Google fails to deliver campaign promise to fix Māori pronunciation on Google Maps

By Ximena Smith

Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission) told Te Ao with Moana this week that Google didn’t have the right technology to fulfil promises made in a 2017 campaign to improve Māori pronunciation in the Google Maps app.

As part of Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week) that year, Te Taura Whiri, Vodafone and Google launched the campaign ‘Say It Tika’, which called on New Zealanders to pin incorrectly pronounced Māori place names on an online map.

More than 67,000 corrections were submitted to the website in the space of two weeks, and later that year, Vodafone and Google received special recognition at the 14th Māori Language Awards for the campaign.

But according to Te Taura Whiri chief executive Ngahiwi Apanui, Google was not able to complete its part of the project.

Te reo Māori technology missing

Apanui said that some time after the campaign had finished, he got a message from Vodafone saying that Google hadn’t honoured its part of the bargain because it didn’t have the correct technology to fix the problem.

“They were trying to use an English voice platform to replicate sounds in te reo Māori, and it couldn't work,” Apanui said.

Voice platforms are a critical component of artificial intelligence products, like Google Maps and Siri. They can do tasks like recognise the words someone is saying and transcribe it to text, or vice versa.

Apanui said the voice platform that was missing in the Say It Tika project was one that recognised te reo Māori.

“Our assumption had been that they [Google] were going to work to develop a Māori language platform or a platform that would work for Polynesian languages,” he said.

“But without that kind of technology, it was never really going to work.”

Teaching computers to speak Māori

While a te reo Māori voice platform didn’t exist in 2017, since then, an organisation called Te Hiku Media has been hard at work developing a suite of Māori language voice recognition tools.

Using data pulled from iwi radio archives, Te Hiku Media has been able to successfully build different types of voice platform software - for example, its Māori voice recognition speech to text software works at an 86% success rate.

Te Hiku Media CEO Peter-Lucas Jones said that while the intentions of the Say It Tika campaign were admirable, the technical side of the project should have involved Māori with the right expertise.

“You can’t just say it tika … you’ve got to do it tika too, and doing it tika means working with those Māori people that are working in that space,” he said.

Jones said he hadn’t yet been asked by Google to help finish the Say It Tika project but that he’s definitely open to working with the organisation.

“If they were to approach us, absolutely we’d be keen to work with them,” he said.

“But we also have Māori principles and Māori values that we engage with organisations… so if we were to work with global corporates, or anyone for that matter, we need to work on our terms.”

Improvements made but still work to do

Google said improvements have been made to Māori place name pronunciation on Google Maps since the Say It Tika campaign took place.

However, the organisation recognised that there was still work to do, and it apologised for this.

Google did not respond to a question about whether it would work with Te Hiku Media to finish the Say It Tika project, but it did point to other work done to support the Māori language, such as launching Google Search in te reo and ensuring Māori place names were spelt correctly on Google Maps with macrons.