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KoboToolbox: Transforming Humanitarian Work Through Voice Capture and Translation

By Erin Connor

Published 06-08-22

Submitted by Cisco Systems, Inc.

two people speaking using a phone to translate

The Transformational Tech series highlights Cisco’s nonprofit grant recipients that use technology to help transform the lives of individuals and communities.

Nonprofit Kobo, Inc. provides humanitarian aid workers with the tools they need to gather, manage, coordinate, and analyze data from interviewing displacement survivors, to be used to inform evidence-based programming and policymaking. With assistance of grant funding from Cisco Foundation, Kobo Inc. partnered with CLEAR Global to develop audio capture technology, speech recognition technology, and machine learning translation that can be integrated into their humanitarian data collection platform — enabling organizations to improve response times, more efficiently distribute resources, and more easily share information to coordinate aide programming and relief efforts.

When natural disasters, disease, war, and other major crises happen, it is critical for humanitarian organizations and relief agencies to quickly assess the situation, so aid workers can determine the appropriate response and allocate resources and aid effectively. In the past, these needs assessments were often carried out manually in the field, which resulted in errors, complications in coordination, and delayed response times.

According to the World Meteorological Organization, climate change has driven a five-fold increase in extreme weather and natural disasters. With more natural disasters happening, more than 26.6 million people have been displaced, also increasing humanitarian assistance needs. With that, the need for assistance funding has increased, making it imperative to build tools that reduce costs, increase efficiency, and inform response activities. Enter KoboToolbox: a free, open-source software platform that works to improve data collection, management, visualization, and analysis in environments with weak or no infrastructure, and limited access to critical resources.

COVID + Kobo’s speech recognition

New technologies like KoboToolbox have already impacted disaster resilience efforts. Cisco began supporting KoboToolbox in 2014, to launch v1.0, making the tool publicly available to humanitarian response organizations. Today, KoboToolbox is the most widely used data collection and analysis platform in humanitarian assistance and protection and is used by multilateral agencies, such as the United Nations, the World Bank, as well as a host of NGOs, including the International Rescue Committee, Doctors Without Borders, and Save the Children.

Through funding secured from Cisco Foundation and Humanitarian Grand Challenges, Kobo was able to build new features for conducting phone-based interviews, extend voice recording capabilities, and add new options for using automatic speech recognition and machine translation for better dealing with responses to open-ended questions. In addition, a collaboration with CLEAR Global extended automated transcription and translation options to languages that are most important to humanitarian organizations by integrating open-source language models.

Over the last years, and especially through the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kobo team has learned that aid workers can sometimes struggle to engage with people living in vulnerable situations, especially through language barriers. Audio capture and translation technology has become increasingly critical, as humanitarian actors now respond to more refugee crises. And along with the social distancing measures around COVID, in-person data collection has become challenging—making remote data collection tools essential. “Humanitarian workers and their data collection teams often struggle to convert what people are telling them on the ground into meaningful data that can inform operations” says Patrick Vinck, Kobo, Inc Co-Founder. “I think that these new technologies, if used responsibly, can help document nuanced views much more effectively.”

Recording audio leads to deeper understanding

The Kobo team started to see a real issue with the lack of audio recording capabilities offered to aid workers. So, while CLEAR Global focused on advancing automated methods for transcription and translation, Kobo added in new recording features that integrated within their broader data collection platform. Now humanitarians could rely on audio recording as an additional backup or verification method. Previously, humanitarians could ask questions and manually type in the answers they heard from people affected by humanitarian crises. Now, recording audio to responses–or of entire interviews–is an easy way to document conversations. In addition, organizations can now easily transcribe audio responses to text, either by having the first draft created through automated speech recognition, or by typing in text manually. Transcripts or notes created this way can then be translated into other languages–a strong requirement for many humanitarian organizations working in multilingual contexts.

These new features give aid workers access to directly and immediately record audio in the Kobo survey form. This capability is powerful because later, the survey administrators can listen and compare the captured data with the audio to spot check, fill in missing pieces, and refer people to more training. This technology offers humanitarians with critical supplementary material that gives them space to analyze the audio and serves as proper quality control, further enriching the Kobo team’s ability to disseminate the data.

This new toolkit can help humanitarians better collect data from victims of disaster, no matter where they live and what language they speak. Over the next year, more features will be added, through additional support from Cisco, that will allow humanitarians to rapidly analyze transcripts, notes, and other qualitative data. “Through these new features humanitarians will be able to collect richer, more qualitative data into the kinds of rapid and large-scale surveys that have made KoboToolbox so important for many organizations around the world,” adds Tino Kreutzer, Chief Operating Officer of Kobo, Inc. “Our main emphasis is to make these tools as intuitive and user-friendly as possible, because we know how working in humanitarian emergencies makes training on new tools and methods extremely challenging.”

KoboToolbox in Eastern Europe

Because of the tremendous number of organizations providing aid to the people of Ukraine, Kobo has noted a significant increase in usage throughout eastern Europe. Additionally, the Kobo team has been working on releasing language translations for that region. They just added Polish and Czech to the translation interface, and Ukrainian and Hungarian are set to release in the coming weeks.

On the Kobo horizon

The KoboToolbox platform has been used in every conflict or large-scale natural disaster setting around the world since 2014. Kobo’s tools allow organizations to respond faster, allocate resources more effectively, and share information with peer organizations to provide a more coordinated relief effort. And as of July 2020, the platform has created and deployed over 715,000 projects and helped over 160 million people. As of May 2022, users submit on average over 14 million surveys each month, a 130 percent increase from a year before.

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