Visually Impaired Users To Benefit From Data Visualization Tool

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  • Researchers at MIT redefine data visualisation, from vocalising intricate maps to a tool that champions ethical data usage, thereby bridging the gap between design and accessibility.
  • Uncovers the embedded data in online graphics based on the user’s desired level of detail.

Infographics often bring data to life for the average reader, making complex numbers easily digestible. For blind and visually impaired individuals, these graphics can be a barrier, often limiting their comprehension. Screen-reading software is a standard tool for visually impaired users. This software vocalizes words or numbers from a webpage. But when it encounters graphics, it often merely provides a basic description or alt text. For example, an intricate map of the U.S. showcasing population rates by county might just be read aloud as “A map of the United States with population rates by county.”

Jonathan Zong, a 2022 MIT MAD Fellow, emphasizes the challenge of this linear narration. While sighted individuals can freely analyze various aspects of a graphic, blind users must rely solely on the limited descriptions provided. Even when infographics are accompanied by data tables, remembering the detailed information becomes a task for the user. Alarmingly, nearly 97% of primary internet pages aren’t compatible with screen readers, impacting 7 million visually impaired individuals in the U.S.

Olli: Tool Bridging the Gap in Data Visualization 

Recognizing this gap, the researchers collaborated with the Visualization Group at the university’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) to create an Olli solution. An open-source Javascript software, Olli offers users an interactive experience, allowing them to explore charts in detail according to their interests. The next evolution for Olli aims to blend visuals, text, and sounds, like musical notes indicating data trends on graphs, or even tactile data interpretations.

The team seamlessly integrates science, engineering, design, and art, and is a notable figure in visual arts and computer science. Their innovation lies at the intersection of these fields. They emphasize that the crux of their work revolves around granting users autonomy and agency. 

Besides Olli, the team also developed Bartleby, an open-source software that notifies users if their social media data is used in research studies. This tool further emphasizes his dedication to ethical data collection and usage. This artwork delves into themes of identity and representation, challenging the prevalent biases in data systems. This provides hope for a more inclusive digital future where data is accessible to all, regardless of physical abilities.

 

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