July 2007

Social Computing for the Masses

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The art of communication has transcended boundaries and time with the advent of human enabled technologies, like the computer and internet, cellular devices, internet telephony, advanced voice messaging systems and the likes of them. These have, in turn, spawned a need to re-look at the entire gamut of communication process. They have heralded the era of CMCs (computer mediated communication).

When we try to examine the scope of CMCs, we inadvertently think of the way computer technology has come to become an integral part of our lives. However, computer cannot be the preserve of some esoteric communities who dabble in the best known resources available at their disposal. The usage of such technology is not welcome as an empowerment drive or tool of progress.

The purpose of computing should be aimed at bridging the digital and economic and associated social divides that can be best done by embracing a technology that can reach out to not a few in the land, but one and all. Therein would lie the real measure of success of technology.

One practical approach in understanding this greater cause of social computing is to address the needs of technology for the masses of this sub-continent. In a nation, where, even lesser than a mere 10% of the total living population can speak, read or write English, it becomes necessary to think about aligning the CMCs to address the needs of the polity. Thus, the need of “localisation” is best felt.

The need for localisation is needed because of many reasons. Firstly, it breaks the mythical digital divide. Secondly, it encourages more and more people to take score of the multitude of benefits computer technology is intended for. Thirdly, it reinforces amongst today’s youth to appreciate their native tongues. Fourthly, it will definitely lead to preservation and further propagation of the indigenous Indian languages as the technology shall ‘speak’ those languages. This will help, if not completely, but even partially, to hold sway over our culture and civilization. Lastly, it will help research and development and business to grow in parallel language technologies, which will certainly be not English-centric.

With such being the foreseen benefits of localisation and advent of language technology and allied research to usher in the new dimension to computer usage, where lies the hitch? There seems to be no visible glitches in language localisation efforts. However, there are issues when the real work is initiated. That is because of quite a few reasons.

Firstly, there seems to be a major hurdle with regards to availability of linguistic resources, like dictionaries, linguistic rule sets, statistical data, lexical resources, converter plug-ins, morphological analysers, morphological generators, suitable GUI design standards etc. Secondly, there are immense tasks involved in accumulating all linguistic data, rules of grammar, align them with the source language structure. Thirdly, there is scarcity of suitable research and development facilities for carrying out commendable machine translation and language processing based research.

This has not, however, daunted researchers, linguists, academicians and statisticians from going ahead with their work on localisation and language technology. There has also been tremendous support from the government-funded organisations and even the ministries at both the central and state levels who have come forward as stakeholders to realise this new found dream and passion.
Few examples of how localisation and ICT are affecting people’s lives can be gauged from the various initiatives in this regard – Mahiti Shakti, or the power of information, has transformed the lives of the rural polulace, who now dabble from livestock market research to agri-market trends, also including bills (electricity, water, land records) and land registration and court documents, which are all available just at the click of a mouse.

The example of Bhoomi in Karnataka or e-Seva in Andhra Pradesh or similar localisation technology driven e-Gov initiatives in other states of India like West Bengal, Maharashtra, Chattisgarh, Punjab and Tamil Nadu have really brought out the desire to make computer the true common man’s friend.

In the research and academic front, there is tremendous efforts being put in from the work being carried out at the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the Indian  Institutes of Information Technologies (IIITs), and the other major institutes of learning. There are many machine translation systems and dialogue systems being developed and they are smoothly in the process of translating your written or oral text onto the target Indian language.

The road ahead is not bumpy, it is not silky either. But the efforts have been made and there is hope all is well in the noble efforts towards better percolation of computers into our lives.

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