Tech Tools Are Just Tools

Claude AlmansiBy Claude Almansi
Editor, Accessibility Issues

Has technology “reduced our social capital — the relationships that bind people together and create a sense of community,” as Dider Grossamy wrote in a comment to David G. Lebow’s Ten Dollar Computers and the Future of Learning in the Web Era [1]? Didier Grossamy himself adds: “Even though technological advances have contributed significantly to the problem of isolation, the emphasis on individualism in today’s society has compounded it.”

It might be the other way round: technology tools — the internet, computers, cell phones — are very powerful tools, but just tools. They can emphasize social trends, but they cannot create them. Read/Write tools like blogs, wikis, even Twitter — which might seem at first glance the epitome of self-absorption — can also be used very effectively for the defense of human and civic rights. See Don’t Block the Blog [2], Global Voices Online [3] and the Herdict [4] tool recently launched by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, which allows users to report inaccessible sites and to see what site has been reported inaccessible in what countries, thus avoiding false censorship alarms.

Civic and Human Rights


“November 8 [2007]: Karachi Rally – No military rule, imperialism war” by > ange <. Some rights reserved.

These are great tools under dictatorships: when then President General Musharraf proclaimed the state of emergency in Pakistan in November 2007, the first sign was the blacking out of all independent televisions. Within a few hours, their political broadcasts were accessible again on the internet (with audio-only versions for people with low connectivity). Activists used twitter from their cell phones to let others know when they got arrested. And now that President Zardari is more and more emulating his predecessor’s autocratic behavior (look up Zardari in Google News), civil society is ready to use these tools again.

Of course, governments — and not only tyrannies — attempt to control these tools. In October 2004, at the request of the Swiss government, the FBI seized a server that hosted a page of Indymedia giving personal data of two plainclothes policemen who were inquiring about unrest episodes in Geneva during the Evian G8 Summit, with a not-too-veiled threat. The page was still retrievable through Google cache, and it was mirrored in a student’s page at the site of a US university. Indymedia responsibly deleted all attempts to link to that mirror, but it was very easy to find with a search engine (see, in Italian, L’FBI oscura vari siti Indymedia su richiesta della Svizzera e dell’Italia, ma…. [5]) – Oct. 10, 2004).

More dangerously, last fall, a Sicilian judge condemned historian Carlo Ruta for “stampa clandestina” (clandestine press) because he had published his research about the Mafia in his blog, using a 1948 Italian law that makes the official registration of press organs compulsory (see John Ozimek’s How an Italian judge made the internet illegal [6] – The Register, Sep. 26, 2008). As a result, many Italian bloggers now avoid this risk by adding a disclaimer saying that their blog is not a press organ.

Technology Education and Technology Scares


Is Google Making Us Stupid? by Salvor. Wikimedia Commons. In the Public Domain.

The point is, if these tools are to be used positively, people must learn how to use them, as with any other tool. Unfortunately, traditional media — from Nicholas Carr’s Is Google Making Us Stupid? [7] (The Atlantic, July/August 2008) to David Derbyshire’s Social websites harm children’s brains: Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist [8] (Daily Mail, Feb. 24, 2009) — feeling threatened by these tools, are all too ready to demonize them. And as a result, education authorities tend to block access to these tools rather than face the responsibilities involved in using them at school, where students could learn how to do so responsibly and efficiently.

Most such scare-mongerers’ arguments can be easily refuted, of course. Either they lack scientific evidence, or they quote it only partially, or they use fallacies: Derbyshire, for instance, suggests that the fact that autistic people can express themselves more easily with computers might imply that computers induce autism.

Constructive Criticism

However, we must also beware of the negative effect that an over-enthusiastic advocacy of these tools can have. In 1995, I attended a conference announcing the opening of the Università della Svizzera Italiana and its School of Communication Studies in Lugano (CH), pretentiously entitled “Oxford on the Lake.” I left midways: the zealot enthusiasm and sociological jargon of the “cybernaut” speakers put me off the internet for two solid years.

