SocialTech @ CCCamp19

Birds eye view on a desk. A stack of worksheets with instructions for the workshop are on the table, 3 stacks of colourful notecards are on top. Each coloured stack of cards contains the workshop attendees responses to one of the 3 questions we have asked them to reflect on during the workshop.

Typing up responses from the workshop.

Today I finished typing out the responses Victoria Neumann and I collected during our workshops at the Chaos Communication Camp 2019.

The workshops were part of our SocialTech project. This one specifically was tailored for an open-air tech event: “Accessibility and Inclusion – Hacking everyday communication practices to change the world.”

Among other things, we were reflecting about our own access needs and potential responses to them. It was particularly interesting to do this at a week-long camping event since a lot of needs (and also opportunities) are heavily depending on the context they are happening in. Since conference-type events are usually held indoors, the contrast between the usual conference space and an open field in late August was striking. Together we identified and discussed both event-specific and more universal questions surrounding the topics of accessibility and inclusion.

A tent that's a makeshift kitchen. 3 illuminated black and purple signs spell out "food hacking base"

The one thing everyone agrees on: everything can be hacked.

I’m confident to say everyone went home with many new ideas to think about. A handful of participants even left the workshop together. In response to one of the most frequently mentioned access issues, they decided to try and write an app for the camp’s card10 badge. I’m really curious to see where that goes!

Campsite from above. A lot of tents in different sizes on a nice day, it is very dusty

The overall mood of the event.

DIRPC 2019

A cup of coffee sits on top of a stack of papers, a laptop and the programme for the DIPRC conference on Angela's lap.

But first: coffee.

It’s real now! We held the first presentation about the the SocialTech project at the Digital Inclusion Policy and Research Conference at the University of Liverpool in London.

It was a great conference, and an amazing opportunity to connect with other researchers, professionals from both the third sector and industry, government officials and students working on the intersections of society and new communication and (emerging) internet technologies.

We got some interesting feedback after our presentation.
The slides and annotations can be found on the project website, but I also want to give a short summary of the current state of the project itself:

The main points we talked about

Text slide. Text reads: Tech Support for Social Issues. Accessibility is a social issue, but often defined in technical terms. Thinking diversity, inclusion, and accessibility together. Communication is creating response-ability Goal: Reach (a broad range of) people.

We explained the project itself, and the question-response format of the resource we are working on.

Text slide. Text reads: Finding Useful Questions: We have been dealing with accessibility and inclusion on an academic level for a while. How to make these topics approachable? Our project that aims to bridge the gap between academia and everyday organizational practice. We want to provide a starting point for those interested in reaching more people with whatever they do.

Text slide that shows 3 stages: Set Up, Play and Rewind. They are connected in a cycle made of arrows, but in a twisted and wonky not at all straightforward way.

This wonky knot is supposed to show how adapting communication practices and having inbuilt feedback loops both internally and with your audience make it easier to react to one’s audience/users/visitors and their needs easily.

We are excited to start incorporating the feedback we got and continue working on this project!

SocialTech

When I was a full-time master’s student, I used to co-organize the Changing Worlds Conference, a transdisciplinary student-led conference. We spent 3 years exploring the possibilities to bring together artists, scientist, engineers, activists, students and teachers interested in science, technology and society within the framework of an academic conference.

For me personally, the most interesting aspect of the project was experimenting with the format of the conference itself. We were trying (and mostly succeeding) to create an accessible, inclusive environment in which people from different backgrounds feel welcome and can productively work together.

The experiment is growing up

After giving a few workshops on the topic, me and my colleague Victoria Neumann have decided to use the knowledge we were able to collect and make it available to others. We want to provide a starting point for learning to those who want to adopt more inclusive communication practices, both in their private and professional lives.

Title page of a document called "Finding useful questions" That is supposed to be a resource for people to learn about accessibility and inclusion

The first version of the “Finding useful questions” document.

This new project is called SocialTech, and it aims to provide a resource to learn about access needs, and more inclusive communication- and organizing strategies. Updates as the project unfolds can also be found on this project website.

The idea behind the project:

Rather than giving a specific set of instructions, the resource is built in a question-and-response format. There are no “one size fits all” solutions to dealing with people’s needs, but in this list we tried to provide a range of questions you could use as a starting point to consider your audience and how to make your space as accomodating and comfortable as possible.

We have published the first version of the document we are working on. It is a work in progress. For this first version, we have focused on a few topics that come up often. At the moment it is only available in English, but we are planning to translate it into German soon.

Art and Technology

I got to attend a wonderful conference in Vienna, and I have to say it was the perfect start into 2019.

“Das Kunstmuseum im Digitalen Zeitalter” (The Art Museum in the Digital Age) was organized by the Belvedere and held in the museum’s beautiful Blickle Cinema.

