Scott Barnwell, Nancie McCraw, Frances Ruiz

Business & Public Technology Manager, Senior Developer, Lead Cloud Engineer, City of Asheville IT Services

Supernova Award Category: 

AI and Augmented Humanity

The Organization: 

The City of Asheville seeks to reinvent government that is community focused and hyperlocal. Our values include inclusion, accountability, collaboration and trustworthiness.

Our IT Services function is highly community focused and has a track record of customer centric operations and innovation. Achievements in the past include being the first Southern US City to offer an open data catalog; achieving multiple G. Herbert Stout awards for the visionary use of GIS (most recently in an equity and inclusion context); and the Code for America Technology award for the groundbreaking SimpliCity application ("city data, simplified").

The Problem: 

Asheville's City Council has made it clear that all are welcome to participate in City Government. 2017 found the City hiring an Equity and Inclusion manager, and 2018 launched an Equity and Inclusion department. Asheville has a significant presence of individuals to whom English is either not spoken or a second language.

City Council meetings and all boards and commissions, while streamed and made available on YouTube, are conducted in English, and no significant funding exists for either sign language interpretation or simultaneous interpretation into Spanish and Russian (which are the two languages most spoken in Asheville apart from English).

Given the lack or low level of available funding, how could we realize our core value of inclusivity and make meaningful and understandable subtitles available to our non-English speaking population? 

The Solution: 

It was clear that no City funding source existed to hire live translators, so staff tried using the YouTube built in translation function.

Native Spanish speakers on staff felt that the results were not great, and a bad translation in some ways is worse than no translation, so it was time to get serious. The City uses AWS for many items (such as the SimpliCity tool) and it was a natural fit to try out Amazon's natural language processing and streaming media tools.

The results were promising: our native Spanish and Russian speakers confirmed that the artificial intelligence algorithms being used were translating just as well as a human translator would, even on a live stream, where it is extremely (extremely!) difficult to synchronize the translation to the video.

The Results: 

City ITS staff used available cloud based libraries to craft a low cost solution that offers artificial intelligence-based translation services to community members as they watch ANY of the boards and commissions. Please see below for specific technology. The amazing thing is that the translation is happening in real time -- the community does not have to wait for the next week, the next day, the next hour -- our community members that do not speak English can participate while the event is happening.

One of the best parts of the solution is that it allows our community to use a tool that they are familiar with -- YouTube -- and does not require an additional app or download. Instead, using available cloud technology, we are intercepting the video stream, processing it with AWS tools, adding a foreign language subtitle track on the fly, and redirecting the stream back to YouTube.

In sum - the project makes it possible for vulnerable populations to participate in local government in a way that they've never been able to before!


Census data shows that the population of Asheville largely speaks English, at 90%. Approximately 5% of Asheville population primarily speaks Spanish.

It's too early to know about adoption, but we are streaming to the Google/YouTube API, and plan on pulling out the metrics of how many community members are using the language translations, either live or stored.

The Technology: 

Staff is using AWS MediaLive, AWS MediaPackage, Amazon Translate, Amazon Transcribe Streaming, and Amazon Lambda. In addition, at the beginning of the project staff was attempting to put together their own library, but a month or so ago saw this AWS project and quickly adopted it:

Disruptive Factor: 

Live translation services are so expensive that only the largest municipalities use them. This innovation makes it possible for even the smallest of municipalities to translate the all-English meetings into the languages that their communities speak and removes an important barrier to government participation.

Shining Moment: 

One staff developer had been trying to do another solution on her own before asking another developer to take a look at it. Synching the subtitles with the talking was extremely challenging! The other developer found the AWS Github stack that did exactly what we were looking at, and contributed code to that repo. It was a shining partnership moment.

About Your Organization

Asheville is the county seat of Buncombe County, NC. It is the largest city in WNC, and the 12th-most populous city in North Carolina. The city's population was 89,121 according to 2016 estimates. It is the principal city in the five-county Asheville metropolitan area, with a population of 424,858 as of the 2010 census.