BY CAMERON RASMUSSON
BY CAMERON RASMUSSON
How do you localize content for a country of 1.38 billion people speaking hundreds of languages?
There’s no easy answer for that question. But there are few people who understand the herculean task better than Abhishek Suryawanshi. As the Director of the Special Wikipedia Awareness Scheme for the Healthcare Affiliates (SWASTHA), Suryawanshi’s professional mission is to supply accurate, trustworthy health information to the people of India by localizing Wikipedia English’s healthcare information one article at a time. If that sounds like a sisyphean task, think again. Thanks to a dedicated team of volunteers and Wikipedia’s time-tested localization processes, Suryawanshi and his team are making tremendous progress every day.
In addition to his work with Wikipedia, Suryawanshi is the first visiting scholar hosted by the University of Virginia School of Data Science. Given all that experience and expertise, we reached out to ask him about his work history and the journey that brought him to Wikipedia. The result is a conversation about language, culture, teamwork, and how the power of ice cream can change a person’s life.
What was it about languages and language work that first attracted you to it?
I always dreamed of eating ice cream as a kid. But it was forbidden for me. I was born with severe asthma in a small village, and asthma stopped me from having ice cream. I wanted to understand asthma and how to minimize it. When I started looking for literature about it, almost everything was in English. So I started learning English with the hope that one day, I’d be able to eat ice cream. That’s how my journey into translations and localization started. I survived because I got proper healthcare information in my native language. However, there are many kids like me in rural areas who don’t have access to proper healthcare information they can read. I believe knowledge should be free and open to all, and language should not be a barrier.
The sum of all human knowledge is scattered all over the world, and it is available in different languages. I love knowledge sharing, and languages play a huge part in it. The potential of connecting the world and making it a better place through translation is extremely exciting to me, and I’m happy to be a part of it.
Tell us a little about the career path that brought you where you are. What kind of education, training, and work did you pursue that readied you for language work?
As mentioned above, languages and translations are personal to me. I survived because I got proper healthcare information in my native language. I feel it is my duty to make healthcare information available in various languages.
I studied Pharmacy at Pune University followed by health communication at Emerson College and Tufts University. I also learned how to use data science for healthcare information dissemination at the School of Data Science, University of Virginia.
I got an early opportunity to work with the United Nations system through the government of India’s Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations. Then I served in the United Nations General Assembly Third Committee (also known as the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee or SOCHUM or C3). I contributed to the Tuberculosis Draft Resolution which was adopted at the 73rd General Assembly. United Nations helped me to understand the wider impact of translations and localization as it serves 190+ countries.
I am fortunate enough to receive support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation through various programs to support my localization work for TEDTalks as well as other healthcare translations projects since 2010.
How was it that you came to occupy the role you currently hold at Wikipedia?
I was working with TED in regional Indian languages to make sure even underprivileged communities get access to world-class ideas. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sponsored my earlier localization efforts. I hosted the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in India with the help of the TED Community, and right after that, Wikimedia Foundation, the parent organization of Wikipedia, was planning to celebrate Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary in India. Their staff asked me to host a celebration event after seeing my work with TED, and that was my first interaction with Wikipedia and the foundation behind the encyclopedia. The Wikimedia Foundation also decided to launch their India Education Program, and I was one of the first recruits from India. Even after years, I continue to work with Wiki communities in various roles.
What exactly is your role at Wikipedia?
I lead an international Wikipedia project (WikiProject) promoting healthcare awareness within local communities in collaboration with healthcare affiliates. I coordinate resources from a pool of Wikipedia volunteers partnered with leading medical professionals to source and validate health-related information published on Wikipedia.
This is especially critical with the global COVID-19 pandemic. Although Wikipedia advises readers to secure medical information from healthcare providers, the reality is that internet users in India are using Wikipedia 10 times more than the CDC and 300 times more often than government websites.
This role is in line with my life-long mission of making knowledge free and accessible to all. I direct and mentor a team of 50-plus contributors spanning Wikipedia volunteer teams, linguists, editors, local experts, and community event organizers. In recent years, building data sets has become more important, and since 2019, I am a visiting scholar at the School of Data Science at the University of Virginia collaborating with researchers there.
In leading Wikipedia’s SWASTHA (Special Wikipedia Awareness Scheme for The Healthcare Affiliates) project, I have a unique opportunity to make an impact and provide relevant healthcare information in regional languages.
Apart from WikiProject SWASTHA, I am also a member of the Wikimedia Foundation’s election committee. The Wikimedia Foundation elections committee oversees, on behalf of the Wikimedia Foundation and the Wikimedia community, elections to the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees.
For an organization like Wikipedia, which depends upon providing reliable information, how do you ensure the translations are reliable?
Local communities take responsibility for the content on regional Wikipedia versions. Wikipedia exists in more than 300 languages, and it is entirely managed by the volunteer community. Most of the content is created from scratch, then line-by-line translated to accommodate local needs. English articles are written from a western perspective, so that’s why localization is more important than pure translation. There are different policies related to translation in different language versions of Wikipedia.
