How Baltimore agencies are trying to use hiring, AI to close language gaps for people with limited English

November 8, 2023

This article was originally published on The Baltimore Sun by Maya Lora on October 12.

By the end of the year, Baltimore residents who don’t speak English will be able to communicate with 911 services in their native language, without waiting for an interpreter.

Convey911, which currently provides text-based translation services for the city’s 911 calls, plans to implement a new, AI-backed service in the coming months to improve communication between residents who speak languages other than English and workers taking 911 calls.

Jeff Bruns, CEO of Convey911, presented plans for the technology to a city council committee Thursday. A caller will be able to speak in their native language, which will be detected by artificial intelligence and translated on the call center employee’s screen. When the employee responds in English, that will be translated and then delivered back to the caller in a synthesized voice, like Siri, speaking the caller’s native language.

That service will initially be supported in about 65 languages, Bruns said, with hopes of scaling up to 105 languages by spring of next year.

The solution was one of several offered up by city agencies at a Thursday informational hearing held by the city council’s Education, Workforce and Youth committee on hiring bilingual speakers to help residents who speak limited English and struggle to access government resources. The committee held a similar hearing in February.

The issue has been spearheaded by council member Odette Ramos, a Democrat representing the 14th district and Baltimore’s first elected Latino.

“Everybody should be able to access city government,” Ramos said in an interview Tuesday. “The Latino population is growing so fast in our city and everybody ... whether you speak English or not, should have access to city services and should have access to public meetings and should have access to the same services that everybody else has.”

Though several people acknowledged that there are speakers of other languages who face similar language access barriers, the hearing largely focused on meeting the needs of Baltimore’s Spanish-speaking population.

Read more on The Baltimore Sun.