SAS unveils tech to help the visually impaired access graphic data | Crain's Raleigh Durham

SAS unveils tech to help the visually impaired access graphic data

The official unveiling of the SAS Graphics Accelerator will be March 2, at the 32nd International Conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference in San Diego. | Photo by John Teague/Crain's Raleigh-Durham

The SAS Institute’s latest product launch isn’t for everybody – even though it does aim to make visual information and data accessible to everybody.

The SAS Graphics Accelerator is specifically engineered to help people with visual impairments, which, according to the World Health Organization, includes 285 million people worldwide. The product creates alternative presentations for graphs and charts, converting the information through auditory cues, said Ed Summers, senior manager of accessibility and applied assistive technology at Cary, North Carolina-based SAS.

Summers, who is blind, led the development of the product.

Since most methods to display data – charts and graphs, for example – are primarily for visual consumption, the SAS Graphics Accelerator has led to a dearth of opportunity for those with visual impairments to examine and consume data.

“In 2011, I realized that when it comes to accessibility at SAS and with our customers and users, a key missing piece was the accessibility of charts and graphs and other visual data for the visually impaired,” Summers said. “It was like a big black hole. You’re going to get data visualization at your fingertips and through your headphones. That’s a huge thing. It’s highly interactive.”

The tech

The Graphics Accelerator is a free, web browser-based application that anyone can use. The technology that makes this possible is sonification, which utilizes audio cues to convey details about the graph. It also charts maps, scatter plots and histograms.

The non-speech audio signals communicate specific details using pitch and location. Pitch is mapped to the Y-axis, and high data points have a high pitch. The X-axis is linked to the speakers or headphones on one’s computer; left is low and right is high, Summers explained.

“It’s very interactive and I can quickly get the gist of a graph or of a chart almost as quickly as you can with your eyes. I can even quickly catch outliers and explore those,” Summers said. “The X-axis pans left to right. It’s a two-dimensional matrix that’s interactive in nature. It really enforces that. It’s like exploring space. It’s an acoustical representation versus a visual representation of data.

Summers, who was diagnosed with a degenerative retinal disease when he was 10 years old, said his vision has decreased since then.

“I’m in my mid-40s, so I’ve lost almost all my vision. I’m a computer scientist and mathematician. I’m very active in this company,” he said. “And a company like SAS, it moves fast. It’s very data driven. Charts and graphs are a huge part of that. As a high-performing employee in this company, when I don’t have access to the torrent of charts and graphs, it’s a killer.”

In the classroom

The technology has applications both in the professional environment and in the classroom.

“We’re hoping that we can facilitate the ability of visually impaired students to view charts and graphs and the results of statistical analysis,” Summers said. “We made it free so that anyone can access this technology on this wonderful open space we call the world wide web."

Kindergarten through 12th grade teachers can couple the SAS Graphics Accelerator with another product, SAS University Edition, which allows teachers to afford the same learning opportunities for students with visual impairments.

“The inaccessibility of online graphs is a huge barrier for students who are blind or visually impaired,” said Sarah McManus, director of digital learning for the deaf and blind at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. “The ability to interact with and understand data has the potential to increase these students’ problem-solving skills exponentially and open up new opportunities, especially in STEM education.”

Jobs in science, technology, engineering and math are among the hottest jobs on the market, particularly in a science and research heavy area like Research Triangle Park. Being unable to access quantitative information that is presented visually can lead to barriers that prevent people from succeeding in STEM fields, Summers said.

This technology aims to change that.

“It’s tearing down this barrier to access,” Summers said. “It’s a required skill; it’s not just in STEM. You can’t open a business if you don’t understand basic analytics. It’s hard to be a citizen when you don’t understand those core concepts of math."

Ready to launch

Amy Bower, a senior scientist at the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, served as a beta tester for the technology.

“As a legally blind research scientist, I am ecstatic about SAS Graphics Accelerator. I have been waiting for just such a tool for many years,” Bower said.  “I will be able to participate more fully in scientific discussions with colleagues, since I’ll have access to the same graphs and plots they’re looking at. I don’t need to wait for an assistant to describe the data to me.”

The official unveiling of the SAS Graphics Accelerator will be March 2, at the 32nd International Conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference in San Diego. SAS will host a lab where attendees can try both the SAS Graphics Accelerator and the SAS University Edition. Those who are interested are encouraged to email accessibility@sas.com.

“We’re inviting people to sit down at a computer and try it. If they’re a student or a professor or a customer or a potential customer, please registry to try it," Summers said.

February 26, 2017 - 10:56am