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International recognition for Waikato Professor

International recognition for Waikato Professor

Computer Science Professor Ian Witten has been honoured with a prestigious international award for the humanitarian work of his University of Waikato research group, the New Zealand Digital Library project, on the Greenstone Software.

Professor Witten will be the seventh recipient of the biennial Namur award (, which recognises recipients for raising awareness internationally of the social implications of information and communication technologies.

Presented by the International Federation of Information Processing, an organisation devoted to the relationship between Computers and Society, the purpose of the Namur award is to draw attention to the need for a holistic approach in the use of information technology in which the social implications have been taken into account.

Nominations for the 2004 award were made earlier this year and Professor Witten has been announced as the recipient now, to allow for travel to the award ceremony in Belgium during January 2004.

Professor Witten was nominated for his work with the New Zealand Digital Library (NZDL) project, a research group within the University of Waikato Computer Science Department. One focus of the group is developing the Greenstone Software, which is being used to deliver humanitarian and related information in developing countries (

“Greenstone allows user-friendly computer-based libraries to be compiled according to the needs of a wide range of groups and organisations,” says Professor Witten.

“Part of our work involves liaising with UNESCO and Belgium-based nongovernmental organisation, Human Info. to publish humanitarian information on CD and distribute it widely in developing countries.”

Greenstone is particularly valuable in developing countries, which typically lack information resources and have slow and unstable communication networks, making accessing information difficult. CD-Rom based virtual libraries can free organisations and agencies from reliance on those networks.

In the rural village of Kakunyu, Uganda, the nearest source of books, periodicals and newspapers was in a town 20 km away, a long journey over rough roads. Most people were unable to access important resources and information needed to have a major development impact on the community.

The Kataayi Multipurpose Cooperative, a grass-roots organisation within the village, set up an information and communication centre in the hopes of supplying resources on topics like fair-trade marketing, agriculture, environmental conservation and social justice.

“The Kataayi Cooperative heard about the Humanity Development Library, a CDRom compiled using Greenstone software, and approached Human Info. for a copy to use in the Kakunyu information and communication centre,” said Professor Witten.

“Kakunyu villagers now have access to a collection of 1,200 books and periodicals on topics produced by UN agencies and other international organisations, increasing their information resources immeasurably.”

In print, the books available on the Humanity Development Library CD-Rom would weigh 340kg, cost $20,000 and occupy a small library book stack. The Greenstone software has allowed this wealth of information to become available to people throughout the developing world at a miniscule fraction of the cost of paper books.

Disaster relief agencies can also use the Greenstone software to pull together libraries of material from international sources, store them on CD, and access them even when Internet lines are down or jammed in the aftermath of a disaster. Professor Witten says that to overcome language barriers interfaces to Greenstone have been established in almost two-dozen of the world’s languages, such as Maori, Arabic and Hebrew.

“As well as Uganda and other developing countries, the Waikato software is in regular use in the US, Israel, South Africa and Russia, to name a few, and has established New Zealand as a leading provider of digital library software.”

Currently visiting Canada on a research trip, Professor Witten will travel to Belguim for the Namur award ceremony in January 2004. As part of his acceptance of the award he will present a lecture on the work of the Waikato research group before being presented with a commemorative plate and certificate.

Established in 1989, the Namur award has most recently been granted to such leaders in their field as Dr. Deborah Hurley, Director of the Harvard Information Infrastructure Project (, Harvard University, USA (2002 Namur Award) and Professor Simon Rogerson of the Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility, De Montfort University, in the U.K. (2000 Namur Award).

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