Robert Frederking stares at the boxes. The Language Technologies Institute faculty member is moving to another office on the Pittsburgh campus, which has prompted him to pare down, archive, even throw away some materials. But he's not sure what to do with these particular boxes. They're filled with data from old projects, some of it on obsolete Jaz drives, a data storage fad quickly stifled by CD-Rs.
The data on those drives took months to obtain, back in 1998, in an effort to build speech and translation technology for the first time for the Haitian Creole language. Frederking can still recall how hard his team worked to find native speakers and learn the subtleties of the patois. Eventually the project ended. Everything ended up in boxes, but as Frederking makes his office move more than a decade later, he can't bring himself to throw away the data. Instead, he sends it off to a colleague who is able translate the Jaz drives data onto modern hard drives for safe keeping.
Several months later, a 2010 earthquake decimates the island nation of Haiti. Frederking immediately thinks of the data and calls a meeting of the relevant LTI faculty. The original research team makes the (now accessible) data available to the world, via a Web site, hopeful it can provide translation assistance for emergency responders.
Almost instantly, Google Translate and Microsoft use the research to create online text translators. Suddenly, anyone with access to the Internet or a smartphone can interpret Haitian Creole. Frederking's serendipitous packing decision translated into a lifesaving tool used by everyone from Doctors Without Borders to Red Cross volunteers.
—Katy Rank Lev
For more information:
Developing Translation Tools