In the wake of a deadly 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Nepal this past April, Facebook activated its Safety Check tool. The new feature allows people in a disaster zone to mark themselves or their friends as safe on Facebook.
More than seven million people in Nepal have used the tool, according to a post by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. But for the tool to be more useful to people in Nepal, it needed to be translated into Nepali, the language of official business in the country.
Through a contact, Facebook reached out to the University of British Columbia’s Mark Turin for help. Turin, an anthropology professor, speaks Nepali and has lived and worked in Nepal since the early 1990s. In this Q&A, he discusses the translation effort and how Nepalis are tapping into and developing new technologies.
How did you translate the Facebook Safety Check tool into Nepali?
Following the first quake, a group of 14 faculty and students at UBC and Yale University translated roughly 3,350 words from English into Nepali. We worked through the weekend after the quake hit and the translations went live right away on Facebook. The speedy ‘localization’ of the Safety Check tool allowed Nepali-speaking users to let their network of loved ones know they were safe. From what we’ve heard, it seems that the translated version of the tool has been well-used and appreciated.
Instead of payment for the work, which we did not want, Facebook has made a donation to Educate the Children-Nepal, a U.S. registered charity that has been working for decades in remote districts most affected by Nepal’s quakes. In such a tragic moment, it was humbling to work in collaboration with such amazing young Nepalis and do something tangible, albeit from a distance, with the skills we had.
What are telecommunications like in the Himalayas and how are Nepalis making use of communications tools like Facebook?
Nepal is leapfrogging technologically. There is still no vehicular access to many communities, but cell phone penetration is very high. Far from being a luxury, a 3G-enabled cell phone is a now basic requirement for a villager who has relatives in the city, a son or brother working in the Arabian Gulf and needs to be tapped into local and regional markets for work. Over the last few years, access to and interest in social media has grown dramatically. My wife and I initially joined Facebook in order to stay in touch with research partners and friends across the Himalayan region. Facebook’s Safety Check is the latest tool that Nepalis are using to communicate, bringing a little peace of mind in these stressful and uncertain times.
Mark Turin is an associate professor of anthropology and chair of the First Nations Languages Program at UBC.
Turin, and other UBC experts, are available to comment on the Nepal earthquakes, which have killed more than 8,000 people and injured more than 20,000.