September 2008

Localisation Central to e-Governance Architecture

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For e-Inclusion, and reaching to the doorsteps of the people, the e-Governance initiatives must have localisation as very central to its architecture.  Localisation is not confined to translation of contents from one language to another, but includes customisation of content and presentation of the content  to appeal to the community.  The need for participation of  people in governance will increasingly be felt as governments use ICTs to transform themselves and the delivery of public services.

Diversity of the ICT Users Today

Information technology is no longer the preserve of the privileged few.  The users of IT are no longer restricted to scientists, corporate executives and the rich.  They are increasingly ordinary people, most ordinary people indeed.  They can be homemakers searching the Internet for recipes and furniture designs.  They can be poets keying in poems in vernacular languages by themselves.  They can be religious preachers arranging worships online.  They can be petty businesspersons filing tax returns online.  They can be plumbers using mobile phones as the most important handheld device.  They can be Internet game enthusiasts.

Advancements in communication technology have facilitated easy and inexpensive interaction among the people and the communities across the territorial boundaries.  It is not surprising that the growth and development of information technology has been characterised by internationalisation and localisation the world over.

What is Localisation?

IT has facilitated and accelerated the pace of globalisation. Interestingly, the same information technology is also facilitating localisation.  Localisation is often seen in conjunction with internationalisation.  Internationalisation is the process of creating an application so that it can be adapted to different languages, cultures and regions with minimum or no coding changes.  It is a practice of designing and developing applications, products and documents in a way that makes it easily localisable for target audience that vary in culture, region, language or technology.  Localisation is the reverse process of adapting applications, products and documents to specific locales (language, region etc) by adding locale-specific components and text translations.  It is the actual adaptation to meet the linguistic, cultural and other requirements of specific target user groups.  Locale is a set of parameters that defines the user’s language, country or region and any special variant preferences that the user wants to see in his user interface.  Usually, a locale identifier consists of at least a language identifier and a region identifier. For example, HI-IN identifies locale as Hindi language in the context of India as the country.

Internationalisation and Localisation may appear contradictory efforts, but they are actually complementary efforts.  Internationalisation is the adaptation of products for potential use virtually everywhere, while localisation is the addition of special features for use in a specific locale.  The processes are complementary, and must be combined to  realise the objective of a system that works globally.

Localisation is not merely translating the user interface and storage in the target language.  It is much more.  It refers to customisation so that the end user feels comfortable with and attached to the content, and feels that the contents have been made especially for him.  Concepts relevant to localisation include support for script, support for language, language translation, local customs, local contents, cultural values, measurement systems, date/time formats, calendars, alignment of texts etc.

Localisation, e-Inclusion and Empowerment

The process of socio-economic growth at times leads to economic disparities and social divisions. The developments in the field of technology run the risk of worsening the digital divide.  However, localisation opens up the information and communication technologies (ICTs) to the marginalised and the minority groups, and reduces the social exclusion by facilitating access and participation.  Thus, localisation promotes inclusive information society.  Recognising that genuine multilingualism promotes unity in diversity and international understanding, the United Nations proclaimed 2008 as the International Year of Languages.

Simply put, localisation aims at achieving equal opportunity to access in this information age irrespective of native language, culture and region.  It aims to bridge the digital divide.  It achieves empowerment of the people by facilitating access to the information, in and by communication in the language the community is most comfortable with.  It enhances the level of peoples’ interaction and participation.

Localisation and e-Governance

Earlier, the IT industry in the developing countries primarily catered to the markets in the developed world.  Now ICTs are being used to improve the delivery of public services and the quality of the public services.  Public authorities at all levels are increasingly turning to ICTs to organise and deliver services. It is vital that e-Governance meets the aspirations of all citizens, including those from vulnerable and disadvantaged groups such as disabled people, the elderly and those who live in economically deprived and remote areas.

India is a vast country, both in area and in population, and plurality is its hallmark.  It has enormous linguistic, cultural, religious and geographical diversities.  The Constitution of India recognises twenty-two languages, besides English.  Certain other languages are recognised at the state level.  Besides, there are hundreds of other languages and dialects spoken all over the country.

