The azzapt service was born out of the MyDocStore project, which was conceived to address the missing link in creating and transferring accessible, personalised files between devices. The MyDocStore concept is to use Cloud, desktop and mobile-based file management to help transfer files whilst simultaneously converting them into the user's preferred format - whether text, audio or a combination of both. This service not only benefits learners who experience difficulties with reading due to a disability such as dyslexia, visual impairment or a physical disability, but also those who want to read documents and content when on the move.
In April 2010 a consortium of organisations, led by iansyst Ltd working alongside the Electronics and Computer Science department at Southampton University and Raspberry Software Ltd, received funding from the SBRI Plain Sailing Competition to develop a proof of concept. This proof of concept consisted of a PC app and iPhone app for transferring and converting files.
In December 2011 the consortium learned that they had won funding for the second phase of the project. In Phase 2 the MyDocStore concept was developed further, leading to the commercial service azzapt. The aim was to develop a robust, usable, working system prototype to trial with learners in the FE and skills sector. An important feature developed in phase 2 is the web portal. This enables users to upload and download files on practically any device, configure their conversion settings and monitor conversion progress. It is entirely Cloud based so that it can be used from any web-enabled device.
Who is it for?
The key aim of the MyDocStore concept is to allow print-impaired users (those with visual impairments, physical disabilities or specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia) to view downloadable files in accessible formats via mobile technology, through an internet browser or mobile application in as few steps as possible. The azzapt service is the final product of the MyDocStore project.
The azzapt service is also beneficial to those who do not consider themselves disabled or print-impaired but would benefit from support with reading materials. Such users include:
- Students or professionals requiring access to documents whilst on the move via their Smartphone, tablet or as an audio file. (For example, a student who has downloaded a paper as a PDF file from their college's virtual learning platform could sync it to their azzapt account. When travelling home later on the bus, they can use their azzapt mobile app to access the audio version that has automatically been created for them.)
- Non-native speakers of English are able to create audio versions of documents to listen to if they find that preferable to text. Users of e-book devices and applications are able to use azzapt to sync and convert their own content onto their devices quickly in a single step.
- Adults who have reading difficulties, maybe as a result of deteriorating eye-sight, but do not consider themselves disabled or requiring AT.
As a result of two competitions managed by JISC Techdis, funding was awarded to a number of technology innovators from around the UK to enable them to explore life-changing assistive technologies.
Both competitions, sponsored by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Technology Strategy Board, represented phase one of a Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) programme, to encourage technology solutions to specific public sector needs by engaging a broad range of companies in competitions that result in development contracts. The successful bids included some potentially ground-breaking developments.
The first competition, 'Making Waves,' was designed to attract companies who could focus on enhancing communications, a basic human right and a learned skill, which is often a challenge for those individuals in society who have disabilities or other difficulties. Proposals relate to gesture recognition and many will result in the development of software prototypes with the potential to vastly improve educational and social communication by providing solutions which can be tailored to meet individual needs; these should enhance the skills of learners as they progress into further learning or employment.
The second competition, 'Plain Sailing,' focused on enabling users to produce and navigate digital information independently, anytime, anywhere and in a user-friendly way. Companies who succeeded in attracting funding champion the use of freely accessible, Open Source software packages which can run on the latest technology platforms. A number of the developments featured the use of Cloud, desktop and mobile applications, building on (not duplicating) many of the freely available Apps and tools on the market. A consortium led by iansyst Ltd was one of the winners with its proposal MyDocStore.
Business and Enterprise Minister Mark Prisk said:
It is fantastic to see funding given to innovative small businesses that can now develop life-changing technologies. These organisations are absolutely vital to driving growth in our economy, and I warmly congratulate all the successful bids.
The competition attracted the attention of European and international organisations and all of the proposals received by JISC Techdis had to satisfy a number of criteria. A rigorous assessment process took place involving a panel of over 45 experts who work in the field of assistive technology, to help ensure that maximum benefit can be derived from the funding available.
