Power of crowdsourcing helps blind see the Internet

August 2, 2012 8:47:02 PM PDT
Technology is opening doors for more and more blind people. But even with e-readers and braille devices, something's often missing from books for the blind -- the pictures. Now a Bay Area group is using the power of crowdsourcing to help blind people see what they've been missing.

Lining the walls of Benetech's office are rows and rows of books wrapped in rubber bands. Those rubber bands are the only thing holding them together. The covers are eventually removed, the bindings chopped off and the pages are then fed through a very high speed scanner.

Like millions of people, Benetech employee Rob Turner reads e-books on his iPhone, even though he's blind. Using a Bluetooth braille display, there's no text he can't read -- as long as it's text.

"A lot of times a books would say, you know, 'picture,' and that would be about all you'd know, or it'd be a graphic, and you'd think, what's in that graphic?" said Turner.

Benetech VP Betsy Beaumon explained it's a problem for students. "A lot of students who are blind are discouraged from studying math and science because, primarily the images, but also the math which are often depicted in images, are just too difficult for people to get described at a school level," she said.

And that's where Poet comes in. Poet is a free, open-source web tool that lets hundreds of volunteers describe images for blind readers in their spare time.

"Just a little extra knowledge about what a picture conveyed can make all the difference," said Turner.

Poet's creators see walls of paper books as a giant game of catch-up that could soon be coming to an end. With more and more publishers bringing out books directly on devices like the iPad, they see this as an opportunity to make every book accessible.

"Obviously the best people to describe it often are the authors themselves," said Beaumon. Benetech is working with publishers and also with tech companies that could make it easy for anyone to volunteer. "I would love to see somebody sign onto Facebook and have something pop up to say, 'Can you spend two minutes and describe this image?'"


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