Google Psychologist Works on Ethiopic Web Font

Google employs a full-time human factors psychologist to assist the “hard-core computer science geniuses” creating the next generation of web fonts. The American Psychological Association’s gradPSYCH magazine recently ran a piece called Meet a Google Psychologist about Dawn Shaikh, a Ph.D. who is working on a team that’s creating fonts for underserved nations:

One example is Ethiopic, a 277-character alphabet that supports five languages spoken in and around Ethiopia. Working with translators, Shaikh spent a week in New York earlier this year interviewing Ethiopic experts and asking native speakers to evaluate a mock-up of Ethiopic’s characters and spacing on a mobile device. She’ll pass data to designers and engineers who are creating the Ethiopic font, which Google will own but anyone will be able to use.

The estimated literacy rate for people over the age of 15 in Ethiopia is only 42%. Only about 0.5% of the country’s 90.8 million people uses the internet, and less than 5% of the population uses a mobile phone, according to World Bank data from 2009. I wonder how much of that is due to the lack of support for Ge’ez, the 47-character alphabet that Ethiopic languages, including Amharic, are based on. (Mobile phones supporting the use of Ge’ez script were only introduced in 2007.) According to this article, “Ethiopic skipped the typewriter and jumped from the printing press technology to the computer age bypassing the typewriter as even the Amharic typewriter never typed the Amharic alphabet.” I’m stoked to see what other alphabets Google might tackle next, and what changes Ethiopic can make in Africa and the diaspora.

Image by One Laptop One Child.