The Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation has welcomed the development of an innovative language app that will be instrumental in saving lives. The local mobile application is aimed at breaking down language barriers to improve the communication of safety protocols and other vital information related to COVID-19.
Governments around the world, including South Africa, have invested heavily in campaigns to raise awareness about the deadly pandemic. However, language remains a serious challenge in conveying this life-saving information. In a country like South Africa, which has 11 official languages, multilingual communication is vital to ensure that healthcare professionals and patients understand one another, and the voice-enabled AwezaMed app will help to make this possible.
“In the context of healthcare, where it is common that the healthcare provider and patient often do not share a common language, this results in serious challenges such as a poorer patient experience, incorrect diagnoses, increased stress levels for the patient and misunderstandings about post-consultation self-care instructions,” said the Minister.
AwezaMed, which features localised technology, such as speech recognition, text-to-speech and machine translation, was developed by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, an entity of the Department of Science and Innovation, and works on any Android smartphone.
“The app enables healthcare providers to access a phrase in English, translate it into any South African official language, and play the phrase in the selected language. The content of the application was developed in collaboration with health experts,” said Minister Nzimande.
AwezaMed features a database of over 1 800 questions, reassurances, explanations, patient responses, with key vocabulary curated through a vigorous refinement process with the oversight of a team of medical professionals.
Its automatic speech recognition allows for the recognition and transcription of speech in any of the 11 official languages, while machine translation takes input text in the source language and translates it into the target language. The text-to-speech feature takes the translated text and synthesises it in the target language.
The language technology driving the mobile application was developed using language resources hosted and distributed by the South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR).
The Department of Science and Innovation launched SADiLaR as part of the South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap, to support the creation, management and distribution of digital language resources and relevant software. The first of its kind in Africa, the research infrastructure platform responds to the constitutional imperative to recognise all South African languages as key resources.
The Minister said that the application holds potential benefits for the public health sector beyond COVID-19, as it will go a long way towards improving trust between healthcare providers and patients, allowing for more accurate diagnoses and saving lives.
The AwezaMed application can be accessed for free on the Google Play Store at http://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=za.co.aweza.covid19