A headshot of Gavin Henderson

Gavin Henderson

Open Sourcing Communication

Reading Time: 3 minutes

January 27, 2019

This month I wanted to talk about my favourite applications of tech, communication and assistive tech in general. I'm not talking about messaging platforms or other ways tech enhances our day to do communication but rather how tech can be used to give people a voice who struggle to communicate in a 'traditional' way. The classic example of this is Steven Hawkings who would used an eye control system to verbalise what he wanted to say. I often think his communication was misrepresented, when you saw him on TV talking about his latest research he wasn't using his communication aid in real time. He would have had to take a long time inputting what he wanted to say, not to mention his super unique setup. General purpose communication devices aren't going to be intended for someone to use long scientific words that he needs on a daily basis, luckily he had the means to have one adapted for his needs.

For many people this communication tech is a huge part of their life. I see that to be a reason to push the boundaries of technology so that it best fits their needs but unfortunately some companies see that as a reason to push the prices through the roof. One super quick example of this Tobbii Dynavox, which is retailing at £8,500. I haven't personally seen this device but unless it is made of solid gold it isn't worth that much money. If you do some research on assistive tech you'll see the price trend I'm talking about. Now luckily a lot of people get given grants or these devices are bought for them by charities, schools or governments.

Imagine if the open source community came together and created a far superior platform and made it available for everyone? To be clear, im not an original thinker. This has been done by projects such as Mullberry Symbols, C-Board and so many others. These projects are great and I see open source as a key component to their success. It brings in developers that are passionate and highly skilled which is what is needed to get the job done. It also allows for the project to be constantly developed on and improved, theres rarely a 'get it out the door' attitude when it comes to open source.

After seeing the work the AAC research group here at Dundee University do it made me realise that there is definitely not a lack of amazing ideas. Unfortunately, these projects are rarely picked up and actively developed by a full time teams. I can't say I know the reason but I can imagine for companies in this area they probably don't see where the money is but that could be a gross simplification. This is where I think open source could do amazing things.

In my perfect world AAC researchers would come up with ideas, validate their approach and user test it. Then they would create an open source project and all they would provide is research paper then overnight lots of developers would get working on it. Developers are incentivised to contribute for many reasons. One big reason is the sense of community around a similar goal, the open source process encourages discussion and decision as well as inviting in people of all skill levels. Personally I like contributing to open source as it means I can get my code into peoples hands without having to get hired by a company.

How do we make this a reality? I really wish I had the answer but I don't, yet. Although seriously watch this space, I am lucky enough to have friends who are equally passionate about solving this problem. If you have thoughts please get in touch with me.