Could an app end the UK’s council translation woes?

Does the crack in the footpath around the corner or the pothole just next to your drive, well, drive you crazy? For citizens in over 200 US cities, submitting a request to their local municipal government can be done quickly, efficiently, and in their language of choice through the PublicStuff app.

Having already fulfilled over 81,000 requests, PublicStuff is unique in the way it bridges communication between speakers of different languages through its One Voice instant translation technology. With support for 16 languages, users can type the request in their native tongue, which is then received in English by council staff. Replies and updates about the project are translated back to the original sender.

Lily Liu, CEO and founder, explains how users can see and comment on requests submitted by others on the platform even if they do not speak the same language. “If somebody submits [a complaint] in Vietnamese, somebody else can comment on it in Spanish, and the city staff person will see it in English,” she says. As an easy means of communication between different nationalities within a community, we haven’t come across anything quite like it.

Surprisingly, not every American city has subscribed to the platform, although those that have, have reportedly saved between $16,000 to $320,000 annually (£10,000 to £210,483). The city of Houston, Texas, released its own 311 smartphone app which isn’t currently offered in Spanish, even though 43 percent of the city’s population is Hispanic.

The applications offer a fascinating juxtaposition between how councils in the US and the UK seek to communicate with their foreign nationals. Across the pond, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles told locals to stop wasting money by translating leaflets into foreign languages, stating that public authorities were spending nearly £20 million a year on translations. Pickles also states that translation services had an “unintentional, adverse impact on integration by reducing the incentive for some migrant communities to learn English.”

Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg quash fears that translation services working with UK public authorities would do away with altogether. “The Government currently spends tens of millions of pounds on translation services and materials,” said Clegg in a recent speech on immigration. “And, of course, people should get help, if they need it to understand what their doctor is saying, or how to sign their children up for school, or what’s going on at a court hearing.”

The PublicStuff app helps citizens quickly contact the correct jurisdiction of local government, making them more informed citizens by automating the service request process. Public Staff charges cities a modest $0.65 (£0.42) per request.

So, would PublicStuff work in the UK and, importantly, would it make Eric Pickles happy? There are more than 100 languages spoken in the UK, the most popular being Polish, Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali, and Gujarati behind the official languages of English and Welsh. If local authorities seek to embrace and engage with foreign nationals, then it is important that they will need to effectively communicate with them and more often than not this will have to be done through translated materials.

However, an application such as PublicStuff might help foreign nationals get in touch with local authorities for quick fixes to the community, such as inspecting any illegal construction works or requesting that graffiti be removed.

Do you have a document or a brochure that needs translating? If so, we are here to help. For a free quote, get in touch with via email at [email protected] or call us on +44 (0) 207 397 2770