By FN for APCNews DHAKA, Bangladesh, 01 August 2006
An Indo-Pakistan encounter, in war or cricket, leaves behind tonnes of bitterness and rivalry. But, in information and communication technology (ICT), the main regret facing techies from both sides of the troubled South Asian sub-continent, is why they can’t work more effectively together, to tackle the common problems their people face.
Local language computing is a major headache for South Asia
In part, the problem is caused by the reality that computing primarily created keeping in mind the less-complex 26-alphabet strong English language. In part, it has to do with the complex nature of writing South Asian languages. Or, the fact that techies here tend to be largely English-educated.
Whatever the case, this causes a huge impact. Some South Asian languages have more speakers than a large European country. For instance, take Urdu, which has 60 million speakers globally, including in both Pakistan and India.
Hindi has many times more that figure, and there are other big and medium-sized languages crying for a computing solution.
One of the issues discussed at the APC consultation in Dhaka, in April 2006, was that of language solutions.
Commented BytesForAll’s Shahzad, a participant at Dhaka: “Urdu is not only the national language of Pakistan, but is among the top six largest spoken languages in the world. But, Urdu still doesn’t have a suitable, free and easy to use HTML editor, an Urdu email software, a messenger and freely available fonts. Who’s responsible to set the very basics right?”
Said he: “Just fail to understand (how this happens) with all the huge financial investments, special focus on IT education during the past six years, tall claims of government, massive injections of funds to resource and equip public sector universities in Pakistan, so called ‘revolutions’ in IT curricula, the return of brains -drained earlier.”
Shahzad argued that this might not be a “policy issue” but in fact a matter of willingness. He blogged: “I have seen some students’ projects though, which could easily be refined and put on some websites for free downloads. But who cares? The dilemma of Urdu continues… don’t know for how long!”
Localisation as a passport
One of the discussions at the April 2006 APC South Asia ICT policy consultation focused on localisation and free/libre and open source software (FOSS). Some ideas, and a lot of goodwill, came up over how common solutions could be found.
Ravikant of New Delhi’s Sarai.net and Bal Krishna of Kathmandu, Nepal were the initiators of this session. Ravikant himself, along with quite a few others on both sides of the border, advocates working together.
Incidentally, on the IT front, things have worked out pretty smoothly between Bangladesh and its Indian neighbours. The Ankur project is often cited as a successful example of cross-border solutions in localisation on the free software front.
The focus at the Dhaka consultation was to share information, learn from each other’s experiences, do a status-check, and look at critical problems being faced by those working in South Asia to translate software into their local languages.
“We need to come together so that languages like Urdu (prominent in both Pakistan and North India) and Bangla (spoken widely in both Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal) can share tools and solution across borders. Newer and smaller regional languages could then use our energy, expertise, experience and model (to work out solutions of their own),” it was suggested.
The questions remained as to know who could assist in this task. Some said everybody who realised the importance of the language barriers could assist. Others, talking in more concrete terms said that primarily, by talking about it in their respective areas of operation, it would already help. It was felt that wider organisations, having a reach across countries, could be a major boost. Setting up a South Asian Consortium on Localisation was thereby seen as a salutary initiative.
Lessons from Nepal
Bal Krishna Bal, the project manager of the PAN Localization Project at Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya, PatanDhoka, Nepal, tells of an interesting experience in working towards Nepali language solutions in that part of South Asia.
Their institution, the Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya (MPP), felt the need for the electronic cataloguing of its collection of books some four years back. This was not possible, using the existing fonts of Nepali like Preeti and Kanchan. The MPP, a principal archiving house, therefore decided to simply get involved in developing software in Nepali.
At that point, existing Nepali fonts lacked data processing facilities like “Sorting” and “Find and Replace”. They also lacked uniformity in terms of keyboard mapping of the Nepali characters, thus making Nepali typing difficult to the general public.
In March 2002, the Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya undertook a Font Standardization Project, which was assisted by the Ministry of Science and Technology and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
This project’s results led to the inception of Unicode in Nepal – an encoding scheme that assigns unique code to every character of standard writing scripts of the world. Under the project, Unicode compatible fonts like Kalimati, Kanjirowa, Thakwa Robinson along with two keyboard drivers, namely the Nepali Unicode Keyboard Romanized and Nepali Unicode Keyboard Traditional, were developed.
With the development of the keyboard software, Nepali typing has become drastically simple to learn. The development of the Unicode compatible fonts has enabled data processing for the Nepali language.
But this was just the beginning, as Bal narrates.
“Owing to the fact that a larger Nepali population is deprived of the usage of computers because of the language barrier i.e. English which is the communicating language of the computers, MPP then put the objectives of developing an operating system and localised software applications in Nepali,” said Bal.
It undertook the 30 months long PAN Localization Project between January 2004 and June 2006. This initiative was supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada and administered by the National University of Computers and Emerging Sciences (NUCES), Lahore, Pakistan.
MPP contributed the Nepal component of the released the localised operating system NepaLinux 1.0 on December 22, 2005. Among other utilities available on the CD, are the Nepali spell checker, a thesaurus and Nepali Unicode support.
“NepaLinux 1.0 is a Debian and Morphix based GNU/Linux distribution focused for Desktop usage in Nepali Language Computing. Apart from the operating system in Nepali, the CD package comprises a localised GNOME desktop environment, the OpenOffice.Org suite and the Mozilla (internet browser) suite,” Bal explains.
“With the operating system in Nepali developed, MPP is aiming to focus more on advance language processing and mobile computing applications in future. MPP’s works have been increasingly supported both from national and international levels,” says Bal.