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Cities Bring Live, Automated Translation to Public Meetings

Officials aim to ensure all residents are able to receive important information and can ask questions in the language in which they’re most comfortable, a longtime goal that has proved difficult in the past.

Over the shoulders shot of a person holding a smartphone where they are viewing translations (the text is too blurry to read). The person is also holding an informational card on which is visible a QR code and icons of headphones and a smartphone.
Community member using Wordly on their smartphone. Screenshot from footage provided by North Las Vegas.
Screenshot/Courtesy North Las Vegas
As cities grapple with how to meet their residents’ language needs, some are looking to an AI-powered software to help, one that promises real-time audio and text translations at public meetings.

Almost 46 percent of the population in Gilroy, Calif., speaks a language other than English at home, according to the latest census. Officials there aim to ensure all of them receive important information and can comment and ask questions in the language in which they’re most comfortable, but the process isn’t always smooth. Making City Council meetings accessible can be both expensive and cumbersome, explained Rachelle Bedell, the city’s communication and engagement manager.

Previously, residents would find a notice on council meeting agendas advising them to contact the city clerk in advance if they wanted interpreters at the meeting. City officials might then have 48 hours to find a company able to produce the needed professionals. The city is also legally required to provide two interpreters for any meeting lasting two hours or longer, meaning, “we were looking at a minimum cost of $500 per meeting, for any meeting,” Bedell said.

And, sometimes, one of the city’s many Spanish-speaking residents might want to give comment during a meeting where an interpreter hadn’t been booked in advance. City officials would then scramble to find employees who could translate.

So, Gilroy went hunting for a smoother and more cost-effective method. In January, officials adopted Wordly, an AI-powered translation tool that it’s now using at City Council and planning commission meetings. The service provides real-time text and speech translation for up to 30 languages, bringing the cost of a two-hour meeting down to $300.

Residents attending a meeting in person can use their smartphones to scan a QR code and pull up a web page where they select their language of choice. They can then view live transcriptions or opt to receive audio. Residents watching online from home can also use the service, Bedell said.

North Las Vegas speakers' podium where laptop can display translations.
Screenshot of footage provided by North Las Vegas

There are plenty of options for viewing translations onsite as well. North Las Vegas, Nev., debuted the same tool at its public meetings in August. It set up a laptop on a podium so speakers giving testimony could view the translations, and city councilors saw translations on their own screens. Plus, the council chambers feature two televisions, with one displaying transcriptions in English and the other in Spanish, said Rebecca Gipson, assistant city manager of North Las Vegas.

TV screen in the North Las Vegas city council chambers displays translation into Spanish.
Screenshot taken from footage courtesy of North Las Vegas

Spanish translation is especially important for North Las Vegas, where more than 40 percent of the population is Hispanic. The growing Filipino population will also be able to access Tagalog, pending software updates from the company, City Clerk Jackie Rodgers said at a meeting.

North Las Vegas previously relied on sending for city employees to translate when need arose, but wanted a more efficient option that could better serve residents watching remotely, Gipson said. Plus, the tool promises capabilities for more languages than the city could feasibly achieve with its staff.

“We’d have to have 30 interpreters in the council chambers … it would be a little bit impossible to do that in an in-person format,” Gipson said.

Because the tool can offer so many language options, residents aren’t restricted to just using those that city officials expect to be in demand, Bedell said. It also means translations are available even for languages that only a few constituents might speak.

Another useful feature has been the ability to add words to a customized glossary, so officials can teach the tool to correctly spell and pronounce city council and staff member names.

Typically, Gilroy gets about 10 people using Wordly remotely or on devices at each meeting where it’s offered, Bedell said. A peak of about 25 people used the service at the mayor’s last State of the City address.

Bedell said she could see still using human interpreters in certain situations. The decision of which kind of translation to offer would be case by case, influenced by factors like the meeting topic, practicality and logistics, and expected audience.

Wordly is used in a handful of other cities, too. Gipson said North Las Vegas' use has sparked interest from other institutions in Nevada that have asked for demonstrations.

AI-supported translation has been getting attention outside the council chambers as well. Government officials have adopted text translation chatbot services for messaging with residents, emergency managers have used AI-powered tools to live translate residents’ 911 calls and schools have used tools to translate lectures.


Civic Tech
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a senior staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.