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How new tech brings old languages to life

Technology & Data

How new tech brings old languages to life


This campaign took a fun, tech-forward approach to encouraging New Zealanders to explore the nation’s first language.

This article originally appeared in The Truth IssueMarketing‘s first print edition for 2019.


Campaign: Kupu

Client: Spark

Agency: Colenso BBDO



Truth issue coverFor Te Wiki o te reo Māori (Māori Language Week) 2018, Spark was privileged to partner with Te Aka Māori Dictionary and Google to support the revitalisation of New Zealand’s indigenous language, te reo Māori. Together we aimed to inspire and encourage all New Zealanders to explore the nation’s first language together and make te reo Māori a greater part of the everyday, one translation at a time.


By launching Kupu – a cutting edge learning experience app that translates the world around us into te reo Māori one picture at a time. Our long-term collaboration with New Zealand’s best technology, Māori language and digital platform expert made Kupu a reality: Te Aka Māori Dictionary brings mana (honour, respect) and a pool of invaluable knowledge, guiding the project culturally from concept through to creation, while Google brings its expertise and state-of-the-art machine learning technologies.



The goal was simple: encourage Kiwis to download the Kupu app and use it to explore the world around them. Specifically, in the first week of launch, we were tasked with achieving 16,000 app downloads (with a 26,000 stretch downloads goal). We knew that 90% of branded apps receive fewer than 10,000 downloads, but thought 16,000 was a realistic goal. We also aimed for a 500% in-app interaction rate – meaning each user would perform at least five interactions by taking a photo or playing an audio clip.



Our remit was to influence an ‘All of New Zealand’ audience: an audience classification usually so broad it’s hard to reach effectively. With the benefit of being one of New Zealand’s largest mobile providers, the opportunity appeared obvious: the answer was already sitting in 3.8 million Kiwis’ pockets. If we could place a dedicated te reo translation app in every New Zealander’s pocket, we would be well-placed to help the nation make te reo learning a greater part of every day. We knew that mobile had the power to overcome key barriers to te reo learning: it facilitates learning in any environment, enables incremental learning opportunities and is readily accessible and available to anyone, 24/7.

And with Te Wiki o te reo Māori (Māori Language Week) 2018, we had an opportunity to reach and engage all New Zealanders with a mobile experience that tapped into a widespread pride of and growing desire to embrace New Zealand’s Māori culture and traditions.



The proposition was simple: take a photo, learn a language. The name was equally simple: ‘kupu’ is the direct te reo Māori translation of ‘word.’

Kupu is an entirely new fusion of two Google technologies: the Cloud Vision API (application programming interface), which uses machine learning to identify objects within a photograph, and the Cloud Translation API, which uses neural machine translation for the responsive, dynamic translation of identified objects into te reo Māori.

Google’s Cloud Translation te reo dataset has been heavily enhanced by Te Aka Māori Dictionary’s deep te reo knowledge bank, bringing unprecedented accuracy to te reo Māori translations. Te Aka’s partnership has also enabled the app to deliver audio pronunciation guides for te reo words – a powerful feature that supports and encourages non-native learners to speak the language with confidence.

It serves up the most likely translation and pronunciation, then provides other options for what it detects in the image. It also lets the user provide feedback, so the app is constantly learning and iterating. From a user experience and graphic design perspective, Kupu was based on a theme of raranga (weaving) – a metaphor for the galvanising effect of learning the language of another culture.

The app puts bite-sized language learning in the palm of every smartphone user in New Zealand in an engaging, visual way – transforming their world into a te reo Māori learning playground. It’s an example of people-focused design: complex technology has been pared back to surface only its most simplified elements, ensuring that whoever picks it up can immediately start using it through natural curiosity and innate intuition. The result is a powerful learning experience disguised within a simplified interface.

“We see the Māori language and culture as special and unique to New Zealand, so we want to play a small role in helping te reo Māori prosper through the use of digital platforms,” says Lisa Paraku, business manager at Spark.

“It has been very humbling to work with a project team of technology experts and trusted Māori advisers to create an app that will add to the growing plethora of resources that support the revitalisation of our national taonga (treasure) – te reo Māori.”
Dr Dean Mahuta, senior lecturer at Auckland University of Technology (AUT) and Māori language researcher at Te Ipukarea, the National Māori Language Institute, has been a key adviser on the Kupu project, working alongside Te Aka Māori Dictionary and Spark to ensure Kupu showcases te reo Māori correctly.

“Using technology and digital platforms is a great way to encourage the use and learning of te reo Māori. There are some amazing resources for learning te reo Māori, including books, websites and apps. However, this is the first learning tool to translate pictures in real-time. It’s an evolution of the resources that are out there,” says Mahuta.

“We aim to inspire New Zealanders to explore te reo Māori and encourage them to add more te reo words to their everyday vocabularies,” adds Tara McKenty, a creative director at Google. “It would be amazing if, as a nation, we could learn together through an immersive interactive experience – one picture and translation at a time. Just learning a single word each day can collectively have a huge and lasting impact on our collective knowledge of te reo Māori.”



By the end of the first 24 hours, Kupu generated 35,051 downloads, exceeding total campaign targets by 119%. After the first two weeks, Kupu had more than 120,000 downloads, two million image translations and more than 2.5 million audio plays (word pronunciations) – again, far exceeding targets. Interaction rate was 4372%, which means the average user took 15 photos and played 29 audio clips. Kupu was the number one trending app on the App Store and Google Play, with an estimated earned media reach of 6.4 million.

The merging of an Indigenous language and modern technology has enabled the delivery of a truly innovative mobile learning experience, which will only continue to adapt, evolve and improve over time, delivering even better te reo Māori learning outcomes.


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