Friday, July 18, 2008

AxsJAX at Google

John Crossman (Benetech's Director of Engineering) and I attended an interesting and exciting Google Open Source talk on AxsJAX at Google this week, by Charles Chen (the developer of FireVox) and T.V. Raman (the developer of EMACSpeaks). They are tackling the challenge of making the richer Web more accessible. Since the web is now used for much more complicated things than simple static web pages, there have been many accessibility problems. The people who do web standards, the W3C, have a proposed standard that is in its early stages of drafting called Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA). It's already in Firefox 3, and is supposed to be in the next version of Internet Explorer. AxsJAX builds on this draft standard to make some tough web applications not only accessible, but even better in some ways for people with disabilities.

An example of this kind of challenge is with gmail. There's a lot going on in gmail that doesn't require going back to the Google mail server. So, the problem is more similar to accessing applications on the desktop than static webpages. But, these applications are on the web, so you can do some clever stuff. Actually, Charles and TV are doing the clever stuff.

If you are interested in new ideas in accessibility, check out the video of this presentation. It was a little like a cooking show: they whip up a fully cooked roast in about an hour, if you follow my analogy. It was very understandable, and has really made me think this week about how AxsJAX ties into my Raising the Floor theme.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Austria conference on access technology

I just got back from a terrific week in Austria at the International Conference on Computers Helping People with Special Needs conference. This is an academic conference on access technology, full of researchers trying out new things that will help people with disabilities.

My first day was hanging out at the Young Researchers seminar, which was organized by Professors Paul Blenkhorn (the UK's first professor of access tech) and the ICCHP host Klaus Miesenberger. It was fun to hear students and fresh Ph.Ds talking about their research.

I gave the opening keynote, on my main new theme, Raising the Floor. The goal is to get more people working to make this happen: getting access tech to every person in the world who needs it. People from all over Europe talked to me about their dreams for improved accessibility. And, there were many projects that definitely fell under the RTF umbrella. I met the developer behind WebVisum, which is getting much attention from blind people for its ability to make CAPTCHAs (those annoying squiggly words you have to type to access many websites) accessible. I met a professor from Portugal who had a student who developed EasyVoice, software that makes it possible for someone who cannot speak to use Voice over IP via Skype to talk to people using a voice synthesizer. And that's just two examples.

I spread the word that is now available to people outside the United States, albeit with only 3,000 copyrighted books today instead of 35,000, because we need to get permission from publishers and authors to share their books outside the U.S. I'm hoping to have new users from many new countries as a result of my visit there.

I got into a spirited debate with a Norwegian researcher about a paper entitled something like "Is DAISY Universally Designed?" Her conclusion was no, and her research was well done. But, I felt like her conclusion was really that the way that DAISY solutions are implemented in Norway (and just about everyplace else today) are not universally designed, not that the DAISY standard itself was the problem. The main issue she identified was that people with disabilities like dyslexia are not well served by the current generation of DAISY players, and she is completely correct. But, the DAISY Consortium doesn't design the players. We're working with assistive tech vendors to make a better player for dyslexic students, and we expect the DAISY standard to work great for these students as part of Bookshare for Education.

I took tons of pictures at the conference and at the post-conference visit to the villages, ice-caves and mountains of the region around Linz: the Dachstein. I posted these on my Flickr site with creative commons licenses (of course)!

Monday, July 07, 2008

NFB and on Accessibility

Last year, the National Federation of the Blind took on about the accessibility of their website, which NFB felt at one time had been quite accessible, but which had declined in accessibility. My impression was that this advocacy was linked to the Target department store lawsuit, because Amazon does the technical work behind the Target website, which has been inaccessible.

NFB got them to commit to work on accessibility. So, someone came from to speak about this at this years' NFB Convention in Dallas.
Craig Woods of at a podium that says NFB
Craig Woods started by telling the big rocks, gravel, sand, water story, the one where after filling the jar with rocks, there's still room to add gravel, and then sand and finally water. The moral of the story is that if you want to work on your big priorities, you have to get them in your jar first, because otherwise the small stuff will keep you from getting to them.

The speech itself was pretty basic: Amazon cares about its customers above all else, and so accessibility is important. Dr. Mauer, president of the NFB, challenged Craig at the end to confirm that accessibility was a "big rock" for a major priority. And, he did!
Man reading a Kindle ebook reader, holding it close to his eyes.
That's good, because has to work not only on website accessibility, but also on access to digital books. The Kindle is very exciting: I own one and like it a lot. I saw a man with low vision using a Kindle at NFB. But, the majority of the blind cannot use it at all. And, Amazon hasn't made any indication I'm aware of to address this problem. So, I'm sure NFB will keep pushing: that's an essential role of strong advocates!

Saturday, July 05, 2008


There's so many cool things going on at Benetech. One of the coolest has been the reaction to our brand new environmental project management software, Miradi. Miradi is a great example of how technology can be used to more fully benefit humanity: now in the field of improving the environment! Miradi just launched and we're busy signing up users!
tropical island in Micronesia, water and jungle-covered shore in distance framed by vegetation
I'm excited because it's another example of top-quality software created by our technical team in partnership with the conservation movement. We developed it in what's called an agile way, where we do frequent releases and actively engage users in shaping the software. So, spread the news to folks you know who need project management tools for environmental projects! Here's more information:

Benetech and the Conservation Measures Partnership (CMP) have released Miradi, a user-friendly software program that allows nature conservation practitioners to design, manage, monitor, and learn from their projects to more effectively meet their conservation goals. Miradi 2.0 is the first public release of this software that was created as a joint venture between Benetech and CMP, a consortium of global conservation organizations committed to improving the practice of conservation. Miradi was beta tested by over 600 users in over 80 countries prior to the 2.0 public release. Read the Miradi 2.0 press release for more information.