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Citibot has launched its Amazon Translate tool in two California cities. This comes as local officials often struggle to communicate with the growing number of residents who don’t speak English.

Getting through to city hall to complain about a pothole, ask about a zoning change or inquire about countless other issues can gobble up time and cause heartburn for even the most patient residents.

Now imagine doing so without knowing English well — a problem faced by a growing number of people in the U.S. who, despite the language barriers, still need their sewers fixed or, perhaps, directions to the nearest cooling center on a blazing summer day.

Government technology could help fix that problem.

The latest example of that comes from chat software firm Citibot.

It has debuted a translation tool that residents can access via mobile or web channels, allowing them to communicate with local governments in 71 languages using Amazon Translate.

Two cities in California — Stockton and Fairfield — have gone live with the feature within the last three weeks, Citibot CEO Bratton Riley said in a Government Technology interview. Denver, Colorado Springs and Baltimore will soon offer the translation chatbot as well.

A user types a question into the chatbot in their native language. The Amazon technology translates it for the official, and then translates the official’s answer back to the user.

That eliminates the need for relatively expensive and time-limited human translators, which are in increasing demand as cities try to better serve diverse populations.

The new Citibot translation tool also serves a deeper civic need, Riley said.

“What if this is the first conversation that users have with local government?” he said. “A lot of them come from cultures where the last thing you want to do is talk to your government. It opens the door for people who might want to trust government.”

Whether through chatbots or expanded bilingual workforces, the need to use non-English languages to keep up communications and ties with local residents promises to grow in the coming years.

The U.S. Census Bureau found that in 2019, 67.8 million people in the U.S. spoke a language other than English while at home, a reasonable indication of the need for translators and translation technology for cities. The growth of that part of the population since 1980 has outstripped the growth of the country’s overall population during the same period.

Spanish, as one can imagine, has shown the most dramatic increase when it comes to other languages spoken in the U.S., followed by Chinese.

Seventeen languages “more than doubled their number of speakers during that period,” the Census Bureau found. They include Armenian, Bengali, Gujarati, Hebrew, Hmong, Khmer, Persian, Punjabi, Russian, Tamil, Telugu and Vietnamese. Italian, German and Greek were among the languages whose use declined.

That has caused challenges for local officials all over the country, from big cities to low-population regions of the heartland.

Lawmakers and activists in South Dakota, for instance, are trying to boost the use of online translation filters and other tools and services as the state attracts more residents for whom English is not their first language.

Progress has been at least partly arrested by the passage of a 1995 law that mandated the use of English only in “public documents, records and meetings,” according to a report early this year from the Argus Leader.

Philadelphia, meanwhile, recently added non-English languages such as Spanish and Chinese to the city website, with more work ongoing, thanks in part to community pressure. The city also provides services in 85 languages across 62 agencies, within which Spanish, Portuguese and Mandarin lead the pack.

As cities make progress with translations, chatbot tools and artificial intelligence are improving the translation experience in education for such tasks as communication between teachers and parents. Google Translate, iTranslate and Forum are among the most visible tools in this area of gov tech. At the same time, emergency dispatchers are turning to AI-backed translation apps that can ease the exchange of information between 911 callers and operators.

Indeed, AI promises to bring more efficiency and popularity to such tools, according to some reports.


Autor(en)/Author(s): Thad Rueter

Quelle/Source: Government Technology, 11.08.2023

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