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New Grant Supports Public Health Translation

Two University of Washington researchers are seeking to improve machine translation so it can be used for critical public health messages. The National Institutes of Health and National Library of Medicine have recognized the work of Dr. Anne Turner of NWCPHP and Dr. Katrin Kirchhoff of the University of Washington Department of Electrical Engineering by awarding them an R01 (investigator initiated research) grant.
New Grant Supports Public Health Translation

Anne Turner

September 10, 2010

An estimated 300 languages are spoken in the US today, yet much public health information is available only in English. Computer programs are available to translate from one language to another, but often the results can be laughable. Two University of Washington researchers are seeking to improve machine translation so it can be used for critical public health messages. This is especially important in disasters and other medical emergencies, when timely information needs to reach people with limited English proficiency.

The National Institutes of Health and National Library of Medicine have recognized the work of Dr. Anne Turner of NWCPHP and Dr. Katrin Kirchhoff of the University of Washington Department of Electrical Engineering by awarding them an R01 (investigator initiated research) grant. These highly sought-after grants recognize original and innovative research and are intended to establish a research career. Traditionally, these grants have gone to an individual researcher; the new, multiple-investigator awards encourage cross-disciplinary research. The five-year grant is renewable.

Dr. Turner is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Services, specializing in public health informatics. She holds a medical degree from Brown University and two master’s degrees—in Library Sciences and Public Health—from the University of Washington. Dr. Kirchhoff, a Research Associate Professor, specializes in machine translation, multilingual speech recognition, and machine learning techniques. She earned her PhD in Computer Science at the University of Bielefeld, Germany.

Dr. Turner's and Dr. Kirchhoff's work will center on improving the transfer of public health information through statistical machine translation, a technique that has reached high levels of accuracy in fields such as news translation, but has not been applied extensively in public health. If sufficient levels of accuracy can be attained with public health messages, computers could replace much time-consuming and expensive manual translation. Skilled translators could then focus on performing a final quality control check, which would speed the distribution of online health information in different languages.

Dr. Turner has been working with health departments in King and Kitsap counties to learn how they communicate with Spanish and Vietnamese speaking populations. One-fifth of the American population speaks languages other than English at home. Spanish and Vietnamese translations are the most commonly requested translations in the Seattle, Washington area.

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