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Google and Twitter Set Egyptians Up to Tweet Their Voices

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, February 1 2011

The Internet might be off-limits in Egypt at the moment, especially considering reports today that the Noor Group lines that had been the country's final connective tissue to the global network have been cut. But protesters rallying to push President Hosni Mubarak into forced retirement have a new tool to work with: a speak-to-tweet line that engineers from Google, Twitter, and the small company SayNow whipped up as "weekend work," as SayNow co-founder Uggwal Singh and Google's north Arica and Middle east project manager AbdelKarinm Mardini.

Egyptians who still have cell phone service can dial into one of three international numbers  (+16504194196 or +390662207294 or +97316199855), leave a short report, and have their audio message tweeted out to the world, marked with the hashtag #egypt.

What Speak-to-Tweet isn't, it's worth noting, is any sort of audio transcription service. These audio reports straight from Egypt aren't turned into text. The voice recordings are posted as audio clips on the generic @speak2tweet account.

Which makes this project something much more like a real-time documentary effort of the protests in and around Egypt's Tahrir Square than anything that has tactical applications. But you can see where, if enough Egyptian protesters actually took the time to tweet-via-talking, we might in the aggregate have a record of what's happening on the ground in Egypt. Bigger picture, one hope would be that that might actual trigger a watchdog effect, where Egyptian authorities might be restrained by the fact that hundreds or even thousands of protestors were simultaneously conveying to the historial record what they're seeing happen in front of them in the streets of Cairo one Tuesday.

In a lucky spot of timing for the project, Google Inc. actually acquired the Palo Alto-based SayNow just last Tuesday, giving the "weekend" multimedia effort the engineers, technology, and high-profile to get it off the ground with a quickness.

Captured on the Speak2Tweet platform already is a voicemail from what sounds like "Mona in Cairo." (The audio clips is embedded above and to the right.) She describes preparing for today's protests, including what might turn out to be a government crackdown on the protests. "They did this before," she said, "The only difference is the last time when they did this I was completely freaked out."

"I was so scared they are going to, like, shoot us all," said the caller, "and nobody would know about it."

"This time, I'm not scare at all," Mona from Cairo goes on. "I feel as if, like, I want to tell them, bring it on. We are excited, we are happy, we are going to be in Tahrir Square tomorrow. We are going to be huge. We are going to do our march, and do our protests, and Mubarak is going out. [Deep sigh] Be with us. Bye bye."

Before the #egypt project, the SayNow team's most attention-getting use was probably when the rapper Soulja Boy included his SayNow number in his appropriately named hit song "Kiss Me Thru the Phone." ("I miss ya, I miss ya, I really want to kiss you but I can't // Six, seven, eight, triple nine, eight, two, one, two.") Callers to Soulja Boy's line get recorded updates from the rapper himself. SayNow reports that the number has been called more than 50 million times, making it the most dialed local phone number in history.

Update: And the Internet distributes the workload. There's at least one effort underway to translate the Arabic voice recordings to English, over at Speak2TweetTranslate.wordpress.com.