26 June 2012 - Digital
A free website, Duolingo, has been launched with the intention of translating the entire world wide web with the help of people who are learning a new language. The project has been conceived out of a sense of guilt by the man who introduced one of the most exasperating features on the internet – the screen Captcha.
The website is hoping to convince millions of users to work for free and help to translate all web content in a matter of a few years.
The ambitious scheme has been cooked up by Luis von Ahn and his fellow workers at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, USA which has enlisted a worldwide workforce who are prepared to work for nothing.
At the age of 22, von Ahn invented the Captcha as a graduate student. Captchas are distorted images of words and numbers that are used to sign into security enabled websites such as social media and ticketing sites where visitors have to prove that they are human.
It is believed that the software is used by more than 350,000 websites to identify and prevent computer programs from besieging the sites with spam and in 2007, von Ahn conceded that 200 million Captchas were being entered by people all around the globe each day.
“At first I felt really good about that because I thought, ‘Look at the impact that I’ve had’,’ he said.”But then I started feeling bad.”
Von Ahn estimated that filling in each Captcha took around 10 seconds and when multiplied by 200 million, he figured that humanity as a whole was spending 500,000 hours every day typing in security codes.
In an attempt to make good use of these hours he created ReCaptcha, a process which uses the filled out response as both the intended spam deterrent and as a means to digitise books one word at a time.
This development coincided with the New York Times embarking on a project to digitise its 130 year archive by employing a team of typists. Over ten years, the team had managed to transcribe 27 years worth of newspapers. The Times decided to use von Ahn’s software solution and within 2 years had completed the remaining 129 years of archived material.
In 2009 Google bought ReCaptcha and it is still extensively used to distinguish between spamming software and human beings all around the globe. Its translating features however are exclusively available to Google’s Books initiative, which was set up to transcribe every book in the world.
Despite this, for the majority of people Captchas are seen as a complete and frustrating waste of time and web surfers who suffer from dyslexia or visual impairments find them as a major barrier to online use.
Dr Sue Fowler, at the Dyslexia Research Trust, suggests that the Captchas only add to the problems dyslexics have when filling out web forms. “Even looking at it closely, I wouldn’t know what to do with it,” she said.
There is an audio option, but these can be even more unsatisfactory as they tend to sound muffled and difficult to understand.
It has been noted that automated codes are progressively getting more unintelligible, with some of the latest offerings appearing more jumbled and blurred rendering them almost impossible to decipher.
“As of a few months ago, if we showed someone a ReCaptcha they were successful at it about 93% of the time,” von Ahn remarked, adding that as soon as that drops to 75%, visitors give up trying to gain access to the website.
Von Ahn has embarked on a project to create software that rewards a user for their time and effort when filling out Captchas and in partnership with one of his former graduate students, Severin Hacker, has developed Duolingo.
Duolingo is a website that serves free language tutorials and in return requests aspiring candidates to translate sentences from the web.
At the moment, the site only supports English speakers interested in French, Spanish or German and Spanish speakers looking to learn English. The students begin with very simple sentences and gradually work up to more complicated ones helping to increase their worth as they become more competent.
Although computers can translate individual words, it is important to have human input in order to put the words into context and construct sentences that make sense.
“The computer always knows what each word can translate to, all the possibilities – that’s just a bilingual dictionary. But the computer doesn’t know that in this case, a word means girl, and in that case, it means daughter,” von Ahn said.
Duolingo serves a user with a complete sentence and offers all the possible translations for each of the words. The user then has to build the sentence with the aid of their understanding of their language.
To root out the bad translations, the website invites the users to rate the individual answers and chooses the top ranked explanations.
The users then begin to work on real sentences sourced from creative commons licensed websites.
Duolingo has a computer game element to it, where points are awarded for each translation attempt and a completed round earns the participator a shiny gold medal. The budding linguists can also track each other’s progress which adds another competitive edge.
The system does have its detractors though, with some experts doubting the method actually allows the user to reach a decent level of fluency.
Mickael Pointecourteau, an experienced language lecturer who has used the software said: “There are some mistakes in their translation from the very first level, which worries me for when users will get to a higher level,” he said. “Four main skills must be taken into account when learning a new language – speak, listen, write, read. I doubt this kind of software prepares for that.”
Von Ahn, unsurprisingly does not agree with this; “We’ve been doing a lot of tests and we can get you to the point where you are an intermediate speaker of a language, you can go to a country that speaks that language and you can get around,” he said.
“Of course in order to become bilingual you probably need to go to a particular country and live there for a few months, it takes that level of practice.”
For many people, Duolingo will be no more than a distraction from their work, or at best, a game, but von Ahn is adamant the software’s potential easily surpasses that.
“In the US and in the UK too, learning a language is more of a hobby. In South America you learn a language, particularly English, to make more money and to climb the social ladder.”
Von Ahn is hopeful that his software will help people get a leg-up in life where they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to afford it.
19 June 2012 - Digital
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) has released the full list of internet top-level domain name requests that are due to be rolled out in the spring of next year.
The new domains will be used as alternatives to current web address endings such as .co.uk and .com.
