We are developing a web app, available across all online platforms, making use of a network of researchers, programmers and other scientifically minded people who are passionate about making sure nobody gets left in the dark.

IRIS – The word that’s worth a thousand pictures

The first service offered by Grapheel is IRIS: an online interface to enhance the study experience of blind and visually impaired (BVI) students in their education. Initially, we would like to focus on STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) education, but the goal is to later expand to all fields of study including social sciences as well as arts and humanities. Furthermore, we believe that not only visually impaired people can benefit from the transcription of graphically presented educational content; everyone learns a little bit differently, so having an expert explanation of textbook diagrams and other illustrations can be a valuable asset to many different kinds of people.

The service works by allowing a visually impaired student, their family members, tutors, or support workers to upload an image of scientific content – such as a graph or diagram – with an associated broad field of study and difficulty ranking ranging from GCSE (i.e. ages 14-16) to degree-level. The BVI student also provides some background information for the volunteer and an optional specific question.

This image is then distributed to a pool of sighted volunteers who have the required expertise to be able to understand and give subject-relevant help to the student. The volunteer will log in, receive a notification, see the uploaded image alongside the student’s written request, and begin transcribing the image. Once the volunteer has responded to the image, the description is forwarded to the students via IRIS. After reviewing the description, the student can then choose to either accept the response, to reject it (putting the image back into circulation), or to ask for clarification from the volunteer, all based on the level of their satisfaction. The volunteers, upon signing up, report their field and their level of expertise – be that having two PhDs in biomedicine or someone on the first day of their university degree. That way, the users will always have someone with the appropriate level of expertise replying to their submission.

There are other products and services that use volunteer communities to help BVI people see visual information in other areas of their lives, like IRIS, but they are more commonly targeted towards everyday household tasks. IRIS is focused on scientific, mathematical and educational content alone. Our aim is for an successful image description to typically take less than 2 minutes, which we would want to accomplish by ensuring that we have a large pool of volunteers. A large pool would also decrease the frequency of requests per individual volunteer since the stream of requests are distributed. Therefore, with practically no effort from a volunteer, we can achieve significant progress in accessibility of graphical study resources, making huge impact on the life of blind and visually impaired students.

We completed a closed beta testing period during the summer of 2017, and the results were promising. From it, we have good reason to believe that a large volunteer pool and short response time is perfectly attainable.

Volunteer community

We would like to build a volunteer community whose members are confident in providing accurate descriptions of scientific images, familiar with appropriate scientific jargon, and ready to adapt our accessibility guidelines in their transcriptions. Therefore, we would like to ask for the help of people in any one of the following groups:

  • Currently enrolled to, or completed at least an undergraduate STEM degree course at a university
  • Postgraduate STEM students
  • Faculty member at a STEM department at a university or research institute
  • Qualified STEM teacher or tutor

If you are in any of the groups above and would like to help support visually impaired learners in the future, please email us to sign up to our news letter at the top of this page or to express interest.

User community

If you are a student with a visual impairment and need a detailed description of any of your graphs, plots and diagrams, then you can get hold of a qualified expert and ask them through IRIS at any time, anywhere. If you receive a set of lecture slides, handouts, or electronic files from your teachers or lecturers but only want to have a quick look at the images included, and do not feel like fiddling with Braille embossers, swell paper, or finding an available person to help you, then we are here to help. The Grapheel volunteer community is happy to assist you with your studying, should you have any graphical learning resource you would like to check out. It doesn’t matter if you have just a few mathematical functions plotted, a diagram of an electric circuit from your physics class, a sketch of a molecule from your chemistry textbook, or a more advanced Feynman diagram.

We always make sure you can get in touch with the best academic expert of the field providing the description you need. We can help you, alone, at any time of the day, be it at home, on the bus, or at the library.

You can upload image files directly from your computer or smartphone using our web interface, or you can even take a photo using your smartphone’s camera and then upload it. You can also scan pages of your textbook with the figures you would like to be described or take photos of sketches on the white board at school or university. If you want to create your own graph or diagram using a tool of your liking, you can even send us your finished product to us for double checking before you print it out.

If you are interested in trialling our closed beta, and wish to be notified when the service goes live, please email us to express interest.

Making the most out of IRIS

The primary mission of IRIS is to enhance autonomy of study experience for visually impaired learners; however, we feel the web service can be a handy tool for the following group of users too:

  • Family members, carers of visually impaired students while studying together
  • Teachers and tutors of visually impaired students while preparing accessible teaching material
  • Publishers, journalists, and online course providers while preparing accessible content
  • Visually impaired family members or teachers while assisting their sighted children or students in studying
  • Students with other disabilities that may benefit from having a written description of an image, e.g. students with specific learning disabilities or with autism spectrum disorder
  • BVI people working jobs that may occasionally require them to check visual content

Please, check out our blog post too that is sketching some ideas on how to make the most out of IRIS. We look forward to hearing about new, creative ways of how users got help from the volunteer community through the web service.