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AI to Help Baltimore Agencies Bridge Language Gaps

By the end of the year, Baltimore residents who don’t speak English will be able to communicate with 911 services in their native language, without waiting for an interpreter, officials say.

Baltimore City Hall
Baltimore, Md., City Hall
(TNS) — By the end of the year, Baltimore residents who don’t speak English will be able to communicate with 911 services in their native language, without waiting for an interpreter.

Convey911, which currently provides text-based translation services for the city’s 911 calls, plans to implement a new, AI-backed service in the coming months to improve communication between residents who speak languages other than English and workers taking 911 calls.

Jeff Bruns, CEO of Convey911, presented plans for the technology to a city council committee Thursday. A caller will be able to speak in their native language, which will be detected by artificial intelligence and translated on the call center employee’s screen. When the employee responds in English, that will be translated and then delivered back to the caller in a synthesized voice, like Siri, speaking the caller’s native language.

That service will initially be supported in about 65 languages, Bruns said, with hopes of scaling up to 105 languages by spring of next year.

The solution was one of several offered up by city agencies at a Thursday informational hearing held by the city council’s Education, Workforce and Youth committee on hiring bilingual speakers to help residents who speak limited English and struggle to access government resources. The committee held a similar hearing in February.

The issue has been spearheaded by councilmember Odette Ramos, a Democrat representing the 14th district and Baltimore’s first elected Latino.

“Everybody should be able to access city government,” Ramos said in an interview Tuesday. “The Latino population is growing so fast in our city and everybody ... whether you speak English or not, should have access to city services and should have access to public meetings and should have access to the same services that everybody else has.”

Though several people acknowledged that there are speakers of other languages who face similar language access barriers, the hearing largely focused on meeting the needs of Baltimore’s Spanish-speaking population.

When it comes to residents who speak languages other than English, Spanish clearly leads the way. For example, in September, 985 of the city’s 911 calls were handled in Spanish; the city processed 80,351 calls total. The next highest language, Mandarin, generated nine calls in that month, said Tenea Reddick, the city’s 911 director. Other languages included Arabic, Russian, Hindi, French and Farsi, among others.

Additionally, across the 12 city agencies that are a part of the City’s Language Access Program, there were 3,130 calls made to Language Line, a third-party translation service, from Jan. 1, 2022, to Sep. 30, 2023. Of those callers, 2,875 — over 90% — requested a Spanish translator, according to numbers provided by the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, known as MIMA.

There are certain city agencies where help may be more readily accessible. For example, 100% of MIMA’s staff is bilingual and 50% speak Spanish, according to the agency’s director, Catalina Rodriguez Lima. And MIMA works with other city agencies to translate essential documents into Spanish.

But residents at the February hearing said they’ve continuously encountered roadblocks when trying to speak with government agencies or access government resources. And organizations that work with those residents have similar frustrations.

Julia Sarmiento, the tenant services and eviction prevention program manager for the Latino Economic Development Center, said that members of the Hispanic community can struggle when trying to fill out forms for government assistance. Though the forms are in Spanish, they’re complicated, and residents need help from employees within social services offices that often don’t speak Spanish, Sarmiento said.

People like Sarmiento have to step in, she said, helping residents not just fill out and submit forms but respond to replies from government agencies that they may not understand.

“Sometimes, we have to continuously see the clients over and over,” Sarmiento said. “It’s like we’re doing the social work social workers should be doing.”

Sarmiento, who did not testify Thursday, said she has not seen any major changes since February.

Like other advocates, Sarmiento wants to see Baltimore invest in hiring more bilingual people to work in the city.

Currently, of the city’s 71 employees that answer 911 calls, two of them are bilingual and both speak Spanish, Reddick said. She’s looking to hire more bilingual workers who speak a variety of languages, though she said it’s been a struggle.

“The information is not getting to a certain group of individuals,” Reddick said. “It’s time for us to take that information to them and also invite them in so they can see the environment of 911 and get them excited for possibly working here.”

Ramos said during the hearing that while the new initiatives on the horizon for 911 are exciting, they are not a substitute for hiring bilingual employees.

Quinton Herbert, the director of the Department of Human Resources, said that 3% of city employees self-identify as Latino, as compared to between 5 and 6% of the city’s overall population. Herbert added that of the city’s 12,785 employees, 2,900 chose not to racially identify, meaning the actual number of Latino employees could be higher.

At the hearing, some speakers emphasized that just hiring Spanish speakers is not enough to bridge the divide in accessing services.

Giuliana Valencia-Banks, a member of the Baltimore City Hispanic Commission and the Latino Racial Justice Circle, noted that some Latinos speak Indigenous languages and would struggle to communicate with bilingual employees who speak Spanish. She emphasized the need for cultural competency training.

“[We] want to remind the council that shared language does not always mean shared culture or shared lived experience,” Valencia-Banks said. “It is important to highlight this because the presumption can be that hiring Latino Spanish-speakers will solve language barriers to individuals with limited English proficiency. And this is just not the case.”

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