David Whyley, ICT Consultant Headteacher, and one of the competition judges, said:
The standard of the entries showed an amazing depth of appreciation of the importance that accessing new technologies can play in the lives of everyone. The applicants really impressed me with their wide range of innovative, high-quality solutions. The response to this competition has shown that there is a tremendous number of talented people out there who desire to have an impact on the living, learning and work of the targeted groups.
iansyst Ltd is an established assistive technology company, helping people with disabilities to reach their full potential. The Cambridge-based company provides product solutions, training and consultancy services to people who have dyslexia, dyspraxia, and dyscalculia, visual impairments, hearing difficulties and other disabilities.
iansyst's corporate aim is to create value through ethical business practices, innovation and growth whilst providing its customers with essentials tools for use in their daily lives. iansyst has launched a publishing arm, EarlBright, which has introduced a number of innovative assistive technology solutions to the marketplace.
iansyst is leading the consortium on this project.
Raspberry Software has been creating innovative, high-quality solutions for mobile devices since 2004. With over 20 years of software development experience, Raspberry specialise in developing complex, robust, scalable software solutions. Raspberry has previously collaborated with iansyst to create CapturaTalk, an innovative OCR, text-to-speech and accessible text reader application for Windows Mobile.
ECS Partners Limited
ECS Partners Limited (from the Electronics and Computer Science Department) is a subsidiary of the University of Southampton, which provides consultancy in the area of research, new technologies and product introduction and a range of services including in this instance Assistive Technologies for those with disabilities. The ECS has a track record of producing innovative solutions for web based applications. Dr Mike Wald, Seb Skuse and E.A. Draffan (a previous collaborator with iansyst on text-to-speech research) have been involved in the development of several successful open source assistive technology applications including a toolbar that now has 4 million users aiding access to web pages.
MyDocStore Project Phase 1 Overview
We set out to develop a working proof of concept that enables a user to open a document on a Windows PC, have it converted to their desired format and then shared via an internet-based (Cloud) service to a mobile device. The aim was to require the minimal amount of intervention from the user. The projects set out to assess the viability of the MyDocStore service, both technically and from a user's experience, and to examine options for further development.
For proof of concept, the set-up and initial file management stages were on the PC. Once the setup wizard is completed, any files dropped into the MyDocStore folder were converted automatically according to these specifications and file type.
We concentrated on ePub conversion given the preference in the disabled community for this format, and also in anticipation of ePub3, which was planning to integrate many of the navigation and accessibility aspects of DAISY books. We also developed for the iOS mobile platform in preference to Android at this stage since the latter did not have the required tools at that time; moreover, iOS devices contained significant built-in accessibility tools and were widely used by the project team and available testing groups.
During Phase 1 the MyDocStore system consisted of three components:
- The accessible Cloud service for core functionality, document storage, and managing conversion services.
- The simple-to-use PC application for defining user settings, synchronisation with the Cloud for bulk conversions and remote file access.
- The mobile interface to access the Cloud service, download and open converted files and then navigate them using iPhone functions.
As might be expected in a development project, a good deal of time and effort was devoted to preliminary testing, problem solving and fixing bugs. Thanks to this dedication, by demonstration stage we had a robust system that we were happy to trial with users for a specific range of conversions and platforms.
In our final report we provided specifications for all parts of the system, and a user guide for Phase 1.
Testing and Feedback
User testing and feedback were important parts of this project. In addition to demonstrating MyDocStore to JISC and fellow professionals, we took it to the very people it is intended to benefit and asked them to trial it. Testing groups included disabled users (in education, in work and seeking work) and assistive technology support workers and tutors. The disabled end-users had the following difficulties: blindness, partial sight, dyslexia or other hidden disabilities, and complex and multiple disabilities.
We found that users generally appreciated the independence that MyDocStore offered, and the ability to download appropriately formatted documents on mobile devices. It was particularly noted that MyDocStore made conversions and documents available with the minimum of user interaction, improving productivity and removing barriers.
User feedback has demonstrated that this system is easy to use and quicker than current solutions. Users also noted that current solutions limit their independence and that MyDocStore would give them independent means for accessing information. They identified that this would offer them benefits in any environment they needed to access information – whether in a learning environment, in the workplace or for personal use.