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Language and Digital Humanitarian Action: The state of inclusion and exclusion for marginalised language speakers in digital humanitarian services (2024)

Posted on:
May 14, 2024

This report highlights the language limitations of most digital humanitarian services, leaving millions of crisis-affected individuals excluded. It demonstrates the demand to make services available in the language that people need. Researchers propose a collective approach to language technology development. Researchers analyzed the barriers to inclusion in digital humanitarian services and identified best practices and potential solutions.

Like similar reports such as Chatbots in humanitarian contexts - Learning from practitioner experiences (2023) this report focuses on "humanitarian services" which I believe includes the Immigrant and Refugee-serving sector in Canada. The findings and recommendations are equally useful and practical for our sector.

What is this research about?

The research focuses on the challenges and opportunities of integrating language technology into digital humanitarian services. It addresses the state of inclusion and exclusion for marginalized language speakers within digital humanitarian platforms, emphasizing the need for more inclusive digital services that cater to the diverse linguistic needs of global populations affected by crises.

What do you need to know?

Key points to understand from this research include:

  • The digital marginalization of languages, where only a few hundred out of thousands of human languages are supported on digital platforms. Most of the world’s languages are underrepresented online, leading to digital exclusion for many marginalized language speakers. Humanitarian services often do not account for linguistic diversity, resulting in significant barriers for marginalized groups.
  • The types of language technologies being implemented, such as machine translation, speech-to-text systems, and multilingual data platforms. There is a lack of language technology for many languages spoken in crisis-affected regions.
  • The challenges faced in deploying these technologies in humanitarian settings, which often involve diverse languages and dialects not commonly supported by commercial technology.
  • The importance of cultural sensitivity and accuracy in translation and communication tools. The intersectional risks of digital language exclusion, affecting various marginalized groups including women, older adults, and people with disabilities.
  • The study utilizes case studies and data from various sources to illustrate the extent of language marginalization in digital humanitarian responses.

What did the researchers do?

The researchers conducted a detailed desk review, online surveys, and key informant interviews with civil society organizations, digital service providers, and language technology experts. The researchers conducted a comprehensive analysis involving:

  • Reviewing existing literature on digital humanitarian responses and language support.
  • Collecting data through surveys and interviews with civil society organizations (CSOs) and digital service providers.
  • Examining case studies such as Mobile Vaani and Talk to Loop to explore practical implementations of inclusive digital humanitarian services.

What did the researchers find?

The findings highlight several critical issues:

  • Language technology can drastically improve the speed and accuracy of communication between aid workers and affected populations, leading to more effective distribution of aid and resources.
  • Significant gaps in digital content availability across the majority of the world's languages, leading to exclusion in digital humanitarian services. Many digital humanitarian services are only available in a few dominant languages, excluding millions of crisis-affected people. There is a lack of comprehensive data on the languages spoken by marginalized communities, which hampers effective service delivery.
  • Challenges faced by marginalized language speakers in accessing digital services, often resulting in their reliance on second or third languages, which can compromise the effectiveness of humanitarian aid.
  • Examples of inclusive digital platforms that successfully integrate multiple languages and user-friendly interfaces to enhance accessibility and engagement. Some initiatives, like Gram Vaani “The voice of the village” and Talk to Loop , have successfully used language technology to include marginalized language speakers.
  • The high cost of developing and maintaining multilingual services and the limited availability of language technology for non-dominant languages are significant challenges.
  • There are ethical challenges related to informed consent and data protection, especially for marginalized communities. Implementing these technologies can sometimes face logistical and ethical challenges, including data privacy concerns and the need for context-specific adaptations.

How can you use this research in your work?

  • Adoption of Technology: Integrating advanced language technologies into your communication strategies can enhance interaction with diverse communities, ensuring that aid reaches those in need effectively and respectfully.
  • Training and Development: Building capacity among humanitarian workers to use these technologies can leverage their potential and address the linguistic challenges inherent in global humanitarian efforts. Ensure needs assessments are conducted in the languages of the target populations to accurately capture their requirements.
  • Collaborate and Share Data: Work with other organizations to share language data and collaborate on developing language technology solutions.
  • Invest in Language Technology: Invest in the development and implementation of language technology that meets the needs of marginalized language communities.
  • Adopt Inclusive Practices: Implement inclusive communication practices, such as using plain language, providing multilingual support, and leveraging local languages.
  • Ensure Informed Consent: Develop clear and culturally appropriate consent processes to ensure users understand how their data will be used.
  • Policy Making: Influencing policy to support the development and dissemination of language technologies that cater to underrepresented languages and dialects can bridge significant gaps in current humanitarian practices.

Read the research brief:

Read the full report:

Summary

This report highlights the language limitations of most digital humanitarian services, leaving millions of crisis-affected individuals excluded. It demonstrates the demand to make services available in the language that people need. Researchers propose a collective approach to language technology development. Researchers analyzed the barriers to inclusion in digital humanitarian services and identified best practices and potential solutions.
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