AltFormat Conference Report
The series of Altformat conferences held in June this year proved to be a huge success and were well attended by teaching professionals from around the UK and Ireland. Organised by Dolphin Computer Access Ltd, together with RNIB, BDA, JISC, Techdis and Skill, they gave an exciting insight into how DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) is likely to transform the delivery of educational material for people with visual and print disabilities.
Richard Orme of the RNIB summed up DAISY for an amused audience at the series of conferences for higher education by saying "DAISY has an, inbuilt navigation and search ability to help people with visual or print impairments to steer through books or other digital material".
Orme examined what a print impaired reader is entitled to: the ability to browse, turn pages, to not be restricted to just print or audio, the ability to check spelling, create digital bookmarks and essentially be flexible. He said the solution was DAISY: "A better way to read, a better way to publish".
Many of the available DAISY production tools and play back tools were demonstrated by Steve Bennett from Dolphin and James Risdon from the RNIB. In a couple of key strokes Steve marked a sample word document for navigation and an automatic process followed to add speech to the text using a built in synthesizer. The whole process was completed in a matter of seconds. The final DAISY book was played back on Dolphin EaseReader, a DAISY player, which also allows users to search the entire book and add bookmarks. The beauty of a DAISY book is that it can be played on a computer as well as many DAISY hardware players and MP3 players.
The RNIB are creating some useful publications in DAISY format, in particular the TV listings not just for terrestrial TV but also for cable and satellite, and contains information for a whole month's viewing. Three levels of navigation allow the viewer to search by date, channel and time. A chuckle was raised when the prospect of checking through a months listings on analogue tape was considered to be the alternative. James reminded us that DAISY audio could also be played on an MP3 player, without the navigation, opening the format for cool devices.
Many of the delegates were either unaware of the growing influence of DAISY or unconvinced that it gave anything over and above some of the existing accessibility tools. The next series of speakers quickly put the popularity of DAISY into context. Jamie Cuthbertson of RNIB regaled the audience with a few moving case studies of blind computer users who were indebted to DAISY for navigable access to materials, meaning they could obtain course material in the same way as their sighted colleagues including being able to select relevant chapters. Alan Campbell formerly of Motherwell College and Strathclyde University and a double honours student looked forward to the day when he could visit any library and find a DAISY book on the shelves alongside the text books.
James Risdon came back to speak about the many sources of DAISY material. Reveal Web at www.revealweb.org is a one source with titles being added almost daily. James agreed with one of the delegates that this was not perfect as many colleges were creating content a chapter at a time and not filing them properly. Other sources included the Talking Book Library and the Learning and Skills Library.
A recurring theme and one perhaps more relevant to the lack of success in the altformat sector was the level of work required to convert hard copy text into an alternative format. Many felt it was incongruous that in 2006 publishers weren't able to allow the altformat professionals access to electronic files. In truth, many publishers weren't able to deliver them or at least they couldn't deliver them in a suitable format. They also had some reservations about doing it, given the way the music industry has evolved recently.
Richard Orme from RNIB rounded off the afternoon with a brief question and answer session. It was heartening that despite the heat all three days ended with a lively debate at the end, discussing topics ranging from funding, guidance on topics such as how to make templates, whether synthesiser licensing was adequate, some wondering why we don't have a format like NIMAS in the UK. Both Ron and EA indicated they were going to embark on a world wide survey of alternative format provision and asked delegates to participate.
Finally, it was agreed that the altformat website would make an ideal knowledge base and forum area for the industry. The participants agreed to keep current information on www.altformat.com and continue its international appeal.