The development of assistive technologies that are designed to support diverse languages and cultures, is not something an AT company can undertake alone. It requires a combination of technical skill, depth of understanding of language and cultural nuance, and a funding or business model that ensures that the solution is made available with mitigated risk to all concerned.
As new markets emerge, and assistive technology becomes a global product, the partnerships will become critical to the successful uptake of the products by new users. Clarity will be required in the roles and responsibilities of partners both in bringing the product to market and moreover in the long term production, marketing and support for the new solution.
In looking at these issues in greater depth, we will explore some of the practical ways that these issues were addressed in the 3 year program initiated by Mada to create a range of Arabic assistive technologies.
The process of selecting partners for the development of localised Assistive Technology usually starts with a demand that is emerging from within a community. In Qatar the establishment of Mada both served and fueled a demand from people with a range of disabilities. It created an expectation that technologies would be increasingly available to meet needs, and also created a mechanism to service that need.
At the beginning of the three year cycle, back ground research and experience demonstrated that there was little assistive technology available for Arabic speakers, other than screenreaders and braille devices for people with a visual impairment. In addition it was clear that there was not a firm foundation for the development of Arabic assistive technology within the region, and so a process was initiated to identify and support the creation of assistive technologies that could be transferred from other languages and communities.
Initially a list of needs were identified that Mada wished to address, these included:-
- Literacy needs including Dyslexia
- Hearing loss
- Physical Needs
- Low vision
It was important at a very early stage that relationships based on mutual respect and trust were established. To support this Mada created a call for Arabic Assistive Technology which was published in early 2010. It was however recognized that it was not sufficient to simply publish such a call, and a period of promotion of the call via social media and AT support groups began.
However the most important part of this stage of the process involved travelling to major AT events and arranging a series of one to one meetings to discuss the call and establish a relationship with developers which gave them the confidence to submit an expression of interest.
Expression of Interest
The call for expressions of interest, describing the product and estimated costs for production was a critical stage of this process. It was extremely well received following the promotion phase. expressions of interest were not onerous to produce for the developer, and could be readily reviewed by a panel at Mada. It allowed developers to feel that they were not being expected to commit large resources to creating a proposal which was not likely to succeed, and gave Mada a thumbnail sketch of the options and requirements for a diverse range of solutions. Out of the expressions of interest a number of products were selected and requests made for a more detailed proposal.
Call for Proposals
At the stage that calls for proposals were made, Mada made transparent the criteria that would be applied in making a final selection. Those criteria are summarized below :-
1 Potential Reach
In determining partners it is important to agree on the potential reach of the planned product. This has to be realistic and honest, no single product will ever meet all of the aspirations and needs of a group of disabled people. We may need to consider what similar products might exist now or in the immediate future, and the extent to which choice is seen as constructive in what may be an emerging market.
Importantly the product brief must have a shared understanding that reach may be about supporting some needs of lots of people, or a much greater depth of impact on a smaller group. Sometimes software stands alone, or can be used to enhance access to a range of hardware platforms. Al of these issues must be taken into account in determining the potential reach of the product
2 Technical skills
There is a need to understand the level of technical skill held within the partners. This may be a single person, it may be a team or it may be dispersed across sub contractors or volunteers. In choosing projects there is a need to understand how many people will be involved, is there a risk related to staff turnover and how will those working on the project be involved in the overall process. Clarity of understanding around both the level of technical skill and the way it is organised will be important in ensure there is a shared understanding of risk and agreed mitigations in the event of skill loss.
3 Experience of working across Language and Culture
It is challenging for a project to be run and co-ordinated if all partners are inexperienced at working with different languages and cultures. Understanding the track record of partners in successfully bringing products to market to meet different language needs is essential in determining the extent to which resources can be committed and the levels of reporting required. That experience does not have to be in the language with which you wish to work, many of the issues of localisation are similar for different languages, and successful experience with one language may well suggest a willingness to understand the culture of the anticipated market, even if it is one that has not been encountered before.
4 Clarity of Roles and Resources
Projects will involve two or more partners, it is important that any and all partners understand not only their role in the project, but also the dependencies that exist based upon the successful delivery of information and code. This may be quite obvious for instance if one partner has a remit for user testing of early and beta versions, and there may be an understanding that a lack of delivery of feedback will potentially halt the creation of code, but their may be a lack of understanding of the impact of smaller tasks such as final screenshots, which if not available may limit the creation of training materials, launch collateral and ultimately delay product launch and marketing.
Making clear statements about who has responsibility for a phase of the project, who has leadership of that work package and the deliverables required from others is going to help significantly in ensuring successful completion, but coupling this with a plan to address any delays in delivery will be important also. An example emerged in one project where training manuals were printed in one country and then delayed at customs for several weeks, by ensuring that designs were created in a shared software package, that electronic files were held in the cloud and that facilities for local printing were available the impact of this was considerably reduced.
5 Business model and Funding
One of the most important stakeholders in the project will be the funder. There are a range of funding models that may be considered.
- Grant Funding
- Seed funding with shared IPR
- Joint funding with shared revenues
A decision as to which of these models is most appropriate may be determined by a range of factors which might include
- Level of investment required
- Level of risk to partners
- Prior IPR and ownership of source code
- Agreed license for publication
- Level of commitment to maintain and update code
- Commitment to promote
- Commitment to provide technical support
The final decision as to the best funding model will be related to reducing the risk of producing a product in a new market, but will also consider the nature of a partnership after launch, who will promote ? who will maintain code ? and who will provide first line technical support and user training ?
There is no single correct model for all projects, in Mada’s experience a mixed model depending on the nature of the anticipated deliverable was the most effective in producing a range of Arabic assistive technologies.
Launch and beyond
Relations and partnerships should not finish at the point of handover of a product for use within a community. The launch of a product is the start of a new phase of the project if it is to be successfully implemented. The same care regarding roles, responsibilities and dependencies should be taken at this stage as was taken at the earlier phase of product design.
Most especially it should be agreed :-
- What is the model of distribution within the region ?
- In what format is the product delivered (CD/USB/Download) ?
- What is the first line of technical support for a new region and how is it escalated if required ?
- Who will provide any training and under what licence are training materials made available ?
- What is the agreement for product evaluation and bug fixing ?
- What is agreement around the potential for future shared projects ?
- What is the agreement around shared use of logos and brands ?
But ultimately this leads us full circle, if a trusted relationship between partners has been established prior to launch the that relationship can carry over into the post launch phase. It may be that at this stage a new partner may need to be introduced (such as regional distributor) and once more care should be taken to build relations and clarify expectations
Partnerships are critical to the delivery of a successfully localised AT product, an understanding of stakeholders and cultural norms will be vital in building a sense of trust and commitment to the end result.