So it is important to pay necessary attention to serious criticism of these tools voiced by people really involved in using them for social and educational purposes. Two recent telling examples:

  • In From Red Guards to Cyber-vigilantism to where next? [9] (Feb. 24. 2009): Rebecca MacKinnon reflects on the limitations of only exposing socially harmful behaviors and human right violations rather than acting to prevent them: “Just because people have an expanded ability to speak truth to power thanks to new technology, that doesn’t automatically lead to a more just society in the long run unless you have institutional change. I wonder whether people will be so distracted and excited about the ability to use the Internet to speak truth to power that they’ll have less interest in such institutional change.” As she is co-founder of the above-mentioned Global Voices Online [3], which aims at giving voice to people directly concerned by events that traditional media do not normally cover, her invitation to go beyond simple information is particularly interesting.
  • In The use and misuse of computers in education: evidence from a randomized experiment in Colombia [10] (Feb. 1, 2009 — with links to the full report as downloadable 3.01Mb PDF [11] or plain text [12] files): Felipe Barrera-Osorio and Leigh L. Linden analyze the results of scientifically conducted statistical surveys of a Colombian project in which more computers were offered to schools and teachers were provided training. In spite of this training, teachers made little use of the increased learning possibilities of computers, and as a result, the impact on students was minimal. Providing computers and training teachers in their use in education — even if this training follows a constructivist pedagogical approach, as in this Colombian case — is necessary, but it is not enough to make teachers effectively use the available computers with their students.

Motivation and Follow-Up

Citizens who struggle to defend their rights under a dictatorship are more likely to be motivated to master the use of information and collaboration tech tools than teachers who have to help their students pass national tests that bear only on memorized notions. Motivation is essential.

But training offered to motivated people cannot be limited to a single initial course because technology evolves and, more importantly, needs to evolve. Therefore people must have the opportunity to further explore these tools “in action.” This can be done online, provided they are initially trained to use online networks where they can find or ask others for reliable additional information and help.

Unhide That Hidden Text, Please

claude80By Claude Almansi
Staff Writer

Thanks to:

  • Marie-Jeanne Escure, of Le Temps, for having kindly answered questions about copyright and accessibility issues in the archives of the Journal de Genève.
  • Gabriele Ghirlanda, of Unitas, for having tested the archives of the Journal de Genève with a screen reader.

What Hidden Text?

Here, “hidden text” refers to a text file combined by an application with another object (image, video etc.) in order to add functionality to that object: several web applications offer this text to the reader together with the object it enhances – DotSUB offers the transcript of video captions, for instance:


Screenshot from “Phishing Scams in Plain English” by Lee LeFever [1].

But in other applications, unfortunately, you get only the enhanced object, but the text enhancing it remains hidden even though it would grant access to content for people with disabilities that prevent them from using the object and would simplify enormously research and quotations for everybody.

Following are three examples of object-enhancing applications using text but keeping it hidden:

Multilingual Captioning of YouTube and Google Videos

Google offers the possibility to caption a video by uploading one or several text files with their timed transcriptions. See the YouTube example below.

yt_subtYouTube video captioning.

Google even automatically translates the produced captions into other languages, at the user’s discretion. See the example below. (See “How to Automatically Translate Foreign-Language YouTube Videos” by Terrence O’Brien, Switch,

yt_subt_trslOption to automatically translate the captions of a YouTube video.

Nov. 3, 2008 [2], from which the above two screenshots were taken.) But the text files of the original captions and their automatic translations remain hidden.

Google’s Search Engine for the US Presidential Campaign Videos

During the 2008 US presidential campaign, Google beta-tested a search engine for videos on the candidates’ speeches. This search engine works on a text file produced by speech-to-text technology. See the example below.

google_election_searchGoogle search engine for the US presidential election videos.

(See “Google Elections Video Search,” Google for Educators 2008 – where you can try the search engine in the above screenshot – [3] and “‘In Their Own Words’: Political Videos Meet Google Speech-to-text Technology” by Arnaud Sahuguet and Ari Bezman. Official Google blog, July 14, 2008 [4].) But here, too, the text files on which the search engine works remain hidden.

