Indic Internet Users

SESSION NAME: GOOGEL INDIC PANEL DISCUSSION “Indic Internet Users Open Internet for them”

Moderator: JASJIT SINGH, Joint Director, C-DAC, The Graphic and Intelligence based Script Technology (GIST)
Panelist: DR. Girish Nath Jha, Professor of Computational Linguistics & Chairperson-Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies & Director, International Collaboration, Jawaharlal Nehru University
Panelist: DR. Subhash Chandra, Assistant Professor, Computational Linguistics,Department of Sanskrit, University of Delhi
Panelist: Vivekanand Pani, Co-founder & CTO, Reverie Language Technologies
Panelist: Jatin Nagpal, Hindi Web Evangelist, Google

At the 7th edition of the mBillionth Award South Asia 2016 on at Hotel Eros in New Delhi on July 23, 2016, a panel discussion on ‘Indic Internet Users: Open Internet for them’ was organised by Digital Empowerment Foundation in collaboration with Google India. The session focused on improving information and access infrastructure to improve the role of vernacular languages and contributions of Indian languages on the Internet.

Moderated by Jasjit Singh, Joint Director of C-DAC, The Graphic and Intelligence-based Script Technology (GIST), panelists in the session included Dr. Subhash Chandra, Assistant Professor, Computational Linguistics, Department of Sanskrit, University of Delhi; Vivekanand Pani, Co-founder & CTO, Reverie Language Technologies; and Jatin Nagpal, Hindi Web Evangelist, Google India.

The panel discussion started with Jasjit Singh raising a few important questions with regards to inclusive open-internet. “Where we are today and where we ought to go? What are the challenges faced by the users, software and hardware developers, facilitators and curators? What is the market and demand supply curve when it comes to vernacular languages?” he asked

“Firstly, it is the users and second thing is the content,” Nagpal answered.

According to an estimated report by Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), there are over 353 million Internet Users in India, out of which 150 million prefer content in local languages. Fifty-five per cent of content on the Internet, however, is in English. There are 22 official languages in India but less than 0.1 per cent of it is in local languages.

Pani emphasised on offline and online content creation, and asked, “Is the Internet western dominated?” To this, Jatin Nagpal added, “Study shows that it is considered elite to communicate in English.”

Local languages are facing a stigma as opposed to English, which has become the language of modernity. There is ample of local language content that is created or produced offline but its presence lacks on the Internet. “Understanding our local users is important to acknowledge the necessity for digital content in local languages,” said Pani. Can the local language content be transliterated and be made available online?

Drifting to a discussion on ‘inclusive technology’ to accommodate local language input and output tools, Jasjit Singh asked the panel to identify a solution to resolve the problem. Input mechanisms need to be simplified, online handwriting recognition tools need to adopted. “Seventy per cent local language literacy is in the physical medium. A very tiny percentage of people among the 70 per cent can type. When it is not difficult to write in local languages, why should it be difficult to type?” asked Pani.

Nagpal added, “User-to-user communications do happen in local languages but English script is used more commonly due to non-availability or ease of availability of other keyboards.” “

Pani, however, said: “It is like a chicken and egg situation. Users say that there is not enough content in local languages, developers say there are not enough users.”

Introducing the audience to a few ‘inclusive steps’ taken by Google for local language input processes, Nagpal mentioned the multilingual Indic keyboard application, Google Chrome extensions and transliteration and translation software. Adding to the list, Pani noted that with technological advancements such as in the case of Swalekh Application, input problems can be dealt with.

Today, even the government has local language mandates for mobile phone manufacturers. “Sales of computers are going down, and phones are being used more for Internet access today,” stated Nagpal.

Moving towards the perspective of education, Dr. Chandra said, “Local language content is lacking in our education itself. There are a lot of e-learning tools that are available but users cannot access a majority of them as they are not available in Bengali, Tamil and other vernacular languages.”

“Why can’t we encourage students to type in local languages? Schools are only teaching typing in English. Typing in other languages is not difficult just the properties are different. Teachers can give writing assignments/ homework to practice writing on MS Word or Paint in their local languages. Digital India and digital literacy programmes do not include local language typing policies either. If the government initiatives include all languages, automatically, local content would be generated in local languages,” Pani pointed.

Dr. Chandra and Jasjit Singh seconded the opinion that the governance itself is not inclusive. Although the state governments work in local languages, English is used for most official work. Pani, however, disagreed, pointing out that this is not the biggest issue. Citizens to government conversation have always been minimal. Person-to-person communications dominate online platforms.
If the mediums are made vernacular, citizens themselves will create valuable content in local languages and facilitate communications.

Even in the field of e-Commerce and banking, privately owned e-commerce portals and locally owned business enterprises must have policies and mandates to can increase their businesses by making their portals multilingual. Payment gateways and user interfaces can be implemented in vernacular and local languages, making it more accessible to the masses.

Quoting a study, Nagpal said that users demand for content in local languages is the highest for (and in the order of) news & entertainment, government services, health and education. “While media houses are ensuring a lot of content is live in Hindi and other regional languages, very few government services are available in local languages. Say for example, IRCTC’s app is English only; and the website is accessible in English and Hindi. What about other native language speakers?” added Nagpal.

“Right now, with just 7-8 percent of the country’s population using IRCTC, tickets are sold out within hours of window openings. Imagine what will happen is the website is available in other languages,” Singh quipped. “It is important to see the scalability of each platform if they are available in local languages.” With vernacular language inclusion, more people can be targeted and the inefficiency of bureaucracy can be removed from the process.

Comparing the situation of different countries in the world, it was noted that Russia, China, Korea, Germany, France, Italy and various others use local language on the Internet for their content. Fundamentally, it is important to “educate people to use local languages” said Pani.

China is a closed country with a highly localised marketplace. Alibaba carries out over 30 million transactions a day compared to Indian eCommerce portals with merely a number of 30,000 transactions in a day. Alibaba has been able to gain multiple times the number of customers that Indian e-commerce portals have and 1000 times the transactions. Thus, for India’s economic and social growth, “localisation is the key”.

mBilliont Awards 2016 was organised by DEF with Principal Partner Google; Associate Partner Qualcomm; Strategic Partner Mint; Institutional Partner World Summit Award; Event Partner Inomy; Outreach Partner MP Post; and Country Partners dnet, Bytes for All, CAN and ICTA.