According to experts at Google, Arabic is one of the fastest growing languages on the worldwide web. Over the past two years, social networking sites including Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have experienced a massive increase in Arabic language usage. Yet, although there are close to 350 million Arabic language speakers in the Arab world alone, the amount of online content in Arabic hovers at only 3 percent of the total.
Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI), a member of Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, and Taghreedat, a regional Arabic e- content community building initiative based in Qatar, organised an Arabic YouTube Tweetup over the weekend to introduce new programmes and tools that will help to close this gap in content. The event featured social networking and digital content giants YouTube, Google and Twitter, who talked about their initiatives in promoting and supporting Arabic language online.
The tweetup, scheduled as part of Google’s month-long Arabic Web Days project, gathered over 400 content creators from around the region looking to contribute to the acceleration of digital content in Arabic, with a focus on developing video content for YouTube. Representatives from YouTube and video content entrepreneurs from across the region shared their insight and experiences of how to create viral Arabic videos on the YouTube platform.
Dr Ahmed Elmagarmid, Executive Director of QCRI, outlined the Arabic language initiatives underway at the Institute. “At QCRI we have a large team dedicated to promoting the Arabic language by conducting world-class research in Arabic language technologies – including content creation, machine translation and search optimisation,” he said. “This is our culture, our language. As a community, we are in the best position to create and make significant contributions to enrich the content and to drive the renaissance of the Arabic language.”
Speaking about Ethraa, QCRI’s initiative to enrich and increase Arabic digital content, Majd Abbar, Director of Arabic Content Initiatives at QCRI, explained the reasons behind the effort. “Language provides the underpinnings of a knowledge-based society – communication, expression of thoughts, sharing of ideas and information,” he said. “Arabic was once the language of science, literature and knowledge. Ethraa is focused on ensuring that the Arabic language is restored to its natural position as a language of science and research, which supports Qatar’s transformation to a knowledge-based economy.”
Ensuring the ease of use as an instantaneous communication platform, and that the content is meaningful and interesting to the rest of the world, is also what drives the efforts at Twitter, Inc. With 17 million tweets in Arabic every day, Kaveh Gharib, Localization Project Manager at Twitter Inc., stated that alongside the opportunities for content growth come challenges, such as how to separate the signal from the noise. “In the Middle East, we need to tap into our creativity and take control of our own content, not let others tell it for us,” he said. “We each have the power to create stories. This should be done by developing high quality, localised content.” Twitter is committed to providing a platform that supports right-to-left languages, which would offer a tremendous boost to Arabic digital content creation.
Dr Fayeq Oweis, Arabic Localization Manager at Google Inc., talked about numerous initiatives underway at Google in support of creating Arabic digital content, including local Arabic dialect voice recognition on Android phones, and tools that are available to write in Arabic without falling back on Arabizi. (Arabizi is an alphabet based on Latin script commonly used to communicate short digital messages in Arabic when the Arabic alphabet is not available due to technical reasons). The YouTube platform is also fully Arabicised.
There are eight localized YouTube domains in the Middle East and more than 260 million videos viewed a day in the MENA region. Maha Abouelenein, Head of Communications for Google MENA talked about the initiatives at YouTube for the region including the Google Media Academy that teaches journalists how to find the news and broadcast the news using YouTube, and includes tips on how to tag videos, how to embed videos and how to share videos in their reporting. “YouTube is a very powerful platform that gives Arabic users global reach through video, with the talent in MENA we want to share their vibrant content with the rest of the world. We are working to provide the right tools to create and capture these moments, and let people know they can make a difference. There are a lot of moving stories in the region, a lot of rich content. The region’s youth can play a key role to tell these stories and be the voice of an entire generation,” said Abouelenein.
Samy Al Mubarak, co-founder of Taghreedat, summed up the evening and encouraged the audience to contribute creative Arabic content online. “It is not enough to talk about the need for better Arabic online content. It’s time to act and do something about it. We should take part together at the individual level and at the institutional level. We saw ways to do this today. With initiatives at Taghreedat, QCRI, Google, YouTube and Twitter we can localise content, and more effectively represent our ideas, our vision, and our culture.”