Enhanced Text Images in Online Archives

Maybe the oddest use of hidden text is when people go to the trouble of scanning printed texts, produce both images of text and real text files from the scan, then use the text file to make the image version searchable – but hide it. It happens with Google books [5] and with The European Library [6]: you can browse and search the online texts that appear as images thanks to the hidden text version, but you can’t print them or digitally copy-paste a given passage – except if the original is in the public domain: in this case, both make a real textual version available.

Therefore, using a plain text file to enhance an image of the same content, but hiding the plain text, is apparently just a way to protect copyrighted material. And this can lead to really bizarre solutions.

Olive Software ActivePaper and the Archives of Journal de Genève

On December 12, 2008, the Swiss daily Le Temps announced that for the first time in Switzerland, they were offering online “free access” to the full archives – (English version at [7]) – of Le Journal de Genève (JdG), which, together with two other dailies, got merged into Le Temps in 1998. In English, see Ellen Wallace’s “Journal de Geneve Is First Free Online Newspaper (but It’s Dead),” GenevaLunch, Dec. 12, 2008 [8].

A Vademecum to the archives, available at [9] (7.7 Mb PDF), explains that “articles in the public domain can be saved as


images. Other articles will only be partially copied on the hard disk,” and Nicolas Dufour’s description of the archiving process in the same Vademecum gives a first clue about the reason for this oddity: “For the optical character recognition that enables searching by keywords within the text, the American company Olive Software adapted its software which had already been used by the Financial Times, the Scotsman and the Indian Times.” (These and other translations in this article are mine.)

The description of this software – ActivePaper Archive – states that it will enable publishers to “Preserve, Web-enable, and Monetize [their] Archive Content Assets” [10]. So even if Le Temps does not actually intend to “monetize” their predecessor’s assets, the operation is still influenced by the monetizing purpose of the software they chose. Hence the hiding of the text versions on which the search engine works and the digital restriction on saving articles still under copyright.

Accessibility Issues

This ActivePaper Archive solution clearly poses great problems for blind people who have to use a screen reader to access content: screen readers read text, not images.

Le Temps is aware of this: in an e-mail answer (Jan. 8, 2009) to questions about copyright and accessibility problems in the archives of JdG, Ms Marie-Jeanne Escure, in charge of reproduction authorizations at Le Temps, wrote, “Nous avons un partenariat avec la Fédération suisse des aveugles pour la consultation des archives du Temps par les aveugles. Nous sommes très sensibilisés par cette cause et la mise à disposition des archives du Journal de Genève aux aveugles fait partie de nos projets.” Translation: “We have a partnership with the Swiss federation of blind people (see [11]) for the consultation of the archives of Le Temps by blind people. We are strongly committed/sensitive to this cause, and the offer of the archives of Journal de Genève to blind people is part of our projects.”

What Digital Copyright Protection, Anyway?

Gabriele Ghirlanda, member of Unitas [12], the Swiss Italian section of the Federation of Blind people, tried the Archives of JdG. He says (e-mail, Jan. 15, 2009):

With a screenshot, the image definition was too low for ABBYY FineReader 8.0 Professional Edition [optical character recognition software] to extract a meaningful text.

But by chance, I noticed that the article presented is made of several blocs of images, for the title and for each column.

