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The best way to describe how I’m feeling is deeply honored and emotionally moved. This is the feeling I get every time we start a Microsoft Translator Hub project in language preservation or translation because it is always an honor and privilege to work on preserving a language. Whether it’s in Fresno, California, working to preserve Hmong, or in distant Dhulikhel, Nepal, working to provide translations for Nepali, the feeling’s the same—a visceral sense of making an impact. I can attest that this feeling is a distinct benefit of being a part of the Microsoft Research Connections team.
The last week of September, I visited the Mexican states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo—or more accurately, I was warmly welcomed to these homelands of the Mayan people. Together with my colleagues Erick Stephens, director of technology at Microsoft Mexico, and Adrian Hernandez Becerril, a program manager at Microsoft Mexico, I came to the Universidad Intercultural Maya de Quintana Roo to finalize a project to preserve the Mayan language. Our visit marked the culmination of months-long discussions with the university and various government officials and was, in my opinion, a significant day on any calendar (more on calendars below). The future of the Mayan language is uncertain. University president Francisco Javier Rosado-May said it best when we first spoke back in May at the 2012 Latin American Faculty Summit in Cancun: “If we do not do anything to stop it, Mayan will be extinct within two generations.” President Rosado-May is extremely motivated to turn the tide, to change the future of the Mayan language, and his enthusiasm is infectious. So we and our partners in Microsoft Mexico decided to sponsor a project at his university along with Assistant Professor Martin Esquivel-Pat, to enable Mayan to survive the present and leap into the next b'ak'tun (in other words, the next long cycle of the Mayan calendar). For those of you who are concerned that the Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world this December 20, let me assure you, as my hosts in Quintana Roo assured me, this is simply the end of a time period in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar developed by the Mayans—a timekeeper more accurate than our own Julian calendar, by the way. What the Mayans say is that this December 21, we will be starting the next b'ak'tun, and with that, we hope, an era where Mayan remains a viable language for generations to come.
On arrival at the university, we were greeted by Javier Díaz Carvajal, head of the Secretariat of Economic Development for Quintana Roo, who, on behalf of the governor, extended me the honor of being made an “adopted citizen” of Quintana Roo. Afterwards, we signed an agreement with the government and the university to work on developing a Mayan language translation system that is solely built by the community and shared only when they decide to do so. And that is the real benefit of the Microsoft Translator Hub: it places the power of developing automatic translation models into the hands of the community where it belongs.
For the remainder of the day and the one that followed, we gave presentations and trained our hosts, professional translators, and students at the university on using the Microsoft Translator system, both through the Hub interface (which any bilingual person can use with a little training) and programmatically (which requires some technical knowledge). The latter is significant, as the university is looking to establish a computer and information science program, and this programmatic work with the Microsoft Translator Hub can help them build expertise in this area. My colleagues and I wanted to assist them in this endeavor in every way possible. But back to building the language translation system. Microsoft Translator Hub makes the process easy, but it still takes time and commitment from the community—it doesn’t just happen overnight. It took our partners at California State University of Fresno and the Hmong Language Partners more than seven months to collect and add enough parallel data (between Hmong and English), upload it to the system, train, build, and release the Hmong translator.
We got a preview of how the Mayan translation system might work at a workshop we ran in Quintana Roo—which focused largely on building a translator system between Spanish and Yucatec (a local Mayan dialect). Participants employed another distinguishing feature of the Microsoft Translator Hub that enables you to build translation systems directly between any two languages instead of pivoting (and propagating errors) through English. How long it will take to build a functional Mayan translator is unknown right now, but I know the community is very motivated to get it done early in the next b'ak'tun!
I believe it is vital to future of the human race that we remember and preserve our past. My colleagues and I are thrilled to have the opportunity to play even a small part in making that happen.
—Kristin Tolle, Director, Natural User Interactions Team, Microsoft Research Connections
Are you a student looking to win a little extra spending money? Or maybe just get some props for your coding chops? If so, you’ll want to enter your Windows Phone or Windows 8 app in the Project Hawaii Mobile Code Jam Challenge. But you’d better act quickly—you’ll need to register your project by October 30.
The Code Jam is being featured as an integral part of the upcoming IEEE Consumer Communications & Networking Conference (CCNC 2013), where three winners will be selected. The first-place winner will receive US$1,500; the second-place winner, $1,000; and the third-place winner, $700. Not bad, especially since you’ll get recognized in front of your peers at CCNC. And you can win some money to blow in Vegas.
