Analyzing Arabic Dialects for Peace

Spring 2023

Martin Waehlisch and Daanish Masood Alavi were interested in how to make sense of political conversations in Arabic on social media as part of their work for the Innovation Cell of the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (UN DPPA). It was 2019, and they were asking themselves how these social media conversations unfold and how they mirror the political landscape.

They knew computer natural language processing (NLP) could help, but commercially available programs analyze languages like English, French, or German, not the vast array of Arabic dialects,much less the colloquial phrases of social media. They reasoned that if NLP technology existed for Arabic dialects, it could be applied to different kinds of signals that express public sentiments across all sectors of society, offering real-time insights into people’s reactions to regional issues. They began searching for academics who could take on the project, not for commercial profit but for social good. That was how they found Professor Fadi Zaraket of AUB’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, one of the top researchers in this field.

Four years later, a UN DPPA collaboration with AUB and Birzeit University has produced a series of groundbreaking computer-readable dictionaries and resources for Yemeni, Iraqi, Sudanese, and Libyan dialects. Zaraket, who co-led the project, says, “To allow computers to capture and sort the views of thousands and even millions of people from social media posts, the NLP process had to treat each dialect as a separate language. These open source resources are now available globally to researchers, students, and peacebuilding practitioners.”

Waehlisch adds, “The technology will allow UN officials involved in conflictr esolution to decipher some of the coded political language in local dialects to better understand public sentiments and social trends.” Alavi and Waehlisch maintain the NLP technology can help make political processes more inclusive, uncover counterintuitive insights, and assist in the monitoring of human rights and ceasefire violations.

As much as has been accomplished,all agree the work needs further support and engagement to expand and scale the possibilities. “It’s a great example,” Waehlisch says, “of how research can be put to use for the good of humanity.”