QCRI strives to become the regional and global leader in Arabic language technologies - in the areas of search, information retrieval and analysis, multilingual language and enrich Arabic language content online.
A key output of this research is 'Jalees', an English and Arabic e-book reader application optimized and developed for iOS and Windows 8 devices. The technology was first conceived in late 2013, and is currently being used in more than 40,000 devices in Supreme Education Council (SEC) approved schools in Qatar, with a view to eventually be implemented in all SEC schools.
In early 2016, Jalees will also become a downloadable application for mobile devices, allowing the software to reach beyond classrooms and into the hands of anyone interested in utilizing a tailor-made Arabic e-book platform.
Explaining the genesis of the software, Majd Abbar, Director, Arabic Content Initiatives, QCRI, explained to The Foundation: “I spent 20 years at Microsoft's headquarters, and I created its Bi-Directional Windows Localization team, and thus was responsible for the release of multiple international versions of Microsoft Windows, including its Arabic version.
“Having helped the release of Windows 98, right up to Windows 8, I knew that the next step for me was to move from focusing on a system, to concentrating on content.
“Right now, online Arabic content is lacking, but one way to encourage its creation is by enabling people to consume such content intuitively. One such example is to create Arabic e-books and, in the case of QCRI, creating a way for them to be enjoyed.”
Upon identifying a gap in the e-reader market for what Jalees could provide, QCRI explored the best options to partner with entities that were also interested in encouraging Arabic content.
At this time, SEC was launching its ‘e-bag’ initiative, which was designed to introduce a group of integrated electronic services and develop e-content for a number of syllabuses, as well as providing every participating student with a tablet device.
“The SEC was pursuing a program that would be integrated into the learning management system and would allow students to read, annotate, and make comments on e-books,” explained Abbar.
“There were multiple providers vying for this opportunity, but it was granted to QCRI.”
Dr Stephan Vogel, Research Director, Arabic Language Technologies, QCRI, believes that the partnership has proved to be immensely beneficial for QCRI's research, and the participating SEC schools.
“Jalees opens the door to a new generation of teaching material: a book is no longer only text, it is now also a video, a sound document, a simulation, an experiment, a test, an exercise,” he said.
“This provides new, more interactive and engaging ways for the students to interact with the material. We can see that companies providing schoolbooks to the SEC are already developing new types of history and science books, which have been designed with Jalees in mind. Ultimately, adopting an active style of education is the best way to achieve positive learning outcomes.”
Some of the most noteworthy features of Jalees, for Arabic readers, include the fact that not only does it automatically identify if a book is Arabic, but it will modify the layout in such a way that lines are left aligned, or that page flipping goes in the appropriate direction.
“Drawing on our research in Arabic language processing, we integrated some unique features,” added Vogel. “For example, when searching for a word within a book, Jalees can find different forms of the word, like the plural of a noun, or the past tense of a verb.
“Of course, Jalees also offers all the features one might expect from a modern e-book reader, like multimedia, highlighting, adding notes, searching within the document, and so on.
“Overall, it is a platform that has the potential to play a significant role in Arabic content initiatives. As a reading app, Jalees does not generate new Arabic content, but rather it is the vehicle to bring content to people. While it was developed with schools in mind, it is a general reading app, equally suited for the text-only novel, for a travel guide with images and videos, or for magazines and newspapers.”
When asked about his hopes for the future of Jalees, Dr Vogel insisted that he hoped that its impact would reach beyond its e-learning applications.
“I would like to see Jalees used in all Qatari schools, so that every student in the country can benefit from its unique reading experience,” he stated.
“I hope that it will help to awaken the interest in reading, especially in the younger generation. Ultimately, we would like to see Jalees to be the preferred e-book reader for all Arabic speakers.”
Such a legacy would befit the ambitions of QCRI, but in the words of its Director of Arabic Content Initiatives, the ultimate success of the platform should not be measured in scale, but rather on the emotional attachment that it creates with readers.
“Jalees means ‘companion’, and part of a favorite poem is the line ‘the best of companion at all times is a book’,” said Abbar.
“So our legacy is that we want to encourage reading here in Qatar and elsewhere, and make the joy of reading a part of everyone’s daily lives.”