A picture of country placards on tables in a United Nations meeting room representing the need for multilingual accessibility.

Multilingual Accessibility for International Development

Apr 26, 2018 | Blog, Government

It’s not everyday you get to hear the United Nations Chief Information and Technology Officer speak. It’s even cooler when you can ask her a question.

Assistant Secretary-General Atefeh Riazi spoke at Seattle Pacific University yesterday about “How Data and Technology Can Advance the Sustainable Development Goals“. A friend invited me and I came out of curiosity, not knowing what to expect.

Did you know that women and children in developing countries are burning our toxic electronic waste for a living? And did you know that the work is so hazardous prisoners in the US must wear proper gear to do it? I didn’t.

Did you know that of the 230 leading indicators of progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals, 2/3 have no data available?

It was an eye-opening talk to say the least.

How can my startup make a difference?

After the talk, I got to ask Ms. Riazi how my startup could help with the problems she described. Since we do AI-assisted captioning and translation, she initially thought of the legions of translators employed by the UN:

“Do you know how many translators we employ? It’s a lot…and they’re unionized.”

Side note: a lot of people think of the UN when they first hear about spf.io. I never felt like it was the right customer to pursue and her words seemed to confirm it. But then she had a second thought (paraphrased):

“You know, what we really need is captioning. Do you know how many sign languages there are in the world? They’re different in different countries and not everyone understands them. What would really be helpful is if we could improve accessibility by providing captions for these languages.”

Interesting. That’s exactly what spf.io can do.

We provide captions in many languages simultaneously. Through AI we empower ordinary people with reasonable typing abilities to do the work (and they can get paid for it too!). We can caption what interpreters say so everyone can read what is being said in their native language simultaneous with the live event. Spf.io provides “multilingual accessibility”.

Why is accessibility so important (to the UN)?

A little more research online surfaced this 2013 memo from the World Deaf Federation titled “International Sign Interpretation At United Nations Meetings”. They write, “Articles 9.2(e) and 21(b) of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities highlight the importance of ensuring accessibility by providing professional sign language interpreters and facilitating the use of sign languages.”

I looked up those references. Article 9 on accessibility says:

To enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life, States Parties shall…

(e) Provide forms of live assistance and intermediaries, including guides, readers and professional sign language interpreters, to facilitate accessibility to buildings and other facilities open to the public;
(f) Promote other appropriate forms of assistance and support to persons with disabilities to ensure their access to information;
(g) Promote access for persons with disabilities to new information and communications technologies and systems, including the Internet;

And Article 21 states:

States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities can exercise the right to freedom of expression and opinion, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas on an equal basis with others and through all forms of communication of their choice [by]…

(a) Providing information intended for the general public to persons with disabilities in accessible formats and technologies appropriate to different kinds of disabilities in a timely manner and without additional cost;
(b) Accepting and facilitating the use of sign languages, Braille, augmentative and alternative communication, and all other accessible means, modes and formats of communication of their choice by persons with disabilities in official interactions;

International law recognizes accessibility as a human right and party states are held accountable through a publicly accessible reporting system. I skimmed through the 2017 report from Iraq and a 2015 report from Saudi Arabia, curious about what they had to say. It seemed that physical affordances like ramps and dedicated parking spaces were improving, but information accessibility was still missing.

How to make multilingual accessibility universal

So here’s the point.

Accessibility is important because it recognizes the dignity of all human beings. It’s a way of acknowledging that every person matters.

But it can feel impractical, too hard or too expensive. For smaller organizations, hiring two ASL interpreters for a 2-hour session to serve a couple of people is out of reach. Only well-funded organizations can afford it. Even then, when you consider the number of languages needed in the UN and the shortage of qualified sign language interpreters (remember, each country may have its own sign language) you still have a major problem.

So how can we make multilingual accessibility universal? How can we make every event available in any language in a medium people can access?

I believe we are approaching a technological tipping point when this ideal will become a reality.

Use the Mobile Internet

Worldwide mobile internet penetration is expected to grow to 61.2% in 2018. The ITU reports that 70% of the world’s youth is online. It’s only going to go up.

Accessibility (e.g. real time captions and translations) ought to be delivered through the internet straight to the devices more than half the world carries in their pockets everyday.

Augment Humans with AI

Artificial Intelligence is all the rage, but as anyone who has used Alexa or Google Translate knows, it doesn’t help for many real world human interactions. What if we focused on augmenting human capabilities instead?

Empowering humans to use AI to provide accessibility means we can start delivering value today. Instead of being limited by the supply of professional interpreters in the world, we can use AI to enable any person with a laptop and internet connection to provide live captions and translations for audiences of any size. And because of the internet, they can do this across timezones from the comforts of their homes.

AI enables us to significantly increase the supply of people capable of providing quality accessibility services, which leads to the third trend.

Grow the Gig Economy

How do customers request, receive pay for these services? How do we recruit, train and compensate the people who provide the service?

Through an on-demand platform.

In 2016, McKinsey reported that about 160 million people in the US and Europe engage in some form of independent work. 15% of these people used a digital platform to find work and that number keeps growing:

Independent work is rapidly evolving as digital platforms create large-scale, efficient marketplaces that facilitate direct and even real-time connections between the customers who need a service performed and the workers willing to provide that service.

In order for multilingual accessibility to be universal it needs to be affordably available, anytime, anywhere, on a moment’s notice. Growing the AI-augmented talent pool and connecting them with customers who need their skills on demand makes this dream come true.

Our Mission

At the end of the day, people need to value accessibility–the money to fund it has to come from somewhere. Today, the return on investment may often be rooted in compassion or compliance with the law. One day, it may also be prized for its economic benefits.

If you could afford to hire your neighbor to make all of your events accessible, would you do it? If you experienced the joy of welcoming and connecting with the Deaf, hard of hearing and people of different languages in your community, would you keep doing it? And if these relationships produced new insights, new experiences, new businesses and transformed lives, would it be worth it?

We want to create this feedback loop so the virtuous cycle can do its own work.

My conversation with Ms. Riazi strengthened the conviction that our mission must be bigger than money. Our mission is to make every event available in any language; to give all people access to these experiences and ultimately a voice.

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