Inspiration: Localizing F/LOSS

mekhalaInspiration can come from the most unexpected places. I'm a little past halfway through AdvocacyDevII. As I expected, there are a lot of really interesting people here, and I have had some great conversations, and learned a fair bit. It has also been great to meet face-to-face with a fair number of people that I have corresponded with over the last 2 years, but never met. I've also been talked into doing a little bit of volunteer work showing people Advokit, the project I worked on in the 2004 election cycle, which is good for my soul.

On the less positive side, my action oriented personality has struggled with some of the more fragmented "make it up as you go along" sessions. Some things are better with preparation. I also haven't found a way to have the discussion I wanted to have about E-Advocacy 2.0, and I really hope I get a chance to do that before the conference ends tomorrow.

But I had a very unexpected and inspiring experience that had nothing to do with advocacy happen during today's "speed geeking" sessions (about which I hope to write more later). A slight, soft-spoken, but clearly very determined woman named Hok Kakada demonstrated software she and her team at Open Forum of Cambodia had localized into Khmer, the language of Cambodia. She demonstrated Drupal, Open Office, Firefox, and Thunderbird, all running in Khmer, and told us that her team had translated over 30,000 strings.

I was impressed when I saw the demo, because I know how hard localization can be -- I once ran a 9 month project to localize software documentation and strings into Japanese, and it was a long brutal slog, and I had available to me all the resources that a VC funded Silicon Valley startup could provide. The more I have thought about it, the more impressed and inspired I am, both with the effort made by Kakada's team's, and with the power of open source software in enabling her team to do what would otherwise be impossible.

I can only imagine how meager the resources that Kakada and her team had, and the challenges that they faced (reading between the lines of the status reports, it is clear that the response of US and European open source developers wasn't always everything it could have been), in a country with a per capita income of $2,206 a year (compare to US $35,750).

Yet the localization was done beautifully, even lovingly. I can't read or speak Khmer, but the fact that they replaced the default Firefox with a culturally appropriate and gorgeous graphic of Mekhala bringing light to the world showed the attention to detail. I asked about the motivation behind localizing Firefox and Thunderbird, and Kakada told me "People living in the rural areas of Cambodia don't speak English. We don't want people to have to learn English to use email and the internet." Those words have been resonating in my brain all night, and kept me up writing this post.

Here in the United States, choosing open source can be a statement of ideology, the result of a practical cost benefit analysis, or a business decision about avoiding vendor lock-in. In Cambodia, it sounds like the ability and encouragement to modify the source code that comes with Drupal, Open Office, Firefox, and Thunderbird enabled the only path to making it easy for Cambodians to access email and the internet, and to create content, without having to learn a foreign language. That's inspiring. If you want to find out more about the Khmer software initiative, a little late night Google research turned up some status reports and the Khmer Software Initiativeproject page and vision page.

Unfortunately I couldn't find any way to donate to the project, but when I find a way, I will update this post with that information. (Cross-posted at