Apretaste — Enriching Lives through Open Source

If you’ve ever been to a few developer Meetups, you are probably familiar with what to expect. Often times the speakers cover familiar subjects such as a new development framework, a tool such as an IDE, or perhaps some conceptual topic like functional programming. These topics are undoubtedly of value to attendees, but once in awhile, you might find something out of the ordinary. It might be a topic that makes you rethink what can really be done in this field with the skills you possess. Last evening for me, I experienced this.

The Meetup was titled “Using PHP to connect undeveloped countries to Web, via Email”. I skimmed the summary of the topic shortly before attending, and thought it would perhaps cover some sort of open source tool for international email communication. It turns out it was much more, and opened my eyes as to what programming can do to enrich the lives of people that lack the comforts I often take for granted.

The speaker was Salvi Pascual, and he is the cornerstone behind the Apretaste API, which is a modular open source project built primarily in PHP. Apretaste allows a user to send an email to receive a condensed version of a web page pertaining to their query. It reminded me of the way you could receive Google search results via mobile phone, in the days before smartphones dominated the market. The method is simple — send an email to a certain email address (“apretaste@gmail.com” in the example Salvi demonstrated) with a subject line consisting of two parts: the first word referring to a service, and the remaining words being the query, for example “WIKIPEDIA Miami”.

Salvi proceeded to follow this simple step, and within seconds a stripped down, email-friendly version of the relevant Wikipedia web page about Miami, FL appeared in his inbox. The reply was simple and effective; it consisted of a scaled down header image, and the rest was mid-90’s retro web design (no frills font for content and colored tables for data). One might question the value of this service when the real web page is a couple of finger taps away on a modern smartphone, but that’s not the case for everyone everywhere, especially in the nation that Apretaste was originally built for — Cuba.

To understand why Apretaste is gaining popularity in Cuba, Salvi gave us a rundown of the situation there. In Cuba, the internet is almost a mythological concept to many citizens, as so few actually have access to it, and those that do not only have vague ideas of what this technology is and does. Access is tightly controlled by the regime that has ruled Cuba since the late 1950’s. Outside communication and information is a commodity that their government does not want freely available, so there is heavy censorship of the internet and tight regulation of its usage. An interesting side topic that came up was the existence of an underground internet access black market in Cuba where customers can view with more of the freedom to which we are accustomed, but at risk to themselves for its illegality.

Although internet access is rare, email use is more widespread, although still only by minority of citizens. Email addresses are also only distributed via government agencies, but are much easier to obtain. Hardware is expensive as there are no mobile phone providers there, but people do obtain their own or use traditional desktops. With Apretaste, they can now bypass the restrictions of censorship, and get the web delivered to them via email, condensed in a format friendly to both the device as well as the data usage limits. 10 MB per month is a common limit for most Cubans, and Salvi jokingly remarked how university professors were seen as technological “gods” because of their larger usage limit of 100 MB per month. In the United States, with our gigabyte+ expectations, these limits seem incredibly absurd, but it is a fact of life there.

Apretaste is simple to use, efficient and growing in popularity, experiencing exponential user growth within the two short years it has been available. Tens of thousands of different types of people from all walks of life use the service, and Salvi shared several stories of how Apretaste has enriched people’s lives. One example was a cartographer who used it to gain access to Google Maps data for his thesis. This cartographer lived in a remote part of the island and would have to make a lengthy, costly research trip to the library in the Cuban capital, Havana, to gather such data previously. Apretaste saved him time and money, and the Google Maps data was probably far more accurate than the outdated maps he might have found at the library.

Another story he told I found to be more touching — that of a farmer who also lived in one of the more remote regions of Cuba. This man had not once ventured out of the local area he was born in, and instead spent his entire life near the farm where he was raised and now tended. He used Apretaste to access information on the rest of Cuba, and with the scaled down photos, he was able to see the rest of his country he had missed out on for many years via a virtual tour of his homeland, courtesy of Apretaste.

I find it’s easy to get bogged down in a certain mindset when it comes to technology and programming specifically. Often times the examples that I see of its innovative use are directly related to improvement or solutions to existing tech-related problems, such as a new version of your preferred programming language, or some commercial enterprise, such as a new mobile app or web service that is destined to be the “next big thing.” Salvi’s talk and demonstration of the creative use of familiar tools that actually changes people’s lives for the better was a real eye-opener and inspiring.

More information about Apretaste can be found on their site, so check it out if you are interested in this remarkable project. My thanks also go out to the South Florida PHP Meetup group and Zumba Tech for sponsoring the event.

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