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Massachusetts Tackles Streaming Accessibility

These days, most of us take viewing a web video for granted—find a site, make a click or two, and off we go. Thanks to Flash, it's all become remarkably easy. For some viewers, though, it's not quite so simple; accessing web videos can be a difficult—if not impossible—experience for those who have vision or hearing impairments. While current web technology mostly relies on commercial screen readers to synthesize web text into speech, many readers or self-talking browsers are not particularly reliable in enabling impaired users to access a website's video player or helping them watch a particular video. This problem can be especially acute with videos that begin playing as soon as a page is loaded. Accordingly, many webmasters and video content managers who are concerned with accessibility usually just post a transcript of the video and call it a day.

Having been involved in web video production for more than 3 years, the Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DOR) has always tried to make its videos more accessible to those with disabilities. It is keenly aware, as a state agency, of the need for government sites to make a positive effort to comply with current federal accessibility law—in particular the requirements set forth in the 1998 amendment to the Federal Rehabilitation Act, commonly referred to as section 508, and the web content accessibility guidelines developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). These guidelines were created to eliminate barriers in information technology, provide new opportunities for people with disabilities, and encourage the development of technologies that help achieve these goals.

With these guidelines in mind, the DOR created a specific goal for its video program: reach as many of its customers as possible by finding a solution that gives the vision- and hearing-impaired a better level of usability and control over the multimedia content on the department's website. The DOR had other goals as well: improve the ability of its non-English-speaking customers to watch videos; provide a way for its video content to be shared on social networking sites such as Facebook, Digg, and MySpace; and find a media content management system better able to handle the time-consuming front-end video importing, closed-captioning, and posting processes.

After investigating a number of online video publishing solutions such as Brightcove, Vidego, and YouTube, the DOR learned that these video management systems did not possess the accessibility features it was looking for. Moreover, some of these firms were largely video platforms looking to build a marketing base for non-entry-level streaming clients. As none of these private-sector solutions met its goals, the DOR decided to take the initiative and build a content management system (CMS) and accessible video player itself (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The video player is located on the Massachusetts Department of Revenue's homepage.

After obtaining support from revenue commissioner Navjeet Bal and senior deputy commissioner Jim Reynolds, a small working group was formed within the DOR's publishing and media services group. The working group included Peter Olejnik, creative director; Alan Sweeney, interactive media developer; and William Grand, an interactive developer. Olejnik took the lead role in developing the media content management system and player while also managing the day-to-day particulars of the project.

After months of programming, design configurations, and trials, the group emerged with a product that met its initial objectives. Although pleased with the results, there are a number of other functionalities—such as "email to a friend," viewer voting capabilities, and improved reporting and metrics—that will be added in the next iteration.

Having explained the genesis of the project, here's a more in-depth look at both the CMS and video player.

Media Content Management System
In a nutshell, the Media Content Management System (MCMS), built on Adobe's Air platform, was designed to significantly simplify the front-end video importing, closed-captioning, and posting processes, as well as the maintenance of the player's video menu. As web content managers, it is important that the DOR be able to quickly perform these tasks and push videos out to its content delivery network (CDN), especially with late-breaking rush productions. To accommodate these needs, the MCMS allows the DOR, through its self-designed Dashboard menu application, to quickly copy and paste video scripts into the media system (Figures 2 and 3). Once pasted, the DOR can do the following:
—Import, rearrange, or remove videos from the menu using a drag-and-drop methodology
—Edit video titles and summaries
—Change the text-to-speech content for its voice response system
—Manage RSS feeds
—Quickly format captions using a frame-timing workflow
—Automatically create multilingual closed captions using Google's open source translation application

Figure 2. The Dashboard—DOR's media content management system interface

Figure 3. A media content management system window

The management system and Dashboard are working well and have saved numerous hours of manual captioning and file preparation prior to posting on the DOR's CDN.

Overall Design
The player's interface was designed to be user-friendly, like most contemporary rich internet applications. This was important, as a number of users felt that the DOR's previous player design was a bit confusing. The old player utilized a scrolling menu that only showed five video thumbnails at a time; other video thumbnails were off-screen and were only visible by scrolling. The DOR's usage metrics consistently showed that these off-screen videos streamed to far fewer viewers because they were not visible. To address that issue, the new player categorizes videos by topic buttons and toggles through one enlarged video thumbnail at a time (Figure 4). This design is also crucial to the functionality of another player feature: the on-demand voice response system.

Figure 4. The video player's design components

On-Demand Voice Response
The objective in creating an on-demand voice response feature was to remove the guesswork that occurs when screen readers try to read the DOR's Flash content. To assist visually impaired viewers, the department developed a text-to-speech workflow for the MCMS that allows it to add computer-generated voices to the player. Users who select the voice response feature will hear, as they toggle through the menu, a voice announcing the title of each video. They'll also hear a description of any player control button they mouse over or access with their keyboards. This text-to-speech technology, along with multilingual closed-captioning, provides significant possibilities for non-English-speaking viewers.

Multilingual Closed-Captioning
Massachusetts has a diverse population, many members of which are not yet proficient in English. To help foster communication with this potential audience, the DOR designed its MCMS to quickly translate video scripts into various languages. After investigating a few possibilities, the department opted to use Google's open translator API. Here's how the captioning works: Once a script has been imported into the front-end MCMS, a closed-caption format is created by timing the script to the video. Once timed, the DOR selects the languages to be used for closed-captioning.

Because the department prepopulated its Dashboard menu with a variety of foreign language choices, such as Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic, the process then becomes quick and simple. After selections have been made, the system forwards the text on to Google and the correct translation is returned in closed-caption format. The multiple languages are then dynamically populated into the player and published onto the DOR's website.

Keyboard Shortcuts
To watch a video, viewers need to be able to access it first. Although keyboard navigation for websites is not new, it was vital that the DOR have "hot keys" if its player was to be truly accessible. This eliminates the need for vision-impaired users to rely on a mouse and allows them to control all video player functions (start/stop, volume, voice response on/off, next video, etc.) from their keyboards.

RSS Feeds
In implementing video RSS, the DOR's goal was to move beyond static RSS feeds by providing direct access to its video content via predefined variables. Viewers can now access new videos or previously archived content through a static, unchangeable tracking identification number.

Social Networking and Civic Engagement
The videos the DOR creates for itself and other state agencies primarily inform, educate, and instruct on taxation and other civic issues. To further these videos' reach, they must be marketed outside the DOR website, which is why the department posts new content on YouTube, Revver, and Metacafe; announces updates on Twitter; and encourages social networking through civic engagement links (one of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick's initiatives) on the DOR player. The department recognizes the value of viral marketing to extend the reach of its message and to gather feedback from its audience.

So there you have it. The MCMS has been a useful timesaving tool, and response to the player has been terrific. But the real payoff is the knowledge that more of the DOR's audience members will have the ability to navigate through and more actively participate in the department's interactive streaming media efforts.

Edward Peters's article first appeared on OnlineVideo.net

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