Sunday, November 29, 2009

Passing of Denis Bilodeau

I just learned that Denis Bilodeau, a long-time senior project officer and division chief of USAID, passed away earlier this month in Bamako. He had a long career in West Africa was well known in the region for his work on information and communications technology for development (ICT4D) projects.

Although I only met him during my last trip to Bamako in May 2008, I had communicated with him on a couple of occasions prior to that. I first heard about him and his work from a colleague in ICRISAT in Mali (where I worked briefly in 1999 and 2000), who spoke highly of his work and described him as "plus malien que les maliens."

The occasion of meeting him was the chance for Dwayne Bailey (head of the ANLoc project) and me to talk about aspects of localization and how that could advance work in ICT4D. Sadly we never had the chance to collaborate on any of that, but hopefully there will be opportunities to build on the foundations that Denis helped build.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

ANLoc workshop, Ain Sokhna, Egypt

I had the honor of participating in the recent workshop of the African Network for Localisation (ANLoc) in Ain Sukhna (or Sokhna, perhaps a colloquial pronunciation?), Egypt from 31 March to 2 April 2009. The actual location there was the Mövenpick Hotel.

ANLoc is a project including several subprojects and a network of the organizations involved in those efforts, and in localization in general. In effect it is addressing several pieces of what might rightly be regarded as the "foundation" for more effective localization of software and content in African languages. These include:
  • Fonts - Many African languages are written in Latin-based orthographies that include extended characters (modified forms of other letters, often part of the IPA alphabet) and or diacritics that are not found or rare in European languages. Even though all (or almost all) are encoded in Unicode, not many fonts include them yet. This subproject aims to extend some open-source fonts to include such characters.

  • Keyboards - Input of characters not provided for in traditional keyboard layouts requires conceptualizing and designing layouts to accommodate such needs. This is more complex than simple assignment of new characters in a keyboard driver, since issues of anticipating user needs and the possible standardization across languages within a country and across different orthographies in different countries are involved.

  • Language and ICT Policy - There are two major areas of policy (especially of African governments, but also of other entities like development organizations and even industry) that impact the potential for localization - language and ICT policies. Although many do not agree with me, I see the overlap of these two policy areas as an emerging category of policy - "localization (L10n) policy."

  • Locales - A locale (or locale data for a language and geographic location, generally a country) help computers accommodate different language profiles on computers and facilitate localization of software. Developing locales is a key to full presence of African languages in ICT.

  • Localisation Tools - Localization of a software requires expertise in the software and knowledge of the language in which it is to be localized. Not many people have skills in both areas, and even assembling teams that group such expertise is sometimes difficult. Localization tools are really softwares to make the technical aspect of localization easy enough that people with only the requisite language skills can do it.

  • Localise software - This is the object of a lot of the above, and the ANLoc project is sponsoring some pilot initiatives for actual open-source software localization. (One imagines that a future phase of ANLoc might take this on more fully, once the "foundation" work is more complete.)

  • Spell checkers - A key to production of text in any language these days is good spell checkers. Although it might seem straightforward, spell checkers sometimes require a lot of work to accommodate the particularities of how a language may generate words in different contexts.

  • Terminology - How often have you heard in discussion about an African language and technology of any sort that there is no way to say such-and-such in the language? There is a certain truth to the assertion, but it obscures the fact that terms for anything in recent technologies comes from something else or is outright invented. Carrying this process over to several African languages is the object of this subproject.

  • Training - ANLoc will cosponsor some trainings related to localization.

  • Network activities - As a complex project of sub-projects (which together form a network), ANLoc will hold verious meetings.

The workshop in Ain Sokhna provided the opportunity to discuss these various efforts, coordination among them, and suggestions by participants.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

What did the International Year of Languages mean for Africa?

With the formal conclusion of the International Year of Languages (IYL) on International Mother Language Day, I'd like to take a moment to ask: What did the IYL mean for Africa?

With any such observances, any analysis right afterward will of course not be able to take account of long-term or latent effects (e.g., people or organizations whose awareness was raised and whose later action is somehow affected). Nevertheless it's worth at least looking at what has been done.