On that topic, I understand you do not permit any kind of machine translation and instead depend on human volunteers. Could you explain why this is?
Localization doesn’t happen in direct translations. To localize content, we often identify a bias for western health issues and have to make news relevant and adapted for use in India.
For example, tuberculosis is one of the top-10 causes of death. Worldwide, however, the reasons for TB in India are completely different than in the United States and Europe.
In India, the incidence of smoking and HIV/AIDS is less prevalent. However, there are neglected tropical diseases which are not problematic in the Western world, and these are often co-morbidities with tuberculosis in India. Machine translations can’t solve such issues — that’s why human intervention is necessary.
How do you manage all the volunteers that localize all that content? How many volunteers does it take? Given Wikipedia’s self-regulating approach to editing, is the oversight fairly substantial, or does it largely take care of itself?
There are more than 250,000 volunteers in over 300 languages. You can learn who is responsible for the most recent versions of any given Wikipedia page by clicking on the “View history” link. Nevertheless, if you spot an error in the latest revision of an article, you are highly encouraged to be bold and correct it. This practice is one of the basic review mechanisms that maintains the reliability of the encyclopedia. As a result, Wikipedia has become one of the most extensive information libraries available on the Internet.
Although cranks do contribute material to Wikipedia, it’s easy to delete patent nonsense as soon as it appears on the Recent Changes page.
Some websites say the first moon landing was staged in a movie studio or describe supposed perpetual motion machines. It is impossible to correct those websites, no matter how wrong they are, because their authors demand complete control over their work. They fail miserably on Wikipedia.
This does not mean idiosyncratic points of view are silenced or deleted, though. Rather, they are contextualized by attributing them to named advocates. The more idiosyncratic an entry, the more likely challenges to it will be successful. Because no one owns the information in Wikipedia, misinformation can be fixed. In the best case, cranks who are unable to accept critical editing of their writing will find they have no platform and leave. However, those willing to present their interests in a less-biased way become valuable contributors.
You have a special focus on localizing healthcare-related topics. Could you tell us more about why and how you handle this subject specifically? How did the pandemic affect your job?
There are more than 210,000 health articles across all languages of Wikipedia encyclopedias, which are supported by more than 2 million references and collectively receive 4.8 billion page views per year. This amount of traffic means Wikipedia is one of the most consulted sources of information in the world.
In order to deliver quality health content in local languages, we typically begin by using the existing topic prioritization process established by Wikimedia Medicine’s Translation Task Force. Using this method, we select the English version of Wikipedia medical content which we translate to local languages. That process seeks to deliver the health information tailored for regional audiences like India to the most people possible. We always aim for the highest-quality information which has already gone through Wikipedia’s English language quality control process. The translation process includes staging text for stakeholder evaluation, translating it in a way that similarly invites comment, and complying with existing Wikimedia community processes for stakeholder participation. Once content is publicly available and after three months — a typical amount of time to collect Wikipedia user response — we measure and report the quality of the content and its associated impacts using native Wikipedia measurement tools. These tools report the Wikimedia suite of communication metrics, including pageviews, editor engagement, and any user comments.
In your experience, what are some of the most important reasons for the work you do in the region you focus on?
The problem we face today is a fundamental lack of health information accessible via the internet. That’s especially troublesome given India’s many languages spread across a large general population. People everywhere have a right to accurate information on which they can make important healthcare decisions regarding basic health, immunizations, family planning, nutrition, child and maternal health, and other areas of importance.
Many Indian citizens may have access to the internet but no immediate access to physicians and healthcare facilities — thus, access to basic health information can save lives. For example, diarrheal disease is a leading cause of death for children in India and many developing countries, where many parents incorrectly believe that withholding water is a treatment. Access to a simple Wikipedia article about diarrhea enables the teaching and dissemination of simple consumer health information — treating diarrhea with water — that can have life-saving effects on vulnerable populations.
The population of India is 1.3 billion people, of whom 460 million are Internet users. India is the second-largest online market after China. India is home to nearly 636 million internet users. This makes online access to health information critical to improving overall population health. Wikipedia has been the most consulted source of health information in the English language since 2007 and is an increasingly popular source of information in India. Because of Wikipedia’s popularity and influence, development of Wikipedia’s content in Indian languages is a critical strategy for meeting the medical information needs of Indian communities.
I understand you have some interesting hobbies you enjoy in your personal time. Could you tell us more about that?
I love scuba diving and eating ice cream in my free time. I am an FAA-certified drone pilot and a PADI-certified scuba diver.
When you imagine the future of your work, what do you see?
I feel free access to healthcare information in regional languages is necessary in today’s world. I see a big opportunity to make this world a healthier place through knowledge sharing.
Is there anything else you want to mention or comment upon?
Wikipedia needs lots of research organizations to contribute their own translations of topics in their field of expertise. Anyone who wants to contribute can create a Wikipedia account and publish content. If anyone wants to collaborate with me or organizations in India, then please contact me!
Cameron Rasmusson is Editor-in-Chief of MultiLingual.