Scottish Tech Army (STA) volunteers have released a new technology designed to make Covid-19 data more easily accessible to people with visual impairments.
The project, the first of its kind in the world, will form part of the new Scottish Covid-19 dashboard launched this month and uses data sonification to convert visual timeline data into notes of various pitches. These notes create auditory graphs that will help convey current Covid-19 data to users with visual impairments.
The sonification technique is a new element in the publicly accessible dashboard presenting Scotland’s most current Covid-19 data. The tool helps users to track and understand the situation in their local area, then make informed decisions about their movements, behaviours and businesses more easily in line with wider government advice.
Updates to the dashboard are made daily using data from the Scottish Government and the NHS under their open data initiatives.
It is compatible with screen readers and incorporates high-resolution colour contrast, heat maps and key graphs to track and display infection rates.
Eirini Kominou, an STA volunteer who helped integrate data sonification into the dashboard, commented on the technology: “Most scientific data sets are communicated with the support of visual representations such as graphs. This poses significant problems for many people who cannot easily read data in this format.
“Sonification has seen some early use in fields like astronomy and geoscience to present and analyse complex data sets. However, using it in the dashboard will bring the technique to the wider public for the first time.
“We hope the dashboard will be widely used in Scotland to help individuals to more easily interpret the wealth of statistics and data currently circulating. Due to its regional focus and up-to-date data, we believe this tool will allow individuals to make informed decisions based on the specific situation in their local area.
The dashboard was developed out of a challenge set by STA organisers. Volunteers were asked to take the open-source Covid-19 data provided by the Scottish Government and develop a way of presenting it that would be easier for the people to use and understand.
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The process was also designed to support the professional development of less experienced volunteers which, co-founder Alistair Forbes explains, is a founding principal of the STA.
“When we set up the Scottish Tech Army at the beginning of lockdown, it was with the aim of mobilising the exceptional talent within our technology sector to tackle emerging issues related to Covid-19,” Alistair said.
“However, we also have a particular focus on giving new and emerging talent an opportunity to gain hands-on experience when delivering solutions. The dashboard challenge has taken our volunteers through a full project lifecycle, equipping them with professional know-how to complement their existing technical skills.
“When we set the volunteers the challenge of making the Scottish Covid-19 data more accessible, we knew they would come up with excellent ideas to help users visualise the information. However, they have gone even further by assessing and meeting the needs of visually impaired users.
“Globally, this is something that no-one else is prioritising when communicating the science on Covid-19. Our team is breaking new ground and, importantly, establishing a precedent for how we address accessibility in data science moving forward.”