by Jeff Thom
There is no question that data drives the world we live in. Whether it’s used for policymaking decisions on funding public programs, sports analytics, marketing and branding just about everything, dating sites, weather forecasting or just about anything else you can think of, data plays an important part. I wouldn’t describe myself as a data wonk. Rather, I tend to view things in a somewhat binary way, good or evil, right or wrong, desirable or undesirable, etc., even though I know the world isn’t really that way. However, I sometimes wonder whether my frustration with data stems from another more physiological reason. Having been born with retinopathy of prematurity, as it is now known, it is my understanding that I have an excuse for my utter absence of the ability to work in a special context. This manifests itself in various ways, including seemingly being able to get lost in a closet, not being able to handle a jigsaw puzzle with more than a handful of pieces, never really catching on to the right mode for doing a snowplow during my skiing days, not being able to effectively use complex Excel spreadsheets, and so on.
So why am I writing an article about data, when I am clearly one of the least qualified among us to talk about the topic? The answer is that I recently participated in a Boston College study that gives me hope that the day may come when even those who struggle to effectively access data, such as me, will find that we, too, have the tools to become data geeks. As we all know, data in the visual world in which we live is most often presented in a graphic form which, from the outset, places anyone who is blind or has low vision at some degree of a disadvantage. The aim of the study was to research potential methodologies for making data easily understandable by people with vision loss.
The study had two major components. First, it provided different methods of accessing data using screen-reading software, and in each case the participant is required to answer questions about the data. The first mechanism for accessing data was the ability to ask questions about the data verbally or by typing them on the screen. It almost reminded me of playing a computer game. In fact, the questions that it could answer depended in part on the information in the data table, but also on how you asked the question. However, as artificial intelligence becomes ever more able to interact with humanity, the greater capacity such a platform will have, and the only limit will eventually be the information contained in the table itself. The second data access mechanism was the ability to rearrange the data in descending or ascending order. This approach made it easier to select the type of information that you were trying to collect from the data table. The final mechanism gave you the ability to move around the chart with your screen reader. For example, if you were looking at state poverty rates in each year during the 21st century, you could change the arrangement of the data to be by year, by state, or by a specified poverty rate percentage.
By requiring you to answer various questions about the data, it was easy to realize how sighted folks can visually shift the data in their mind’s eye without even thinking about it. Moreover, it illustrates how, if people with vision impairments also have this capacity, it will be far easier for us to extract information about what the data shows. The tables were formatted in a way that made them easily readable for people who are blind.
During the study, I found myself frustrated at times, in part because I wasn’t using the right commands to make the program work or because it took longer than I would have liked to find answers to the questions that were asked. I am not as patient as my mom would have wanted me to be, and I am competitive in situations where that isn’t even really of any importance.
However, after reflecting on my experience subsequent to completion of the study, I realized that its methodologies really had the potential to markedly enhance the ability of people who are blind or have low vision to effectively access and analyze data. Given the constant and utterly amazing advances in technology and our knowledge base, I can’t even begin to envision what data research mechanisms will look like for our community in five years. But even a dinosaur is willing to hang on for the ride.