Welcome slide on the screen in the vintage Belvedere Blickle Cinema. A laptop on a speakers desk, the stage is empty.

The vintage Blickle Cinema in the Belvedere museum is an amazing venue for a conference.

The two conference days were packed with interesting talks and discussions. While Art Education/Outreach doesn’t seem to fit in with my work, it was a great conference for me. My research is, at its core, exploring how people creatively use new technologies to communicate, build communities and structure their everyday lives – and this is exactly what this conference was about.

Topics like representation, accessibility and inclusion were also discussed throughout the whole conference. It was a joy to see how museums incorporate the internet and digital tools with the traditional visitor experience.

Conference Presentation, the slide shows a tumblr site dedicated to "Ugly Renaissance Babies", it is presented as a museum hack.

New Technologies also means new ways of playing and interacting with a space.

This second picture made me smile, it came from a presentation about visitors “hacking” the museum.

The overall message in the talks was clear: While it is important to implement stable long-term plans and tools for, it never hurts to get creative in order to engage with visitors and perhaps even a virtual audience.

Stage 2: Experiments

Now that I understand how microcapsule paper works, it’s time to get a bit nerdy with material science.

Most blind students in Austria attend regular schools, so they will have sighted people around them. This is why we decided to try and make the materials work better for this integrative approach by including the text in schwarzschrift (literally black print, I don’t think this term exists in English so I’ll stick to the German) too. Schwarzschrift here, for us, is red though. There’s technical reasons for that, but maybe I need to explain how swell paper works first.

Pages of swell paper with test lines in different line styles and red writing in different shades that has stayed flat in the swelling process

Testing different shades of red by applying different heat settings.

Close up of swell paper with black, 3D lines and flat red writing.

Now to find a colour that is the easiest to read for sighted people while not interfering with the tactile parts of the page.

The basic idea is simple: Microcapsule paper, or swell paper, reacts to heat. It is being printed on like regular paper, but after printing it is put through a machine (the fuser) that heats paper up using infrared light. When the infrared light hits the printed pigment, the paper underneath the pigment gets hot enough to swell up (It’s a bit like popcorn).

Since the swelling is caused by a combination of black pigment on the special paper and infrared light, changing parameters means it is possible to print content that won’t puff up when put through the fuser. Specifically, red ink absorbs less infrared light and heat and therefore doesn’t make the paper swell up.

So why is this a good idea? Braille has a very low density of information, so one page can fit much less text than it would with schwarzschrift. Space on a Braille page is precious, so we do not want to take up space with text that doesn’t need to be tactile. Additionally, having the schwarzschrift parts swell up would be confusing when reading the Braille and tactile graphics.

A Page of the Pythagoras chapter. It has labelled tactile triangles. The text is available both in Braille and in red for readers that cannot read braille. This is the first finished page from the short test chapter we are using to test the basic design.

If the schwarzschrift text does not swell up in the production process, it can just exist in the white space of the tactile page. Reliably being able to have content that swells and content that does not means we can make the most out of the limited space we have available while still providing all the information for different readers: It simply adds another layer of information that is imperceptible for those who don’t need it.

How to read Braille

Pages of swell paper with different surface patters consisting of dots, lines and crosses

A number of pages with different surface patterns and intersections of lines and patterns

My new design project is interesting. It mostly consists of maths and programming, combined with social research. After that, finally, some layouting and typesetting – but the final product will not necessarily look pretty. That’s alright though, since it’s not made to be looked at: We are working on teaching materials for blind and visually impaired students. More specifically, a graphics catalogue to be used in high school maths education.

A page of swell paper with different styles of dashed lines.

How do dashed lines behave and feel? How much difference is needed so we can distinguish styles by touch?

close up of swell paper with different dashed line styles

It’s hard to get a good picture of the three dimensional quality of the paper.

And this is exactly why I love being a designer: Getting to make things that work, no matter how contradictory the requirements may seem initially.

A page of swell paper with different dot pattern surfaces

Here I am trying to come up with different patterns to replace what would usually be different colours. After creating a lot of “test squares” we had teachers and students test them at the school.

Pages of swell paper with different surface patterns

Pages of swell paper with different surface patterns

I’m really looking forward to working on this project. I have never used swell paper before I was approached with this project, but it’s an exciting material. It makes it possible to create tactile graphics with a standard printer and a special device to actually make the print tactile.

The first step is testing the properties of the material we are working with so I can get a feeling for it. We are closely working with both blind students and teachers to learn the basics about tactile graphics and typesetting in Braille, but also about the Braille system itself.

Close up of swell paper with different surface patterns and line styles

Intersections and Lines that go over what would traditionally be coloured fields are much harder to distinguish in tactile graphics.

Next up: learning how to actually read Braille.