A glance at the calendar of events in and outside of Africa shows a diversity of observance (this list is far from comprehensive, so pointers to other events and more information are invited):

In addition there has been mention of the IYL in various press articles in different countries. A few have been linked on the AfricanLanguages list (try searching "International Year"). Special mention should be made of a blog posting and video entitled "Orphan's Lullaby" by South African author Alex Smith to mark the close of the IYL (note the various translations in text).

The IYL also marked the beginning of the African Network for Localisation (ANLoc), a 3-year project which succeeded the PanAfrican Localisation project. These are part of a program of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada to support development of ICT in African languages.

African locales

Speaking of ANLoc, one of its subprojects that is working on compiling locales for African languages. A press release timed just before IMLD and the end of IYL appeals for help in this effort:

Thu, 19/02/2009 - 11:00

Pan-African researchers unlock computers for African languages on Mother Language Day

In celebration of International Mother Language Day, a Pan African Network of computer and language experts is ensuring that computers are unlocked for mother tongue speakers.

ANLoc, The African Network for Localisation (pronounced Unlock), is a Pan-African network undertaking a number of projects to help eliminate technological barriers that prevent computers from being used by mother tongue speakers.

International Mother Language Day is hosted on 21 February each year by UNESCO and aims at raising awareness of mother tongue usage.

To celebrate International Mother Tongue Day the ANLoc locales sub-project is undertaking a special community driven push to enable African language technology. The locales sub-project is focused on creating 100 new African locales. A locale is a set of data that guides a computer to adapt to the local language and country. Locales contain information that instructs a computer on how to write essential basic information, such as the days of the week and month names in a given language, and how to write the monetary values for a given country. Once locale data is in place, Africans often enjoy a first class computer experience for the very first time. Locales impact how well a computer's spell checker works, finding and indexing of African language documents and searching using tools like Google.

The ANLoc Network is encouraging African language speakers in African and the diaspora to celebrate International Mother Language Day by helping to develop a locale for their language. Those wanting to contribute can visit to find out more about the importance and need for locales and how to contribute one for their language.

Information about the ANLoc Network and the various projects being undertaken to eliminate technological barriers for African language in the digital age can be found here at

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Bamako triptych, and resuming again

Since my last posting, which was after returning from a trip to Bamako, I haven't had the time to do much with this blog. Circumstances have changed somewhat, though the focus of my work and essence of the ideas that I am developing are much the same.

The title of this entry remembers that trip to Bamako and alludes to a recent conference on languages and an ongoing one on African development, both in the same city. More on those below.

This blog in the mix of things

This blog, to review, is focused on African languages, ICT and development, with attention to some related matters. I've given particular attention to language-development links.

In addition to the postings, I have arrayed in the left sidebar feeds from a number of lists relating to these subjects, especially the language-ICT links. Part of the concept is that even when I am not posting actively, there is changing & updating material (or links to same). I intend to do more with the main part of this blog but it really is a question of time.

Two things not in the left sidebar that I have been working on in some of my online time over the last few months are two projects on my personal/professional site, another blog, "Multidisciplinary Perspectives," which concerns a wider rage of topics (and facilitates exploring some ideas); and a collection of information on the International Year of Languages (which is about to end).

Bamako last year and now

My trip to Bamako in May 2008 was mainly an opportunity for Dwayne Bailey, project lead of the African Network for Localisation (ANLoc) and me to meet with Adama Samassekou and his colleagues at the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN). ACALAN, which is now part of the African Union, has been collaborating with UNESCO and to a lesser degree IDRC on issues of linguistic diversity and ICT. It is hoped to work more with them on issues relating to localization of ICT in African languages.

In January (2009/1/19-21), ACALAN hosted a conference involving UNESCO and the MAAYA linguistic diversity network called the Bamako International Forum on Multilingualism. Billed as "A first step towards a World Summit on Multilingualism," this event treated aspects of multilingualism with anaccent on Africa.

Interesting to note that this month - 2009/2/19-21 - the ninth Forum de Bamako is being held. Exactly one month later and in the same hotel as the conference on multilingualism, one wonders if this conference on development (with the theme this year of governance) will boach the topic of languages in development and governance in multilingual societies.

I have not been able to attend either of these two meetings, but I look forward to seeing the Action Plan from the former and the proceedings of the latter. Hopefully I can then follow up with some comments.

In the meantime, I'm trying to catch up on various work, notably for ANLoc on policy relating to localization (language and ICT).