When a group of visually challenged people come together to create a technology solution that makes it easier for other visually challenged people to read, its a case of the network effect at its very best. Today, communication technology and software are enabling an inclusive development team based in Delhi to work as part of an international effort to build software for the print disabled. The software, an authoring tool for talking books, enables people with visual disability navigate through books just like people with normal vision.
Avnish Singh is a 32-year-old software engineer who lives in the neighborhood of Bali Garden in Western Delhi. He also works from this home, leading a four-man software development team, all of whom work remotely. One team member is in the UK and Avnish has just hired two women in Delhi who also work out of their homes. "It is a boon to be able to work from home. I just use Skype, email and a collaboration platform called CVSDude which allows us to share technical projects, exchange ideas and make notes," says Singh.
Business as usual in India today? Not quite, when you learn that Singh is visually challenged and so is his team. Singh's vision began to reduce at the age of 10 due to retinal degeneration, but in spite of this he trained as a mechanical engineer. When deterioration became too rapid to purse this career, he re-trained as a software engineer, earning a B-Tech from Delhi's Indraprastha college before joining the National Association for the Blind (NAB) as a volunteer in 2003.
At that time, NAB was engaged in a software project using tools developed by the Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) consortium. When the DAISY software developed a bug that rendered the tool unusable, Singh stepped in to fix this - and landed a job with DAISY which hired him to head one of its India based software teams.
The DAISY consortium is a Stockholm-based non-profit that sets standards for the software and hardware that enable talking books. It also develops its own software - in fact, Singh is now responsible for developing an interactive authoring tool for talking books based on DAISY 3.0 standards. For Singh, the DAISY job is a fulfillment of a career ambition - it has been a huge relief that he could still pursue a regular career while working from home. Connectivity and online tools have made it possible for him to exercise this career choice, visual challenge or no.
The work that Singh does - the development of talking books and the DAISY standard - is an unusual project in two respects. One, it represents a real step forward in creating a comfortable reading environment for the visually challenged, which is incredible in itself. Two, the way developers work to build DAISY is even more incredible. The software team and standards team is scattered across the world. All their software is in open source, code stored in open source repositories easily accessible by the entire group, and they talk to each other using internet telephony software such as Skype.
But this group is not your average team of programmers - "My standards group has 20 people and one-third of them have some print disability. The software development team consists of ten people, two of whom are print disabled," says Markus Gylling who is the Sweden-based Chief Technology Officer at DAISY. But the Internet, the power of affordable connectivity and the progeny of this union - namely tools like Skype - have dissolved not just borders, but also these differences.
How do these Talking Books work? They are regular CDs storing DAISY format audio files that can be played on a compact, specialized CD player called the DAISY player which has some special features.
Much like a regular audio book, Talking Books too are arranged by Chapter and typically start by listing a Table of Contents. But in order to make them more easily navigable, the DAISY player comes with a ‘go-to’ button - when this is pressed, and the page number keyed in through the keypad - the reader can directly move to any specific chapter or page. This is tremendously impactful in a classroom environment where students can access content, mid text, according to the day’s lesson. The player also comes with useful tools such as a book mark button, which enables stop and start reading patterns. In effect the player gives the visually challenged the same ability as those with vision.
The DAISY consortium is based in Stockholm but has members from across the world. "We are present all over the world today in every continent. Our books are used by the print-disabled, which includes those who are visually impaired, have low vision, the dyslexic and the elderly," says Gylling. "The Talking Books can be played on a computer as well as on specialized, easy-to-use, inexpensive hardware," he points out.
According to Gylling, with the world facing an ageing population, it is strategic for large software products companies and publishers to support the DAISY format and provide an option for multi-media content to be stored in an easily navigable XML format. "In fact Microsoft has added a ‘Save as DAISY’ button for its ‘Office’ products. We collaborated with their developers," he says. As world demographics change, this format is expected to become mainstream.
Even as the DAISY format is working wonders for many visual and print challenged people across the world, what also stands out here is the way the consortium itself is demonstrating a humane and inclusive way of working in a boundary-less networked world. Where becoming digital is not about a divide, but a bridge. A bridge connecting a world where the network is truly human.