Centre for Internet & Society

Time Out finds out what Wikipedia’s doing to turn the info mammoth Kannada friendly

The article by Akhila Seetharaman was published in TimeOut Bengaluru on June 21, 2013. T. Vishnu Vardhan and Dr. U.B. Pavanaja are quoted.

Some Wikipedia numbers: Two hundred and eighty-six languages, 42 lakh articles in English. 2.6 crore articles totally. One lakh articles in Hindi, 50,000 in Telugu and Tamil each. Forty thousand in Marathi; 30,000 in Malayalam; 14,000 articles in Kannada. Number of Kannada Wikipedia contributors: 25. Kannadaspeaking population: 47 million. “That’s half a person working to build this public knowledge repository for every million Kannada speakers,” said Vishnu Vardhan, who directs the Access for Knowledge programme in India, a programme that is anchored by the Centre for Internet and Society. “While Hindi Wikipedia gets 60 lakhs page views per month, Kannada gets nine lakh eyeballs monthly.”

Vardhan and his team do outreach programmes, training college studentsin Karnataka on Wikipedia and encouraging them to contribute to its growing body of knowledge in Kannada. So far they’ve had 16 programmes and reached out to 2,500 people. Vardhan admits that there’s a mixed response. “It’s not a labour of love for everyone. Some people are excited to contribute, others feel it’s too much work.”

But he believes it’s important to get across the main message: that Wikipedia is a public knowledge infrastructure for the future. “In our minds libraries, books, newspapers, archives are knowledge repositories,” he said. “But the book is a relatively recent phenomenon, only about a hundred years old. And now everything is becoming the Internet. What is going to happen to our language or culture in the digital era?” Vardhan explains to people that this is the gap they could be filling by taking part in Indian language Wikipedia.

On the agenda for the coming year is growing the content in five Indian language Wikipedias, including Kannada. It’s a gargantuan task. Nobody gets paid to write on Wikipedia and there are technical challenges: you need browser support, Kannada fonts, and most keyboard layouts are in English. But as Vardhan says the Kannada font can be downloaded for free.

But free knowledge communities in each language have to overcome hurdles if there’s to be a valuable repository of knowledge for the public in Indian languages. “We are all netizens. We are all educated, metro people. We’re comfortable accessing the Internet but how many of us use it in our own language? Do we type in Kannada or write in Kannada? While access to knowledge happens in English there is still a large population that does its business in Kannada,” he said. Visit kn.wikipedia.org.

Tech’s messages
UB Pavanaja was among the first eggheads to take Kannada content online. Time Out spoke to him about the city’s lingo

Could you tell us about a little about yourself?
I worked as a scientist at Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) in Mumbai for 15 years before getting into the emerging field of computers and Indian languages. I started the first Kannada website, and the first Kannada online magazine. I also created the first Indian language version (Kannada) of Logo software, a popular programming language for children and advised the Government of Karnataka on standarising Kannada on computers. I now work with the Centre for Internet and Society as part of the Access to Knowledge team.

How has Kannada changed in the past two decades?
There have been lots of changes. It is mostly Kanglish now, no more Kannada. Most people have replaced common Kannada words like “appa”, “amma”, “anna”, “akka”, “chikkappa”, “atte”, with dad, mom, bro, sis, uncle, aunty. Nobody uses Kannada numbers. Go to any shop and the shopkeeper will give you the price in English and not in Kannada. Even the display boards in shops are now in English. Common vegetables and fruits names are now displayed in English. I don’t know the names of common vegetables and fruits in English so I can’t rely on the boards for information. I either know the vegetable by looking at it or I don’t. If the price board is moved slightly, then I won’t know the price of the vegetable. For example, in Reliance Fresh, they write “coccinea” for our common vegetable which we know as “tondekaayi”. Let them write coccinea in English script. But why do they write that in Kannada script?

How have information and communication technologies influenced Kannada language over the years? About ten or 15 years ago when developments in IT were rapid, the implementation of Kannada in IT was not keeping pace with time. Hence people thought it was not possible to use Kannada in IT. But that has changed now. Whatever is possible with English in IT is now possible with Kannada also. But people lack awareness and willingness to adopt it. Wherever there is computerisation, it is automatically in English and not Kannada. For, example, the online booking of tickets by KSRTC is in English only. Technically it is now possible to develop a data-driven website in Kannada. But KSRTC is not willing to do so.

Any Kannada lingo that didn’t exist two decades?
There are many. Some samples: “message maadu”, “delete maadu”, “missed call kodu”, “update maadu”, “copy maadu”. Most of them are derived from using technology.

What have been the biggest influences on the Kannada language in recent times?
Mobile phones, smart phones, FM radio, TV channels, and movies.