Tech volunteers develop new online tool to help visually impaired access COVID-19 data

Tech volunteers in Scotland have developed a new online tool to help visually impaired people access COVID-19 data in a useable format.

In a ‘world first’, the Scottish Tech Army (STA) has deployed a ‘sonification’ technique to convert visual timeline data into notes of various pitches.

The auditory graphs have been created from public sector data published by the Scottish Government and the NHS in Scotland; the project forms part of the new Scottish COVID-19 dashboard launched this month by the STA.

The tool will allow users to more easily track and understand the situation in their local area, then make informed decisions about their movements, behaviours and businesses in line with wider government advice.

The dashboard updates daily using data made available by 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.

The Scottish Tech Army (STA) was founded by entrepreneurs Alistair Forbes and Peter Jaco in the early stages of lockdown. The STA connects Scotland’s deep pool of tech professionals with projects that harness digital innovation to create solutions to the wide-ranging challenges posed by COVID-19 and to support the recovery and rebuild process from the effects of the pandemic.

One such individual is Eirini Kominou, an STA volunteer, who helped integrate data sonification into the dashboard. Eirini recently completed her PhD in machine learning and data at the University of Strathclyde and is visually impaired so she knows how valuable this tool will be for those with accessibility needs.

She said: “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 decision based on the specific situation in their local area. However, as the field of data science develops, it is important that we are actively assessing and continually evolving how best to present findings, in line with accessibility needs.”