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Bengali eSpeak Aids in Disaster Management

Posted by Anirudh Sridhar at Oct 15, 2013 09:00 AM |
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Software developed on the eSpeak was deployed in Bangladesh and helped its citizens for disaster management.

The Bangla e-Speak text to speech synthesizer which was developed as part of a project funded by The Hans Foundation and executed by CIS in partnership with other partner organizations from the Daisy Forum of India was recently deployed in Bangladesh during cyclone Mahasen to read out messages which were sent during the emergency. A lot of organizations are working on TTS and their usefulness has already been established by Mahiti when they developed the Bangla Bol eSpeak. The text-to- speech (TTS) software is a very important technology for the visually impaired in that it gives a voice to text, enabling access to a whole host of information.[1]

Currently, a lot of proprietary TTS programmes are available like Balabolka, and Ultra Hal TTS reader but this TTS is an inexpensive alternative for the visually impaired.[2] This is because eSpeak is an open source compact software speech synthesizer. It is currently not available in many local Indian languages but it is possible to add new languages and even new dialects. The Bangla TTS project converted speech into Bengali.[3]

This programme was used in an innovative and useful way by applying it in disaster situations. In the case of a disaster, whether natural or national security related, the news media do not provide information in an accessible format. It is extremely important in these situations for the visually impaired to have clear access to ongoing events, get updates about things like rescue plans. The main work in order to be useful in these scenarios involved integrating national Geographic Information System (GIS), mobile phone networks and fax for the different stakeholders that need to interact before the disaster and for the responses after the disaster.[4]

The Bangla TTS was also integrated into the National Disaster Response system in Bangladesh, a country that is geographically vulnerable to many natural disasters like floods.

In order to integrate the TTS into the National Disaster Response system of Bangladesh, within the framework of the established philosophy, the entire disaster management system was built on an open-source stack. The automated bulk outward calling provision that was built for alerting people about an impending disaster had to broadcast the messages of which the text-to-voice conversion also had to be automated. During the process, many open source tools were tried but eSpeak was finally tried as it has a really low memory footprint and is very efficient for a large scale of operation. During the cyclone Mahasen, this proved decisive as the call volumes were very high and eSpeak scaled to meet the huge demand. All the pre-emptive alerts that were sent through the disaster management system were sent through this TTS. The programme helped a large size of the population and a diverse demographic. The Entire coastal Bangladeshi population benefited from the system. During the peak load, the system handled 27,000 calls, which shows that it has the capacity to deliver in the most difficult situations.

Mahiti,along with a partner in Bangladesh, was the organization responsible for developing this software. There are currently a few Bangla Text to Speech softwares on the internet like Kathak TTS but the Bangla Bol has some unique features.[5]

It’s an eSpeak Bangla language support which is open-source and is based on the”formant synthesis" method. This method enables the integration of many languages without modifying the underlying framework. It also enables language experts with even no programming knowledge to add or improve the language supported in eSpeak which is the most important feature of eSpeak. eSpeak was not just chosen because of its technical strengths, but also because it’s a part of a project to develop and integrate into a Non-Visual Desktop Access (NVDA) open-source project which aims to enable computer desktop accessibility (screen reader functionality) to the blind. This is so that it can be used in many local Indian languages. Bangla was part of the first set of four languages that was completed by Mahiti (Hindi, Telugu and Malayalam were the remaining three). Therefore, while the far reaching consequences of the development work under this project being carried on in India to benefit its own marginalized populations and that of neighboring countries was never in doubt, this recent usage in Bangladesh adds fresh impetus to the work and underscores the criticality of this work.

[1]. Sen, Prasanjit. "Reading without Seeing: Mahiti's work on eSpeak." Mahiti Blog. Mahiti, 27 08 2013. Web. 2 Oct. 2013.

[2]. Alam, Firoj , and Mumit Khan. "Text To Speech for Bangla Language using Festival." BRAC University, Bangladesh . (2007): n. page. Web. 8 Oct. 2013.

[3]. Sen, Prasanjit. "Mahiti launches 'Bangla Bola' eSpeak (Bengali Speaking eSpeak) ." Mahiti Blog. Mahiti, 28 08 2013. Web. 2 Oct. 2013.

[4]. "Our Work- mproving National Disaster response." Mahiti, n.d. Web. 2 Oct 2013.

[5]. See footnote 2.

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