E-Accessible Culture

OPALINe, a Research & Development project for accessible books

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OPALINe, a Research & Development project for accessible books

By Alex Bernier, Director, BrailleNet

Alex Bernier graduated with a degree in computer engineering from the National Institute of Applied Sciences (INSA) in Rennes. He has worked on various projects related to books and digital libraries. He is responsible for the Accessible Francophone Digital Library (BNFA) and BrailleNet's research and development program including a project aimed at improving the accessibility of scientific and technical documents for the visually impaired.

BrailleNet: A long history of accessible reading

Taking advantage of the opportunities brought about by digital technologies, BrailleNet develops tools and services that facilitate the production, distribution and reading of accessible digital books.

As early as 2001, BrailleNet put in place the Hélène platform to encourage charities and education support services involved in producing accessible adaptations to share their output. In 2002, the DAISY 3.0 Standard was adopted and in 2006, BrailleNet launched the Hélène Library, France's first secure distribution platform for digital books. Today over 80 partners upload their accessible books and download accessible titles provided by partner organizations.

In 2012, in partnership with the Groupement des Intellectuels Aveugles ou Amblyopes (group of blind or partially sighted Intellectuals) and the Association pour le Bien des Aveugles et des Malvoyants (association for the blind and visually impaired), BrailleNet created the BNFA, a digital library service for people with print disabilities. Built on the Hélène Library, it was intended to provide a new means of sharing and widening the availability of accessible titles, and incorporating talking books. Today over 5,500 subscribers have access to over 45,000 titles in audio, digital Braille and large print. Access to the library is free and available to those who are classified as disabled according France's copyright law.

BrailleNet is also France's primary producer of accessible books (around 5,300 titles in 2017). New books are added each day to the Hélène platform and the BNFA digital library.

Very few “born-accessible” books available on the market today

It is estimated that only around 8% of books available to buy in French book shops are available somewhere in an accessible format (Braille, audio, large print, etc.). Since 2010, the copyright exception in France has made it easier for accredited adaptation organizations such as BrailleNet to request source files from publishers. However, the lack of accessible books available to the print-disabled is still very alarming and this is primarily down to economical, legal and technical issues.

Today, producing mainstream digital books that are born-accessible is on the agenda, but the process is very much in the experimental phase. The French Ministry of Culture and the French publishers association (SNE) are working with BrailleNet to increase support for publishers in this area, but it may be some time before fully accessible titles are widely available on the market.

While the onus on supporting access requirements shifts to publishers for much of their output, titles with complex layout and content will continue to require the input and expertise of adaptation services.

At present, there are a multitude of adaptation services with very little centralized coordination. Much of the markup needed to structure digital books is added manually. For complex publications this can be very costly.

Whether it be publishers or adaptation agencies, both parties are lacking in robust and affordable tools to assist them in the production of fully accessible titles and help them to work more effectively together.

Increasing productivity

The OPALINe project (“Outils pour l'accessibilité des livres numériques“, or tools for the production of accessible digital books) is a technical response to this problem. Funded by the Bpifrance to the tune of €450,000 (for a total budget of €1,000,000), the project brings together four organizations:

  • BrailleNet (project lead who will be involved in all phases of the project)

  • Inria (France's national research body for computing, and in particular the AlMaNaCh department specialized in automated language processing);

  • EDRLab (a non-profit organization responsible for promoting the EPUB format in Europe);

  • FeniXX (a company that digitizes and sells 20th century publications that are no longer available in print).

The project will set out to develop a suite of tools designed to improve productivity, including:

  • In partnership with Inria, a component to automatically enrich and mark up digital books to speed up certain adaptation tasks. This tool will use machine learning based on models of existing structured books.

  • A platform for collaborative adaptation which will allow several people to work on a single title at the same time. This platform will also enable different groups of “adaptors” to enrich and correct the document.

  • A tool for Braille transcription (digital and print) with full support for French Braille code;

  • With EDRLab, tools to support auditing and quality assurance for accessible digital books;

  • With EDRLab, reading apps for mobile and PC.

The project hopes to build a set of tools that will enable the scaling up of accessible book production which is today running at limited capacity. However, this technical solution will only be effective if supported by training to ensure that adaptation professionals have a solid grounding in the technology of today (XML, EPUB, etc.). A financial commitment from the government similar to that made in relation to mass digitization of publications by the BnF and the publishing sector is needed to ensure adaptation organizations are sufficiently armed to fight the “book famine”.

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