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Multilingual Mobile Messenger

A new tool for disaster alert.

“Giant waves coming, rush 1,000 meters away from the beach.” These 10 words, if sent to mobile phones in the Bahasa, Malay, Sinhala, Tamil, and Telugu languages, might have saved thousands of people from the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. But even if South Asia had had a tsunami detection system in place – which it didn’t – authorities would have had little chance of distributing such a message, given the variety of languages and writing systems used in the region.

Illustration by Ken Orvidas

Now, Geneva Software Technologies in Bangalore, India, has developed software that will translate English text messages into multiple languages and send a translation to any cellular phone or mobile device in the world, no matter what character set it’s programmed to use. India’s Ministry of Science and Technology announced in February that it intends to use Geneva’s system to deliver disaster alerts.

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Existing text-messaging technology requires that both sender and receiver have devices that use Unicode, the standard international system for representing characters on a digital screen. But in rural areas of developing countries, few people can afford Unicode-compliant handsets.

The system Geneva devised can display characters from 14 Indian languages – and 57 others used around the world – without the need for common standards. Instead, language characters are transmitted as pictures encoded in simple binary format, which almost any phone can render on-screen. Messages can be targeted to specific regions using the cellular networks’ databases of phone subscribers’ preferred languages.

“With our technology, a message in any language can be sent to any mobile as long as it supports picture messaging,” says Vinjamuri Ravindra, an electrical engineer and R&D director with Geneva.

The multilingual messaging software is compatible with most types of cell phones used in Asia and is compact enough to be stored on a subscriber identity module (SIM) card. “This is an example of how information technology could make a big difference in disaster warning,” says former Indian science and technology secretary Valangiman Ramamurthy, whose department contributed $880,000 to the product’s development.

Like all computer-rendered translations, Geneva’s vary in accuracy, depending in part on their sources’ subjects and contexts. But the company has been working with the Indian Meteorological Department to create standard templates that should minimize this problem in disaster alerts.

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