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The Warren Center recently published an article about the Humanitarian Babel Fish, a device called the “Douglas” that provides speech-to-speech translation for disaster relief in areas where an Internet connection isn’t available. The PTC Community may recognize this as the next phase in development of a concept explored as part of a PTC Project: Two-Way Speech-to-Speech Translator for Disaster Relief proposed by Dr. Julie Vonwiller and Chris Vonwiller, with research funded by PTC and several partners, including The Warren Center, PTC Australia, RedR Australia, Open Systems Education Trust, and the Vonwiller Foundation. Outlined by James Nealand at PTC’17, the technology has the ability to translate voice to text and voice without an Internet connection.

In scenarios where a natural disaster hits, there is little to no Internet access, and many first responders do not speak the native language, the Douglas speech translation device makes communication between first responders and residents possible. Simply by pressing a button on the small mobile device, it will record speech and quickly translate it into the other language. With one of these devices in their pocket, every first responder or aid worker can be their own translator and help residents get their needs met sooner.

The proof of concept for the device uses English and Cebuano, a language spoken by 21 million people in the Philippines, and focuses on some of the first questions that a first responder may ask. While the translations are not yet perfect, it is clear that the technology works, and that software can be improved. Future work will include field-testing, improvements in the UI, capability to build out new languages and new domains, and support of speaker adaptation. Some of the languages that will be added are Malay, Indonesian, Ilocano, and Tok Pisin. Click here to read more from The Warren Centre about the Humanitarian Babel Fish.

While there are plenty of cloud-based services that produce quick and effective translations, there’s nothing else with the ability to bring it to disaster zones where Internet connectivity is impossible. We are proud to support the work of all involved in this project.

The aim of the PTC Projects initiative is to support various member and non-member organizations in their efforts to improve quality of life in the Pacific region using telecommunications and ICT. For questions regarding the PTC Projects initiative, please email

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