. “The idea is that we have as little friction as possible between the device and the user,” he says.