Last week I had the chance to present to the AEGIS Project, a monumental new EU funding effort for open source accessibility. The AEGIS funding of 12.6 million Euros will be spent over a period of 3.5 years, bringing new developers and fresh ideas to open source accessibility. AEGIS is just in the beginning stages — they still have a lot of work to do just to set up the organization. The first six months of AEGIS will be spent on research and planning, including usability tests of current-generation solutions.
Walking into the meeting room I was astonished to see about 40 people seated in a half-circle, many of them clearly developers (several bearded computer science types were present, thus lending credibility). The people in the room represented just a portion of AEGIS. A wide variety of backgrounds and nationalities was present, and at least some of them are experienced in accessibility. Seeing this group gave me a rush. The generous grants from the Mozilla Foundation have been world-changing. Who knows what’s possible if you multiply the resources by 10 or 20? The size of AEGIS means it can be help bring much higher quality and more innovations in the open accessibility space.
Even with their size, AEGIS still needs to focus in order to deliver. Projects that are too heavyweight fail. From my point of view, the size of the Mozilla Foundation grants have been good — they’ve allowed us to be very ambitious and accomplish great things, while not allowing us to be careless with what gets funded.
My concern for AEGIS has been, how will they manage it all usefully? Clearly they will need to ignore certain areas. For example, AEGIS will probably not be developing open source assistive technologies on Windows, because they want to focus on platforms where rich accessibility APIs are supported more consistently. That definitely means Gnome (I’m not yet clear on what their take on OS X is). This fits in with one of AEGIS’ goals of focusing on economic disparities, and providing low cost accessibility solutions to people who can’t afford proprietary solutions. This differs slightly from Mozilla’s focus in accessibility tooling. We care a lot about the open source desktop and have done great things for accessibility on it, but we also care about being very accessible on Windows, which currently is where more of our users are.
After Peter Korn introduced me I presented both on ARIA and the Mozilla community’s accessibility efforts so far. (Peter Korn is the main visionary behind AEGIS). Mozilla has made a broad contribution to accessibility that extends beyond the web. I was able to provide some ideas on what succeeds and what doesn’t. It was a tired group, but I was well-received. Peter treated me with high regard, like an old timer who has valuable lessons.
My biggest question coming in was, where will AEGIS cross-pollinate with the current open accessibility community and Mozilla’s efforts? As I presented my ideas, I got clues from the head shakes and grunts. There are also clues on Peter’s blog.
A big area of common interest is the accessibility of Web 2.0 using WAI-ARIA, something that Mozilla helped spearhead with implementations in Firefox and assistive technologies. I don’t yet know whether AEGIS needs WAI-ARIA for specific applications, or whether they just agree with the long term goals. Other potential common areas of interest include testing tools, mobile devices, assistive technologies under Gnome and a better open source text-to-speech engine. I’m personally interested in seeing better alternative input (AAC) software developed for people with physical disabilities, and often multiple disabilities. In my opinion, what exists today is still very primitive compared with what exists for people with visual impairments. I hope they look at Jambu or at least some of the ideas in it, like in-application selection.
My hope and belief is that once AEGIS is ready, it will open up a bit more to the wider community. They will need to include the community in brainstorming and planning and ensure that developer’s mailing lists, bug databases and wikis are completely open. This is good for a number of reasons — to get the best ideas, and to avoid hurting external developers working on similar projects. Perhaps more importantly, it is necessary to get developer buy-in and ultimately wider, longer lasting participation from the open source community. Most of the AEGIS developers I met would prefer to be “truly open”. This is probably just a matter of time.
To conclude, I’m looking forward to watching AEGIS blossom. The lasting affect of AEGIS won’t just be the tools they develop. It will also be how they affect communities.