Open Source Assistive Technology Software.

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Assistive Technology makes computers easier to use but it can be expensive and may not be 'just right' for the person using it. Open Source Assistive Technology Software (OATS) is low cost yet reliable and can be customised or developed into new tools. It is developed by groups of users and experts working together and is freely shared with others. Users, friends and care or clinical staff can all help to get the software that is wanted. OATS is an example of how people are getting together in open collaborative communities and developing the solutions that they need. With OATS the elderly or children and adults with disabilities can get the most from computers and ICT.

Computers and Information Technology act as Assistive Technology (AT) by allowing people to engage in activities that would otherwise be difficult or impossible. Software, programs and applications are usually designed to be adapted to an individual by a range of techniques from simply changing a few options to writing custom software 'script'. Making software cutomisations Open Source ensures that it can be freely copied or changed and used by anyone to create other software. The resulting code is usually low cost or free and has a low total cost of ownership as the developers often make money by means other than charging for the software. It can be easy to find and download from the Web.


What is Assistive Technology (AT)?

A typical definition from the health services is:

"Assistive Technology is any product or service designed to enable independence for disabled and older people." (King's Fund Consultation, 14th March 2001).

AT also helps people communicate, to be involved socially, to work and to perform tasks that they would otherwise be excluded from. There are many kinds of AT including:
  1. simple gadgets that help in activities of daily living;
  2. mobility devices such as walkers and wheelchairs;
  3. electronic equipment such as communications devices and home monitors;
  4. hardware and software that gives access to computers and other Information Technology;
  5. specialist computer programs and applications;
OATS covers computer software including Accessible IT and specific programs, both for workstations and embeded in special hardware devices such as communicators.

AbilityNet provide advice and help on AT and have many informative factsheets. Dive Into Accessibility provides an good introduction to Accessibility issues with a web focus. Ability Magazine campaigns for Accessible IT.


What are Collaborative Communities and Open Content?

The Internet and Web excel at enabling people to actively cooperate together in collaborative groups and this has resulted in newly emerging ways of interaction and creating shared resources. This environment has enabled Open Source Software to develop and now the broader concepts of Open Content and Open Source Culture have evolved. These are based on the concepts of sharing, networking and technology. Effective use of global electronic communications alows communities to develop which have an underlying philosophy of making communications and artifacts freely usable by others, for the common good. This means that others are able to further improve them and use them for new purposes, as has been the practice in science and art for centuries.

Collaborative Communities use these concepts as a democratic way of sharing and addressing 'things that matter' and actively address issues. Many are finding that such grass roots initiatives where anyone can contribute are empowering them and giving them a voice. The entry requirements are quite low, for example requiring only access to the internet, and the cost of being involved is often just the time required (there is an issue of some not having access and thus being excluded).

Such communities often work effectively on local issues but more global examples include Wikipeadia - the open encyclopedia, Connexions - open scholarly materials, Schoolforge - open resources for schools and MySociety- civic and community, music sampling culture, and the many, many forums and blogs.

Analysis of this exciting new trend can can be found in Wide Open by Demos and Democrotising Innovation by Eric Von Hippel.


What is Open Source, FLOSS, FOSS or Free Software?

Open Source, Free Software, Free Open Software (FOSS) or Free Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) are all alternative names for software that is created by open collaborative communites. The Free Libre indicating free as in freedom or 'free speech' rather than free as in gratis or 'free beer'; that is FLOSS may have a purchase price but you are guarenteed several freedoms.

  1. freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour (freedom 2).
  4. The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

These freedoms are enforced by using copyright and licensing laws to guarantee that the software will be kept available for community use and not made proprietary property. There are many, many licenses with different levels of enforcement with 'Free' licenses being strongest; for example the GPL. There are also parallel schemes for documentation and creative media such as pictures; for example the Free Document Licence as used by wikipedia and the Creative Commons licenses. In comparison proprietary software protects ownership and exploitation of the program by hiding the source code. Other types of software licence known as Freeware or Shareware is also low cost but you do not have the same freedoms. You can find out more about the legal aspects in Understanding Open Source Software and Open Source Licensing: Software Freedom and Intellectual Property Law

FLOSS projects operate as on-line collaborative communities (see below) which provide rapid development and easy access to support. Having a large number of contributors ensures high levels of usability and quality by peer-review. Contributions from people at all levels of skill and experience are actively encouraged with many being involved as volunteers. This means that users can have a direct say in what features are included. A crucial idea is that software can rapidly improve if the program source code is freely available to everyone.

