Digital development, language gaps, and a prophetic bird

Language technology can help those in need use technology to proactively communicate and access information.

We are in the midst of an unprecedented surge of increasingly powerful technologies that can help solve humanitarian and development challenges. Yet meaningful access to these technologies is not equally available to all people. Hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest, least educated, most vulnerable populations often find themselves on the wrong side of a dangerous digital divide.

Language can be the key that unlocks new digital opportunities for all.

Language is a barrier for technology use

Under the umbrella of information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D, or, simply, ICT), technology efforts have become commonplace in the development world over the past few decades. Emerging machine learning and artificial intelligence applications (“AI for Good”) promise to help achieve sustainable development goals globally. In Kenya, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, an app called “Eneza Education” delivers mobile courses to 5 million people. In India, Khushi Baby supplies low-cost wearable technology to monitor child vaccinations.

While these digital applications have the potential to shift communications and empower vulnerable people, they face a number of major hurdles. Access to hardware is an obvious issue, as is access to networks. But even when those issues are resolved, there is the more fundamental barrier of language. Typically digital technology requires basic literacy skills and often foreign language skills, especially considering that more than 50 percent of websites are in English. This turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy with speakers of marginalized languages unable to interact with new tools. Without thoughtful consideration of language barriers, new digital opportunities may only magnify inequality and further exclude marginalized communities, especially speakers of under-served languages.

The world’s most marginalized communities often live in complex linguistic contexts that can further complicate the use of technology. For example, there are 68 languages in Kenya and most people do not speak either Swahili or English, the languages generally used in ICT technologies. Moreover, the digital divide for low-literate ICT users in oral-language communities, such as Berber women in Morocco, is even higher. This is not a rare phenomenon: as many as 7,000 languages are spoken today, two-thirds of which do not have a written form.

Language technology for all

Language technology can address these barriers. Languages that are ‘commercially viable’ have seen an enormous growth in digital tools, both for text and voice. Today, tools like Skype allow for people to carry on lucid conversations even when they don’t speak the same language. The advent of neural machine translation and natural language processing has greatly increased communications among those languages in which for-profit companies have invested.

The trick is to include this language technology in the development of tools for the humanitarian and development sectors.

This is why Translators without Borders is overseeing Gamayun: The Language Equality Initiative.

Named after a prophetic bird of wisdom and knowledge from Slavic folklore, the initiative aims to create more equitable access to language technology that will lead to greater knowledge and wisdom for vulnerable people.

The initiative effectively elevates marginalized languages to the level of commercial languages by ensuring development of machine translation in voice and text in those languages. It also encourages humanitarian tech developers to integrate these engines into their tools and to measure whether they improve communications. Ultimately, the goal is for people in need to have direct access to these tools for their own use, thereby controlling the communications they provide and receive.

To accomplish this, Gamayun must first build a repository of spoken and written datasets for under-served languages. The data comes from humanitarian or development sources, making the resulting translation engines more useful in humanitarian- and development-specific contexts.

Successfully building these datasets requires a massive amount of human input. The data is presented as parallel sets in which a sentence or string of text in a language critical to the humanitarian world is paired with a “source” language. As Gamayun scales, we are seeking datasets from the translation and localization industry, and asking for terminology input from humanitarian sectors. Unstructured data, such as content from open social media outlets, also can be used to train the engines; and, importantly, linguists and context specialists are used to evaluate that data to help make the engines more fit for purpose.

TWB is building datasets in a wide range of languages, but the main focus at first is Bangla, Swahili, and Hausa. These languages are collectively spoken by 400 million people, and were selected because of their associated risk for crisis. The communities that speak these languages have a strong presence online; online communities in those languages will help build, maintain and improve the datasets and the engines.

Meanwhile, Gamayun looks at integration of machine translation engines (voice and text) in applications and tools to evaluate effectiveness in improving communications. TWB and its humanitarian partners are evaluating a number of machine-translation use cases, including in needs assessment tools, two-way communication bots, and call centers, as well as the type of fit-for-purpose machine translation engines are most useful. In some cases, ‘off the shelf’ engines from major technologists work well; in other cases, it is important to contextualize the engine to get the best results.

Access is not enough – the shift of control

Building datasets and engines in marginalized languages, and integrating those engines into tools developed by the sector will improve language equality. But to truly bridge the gap, the tools need to be in the hands of those who are in need. Only they have the best sense of exactly what information they need and, likewise, what information they have and can share.

As a recent report by the Pathways for Prosperity puts it, “impact is ultimately determined by usage; access alone is not sufficient.” While there remain many other barriers to access, including hardware and bandwidth issues, in the area of language, we are poised to greatly increase access and even move beyond. Ultimately, reduction of language barriers through technology has the potential to shift control of communications to people in need. In such a world, vulnerable populations can use the same tools as those who speak ‘commercial’ languages, accessing any information they want, and providing their own information in the language they speak.

We must support speakers of under-served languages as technology continues to evolve and allows us all to be stewards of our own information and communication.

 

Written by Mia Marzotto, TWB's Senior Advocacy Officer. 

 

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