Workshop on African Language Technology (AfLaT) – An Event Report

Read and engage – Poster session

The 6th Workshop on African Language Technology (AfLaT) is the first event focusing on African languages technology I ever attended.  Actually it is a joint conference along with the 25th annual symposium of the Pattern Recognition Association of South Africa (PRASA) and the 7th Robotics and Mechatronics (RobMech) Conference of South Africa. Although I have already attended other conferences in South Africa, like ANLOC’s (African Network for Localization), this event was more of a research event focusing on language students in South African Universities. This is why it was important for me, as a Mozilla Rep from the continent to attend this event. And I was not disappointed although everything did not work out as I planned.
Aflat is an organization that I came across a few years ago, while digging the web to find out about spellcheckers, online dictionaries and so on. It’s been now more than twenty years since I started research on digitizing my native language (Fulah) and the Internet has been crucial in connecting me with people and resources that brought considerable impact on my work. So connecting with people, exchanging and engaging has been one of my favorite efforts. And since I am involved in Mozilla localization efforts, I am really passionate about languages as whole and African languages in particular.
But going to Cape Town, almost the most southerly tip of the African continent is nothing like a peaceful walk on the Champs-Elysées! Apart from planning the event on the Mozilla side, which involved budgets, filing bugs and the usual stuff, I have had a hard time getting my talk approved and being set for the event.
I submitted a talk about creating information technology terminology for less resourced languages which I believe has been and is still a challenge for many African languages.  Although my work on this field was mostly University research on Multilingual Computing and Localization, I wanted to present this talk on the Mozilla localization perspective so as to attract students’ attention and interest. I submitted my slides a few days ahead to learn later that I was not actually going to hold a talk! Talks were said to be reserved for students presenting the result of their research and those who have submitted a written paper! That was not very clear in the beginning when I contacted the organizers to inquire about call for papers! Anyway I will comply then…
The proposed format was some kind of “poster” to be presented throughout the workshop. But I only had slides, not a poster. The poster has to be created and submitted before the event, and it was just about a week away! Imagine the running and the stress when I started working on it after work! The poster had to be formatted in a specific way according to precise guidelines, but I was not worried about that. What worried me was the way I should translate those slides into one single page with the coherence, clarity and exhaustiveness of a chronological presentation. The poster had to be “readable from a distance” by the public, which would then engage conversation with the presenter. Well, I have never done this before and what if no public at all came to you?
After a dozen edits and pdf exports from my Powerpoint program (didn’t know your can make big posters with Microsoft Powerpoint!!), I finally submitted the poster just a few hours before I flew to Cape Town!
Another big hurdle to overcome was the visa to South Africa. I don’t want to recall the extreme tension that I felt just two hours before my flight when I was sitting at the South African Embassy, waiting for my passport which should have been sent the week before! Actually, they did not even touch it until I called then asking if they have sent it to me on Friday. It was important for me to know since I was travelling on Tuesday and I had not received anything on Monday morning. Either they have sent it on Friday, in which case I would receive it on Tuesday, or they should not send it at all! I have to come to the embassy in Paris to collect it. If they have sent it only on Monday, Jesus Christ (or Mohamed or any other Saint of your choice) my trip is dead!
When I finally got someone on the phone, I was told that my passport was had not been sent yet! Phew! Actually, what they did not tell me was that they had not even started processing my application on Monday! I was rather relieved they did not send it on Monday and I proposed to come to collect it myself at the embassy the very afternoon I was flying!
I was at work on that morning until 12:00 to minimize my absence at school since my boss was kind enough to allow me to miss classes for Mozilla events! I had my luggage with me when I left for work so that, after work,  I could head to Paris airport which is about 3 hours away.
When I arrived at the embassy, I understood that my passport was not ready and that they were actually starting to process it. I was not worried about getting the visa itself, but when I was going to grab the passport as we were only a little more than two hours before actual take-off…
Forty-five minutes later, I took hold of my passport and rushed out to the Saint-Michel RER A station, pushing people out of the way, failing to get run over by a bus and kicking the ticket machine which was being a bit too slow and wondering why my suitcase didn’t complain about the way I was dragging it along… From Saint-Michel, I could reach Chatelet-Les-Halles and then take the RER B to Roissy Charles De Gaulle airport. Again when you’re heading to Charles De Gaulle, never take the train that stop at every station from Gare du Nord. There is a train that goes direct to the airport from Gare du Nord. It is much faster and also safer…
I finally arrived at the airport and to the check-in desks that were closing… I shouted: Istanbul? And the gentleman who was at the only desk still open said “Hurry sir, or you’ll miss your flight! Well I think I probably lost about a pound that afternoon… I arrived in Cape Town the next day after a long nine-hour flight from Istanbul.
As if going through all that was not enough, I was told the morning of the conference first day that I had to print and bring my poster with me! “Naaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa, you can’t be serious!” I screamed in my head. I hired a cab and rushed out to find a printer at Canal Street, a huge mall downtown. I could print my A2 size poster there and even took the luxury to take a few nice pictures before coming back to the conference. As soon as I was back, I learned that the news had spread that I did not have my poster printed. So everybody who heard about it was trying to find me to help. One of the organizers, who could not find me decided to order an A1 print of my poster anyway, not knowing that I had already printed one.

Engaging in talks during poster sessions

Engaging in talks during sessions

He almost shouted “Where have you been? We have to go right now to collect your poster a few miles from here”. ” Well I errr I er, well that’s very nice of you err yes let’s go” I said, not sure what to do… It was only a few minutes later that I told him I had been out to print my poster. Then I paid for the new one which was much bigger and of better quality. And he drove back to the venue like a fool.
The poster session was about to start when we arrived. And they had already pinned my A2 poster on the board. It was too late I was told to use my big nice and beautiful A1 poster I freshly collected from the printer. Just take it home, they joked…
My poster was about using strategies that allow less-resourced languages to create terminology in ICT in a more efficient manner that is somehow more respectful to the specificities of that language. Although there is a focus here on Fulah language (ISO 639: ff), many findings can be share with language families and cultures that have some cultural unity like many African languages. Surprisingly, a lot of people turned up at the poster session and I found it rather interesting to let people read your poster, then come engage in conversation, asking questions and commenting one point or another.
The students who were presenting posters were the most interested in Mozilla and localization. They were almost all presenting about machine translation, which was pretty much the area that I believe Mozilla and African languages should look into. If Mozilla is to put the power of the Web in people hands, it is in Africa that that power will have more impact than anywhere else. As Jeff Beatty and Staś Małolepszy pointed out in a post about L20N I actually realized most of these students were aiming to “cause a linguistic power shift from source code engineers to localizers, improve localizers’ ability to freely express themselves while localizing an application, and improve localizability within web and mobile technology”.
At least three of the poster presenters said they were interested in contributing to Mozilla. The areas of research of these students include “Crowdsourcing the gathering of African language resources”, “African Wordnet Project: Semi-automatic Synset Extraction”, “Developing Speech Synthesizers for Under-resourced Languages” and the one I was most interested in “Autshumato Integrated Translation Environment (ITE)”.
I am convinced Mozilla should and can organize huge recruiting/localization/tech events in South African universities where these students are completing their studies. Firefox OS localization and features has a lot to benefit from these potential contributors.
I finally wanted to say that I met a Kenyan lady who wanted to contribute to Mozilla but did not know how to get involved in Mozilla Kenya. I connected her to our Kenyan friends right after my trip. I am sure at this time, she is a full member of the awesome team in that country.

Ibrahima Sarr

Mozilla Reps Mentor

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