Supporting the next generation of accessible technology developers

Posted on Friday, 20 September 2013 by David Sloan

This weekend sees the European final of the SS12 Coding for a Cause competition, where teams of university and college students compete to produce the best piece of accessible software. It’s a terrific opportunity for students to develop and demonstrate skills in inclusive design and development. In my previous job, I co-ordinated Dundee University’s involvement by running a local competition earlier this year; now, as a TPG employee, I work for the competition sponsors. Putting aside any conflict of interest in the outcome of the EU final (it’s OK, I’m not a judge!), this article provides some background to the competition.

Education is often cited as the key to ensuring that the next generation of technology developers build in accessibility as a core attribute, rather than as an afterthought, if at all. Most importantly, we need to teach accessibility and inclusive design in context – thinking about people with diverse needs from the earliest point and throughout the design lifecycle, appreciating the role of assistive technology in the accessibility jigsaw, and ensuring that accommodating diversity becomes standard practice in design and development through excellent technical and user research skills.

There are many great efforts to encourage computer science, web development, digital interaction design and other relevant courses to embrace accessibility in the curriculum – such as the Interact with Web Standards curriculum and the work of the W3C Web Education Community Group. SS12 has been devised by the non-profit Project Possibility organisation as a competition to specifically reward excellence in accessibility through a project-based competition which encourages teams of students to develop software, a web site or app that seeks to solve an accessibility challenge and itself reaches a high level of accessibility. Institutions run local competitions, usually following a hack weekend-type format, and the local competition winners go head-to-head in a Grand Final, typically held in conjunction with an accessibility-focused conference.

SS12 has been running in the US for a few years, and has recently branched out into Europe and Asia. This year, the European project was run on a slightly different basis, to accommodate scheduling constraints experienced by interested universities – using existing learning activities as a means of assessment. Since the University of Dundee’s School of Computing has for a long time emphasised the importance of designing for human diversity in teaching and research, I decided this year that Dundee should participate, and chose to use the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) module I co-ordinated as a basis for our competition. We were also very lucky that Powermapper Software generously agreed to sponsor the Dundee competition, by providing funds to enable to the winning team to travel to the final, held in conjunction with the AAATE 2013 conference in Vilamoura, Portugal.

The HCI module, taken by third year students on Bachelor of Science degree programs, includes a semester-long team project activity his year, the brief was “Intergenerational Communication”, and the students were encouraged to apply a user-centred, inclusive design process to create an application which included older people as a core audience. The SS12 competition assessment was kept separate from the  academic assessment, and student teams could choose whether or not to participate. In the end, three project teams nominated themselves for the award, judged by Mark Rogers, CEO of Powermapper and Professor Alan Newell, former head of the School of Computing and pioneering accessibility researcher. The winning team of Heather Ellis, Yolina Kostova and Candice Stewart produced a web site supporting older people in using digital photos to share stories with their family and friends.

As a sponsor of SS12 EU, TPG offers its congratulations to all the competition participants and organisers in working to raise the profile of e-accessibility as a key professional skill, and especially to the winning teams from each of the participating universities – Université Paris 8Masaryk UniversityTechnical University of KošiceUniversity of Dundee and Johannes Kepler University Linz.

And the Winners are…

Updated 21st September: Congratulations to the team from Johannes Kepler University (JKU), who were announced today as winners of SS12 EU 2013, for their project on a touch tablet Braille keyboard. For more details, have a read of Steve Lee’s excellent SS12EE summary blog article.

About David Sloan

David Sloan is User Experience Research Lead with The Paciello Group. He joined TPG in May 2013, after nearly 14 years researching, teaching and providing consultancy on accessibility and inclusive design at the University of Dundee in Scotland. He is an active participant in a number of W3C accessibility-focused groups, and is a Steering Committee member of the annual W4A Cross-Disciplinary Conference on Web Accessibility.

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