“In computing, internationalization and localization (also spelled internationalisation and localisation) are means of adapting computer software to different languages and regional differences. Internationalization is the process of designing a software application so that it can be adapted to various languages and regions without engineering changes. Localization is the process of adapting software for a specific region or language by adding locale-specific components and translating text.”
Whenever I think about technology and Africa, the importance of localization really sticks out in my mind. I harken back to the posts by Ethan Zuckerman and Koranteng Ofusu Amaah to revisit this issue. Ever had problems with images you uploaded to flickr?
As a software designer, Koranteng understands how hard it is to get the details of localization right – full support for different character sets and text that reads right to left instead of left to right. But heâ€™s also interested in the cultural details of software design, which can be so subtle that youâ€™re unlikely to detect them unless youâ€™re directly effected by them:
The first thing I very quickly noticed: somehow all the photos that I uploaded to Yahoo Photos turned out darker than on Flickr (the services both resize uploaded photos). The photo-resizing algorithm used by Yahoo Photos was giving worse results. This was noticeable to me because a large number of photos featured darker-skinned people such as myself. The originals were fine and where there were lighter skin tones everything looked good, but with darker skintones, the resized photos were not so good.
Ethan noted that Koranteng found similar problems with Flickr’s flash plug-in and slideshow feature, as well as with Adobe Photoshops Quick Fix and Auto Correct options. Has anything changed since 2005 when Ethan wrote about this? I do not think so, but correct me if i am wrong.
Localization matters because cultural sensitivity in technology is paramount to designing products that work as well as possible for all communities.
Localization matters because, as this African technologist’s said…
“if it’s meant to be local, it should be locally developed” – Paa Kwesi Imbeah
So where are we today in terms of localization of software in Africa?
The most successful story that illustrates what opportunities there are in solving African (sw localization) problems with African solutions is that of Ted Kidane of Feedelix. Feedelix is currently providing products that allow SMS editing in Hindi, Chinese and Ethiopic. Software made by an African and now providing products to the world.
Kasahorow has been working on the Africa keyboards to aid in writing African content, in African languages. They are doing this for all the major operating systems. More info can be found here, including a downloadable package that you can try out. If your main language is Akan, Gaa, Gbe, Hausa, Igbo, Kikuyu, Luo, Swahili, Tswana and Youruba be sure to download that package.
Kasahorow is working on the ANLoc Project; a partnership with other organizations to address the issue of localization by creating locales, building tools, terminologies, standards, etc. More info about ANLoc can be found on African localisation dot net. Gotta love their tag line ‘The African Network for Localization’
There is a firefox add-on that Kasahorow released: Ladies and gentlemen, the Akan Dictionary for Firefox 3.0. Dare I say, cool stuff indeed.
Localization matters because it is empowering.
If ANLOC can succeed in its mission to enable Africans to participate in the digital age by making it easier for people to use technology in the language they are comfortable with, this only bodes well for the preservation of African languages and even fostering innovation. Ideas expressed in many ways, not just in English. (Yes, i do enjoy pointing out the obvious sometimes)
Like Jeremy Clarke of Global Voices put it simply: English != Global. The GV Lingua project, translates GV content from English to 15 languages, with Swahili and Polish translations having been added recently. Translations work best when the person has cultural context to allow for expressions in slang and language structures that are difficult to build into machine language. This is another example of localization + aggregation of content. Dare i say again, cool stuff indeed.
On a global level, the ubiquity (firefox) experiment from Mozilla labs seeks to empower users and lusers heh heh to control the web browser with language based instruction. They want to make this available in more than 60 languages. Check it out here, and contribute to it if you can.
Watch this clip of Aza Raskin showing how ubiquity works.
All in all, in real estate they always say location, location, location…when it comes to African tech i would categorically say localization, localisation, localization. (thank the Brits and Americans for the spelling differences). I would like to hear your thoughts on localization, if you have other examples, and of course more on the mobile web, which I did not touch on on this post.