City websites using machine translations still look to humans to ensure accuracy.
When it comes to equitable government service delivery, language accessibility for all residents is imperative. But some city officials say machine translations just don’t cut it, especially for time sensitive or complex content. That’s where humans need to step in.
Philadelphia is one city leveraging its technology and human assets to provide multilanguage website accessibility. The Office of Innovation and Technology and Office of Immigrant Affairs recently received $450,000 to support a language accessibility project aimed at improving the translation quality of web-based content for nine languages—Arabic, French, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, Russian, Mandarin, Spanish, Swahili and Vietnamese—featured on phila.gov webpages.
The city currently uses Google Translate, which offers translations for more than 120 languages, but the project aims to reduce reliance on the service by creating standards for translation consistency, accuracy and accessibility. Plus, the machine translation quality is not up to par, the city’s Director of Software Engineering Karissa Demi said.
The city is partnering with a vendor that will provide nearly “instantaneous” machine translations of content posted within Philadelphia’s content management system. “When somebody makes an update or creates a new page, we’re creating an internal process that will trigger essentially communication to the vendor’s API. Then they will take the file, do everything they’re going to do with it … and send it back to us,” Demi said. After a few tweaks, the city publishes the page.
But the most exciting part of the project, according to Demi, will be getting “human eyes … actually helping us do the translation.” The city hired a translation services coordinator to help develop guidelines and style guides for each of the languages the city will translate content into, which will standardize translation practices across departments, Maria Giraldo Gallo, language access program manager at the Office of Immigrant Affairs said.
The goal is to create more curated content “because we own the language if we do that,” Giraldo Gallo said. “We can have our own glossary instead of having Google decide the word choice for us.”
Giraldo Gallo said the city determines which languages to translate using census data, requests from citizens and other language-related data such as migration patterns. Community feedback is also vital to the city’s language accessibility mission, so the Chinese and Spanish versions of phila.gov will include a feedback form where residents can make suggestions and corrections to the site’s translations, Demi added.
On the West coast, San Francisco is also stepping up language accessibility. The pandemic brought a wave of traffic to the city’s site—sf.gov—as the public turned to government for answers on issues such as COVID-19 health orders, testing and vaccinations, financial assistance and other critical services, said Persis Howe, content lead of San Francisco’s Digital Services team.
For a diverse city such as San Francisco where, according to the census, 42.7% of the population speaks a language other than English, providing those services in different languages was a major priority. Offering translated webpages for processes such as applying for a business permit or a marriage license can foster citizen trust in government and free up city staff members’ time to address other tasks, Howe said.
“If San Franciscans can self-serve, if they can sign up to get married at City Hall while they are on the bus commuting, that is one less person … going to the county clerk to book that appointment, which leaves the people at the county clerk more time to deal with people who can’t self-serve,” Howe said.
San Francisco’s Language Access Ordinance mandates which languages are translated based on a population threshold. The Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs determined that if at least 10,000 residents speak a language, the city must provide a translation.
San Francisco also embeds Google Translate into the government's site for Spanish, traditional Chinese and Filipino. “We know that’s not great, but it’s at least a baseline,” Howe said.
When machine translation is not enough, the Digital Services team looks to its vendors to provide human translations for high-impact pages, Howe said. The integration between the city’s CMS and its vendors enables the transfer of translated files to the team. Bilingual content designers within the Digital Services team then review the vendors’ work before publication as an added measure, Howe said.
“We would like to find a way to integrate the machine translation with the human translation,” Howe said. Doing so would create consistent terminology for readers and translators to recognize regularly used words such as department names. Like Philadelphia, Howe said the city is looking to create a glossary of common, human-tuned translations to improve machine translations and take pressure off staff.