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. 

 

Lugha Zima La Teknolojia – The Universal Language Of Technology

The Uber driver told me his 80-year-old grandmother would only accept M-Pesa as payment. She sells bananas up-country. The Uber guy and I are sitting in the infamous Nairobi traffic, chatting about business, robbery and technology. It’s safer for her, he explains, she tells all that she only accepts M-Pesa payments because it means she’s less likely to get robbed. I think his grandmother must be a strong character. M-Pesa is a mobile phone-based money transfer, financing and microfinancing service. It was started in Kenya, and the idea quickly spread across borders – and now M-Pesa is used in Tanzania, South Africa, India, Albania and Romania. Funds are transferred between accounts via mobile phone – any cell phone. The system is intuitive and in Swahili, so even basically literate people can use it. You can pay for your vegetables from the street vendor with M-Pesa (she prefers it); you can pay for your Uber driver via M-Pesa. EVERYONE in Kenya pays or gets paid with M-Pesa. The language of technology speaks for itself.

The tech side of Kenya

I was in Nairobi to support the filming of a Translators without Borders (TWB) video and to meet the TWB team there; TWB’s only physical office is in Nairobi; we train translators in east Africa and beyond. I’ve been to Kenya dozens of times – mostly on holiday, but also for work – so I wasn’t expecting to learn much about Kenya itself. I knew that Kenya has a cool tech side, but didn’t think much about it.

I was blown away

The woman we hired for the video, Jane, lives in a slum; she has M-Pesa. She also is confident and comfortable around smart phones, iPads, etc. Jane is functionally illiterate; she can’t sign her name, but she was happy to read her lines from a script on an iPad, sign a receipt with a thumb print and accept money into her M-Pesa account. She is thinking about getting M-Kopa to affordably provide solar electricity to her home in the slum for her phone, lights and radio.

M-Kopa
M-Kopa

Jane knows how to use her phone. She can easily get information from it. Literacy is not a barrier. Basic menus in Swahili work for Jane.

Which brought me, later that day, to iHub (I missed Mark Zuckerberg’s visit by about an hour). I was there to meet Ushahidi and to discuss our growing partnership; but I also wanted to meet the mobile systems providers’ association to discuss developing mobile courses to train translators in very local languages outside of Kenya (TWB already has translators in 11 Kenyan languages). If TWB can develop a larger cadre of local language translators, then more information can be translated into languages that people actually speak and can understand. And, combined with some other projects, including Facebook’s Free Basics, more information can get to more people in a way that they can access themselves.

That’s the crux. Can Jane get the information she wants and needs in her own language? Or can she only get what information “aid agencies” and governments give her – what “we” decide is important to translate? The answer, sadly, is that vital information is mostly in English and what is translated may not be what Jane wants or needs. For TWB, our challenge is to turn that system on its head so that Jane can get whatever information she wants in her language, when she wants it.

The future of information exchange

After a week in Kenya – seeing it not just as a country with a huge refugee population, beautiful beaches and wonderful game parks – I am convinced. Nairobi is a vibrant regional hub where non-traditional business practices are developing rapidly to suit a population of 46 million people, 75% of whom live in rural areas, with 12 main languages and dozens of smaller languages. Kenya really can be the future of information exchange.

As I’m writing this in Istanbul airport, the electricity goes out. I can feel the tension rise. The electricity doesn’t go out in airports. And the last time it went out in Istanbul there was a bomb. The security presence around me is palpable. It reminds me that there is also a lot of tension in Kenya because of recent attacks; there are security checks everywhere. You go through security to get into shopping centers and sometimes within them; security forces are on the streets; you walk through metal detectors to go into hotels and cars are searched for bombs before going into parking lots. The country borders on two unstable and insecure countries; bombings and other acts of violence are, sadly, not uncommon and make people nervous. Graft and corruption are ubiquitous. Kenya and Kenyans have a lot to overcome; but, if any country can do it, Kenya can.

The language of technology

Mobile savvy Kenyans aren’t nervous about technology; new technologies pop-up every day and Kenyans (mostly) accept them – from Uber to M-Kopa to Ushahidi. Ordinary Kenyans, even low income Kenyans, have a sense of what the world outside of Kenya can offer; they know that information is there and that it can help pull the country out of some of difficulties people are mired in now.

I think Kenyans can lead the way in making the world available to Kenyans and, hopefully, the rest of East Africa – and they can make Kenyan ideas and thoughts accessible to the millions of others who can benefit from some of the models that they are developing. It’s super-inspiring; I am excited about working with Kenyan language professors, NGOs, and tech companies to help transform how development happens – so that people themselves have the information they want and can make informed decisions about their futures.

Blog AuthorBy Aimee Ansari, Translators without Borders Executive Director