The ÆGIS 1st Pan European open accessibility Workshop

To be honest I’m enthusiastic about the potential of the European ÆGIS project which launched last week. I see the blend of open source and accessibility, open accessibility, as having the potential to provide the most appropriate solutions for users of accessibility and assistive technology. So I’ve spent the last few years developing and promoting the concepts of fair access to all and user engagement whenever I get the opportunity. This has brought be into contact with enthusiastically dedicated  people and projects. The scale and scope of ÆGIS gives the impression open accessibility is now coming of age. The strap line of ‘Open Accessibility Everywhere: Groundwork, Infrastructure, Standards’ indicates the wide scope of the project which aims to use open source, open development and open standards to ‘enable people with disabilities, the elderly and anyone else who is disadvantaged when using Internet services, Desktop PC or Mobile phones’. It will do this by providing developers with a framework, architecture and toolkits, whilst also creating end user applications. 4 pilot studies will inform the subsequent development phases.

The Pan-European Workshop completed the launch week activities at Research In Motion’s Slough Offices and shared the proceedings with Raising The Floor an initiative by Gregg Vanderheiden and Jim Fruchterman to bring together all parties working on web accessibility, again using open practices. Greg has been involved in accessibility for many years and in his Introduction, Peter Korn, technical lead on ÆGIS sited Greg as his primary mentor. Peter in turn has been very active in open accessibility, especially the GNOME desktop which is used in Linux (e.g Ubuntu) and Sun’s Solaris. Peter along with Will Walker has taken a key role in orchestrating the  resources of their employer Sun to bear on making GNOME a focus of much open accessibility work, including infrastructure, the Orca screen reader, GOK on screen keyboard and collaboration with the Firefox web browser accessibility team.

In addition to hearing more about ÆGIS, the workshop offered the opportunity to catch up with some of the collaborators from the Ace Centre, OATSoft.org, aIDEAS & Mozilla as well as being something of a ‘tweatup’ for those who follow each other on Twitter, including Henni of Opera, Steve Faulkener and Gez Lemon of TPG and Davis Sloan of the University of Dundee. There was woefully little time to chat and I completely missed David Banes of AbilityNet and David McKay of Inference Labs, Cambridge (Dasher is an alternative text input program). I did finally meet Jutta Treviranus, director of ATRC at University of Toronto. Jutta is the boss of long term open accessibility developer David Bolter (e.g. GOK, dojo, ARIA), and we also heard the news that David is taking a years break from ATRC to work on Mozilla core accessibility with Maroc and Surkov.

Due to my failure to understand the scale of the map I arrived after the start having wondered up and down the batch road. The first few talks by M Gonzalez-Sancho (EU Commision ICT for inclusion, information and media Directorate General) and E Bekiarias (CERTH-HIT) provided high level views of the EU’s inclusion policies and AEGIS (£12.6M funding) as well as feedback from the previous days user forum.

Peter Korn then gave a technical overview with demos of existing applications including old friends such as the accessibility APIs, GOK, Orca+eSpeak, Dasher and Accerciser. In addition Peter showed an as yet unreleased simulator of visual impairments such as macular degeneration.

Dr Bekiarias then presented the AEGIS use cases which appear to present a reasonably representative and useful range. I was pleased to see symbol support in OpenOffice.org along with synthetic voices. As Simon Judge pointed out the desktop had little for AAC and switch users but  there is more on the mobile platform.

After an all too brief lunch, Dr C Galinski (InfoTerm) gave a presentation on structured content standards. This was followed by a very effective talk by Greg on accessibility overall and Raising the Floor. He made the point that what we do determines if ICT is a blessing or a curse to many users. He provided a clear analysis of the ways of providing accessibility (adjust interface, provide alternative interface, select alternative or download new interface on demand) and asserted that the accessibility API’s are the only real chance for an affordable and lasting strategies for flexible interface options (and I agree). He also considered reducing cost to users and the part OSS plays, seeing this as enabling more direct paths for the transfer of research and allowing the public coverage of costs other than licences. he also suggested we might like to consider free public access (cf public/private schools) and the need to fund more than research – e.g hardening, awareness, support.

Before the panel discussion Peter announced the Open Accessibility Everywhere Group. The desire to bring together all interested parties including developers, researchers and users and so facilitate exchange of ideas it echos the original motivations that underly Oatsoft.org and later Project:Possibility. While Oatsoft’s funding was only for an initial evaluation phase we can hope that OAEG will succesfully fill this important community role and so help us push the open accessibility envelope. There is an overlap here with Raising the floor that will need to be worked out, though AEGIS adds desktop and mobile accessibility to RtF’s focus on web accessibility.

I was pleased to see a place for the open accessibility projects I have been personally active in. In addition to key projects such as Mozilla, GNOME and NVDA I saw some potential for those I have been closely involved in as a developer; Simon Judge thought Maavis has something to offer in many use cases, and the straight-street.com open symbol set has much to offer. Jambu may also be useful as a starting point for some work. I’m not sure about PowerTalk as it relies on MS technologies but at least that is now included in the EduApps USB stick collection. Greg again mentioned his interest in OATSoft.org as providing the master list of projects, though the announcement of the OAEG seem to indicate it would be providing similar functionality after all.

So all-in-all a useful workshop but perhaps too many presentations with too wide a scope; I would have liked more networking time. ÆGIS is an exciting project and a serious opportunity for the benefits of open accessibility to be realised by users and developers alike. There is a lot to be done and good management will be need to ensure it delivers, but building on open development gives it a very good foundation for success. I’m looking forward to being involved as well as watching what happens.

I’m greatful to Ross Gardler (OSS Watch manager) for being so supportive of open accessibility and providing me opportunities to make it part of OSS Watch’s portfolio of experience. My first project was AccessApps and we spent Tuesday in a highly constructive consultation with the Maavis project, working out ways forward by embracing open development.

That reminds me I have an article on open accessibility to take though OSS Watch’s thorough quality control process.