Why Localizing Tech Matters

By Chido Musodza

From WhatsApp to Instagram, the evolution of technology has brought about some pretty interesting innovations. However, the ever-changing nature of tech has also resulted in what has been termed “the digital divide”.

In
low-income countries like mine, privatized mobile network operators and
Internet Service Providers are the main drivers of internet access in
the country. Because of the high cost of living and huge start-up costs
when setting up infrastructure, internet access in Zimbabwe is generally
pricier than the regional average — leading to major roadblocks in
digital innovation. While efforts have been made to lobby the government
and promote infrastructure sharing in order to reduce the cost of
access in Zimbabwe, the process has proven to be long and drawn out. A
feasible infrastructure sharing plan which would see the players who
have more resources agreeing to bring down costs seems far away.

But
really, even if access were cheaper, would it actually address the
digital divide? Maybe not. Perhaps, part of the solution lies with
volunteer translators and the work they do to localize circumvention
tools in the tech space.

As
someone who comes from a part of the world known in some quarters as
“The Global South”, my mother tongue, Shona, is considered a minority
language. For this reason, it usually isn’t very high on the “food
chain” when it comes time to chose which languages are made available
online. In Zimbabwe, economic challenges have meant family members have
moved away to different continents altogether. Thankfully, the advent of
technology has made communication with families easier, but it has also
meant that most communication is now mostly through writing (think
Instant Messengers, social media, email etc…). For people whose native
language is something other than other than English (or another
“majority” language), an extra effort has to be made to interact with
applications — something that in itself presents a barrier to many.
Countries, such as mine, have not developed new words for a while now
and this means that localized terms for WiFi, encryption, and interface
(among other tech terms) are virtually non-existent in our language. If
technology and the internet are going to make any inroads into
developing nations, it is important to understand that technology will
only be adopted when the local culture and language are reflected in the
interface of the tools we are expected to use.

The
work of Localization Lab is an opportunity to create information in
local languages for communities that need that information the most.
Though Localization Lab’s core mission is the translation of apps for
circumvention tech, the space is an opportunity for volunteer
translators like me to make a difference by ensuring that in an
ever-changing world that continues to be geared towards tech my language
survives, continues to evolve and does not disappear completely. Annual
and country-specific collaborative translation events — or Localization
Sprints — are the building blocks that have helped shape the way I look
at how information on the internet is accessed and consumed by citizens
in my home country. The Sprints have also enabled me to see that the
challenges with language, context, and attempts to bridge the digital
divide are not in vain.

Localization Sprint with Swahili language contributors. Photo by Zaituni Njovu.

The
work done here enables information security, digital literacy, and
anyone working in the internet activism space to work towards equipping
local communities with digital literacy skills in a language that is
familiar and has relatable context. As an information security trainer
in Zimbabwe, this aspect is especially important given that we sometimes
find ourselves in rooms full of people who have little to no knowledge
of very basic Internet concepts and personal digital security
techniques. With each training that I have had to adapt, change and play
around with to suit the group, I am left with a deeper impression that
we as trainers need to have applications and information in our mother
tongue. This can only happen if there are people working to translate
the information and the applications.

Through
Localization Lab, the much bigger conversations around language
development are beginning to take shape and that, in my teapot shaped
country, is the start of the journey of 1,000 miles.

So I leave you with this thought of mine:

The
translations are a starting point. A starting point to ensure my mother
tongue stays relevant, a starting point to bridge the digital divide
caused by language and context, and indeed the starting point to unlock
the potential of my fellow countrymen and women. Indeed all this starts
with volunteering to translate applications
”.

Chido Clara Musodza is a Zimbabwean digital skills trainer

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