Alphabet (Google’s parent company) has quietly introduced a new app in the Google Play Store and is explicitly asking users to get in on the action to help improve widely used, free services like Maps and Translate. The app, Crowdsource, currently has five tasks: translation, translation validation, map translation validation (i.e., making sure something originally named in Hebrew, Arabic or another language is accurately translated into English on Google Maps), image transcription and (what might be the big piece of news here) handwriting recognition.
Once you sign up, you are asked what languages you know. For the sake of testing it out, I added my very rusty French and German to my Spanish and Hebrew skills to see what I would get the chance to do. You are immediately whisked away to both test your knowledge and help Google Translate identify acceptable options for translating individual phrases. It automatically set me on confirming how a French phrase should look when put into Spanish, but you can change the settings if you feel like your German → English or English → German skills would be a better place to start.
Google seems to be relying on the enthusiasm for its services to drive the app because besides a trophy image that appears every 25 tasks or so that you complete, it contains no trackable incentives or reputation points to encourage participation. There are no user profiles that we found on the app. That might seem odd to some people, but the app seems to be leveraging the enthusiasm of multilinguals to show off what they know. There are such things as Google Opinion Awards and Google Play credits, so if Google wants to incentivize it, they’ll likely get around to it later. That’s even more likely if Google were to actually launch the app, which they did not formally do. The app was discovered by Android Police, so it is just as likely that we are looking at a pre-launch version.
Helping Google Translate while helping yourself
The app is also gamified without saying so. While there might not be points, you do pick up momentum once you realize the app lets you move through tasks quickly. In that sense, had I not told the app to go back to the main menu to experiment with another new task, I probably would have gone on checking translations and reading handwriting for 20 minutes or more. In less than 15 minutes, I had trophies for completing 75 menial tasks. That seemed to be enough for me.
One review compared it to the tests you take to prove you are not a bot before accessing a website. The handwriting task in particular might remind you of that, but having seen the barely legible penmanship in three languages, it seems obvious that Google is throwing the most doctor-like writing they’ve got at us to gather a massive pool of data for deciphering written documents for future services. Transcribing written to digital is still a monumental task for developers, and Google seems to be taking the big data approach by asking a few thousand app users to build up an image recognition bank for words.
Of the five languages I checked, it seemed tasks were scarce for most. There were no image transcription tasks in Spanish, Hebrew, French or German: only in English. That might be a fluke though, since one sign I was asked to transcribe read “Nanotec Informática” and another was clearly a German street sign. Handwriting tasks in Hebrew, still a worthy challenge as my second language, also included some random English phrases, so there seems to be some unintended word and image bank mixing that the app developers need to work on.
There might be something else to this, though, even if unintended. As I mentioned before, my French is nowhere near my Spanish these days, but once it asked me to confirm or reject certain Spanish translation options, I was able to better remember my French vocabulary and grammar. There is an implied incentive here to improve your own skills as an aspiring polyglot by putting to work some of those abilities you don’t get to use on a daily basis.
Google Translate is still adding languages, and delegating some of the work to build up data sets in order to debut new vernaculars on the popular service, which would make the most sense to help their developers. I mean, it’s not easy to find Cantonese, Kurmanji Kurdish or Elvish.
You can download Crowdsource in the Google Play store. It is not available on iOS.