8. Software is eating the (English speaking) World

[Part 8 of my series on language and service design]

In 2011 I created a bilingual interactive government website. It used WordPress, although it was a custom approach to WordPress designed to make it scalable for national use and get around some of the performance scale issues that WordPress had at the time. 

When we created a bilingual approach using WordPress, I checked to see if there was a Welsh language version of WordPress that we could use. There wasn’t, despite the popularity of WordPress then and now. Then I checked whether I could use the funding we had to create a bilingual version of WordPress that would be available to others. Frustratingly, despite the fact that the translation costs for the site we were creating were more than 50% of the costs of translating the entirety of WordPress and making it available for everyone, we couldn’t do this – more for timing reasons than anything else. 

I did try to talk to a few people about using the translations we’d commissioned as the basis for a wider approach, but I had no takers. I am more than sure that it would have been a net saving on the public purse to maintain a Welsh language version of WordPress over the years than it has been to constantly translate “just the bits that users can see” on a constant ad-hoc basis. 

In 2021, WordPress is no less popular: the last stats I saw had in powering between one in six and one in eight of every website in the world. The great news it that there is now a Welsh language version of WordPress. But the only way to make a bilingual WordPress site is to create two separate sites at two different URLs and link them manually to each other, or to purchase a plug-in like WPML or polylang. That means it’s easy to create a monolingual website, but difficult and expensive to create a bilingual one.  

WordPress is open source, which means it’s easy to produce plug-ins to work with it and to make them available. How many times does the public sector in Wales have to pay for proprietary plug-ins to make a bilingual website before it becomes more cost efficient to create an easy way for anyone in Wales to access, for free, the software that allows them to create a bilingual website?  

I’ve used WordPress as an example here: there are other open source website publishing packages in existence, and other examples of software that could be open sourced to help ensure that barriers to language use are removed from publishing content. 

This becomes even more important if recent research on technology for community organisations is correct and “community organisations need community tech”:

But what if some community organisations need different kinds of technology to businesses or governments? What if the growing critique of the social and environmental impact of corporate platforms makes adopting those products a moral and ethical dilemma for community organisations? … Most off-the-shelf tech is optimised for organisations to expand their reach by doing the same thing again and again in more efficient ways — to open a chain of pubs or a network or libraries, say, rather than to establish a complex identity that has stronger ties to a single locality

Why Community Organisations need Community Tech – Rachel Coldicutt

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