Have you ever received a message containing an empty box (“◻︎”) instead of the readable characters or emojis you were expecting? If you are an English speaker, this is a largely uncommon occurrence. English fonts and tools developed for English-speaking audiences follow the international Unicode Standard, which means not encountering encoding issues that result in those dreaded “◻︎”. In Myanmar, however, where the Unicode standard is not universally adopted and the favored font of users is not Unicode compliant, encoding issues are far from an issue of the past and the effect on the usability of tools is severe. In a country in which groups like journalists, human rights workers and minority ethnic groups face security risks, physical and digital security are in some cases inextricably linked. Without access to secure means of communication and access to information that are also usable in Burmese and correctly display and allow input of Burmese fonts, the physical well being of individuals may be put at risk.
Due in large part to nearly half a century of isolation from the international community and thus exclusion from international development of technical standards, the most popular and widely used font in Myanmar today, ZawgyiOne, is not Unicode compliant. Why is this an issue? As an international standard, Unicode encoding is used across websites, applications and platforms to correctly display the vast majority of written languages in the digital sphere. If a font is not Unicode compliant, it will not be displayed correctly in any tool or resource using Unicode encoding. Similarly, any tool using an encoding system other than Unicode, like the one developed in Myanmar for use with fonts like ZawgyiOne, will not display Unicode compliant fonts correctly.
Below is an example of how these encoding issues manifest:
How does this affect users?
Particularly now that Myanmar has joined the international digital sphere, encoding incompatibilities are a regular hurdle for Burmese users and the developers and content creators trying to reach a Burmese-speaking audience. Depending on the encoding used on a website for example, you may or may not be able to properly read Burmese text without first installing and changing your browser’s preferred font to one that is compliant with that encoding. Workarounds are even less accessible or impossible for users when it comes to other technologies. While it is possible to have individuals familiar with Unicode-compliant fonts localize technologies that use the Unicode standard, that does not address the fact that the majority of Burmese users not only prefer to input text using Zawgyi-encoded fonts, but may not even know how to use a Unicode-encoded font.
What is the solution?
Many individuals have been working on this issue over the years -- whether creating browser extensions to auto-detect website font encoding, creating font conversion tools or integrating both Zawgyi and Unicode encoding into their tools. Through conversations with Burmese end users, developers and researchers working on this issue, at Localization Lab we would like to put together a guide that is geared toward developers (primarily working in the open source, Internet freedom and humanitarian sectors who are interested in serving Burmese users) and introduce them to the challenges of working with Burmese languages as well as provide some solutions and workarounds. The guide would provide historical and current context for the issue and delve into what can be done in the earlier and potentially later stages of development to ensure that technologies, documentation and educational materials are usable for Burmese speakers. Depending on the available resources, an additional outcome could be further development of existing workarounds and solutions with local technologists.
Tools like Martus and platforms like Facebook and Google have attempted to tackle the issue of Zawgyi-encoding. How have they approached the challenge and what have they learned? How are local developers and technologists approaching encoding issues? What experiences do they have to share with developers who don't have a foundation in Burmese?