Amongst the nearly 2,000 requests submitted are domain suffixes such as .bible .casino .sexy and .soccer.
Internet giants Google have applied for domain names such as .google .earth .youtube and .lol, whilst online retailing heavyweight Amazon has pitched for .amazon .book .music and .joy. amongst others.
To apply for a new domain organisations have had to pay £118,000 to Icann without any guarantee that their bid will be successful.
The non-profit domain organisation Nominet UK, who has applied for .wales and .cymru. stated that more than £225m has been invested in the process overall.
Of the 1,930 applications made, Icann has revealed that 884 came from the USA alone.
UK companies accounted for 40 with the rest of Europe bidding on 675. 303 requests came from Asia whilst only 17 were submitted by African nations.
Icann revealed that 166 bids were submitted by countries such as China, Qatar and South Korea for domains not in the Latin alphabet.
In instances where multiple applications have been made for the same domain suffix a resolution process will be set up that could take months to resolve.
Change on the Way
Lesley Cowley, CEO of Nominet UK, said: “New top level domains represent a major change in the landscape of the internet, and clearly more now needs to be done to raise awareness of the issues and implications for all internet users across Britain.
“Businesses need not panic if they haven’t yet considered them, but they should certainly watch developments, and develop a clear policy before the changes take place in 2013.
“In the meantime, having an established, trusted country code – such as domains ending in .uk – will remain one of the best ways to be found online.”
Hundreds of companies and even countries have put in their applications, in a lot of cases to protect names they already have.
The British Broadcasting Corporation applied for .bbc, Volkswagen for .volkswagen, Visa for .visa and Barclays Bank for .barclays.
Some establishments have applied for specific terms which they have long been associated with. The Vatican, for instance, applied for .catholic.
The Clear Winners
The clear winners in the process appear to be Icann who will evaluate the applications in groups of 500, and will then levy a charge of $25,000 per year to keep the domains.
1 June 2012 - Digital
Website design requires a great deal of attention to detail and an understanding of a few dos and don’ts. There are many methods that will ensure that a website is well designed and productive, but website designers are still liable to making the odd faux pas, some of these are more common than others. Below I have listed some of the most often made mistakes that can have a huge effect on the quality of a website.
The Long and Winding Road
A very common complaint about website design is the never ending web page. Visitors to a website are averse to scrolling endlessly down a page. That is unless the content is incredibly impressive. In most cases though, it is best practise to provide links to different pages that contain the specific information that a user is looking for rather than leading them down a long and winding road of jumbled content. Most of the time a visitor will land on a site in a search for particular information and if this isn’t found almost instantly then they will move on to another site.
Stop the Pop Up
Many website designers have a habit of opening links in new browser windows. Designers do this to make sure that visitors do not leave the website and will return. This practice is flawed as most internet surfers are well accustomed to using a browser’s ‘back’ button. The practise of pop ups also takes control away from the website visitor by opening up browser windows even when the user does not want it to happen.
With the popularity of Netbooks, tablets and mobile smart phones being so rife, pop ups are even more annoying, as it can be a real hassle to navigate your way through the open browser windows. Automatic pop ups are a bugbear for many internet surfers and it is definitely much better to hand control back to the user and allow them to surf the web the way they want to.
Don’t be so Flashy!
When used in the correct way animation and music can be a valuable asset to a website, but over doing it is a big no no. Internet users nowadays are on a quest for fast information and are not concerned with ‘flashy’ intro’s and distractions. The best practise is to use aesthetically pleasing visuals and minimal animation to get your information across. The use of embedded music is also a bad idea as it can be very unwelcome if activated at the wrong time. Another thing to bear in mind is that not all tablets and smart phones support Flash animations by default, so many visitors will be left with blank screens.
Adverts make Mad Men and Women of us all
If you want to enrage a visitor to your website then simply fill your web pages full of adverts. One of the most annoying aspects of web browsing is being bombarded with an everlasting torrent of adverts when you are searching for information. Avoid inserting distracting advert banners and pop ups on web pages that contain informative content. If adverts are necessary, make sure they are relevant to the subject on that individual page.
A growing trend amongst websites is the requirement to register before being allowed access to the site’s information. Although data capture is an important requirement for many online businesses, it is also important to bear in mind that web users are reluctant to continually fill out forms to gain entry to certain features on that site. By making it compulsory to register on a website you may be losing more visitors than you thought. If possible, allow an unregistered user to see a fair amount of the site’s content and if interested they will happily sign up under their own initiative.
Keep it in Context
The world wide web mantra of ‘content is king’ should not be taken lightly. A website may generate a lot of traffic by employing search engine optimisation tactics, but if the content on the website is not quality driven then visitors will depart as quickly as they arrived. A lot of work can go into keyword research and link building, but if the content on the site is not what a user expects, then the website will quickly become a white elephant.
Try to keep the website as lean and mean as possible. Cut out unnecessary pages. These may lead to navigation difficulties for visitors and deter them from visiting the site again. Define a concise route through the website and stop the user from entering a maze of irrelevant and content light web pages.
If you would like more information and advice on the web design faux pas to dodge, please do not hesitate to contact the digital department at HROC. We would be only too happy to help.