Right-clic, copy image, paste in OpenOffice; export as PDF; then I put the PDf through Abbyy Fine Reader. […]

For a sighted person, it is no problem to create a document of good quality for each article, keeping it in image format, without having to go through OpenOffice and/or pdf. [my emphasis]

<DIV style=”position:relative;display:block;top:0; left:0; height:521; width:1052″ xmlns:OliveXLib=”; xmlns:OlvScript=”; xmlns:msxsl=”urn:schemas-microsoft-com:xslt”><div id=”primImg” style=”position:absolute;top:30;left:10;” z-index=”2″><img id=”articlePicture” src=”/Repository/getimage.dll?path=JDG/1990/03/15/13/Img/Ar0130200.png” border=”0″></img></div><div id=”primImg” style=”position:absolute;top:86;left:5;” z-index=”2″><img id=”articlePicture” src=”/Repository/getimage.dll?path=JDG/1990/03/15/13/Img/Ar0130201.png” border=”0″></img></div><div id=”primImg” style=”position:absolute;top:83;left:365;” z-index=”2″><img id=”articlePicture” src=”/Repository/getimage.dll?path=JDG/1990/03/15/13/Img/Ar0130202.png” border=”0″></img></div><div id=”primImg” style=”position:absolute;top:521;left:369;” z-index=”2″><img id=”articlePicture” src=”/Repository/getimage.dll?path=JDG/1990/03/15/13/Img/Ar0130203.png” border=”0″></img></div><div id=”primImg” style=”position:absolute;top:81;left:719;” z-index=”2″><img id=”articlePicture” src=”/Repository/getimage.dll?path=JDG/1990/03/15/13/Img/Ar0130204.png” border=”0″></img></div>

From the source code of the article used by Gabriele Ghirlanda: in red, the image files he mentions.

Unhide That Hidden Text, Please

Le Temps‘ commitment to the cause of accessibility for all and, in particular, to find a way to make the JdG archives accessible to blind people (see “Accessibility Issues” above) is laudable. But in this case, why first go through the complex process of splitting the text into several images, and theoretically prevent the download of some of these images for copyrighted texts, when this “digital copyright protection” can easily be by-passed with right-click and copy-paste?

As there already is a hidden text version of the JdG articles for powering the search engine, why not just unhide it? already states that these archives are “© 2008 Le Temps SA.” This should be sufficient copyright protection.

Let’s hope that Olive ActivePaper Archive software offers this option to unhide hidden text. Not just for the archives of the JdG, but for all archives working with this software. And let’s hope, in general, that all web applications using text to enhance a non-text object will publish it. All published works are automatically protected by copyright laws anyway.

Adding an alternative accessible version just for blind people is discriminatory. According to accessibility guidelines – and common sense – alternative access for people with disabilities should only be used when there is no other way to make web content accessible. Besides, access to the text version would also simplify life for scholars – and for people using portable devices with a small screen: text can be resized far better than a puzzle of images with fixed width and height (see the source code excerpt above).

The pages linked to in this article and a few more resources are bookmarked under

Live Radio Captioning for the Deaf

claude80By Claude Almansi
Staff Writer

Thanks to:

  • Sylvia Monnat, director of captioning at Télévision Suisse Romande (French-speaking Swiss television for the explanations she gave me by phone on live captioning through re-speaking.
  • Neal Stein, of Harris Corporation (, for the authorization to publish on YouTube the video excerpt shown below, and for his explanations on the US live radio captioning project.

Why Caption Radio?

Making radio accessible for deaf and hard of hearing persons is not commonly perceived as a priority. For instance, the new version of the Swiss law and ordinance on Radio and Television that came into force in 2007 does add several dispositions about accessibility for people with sight and hearing disabilities but does not mention captioning radio. See art. 7 [1] of the law and art. 7 [2] and 8 [3] of the ordinance (in French). According to most non-deaf people’s “common sense,” deaf persons don’t use radio – just as many non-blind people still believe that blind people can’t use computers.

Yet deaf persons are interested in accessing radio content through captioning, as Cheryl Heppner, Executive Director of NVRC [4], explains in this video:

The video is from the January 8, 2008, I-CART introductory press conference at CES 2008. The full video can be downloaded from Transcript of the above excerpt:

I’m one of 31 million people in the United States who are deaf or hard of hearing. A number that continues to grow. NPR Labs and its partners are on the verge of making many of my dreams come true. Beyond having that really crucial emergency information, captioned radio could also open up a world I’ve never had, because I lost my hearing before my seventh birthday.