The central government and the state governments in India have embarked on an ambitious National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) and several Mission Mode Projects (MMPs) have been identified under the NeGP.  Besides MMPs, there are several other e-Governance initiatives.  More and more public services are being offered online. e-Governance is not so much about technology, as it is about efficient delivery of services.  Good governance means that citizens must be able to avail services from the government speedily, on 24×7 basis, at a convenient location and in a cost-effective manner.

e-Governance means taking government to the doorstep of the people.  This implies that localisation will have to play a crucial role in e-Governance.  For instance, most residents of London understand English; nonetheless, local bodies use pamphlets written in even Gujarati, Punjabi and Urdu etc to reach out to the people on the issues of their concern.

ICTs are now transforming the governance from being passive and unilateral to interactive and participative. Governments today are being transformed from Government 1.0 to Government 2.0 and Government 3.0.  In this transformation, the governments become more and more interactive and participative; people do not remain just voters, but are active participants in the governance.  In such a transformation, localisation will be an essential requirement.  It has to be central to the e-Governance architecture to ensure peoples’ participation, avoiding social exclusion and promoting e-Democracy.

Is Localisation for the Rural Folks Only?

Some people view the scope of localisation as limited to reaching out to and catering to the rural and semi-literate population.  While reaching out to the marginalised sections of the society is one objective, the real emphasis of localisation is that the initiatives must be citizen-centric and customer-centric, not officer-centric.

The scope of localisation is to shift focus from the provider to the customer.  For example, it is very common for books by British authors to be edited in language and style for the US market.  In Europe where people are proud of their language and culture, localisation is certainly not meant for only the backward population.

Late Start for India-specific Localisation

Even MS-DOS and earliest versions of Windows had localised versions for East Asian, European and Arabic languages.  Compared to this, Language Interface Packs (LIPs) in Indian languages for Windows and Microsoft Office were available much later only with Windows XP and Microsoft 2003.

One prime reason for the lack of development on localisation for Indian languages was the lack of standardisation of the code points to represent the letters and symbols of Indic languages.  A large number of different legacy encodings were used.  It was characterised by the absence of standardisation and uniformity, and little support at the software level.  Even though Indian Script Code for Information Interchange (ISCII) was developed, it was not popular due to the lack of sufficient software support.

Another reason was the perceived absence of sizeable market for localised IT products and services within India in the earlier years.  Indeed, the common ISCII code set was devised for the Indian languages precisely on the premise tha,t with common code and keyboard for all the Indic scripts, any software which  allows ISCII  codes  to  be  used, could be used  in  any  of the Indic  scripts, enhancing  its  commercial  viability.  Furthermore, immediate transliteration between different Indian scripts was possible, just by changing the display modes without changing the codes.
Today, most operating systems—whether Windows, Linux or Mac OS X—and application softwares support all the important languages of world.  Perhaps the only exception is that Windows Vista does not yet support Myanmar script.  .NET Framework provides support for localisation.  Localisation deals with customising data and resources for specific languages.

Applications created using .NET can be Windows applications, and Web applications.  For the development of multilingual applications, the language or locale-dependent texts and information are no longer to be hard-coded.  Rather, these should come from resource files.  The texts and other information are loaded from the resource files at the run-time, which are dependent on the language or locale selected by the user or the system.

Importance of Machine Translation in Localisation

Machine translation has greatly enhanced the scope of localisation on a large scale. Even though computer-aided translation (CAT) tools such as glossary and translation memory are used in generating local contents, improvements in machine translation has enhanced the scale of availability of local contents.

Together with speech recognition (speech-to-text) and speech synthesis (text-to-speech) tools, machine translation can provide speech translation on the fly.  This will make user experience with Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems more enriching.