Cost of ownership of FLOSS is low with the developers generating revenue by means other than charging for the program and support often free available. To the user FLOSS can mean high quality software at a good price and with excellent support and quick fixes. To the developer FLOSS can mean having mature initial code to work with and a large pool of contributors.

FLOSS software such as GNU/Linux, Apache, OpenOffice and Firefox are extremely popular and so well proven that the Government now approves the consideration of FLOSS for software purchases.

The main FLOSS organisations are Open Source Initiative (OSI) for Open Source and Free Software Foundation for free software. The OSI have a formal definition of Open Source software and the OSC provide a good introduction. Many FLOSS projects congregate at 'software forges' of which SourceForge is probably the most popular. See links for more.


What is OATS and OATSoft?

OATS is simply Assistive Technology Software that is made available as Open Source. It brings all the advantages of Open Source licensing and development to AT. Including OATS features in Open Source Software projects will mean that they will have a larger audience of users.

The OATSoft website aims to improve AT provision and to make OATS easy to find, evaluate and downloadby providing a website-based repository of information and programs. End users, clinicians and open-source developers will be able to work together to create effective solutions. See this introduction to OATS for more details. OATSoft was presented at schooloforge-UK's FLOSSIE conference and the presentations ar available for 2005 and 2006. Finally I have provided a personal view of the launch of OATSoft on my blog.


What is Custom OATS?

The concept of Custom OATS is one facet of OATS, namely customising existing software whether proprietary or FLOSS and to release those customisations as FLOSS to benefit others.

Proprietary software is customisable using a range of techniques (see ) such as by being 'scriptable'. Perhaps these techniques have been created as a work around for the lack of access to the source code, but they do offer advantages of simplicity (by abstraction) and provided for certain a level of 'de-skilling'.

For FLOSS software a much more powerful technique can be used as the source code is available. It is thus possible to improve the base project by changing or adding new code that provides or supports the required features. Most excitingly users and supporters can themselves participate in the creation of the solutions that they want. In addition the rapid speed of development possible with FLOSS means that the solution to on persons's needs can quickly benifit others others. An example would be to add core accessibility features to a program.

The challenge is still to identify individual needs and then to select and/or customise the software to meet those needs. That can require experience in assessment and Assistive Technology. A fairly high level of technical experience is needed in order to develop FLOSS but the community is usually willing to help.


What is Customising?

Customising is simply adjusting an existing commonly available item to suit individual needs or preferences. It is often desirable to customise an item that has been 'Designed for all' to meet those unique requirements. Most computer software can be customised and that includes the Operating System itself (Windows or Linux) in addition to programs such as Office or accessibility software.

A wide range of techniques for customisation exist:

  1. Instructions listing actions for user to follow;
  2. Training in specific features of interest;
  3. Skins giving alternative appearance;
  4. Plug-ins providing extended functionality;
  5. Settings that change behavior or appearance (set in User Interface or config files);
  6. Documents containing data declarations that define behavior and appearance;
  7. Macros which record user action sequences and alow later playback and edit;
  8. Script (text) programs that run within a host program or the operating system ;
  9. Bundled collection of suitable programs including bootable CDs;
  10. Configurations - automated generation of programs from components and options;
  11. Builds of an original program created from private source code;
  12. Open Source projects with source code freely available and community support;


The Danger of Software Patents.

The threat of the EU allowing large corporations to obtain Software Patents is a real danger to any software manufacture and especially to small Assistive Technology providers and Open Source software. Visit NoSoftwarePatents.com to find our more, get the latest news and see how you can help fight this menace.

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