Promoting Linguistic and Cultural Diversity in Sustainable Data Infrastructures

Last Wednesday, I participated in a webinar on sustainable data infrastructures—systems and processes that enable the collection, storage, access, analysis, and sharing of data in ways that support society’s social, economic, and environmental goals. These infrastructures are crucial for facilitating the increasing role of digitalization. Ideally, they should operate in the background of our digital interactions, but often, they don’t due to a lack of knowledge to develop such systems, malicious attacks, or poor policy and regulatory environments.

Nonetheless, data drives the knowledge economy, enhancing the quality of life by promoting economic growth and having a cross-sectoral influence. It is revolutionizing industries in ways that promote inclusivity and sustainability. To achieve this level of digitalization and harness its benefits, we need physical infrastructure, skills to interact with it, and policies and regulations to ensure everyone is protected in emerging digital spaces. We often overlook language, the basis of understanding knowledge and our environment.

As we deliberated, something bothered me. Many ideas could only be understood in English, making me question whether these multiple concepts were relevant to ordinary citizens in my village. I interjected to ask my co-panelists what data meant in their languages. My Estonian co-panelist said that in Estonia, they strive to conceptualize terms like “data” in their language, ensuring that all three dialects in the country have a common understanding of these emerging concepts.

In Africa, it is different. Languages are the primary vehicles for transmitting knowledge and culture, but they are under threat from globalization, urbanization, and digitalization. The loss of linguistic diversity can negatively impact the preservation and development of indigenous and local knowledge systems, which are crucial for addressing global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity, health, and education. Without a common understanding of emerging terminologies such as data and sustainability, we foster exclusivity.

For this reason, I explore the interrelations between knowledge systems, language, and sustainability to identify ways to promote and protect linguistic and cultural diversity in the face of rapid social and environmental changes. Currently, we have not shared African knowledge systems that have sustained people for ages due to a lack of common understanding in local languages. For example, growing up in Southwest Kenya, I witnessed indigenous knowledge on climate. My mother, who had never been to school, could predict the rains by observing bird migrations, mostly cranes, and the movement of clouds to tell when it would start raining precisely.

In other words, she had her data and its analytics right. Today, there isn’t much to explain how they built this predictive model. However, researchers have attempted to understand how this indigenous knowledge on climate was passed from generation to generation and what factors influenced its transmission and retention. Studies suggest that oral traditions, such as proverbs, stories, songs, and rituals, played a vital role in preserving and transmitting this knowledge by encoding the observations, experiences, and values of different communities.

Many other indigenous scientific works were disrupted by the European colonization of Africa. The main effects of European colonization included the imposition and dominance of foreign languages, cultures, and values over Indigenous ones. This marginalization and suppression of African knowledge systems deemed them inferior, primitive, or irrelevant by the colonizers. The colonial powers, who sought to exploit the continent’s natural and human resources, ignored, misrepresented, or appropriated many facets of African knowledge, such as medicine, astronomy, agriculture, ecology, and spirituality.

The colonial education system also played a role in erasing and replacing African knowledge systems by teaching a curriculum based on European sciences and humanities and discouraging or forbidding the use of African languages and oral traditions. Consequently, many African communities lost their connection and confidence in their knowledge systems and became dependent on external sources of information and guidance.

This historical process’s impact is still evident today, as many African countries face the challenges of decolonizing and reclaiming their knowledge systems and addressing the social and environmental problems resulting from the colonial legacy. There is a need to recognize and appreciate the value and diversity of African knowledge systems and integrate them with other sources of knowledge to find context-specific and sustainable solutions for the continent’s development.

This requires revisiting and documenting existing indigenous knowledge, creating new forms of knowledge responsive to the changing realities and needs of African people, challenging the power structures and ideologies that have undermined and devalued African knowledge systems, and creating more spaces and opportunities for dialogue and collaboration among different knowledge holders and stakeholders.

There is a dire need to develop and implement strategies and policies that support the development and use of African languages in the data economy and the translation and localization of data and information across languages and cultures. This involves investing in language documentation and revitalization, expanding language corpora and resources, developing and applying natural language processing and machine translation tools, and enhancing the multilingual and intercultural competencies of data producers and consumers. By enhancing the linguistic and cultural diversity of data and information, we can foster the inclusion and empowerment of African voices and perspectives in the global knowledge society.

Recognizing and integrating African knowledge systems within sustainable data infrastructures is vital for promoting inclusivity and sustainability. The preservation of linguistic diversity is crucial in this endeavor, as languages are the primary vehicles for transmitting knowledge and culture. The historical impact of colonization on African knowledge systems has left many communities disconnected from their indigenous knowledge and reliant on external sources.

To address these challenges, we must invest in language documentation, revitalization, and the development of multilingual competencies. By doing so, we can ensure that data infrastructures not only support economic growth but also enhance the quality of life and promote cultural diversity. Empowering African voices in the global knowledge society through inclusive and culturally sensitive data practices will lead to more sustainable and context-specific solutions for the continent’s development.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *