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San Jose AI Initiative Boosts Accessibility, but by How Much?

The city of San Jose has adopted an AI-powered translation tool to improve accessibility at City Council meetings for people who primarily speak a language other than English. It may see wider use, depending upon its performance thus far.

Silhouette of a human face made from light blue dots and connected lines. A soundwave is coming from the mouth to indicate speech, also in light blue. Dark blue background.
Having implemented an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered technology platform to make City Council meetings more accessible to people whose first language is not English, the city of San Jose is now weighing its use elsewhere.

But first, there must be feedback.

The tool was unveiled and first used at the April 16 council meeting; it provides real-time AI transcription in more than 50 languages. According to the city’s news release, 57 percent of San Jose’s 1 million residents speak a language other than English in their homes. Of these other languages, Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin and Cantonese are the most commonly spoken.

More than a month after the initial launch date, the city is gathering public input on the tool. San Jose City Clerk Toni J. Taber explained that the city will measure the technology’s impact quarterly, with feedback gathered by community groups and by assessing whether there is an increase in participants using the software to speak at City Council meetings.

“Current feedback has been very positive,” Taber said via email, noting the software is now being used within both City Council and council committee meetings.

“We’d like to expand this to other departments for other community meetings,” she said.

Wordly is the platform the city is using for this initiative. The technology was created to solve San Jose’s challenge of providing access to civic engagement for all, regardless of the language they speak or their hearing ability, as the company’s Chief Marketing Officer Dave Deasy previously told Government Technology.

As Deasy said then, live translation for city council meetings was the software’s top public-sector use case. He noted that cities can customize the glossary for the software, enabling a city to define unique terminology, include officials’ names and block hate speech.

The city of San Jose has been working to capitalize on the AI boom, as an early adopter of guidelines on generative AI.

As CIO Khaled Tawfik told Government Technology last month, AI’s rapid emergence is challenging government agency leaders to “think differently” about how to deliver services to constituents.

A big part of this is the city’s leadership of an AI coalition that has garnered participation from agencies nationwide. The coalition aims to lead responsible adoption of AI governance and use; and to do so, it released a resource toolkit earlier this year. The coalition welcomes participation, and information on joining can be found on the city’s website.

“AI is moving fast, so it’s really hard for San Jose to tackle this challenge alone,” Tawfik said previously, of participation in the coalition.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.