Your project must be an app that runs on Windows Phone (version 7.5) or Windows 8, and it must use one or more of the Project Hawaii services. Oh, and it has to be available for use, free of charge, in academic and research settings. Visit the Mobile Code Jam site for full contest details.
So, you ask, what are the Project Hawaii services? Well, with Project Hawaii, you can develop cloud-enhanced Windows Phone apps that access a set of cloud services, which includes Social Mobile Sharing Service (SMASH), Path Prediction, Key Value, Translator, Optical Character Recognition, Speech to Text, Relay, and Rendezvous. Learn more.
While prizes and recognition are certainly nice, the main goal of the contest is to encourage researchers and, especially, students to advance the field of mobile apps and services. You can dream up any scenario you want: maybe an app that solves a societal problem, or one that uses mobile technology to help the elderly or infirm. Or maybe something to beat the odds at pai gow. You’re bound only by your creativity and imagination.
As noted above, you’ll need to register your project by October 30. The other key date is December 14, which is the deadline for submitting your overview paper describing your entry. You’re encouraged to prepare as much documentation as possible, including examples of how the app might be used and screenshots or other displays showing the software in action. Entries will be peer-reviewed and finalists will be invited to demonstrate their software to a panel of judges during the conference program.
Remember, if you want to kick out the jams at IEEE CCNC, you’ll need to register your project by October 30. If the trick-or-treaters show up and you’re still pondering your entry, you’re out of luck, so get jammin’.
—Arjmand Samuel, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections
Many of you have heard me talk passionately about ChronoZoom over the past year, especially about our goal to bridge the gap between the sciences and humanities through this amazing open-source tool, which strives to capture the history of everything. I love the amazing breadth of these ambitions.
Another thing I love about ChronoZoom is how it was created by the academic community, with assistance from Microsoft through Microsoft Research Connections. The academic part of the ChronoZoom team has had a very busy summer, delivering two releases independently, without any coaching from the Microsoft engineering team. I urge you to check out the new features and download the source code on Codeplex.
I had a fabulous time working with our community leader, Roland Saekow of the University of California, Berkeley, as we presented ChronoZoom at the International Big History Association Conference at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. I’d like to hand this blog over to Roland, to tell you about a great tribute the team received this summer!
—Rane Johnson-Stempson, Principal Research Director for Education and Scholarly Communication, Microsoft Research Connections
Three years ago, I was a student at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), taking a course on the history of everything. The course was titled “Big History: Cosmos, Earth, Life and Humanity.” Taught by Professor Walter Alvarez, it covered everything from the Big Bang to modern man. One of the most challenging aspects of a Big History course is grasping the timescales– all 13.7 billion years. To meet this challenge, Professor Alvarez and I set out to create a dynamic, zoomable timeline. Three years later, after much hard work by incredible teams of people, ChronoZoom received the seventeenth annual Digital Education Achievement Award.
Chris Engberg (left) and Roland Saekow (right) accept the Digital Education Achievement award on behalf of the ChronoZoom team from the Center for Digital Education, represented by Kristy Fifelski, New Media Director, e.Republic Inc. (center). Image courtesy of the Center for Digital Education
This award, which is presented by the Center for Digital Education (a division of e.Republic), recognizes the results of countless hours of planning, discussion, prototyping, and development—the collaborative efforts of dedicated and passionate individuals from all over the world. Our team includes software engineers, program managers, and project leaders at Microsoft Research Connections in Redmond, Washington, and students and professors at Moscow State University in Russia and at UC Berkeley. This dispersed team developed cutting-edge HTML5 code and implemented services on Windows Azure to create a rich, visual database full of historical events and timelines.
One aspect of the ChronoZoom project I find fascinating is that students—undergraduates, graduates, and postdocs—wrote nearly 80 percent of the code in today’s beta release. This award recognizes the successful collaboration between experienced veterans of the computer science world and students who have been inspired and mentored with great care and passion to do outstanding work. Work on ChronoZoom began as a dream—a hopeful vision into the future. Not only did the right people have to come together at the same moment, but they also had to learn to work together in near perfect synchronization to transform our dream into a reality. I am very proud of everyone on the team, and I look forward to our continued success. As an open-source project, we continue to grow our team, and take with us the experience in collaboration that Microsoft Research fostered. We invite you to join us on this journey to bring history to life. —Roland Saekow, ChronoZoom Community Lead, University of California, Berkeley