Localisation for Persons of Special Needs

For localisation to be all-inclusive, we must take care of the requirements of the persons with special needs. Such categories of persons include those who are illiterate, blind, deaf, colour blind, or have difficulty in movement of limbs or body parts.  Persons of special needs must be capable of accessing the applications using the relevant tools and utilities. Screen Access For All (SAFA) (see http://www.nabdelhi.org) is a utility for blind people.  It reads out the texts and keystrokes.  It supports several languages, including Hindi, English, Sanskrit, Tamil, Marathi, Bengali, Nepali, Gujarati, Kannada and Telugu.

Driving Forces of Localisation

There have been several efforts at localisation by governments in India. Ministry of Communications and Information Technology and Department of Official Language in Government of India have been advocating and spearheading localisation efforts within the government and outside the government.  There are several community and private initiatives also.

Localisation makes a very good business sense. Localisation is as much important to the government, as it is to the corporate world.  Most MNCs have websites localised to various regions and languages.  Even their advertisements and strategies are country and culture-specific.  In this age of Internet and interconnectivity, the readership or viewership is not confined to a particular province or even country.  The content is viewed and read by people all across the globe.  Software developed in one country/language may have to be adapted for another country/language for sale in that market.  People may be reading the machine translated versions of the content.  The meaning of a word or phrase that is eminently evident in one cultural ambience may be misunderstood in another cultural context.  In today’s global context, “internationalisation” and “localisation” are important concepts.

Cyber space is increasingly global and internationalised, reflecting the diverse linguistic, ethnic, social and cultural predilections of the world community.  Localisation is the cardinal business mantra of the multinational companies in the globalised world.  Localisation takes care of not just linguistic barrier, but even cultural and political barriers.  Today, as you watch an English language cartoon channel on the cable TV, but find it difficult to follow the language, you can dynamically change the language to Hindi and continue watching the programme without any interruption.  Technology has facilitated localisation. Of course, there will be a limit to the extent or granularity of the localisation.  Perhaps, the market forces will set limit to this.

Conclusions

Today, not only are the devices hooked on to the network very diverse and run on diverse operating systems, the people who are communicating are also very diverse.  Indeed, localisation is not an India-specific requirement.  Localisation is inevitable even because of sheer market force of demand and supply.  Localisation is also inevitable in the age of Government 2.0 and Government 3.0, where people will play a more active role as partners in governance.  Governments the world over today seek to reach to the doorsteps of the people with better quality of public services and efficient delivery of services through the application of ICTs.  It would be ridiculous to reach to the doorsteps of the people, but still not speak in their language!

Dictionary on Mobile, Soon

The mobile phone instrument will soon serve also as a dictionary literally at one’s fingertips, thanks to a initiative by the Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL), Mysore, India.

The dictionary service will be available in English as well as other regional languages like Kannada, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Bengali and Oriya. CIIL is already in touch with mobile service providers. The plan is to ensure that a mere push of the ‘search’ button, opens up the lexicon in the language of the subscriber’s choice.

Primarily, the CIIL effort is to help those involved in translation work and academic experts. At the same time, the endeavour, the institute feels, would be better served if it is made accessible to the general public, CIIL Director Uday Narayan Singh said.

The service will be first started on an experimental basis in south India and depending upon the results, it would be extended to north India.

Localisation, the Way to Go!

Software Localisation is definitely the way to go. On the 7th and 8th of August, a group of 300 makerere students in collaboration with Rhodes University in South Africa and a company called translate@thon.org.za were involved in a successful translation of the Mozilla User interface (wordings) into Luganda.Throughout the exercise, they were able to translate 8000 words used on the interface into Luganda.

The team comprised of 100 student volunteers with a computing background from the Faculty of Computing and IT, Makerere University Kampala (MUK) and more than 100 Luganda students from the Institute of Languages.The product was amazing.The CDs having the translated application would be made available at the Faculty of Computing and IT.

The challenge left is translating the technical terminologies of firefox into Luganda.To have this work continuing,a team of 4 students from the Software Incubation Center at Canberra Institute of Technology (CIT) have taken up this task as a six months project and would be willing to accept any help rendered.

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