When I am stuck in Washington’s legendary Beltway gridlock, I could check the traffic report and find out why, what my best route would be. I could check the sports scores and follow the games for all my favorite teams. I could know why my husband is always laughing so uproariously when he listens to “Car Talk.” And I could annoy him by singing along badly to the lyrics of his favorite songs.

I can’t wait. Thank you.

NPR’s Live Captioned Broadcast of Presidential Election

The work by NPR Labs and its partners, mentioned by Cheryl Heppner in this January 2008 conference, led to the broadcasting of live captioned debates on NPR during the US election campaign a few months later. The assessment by deaf and hard of hearing people of this experiment was extremely positive. According to the press release “Deaf and Hard of Hearing Vote Yes on New Radio Technology During NPR’s Live Captioned Broadcast of Presidential Election” (Nov. 13, 2008) [5]:

  • 95% were happy with the level of captioning accuracy, a crucial aspect for readability and comprehension
  • 77% said they would be interested in purchasing a captioned radio display unit when it becomes available
  • 86% indicated they would be interested in purchasing a “dual-view” screen display for a car (which would enable a deaf passenger to see the captioned radio text while the driver listens to the radio).

How Are Radio Captions Transmitted?

A digital radio signal can be divided to transmit audio and text, and the text can be read on the radio display. In fact, text messages are already being sent micro4_serviceon car radio displays through Radio Data System (RDS). For instance, this is how the Swiss traffic information service Inforoutes updated drivers in real time – or almost – about the state of traffic jams due to work in the Glion tunnel in 2004. (See “Service,” in French, on page 4, in the May 2004 newsletter of Les Radios Francophones Publiques [6].)

The radio devices used in the experience conducted by NPR Labs and its partners that Cheryl Heppner mentions have a bigger display. For the exact technical explanation of how the captions work, see the presentations section of

Stenocaptioning vs. Respeaking

The NPR experiment mentioned above used “stenocaptioned,” i.e., they were written with a stenotype [7] whose output gets translated into captions in normal English by computer software. Live stenocaptioning – whether for news broadcasts or for in-presence events in specially equipped venues – seems to be the preferred solution in countries such as the US and Italy that have a tradition of stenotyping court proceedings or parliamentary debates.

In most other European countries, according to Ms. Sylvia Monnat, director of captioning at Télévision Suisse Romande (French-speaking Swiss TV –, broadcasters tend to prefer “respeaking,” which works with speech-to-text technology: the software gets trained to recognize the voice of respeakers, and then converts what they repeat into captions.

Ms. Monnat further explained that, on the one hand, the advantages of respeaking involves training. In fact, countries without a stenotyping tradition do not offer courses for it, whereas existing interpretation schools can arrange respeaking courses since it is a normal exercise in the training of conference interpreters. Moreover, respeaking is easier to learn than stenotyping.

On the other hand, it takes time to, first, train the speech-to-text software to recognize the respeakers’ voices and, second, to add words not present in its basic thesaurus for each respeaker’s voice. Moreover, enough respeakers have to be trained so that one whose voice is recognized by the software will be available when needed. Whereas once a new word has been added to the thesaurus of the stenocaptioning software, it can be used by any stenocaptioner.


The fast evolution of technology makes it difficult to foresee the issues of live captioning, even in the near future. Radio and television are merging into “multimedia broadcasting.” And, in turn, the line between broadcasting and the internet is gradually fading (see the HDTV offer by internet providers). Speech-to-text technology will probably continue to improve. Mutimedia devices are also evolving rapidly.

However, the response of the deaf and hard of hearing people who participated in the NPR Live captioning experiment seems to allow one safe surmise: live radio captioning is here to stay, whatever the means it will use tomorrow.


Further information on live captioning can be found in the online version of the “Proceedings of the First International Seminar on Real-time Intralingual Subtitling” held in Forlì, Italy, on Nov. 17, 2006 [8].

This and other online resources mentioned here have been tagged “captioning” in Diigo and can therefore be found, together with resources added by other Diigo users, in