Crowdsourcing for accessibility.

Logo of Blog Action Day 2012 - "The power of we"This year’s blog action day is dedicated to the power of WE. Given this bolg’s focus on accessibility I can see many ways that we can help for accessibility. Sometimes even without knowing about it. The story of CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA that follows is just an example of such a case.

CAPTCHA which is an abbreviation for Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart is something that most of us have come across in our web browsing. It’s a picture with a set of words presented in a distorted way that aims to tell humans from computers apart. It is usually found in cases where developers want to avoid spamming.

However, as successful as CAPTCHAs might be in avoiding spamming in various cases they are also very successful in preventing people with disabilities to comment, respond, and use whatever feature is protected by a CAPTCHA. How could a blind person see and understand what is written in an image which doesn’t have and alternative text? How could a persons with dyslexia and other print disabilities use them?

Responding to these challenges for a better more accessible web a team from Carnegie Mellon University developed a newer better version of the CAPTCHA called reCAPTCHA. reCAPTCHA provides alternative ways for people with disabilities to identify their human nature by giving them the opportunity to hear on a piece of sound with some words spoken in a distorted way and identify these words in order to tell them apart from computers trying to spam.

The team though didn’t stop there.  After some calculations they found out that about 200 million people waste about 10 seconds every day to read and type a CAPTCHA. In his TED talk Luis von Ahn tells that his first thought was that this is a pretty big waste of time for humanity. It’s about 10 man-years of effort spent every day or 3,500 people working full-time. So they tried to use this waste of time so that people could actually do some good. They are now combining the CAPTCHA technique with showing random words that were scanned from print books and were not identified by OCR programs. People typing a CAPTCHA are now not only proving they are human but also helping in print books digitization.

Given the time spent from people typing CAPTHA’s every day and the number of web sites (aprox. 350.000) adopting the new reCAPTCHA system it is now estimated that 100 million words are digitized per day. This is equivalent to about 2,5 million books per year. The numbers are really amazing and really show what can WE do if we all work together even for 10 seconds per day.

Tha amazing thing about this story is that it all started by a system that was originally inaccessible for many people such as blind, visually impaired, dyslexic, etc. and it came up to be one of the most helpful projects for them. books in digital form can be used with all kinds of e-reader programs and devices combined also with screen reading to speak them out. This means that what actually started as an idea to help software recognise humans and was originally preventing people with disabilities to use it, it’s now not only accessible itself but also helps in making old print books accessible to them too.

The web today is a unique platform enabling this kind of collaboration for achieving amazing things. Sites like the Mechanical Turk by Amazon and  Ranker are helping people to break large amounts of work into tiny pieces that people can do in their spare time and even awards them too. Given the power and potential that this crowdsourcing trend is taking when combined with the web as a collaboration platform it is easy to imagine how future projects can exploit it for accessibility reasons. This means that in the future, complex tasks such as identifying and testing the accessibility of a web site or a mobile app, producing captions for audio, images and video, translating text in various languages, etc. could be seen as something quite easy if the appropriate platforms and tools are provided.

All we need is a bit of good will, some seconds of our time an idea to bring us together and a set of nice tools developed… after that it’s just a matter of time.


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