Hear the Blind Spot: Visualizing Data for Those Who Can’t See

How a data sonification advocacy campaign highlighted the problem of digital exclusion

Stina Backer
Dec 1, 2020 · 12 min read

An estimated 1 in 25 people worldwide lives with moderate-to-severe vision loss today. In a world where data is becoming increasingly important to understand and engage with — but, where it’s almost always presented in visual formats — how can you ensure that you don’t exclude those who can’t see?

Sure, people with visual impairments can use screen readers to digest digital content. But, screen readers don’t work well unless websites and visualisations have been set up with accessibility in mind. Case in point: the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness present their data on an interactive map with which many of the people represented by its numbers would seriously struggle to interact using a screen reader.

Image of the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness’ Vision Atlas, a map-based data visualization
Image of the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness’ Vision Atlas, a map-based data visualization
A screen capture image of the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness ‘Vision Atlas’.

Are there more inclusive and accessible ways to present data? This seems especially important when the data is telling the story of those with a visual impairment.

A man with visual impairments is receiving ICT training at Together!’s training centre in Ethiopia
A man with visual impairments is receiving ICT training at Together!’s training centre in Ethiopia
Together! provides people with visual impairments in Ethiopia with information and communications technology training and tools such as screen readers.

Together! is an Ethiopian charity that supports people with visual impairments by providing access to training and technology. An estimated 1 in 15 Ethiopians today has a visual impairment; Together!’s research has shown these people suffer profound social, economic, and digital exclusion.

Together! participated in Data4Change’s 2019 sprint in Nairobi and there they created “Hear the Blind Spot” — a data sonification advocacy campaign that highlights the digital exclusion problem for people with visual impairments.

Ethiopia — in the Horn of Africa

Ethiopia is located at the Horn of Africa and is the continent’s second-most populous country.

Ethiopia is the second-most populous African country after Nigeria. Dictatorships, coups, droughts, refugee crises, war, political turmoil, and crackdowns on civil society made it difficult for charities and organisations to advocate for change during the 20th century.

Ethiopia’s President Abiy Ahmed Ali receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
Ethiopia’s President Abiy Ahmed Ali receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
Ethiopia’s President Abiy Ahmed Ali receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

Many hoped that President Abiy Ahmed Ali taking office in April 2018 and winning the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize were signs of a turning tide.

But there are worrying signs of late: the recent deadly conflict in the Tigray region, the postponement of this year’s national election, and frequent internet shutdowns. There has been some progress — human rights organisations like Together! have been campaigning more freely, something that was not the case before.

The Sprint

Due to the recent changes in Ethiopia, Together! was keen to learn more about how their organisation could use data to empower their communities and improve their advocacy work. Out of 139 applications from charities and non-profits from all over Africa, Together! managed to secure one of just five coveted spots at the event.

To prepare for the sprint, Together! surveyed 276 visually impaired Ethiopians about their access to technology, education and employment, and their feelings of social exclusion. They also compiled relevant open data from the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness and the World Bank.

Data4Change teamed Awoke and Woubakal from Together! up with: Fasica, a journalist from Ethiopia; Emmanuel, a developer from Tanzania; Nora, a designer from Egypt; Valentina, an information designer from Italy; Kim, an information designer from Germany; and Ella, a data journalist from the UK.

Group photo of the the eight people strong Hear The Blind Spot team at the Data4Change 2019 sprint in Nairobi.
Group photo of the the eight people strong Hear The Blind Spot team at the Data4Change 2019 sprint in Nairobi.
Clockwise from top left: Fasica (journalist, Ethiopia), Awoke (Together! representative), Emmanuel (developer, Tanzania), Nora (designer, Egypt), Valentina (team leader, data designer, Italy), Kim (information designer, Germany), Woubakal (Together! representative), Ella (data journalist, UK)

Prototyping and Realisation

How can we tell the story of digital exclusion in Ethiopia to raise awareness about Together! and their cause, reach existing and new donors, improve technologies and digital accessibility?

For five days the team followed the Data4Change sprint model and created a fully-fledged, data-driven advocacy campaign that addressed the objective stated above. They documented the prototyping process in this presentation.

The final result is Hear the Blind Spot. The campaign uses the power of storytelling and music to transform data from various sources into Desta’s story — a story that highlights the digital exclusion faced by people with visual impairments in Ethiopia. Visit the screen reader-friendly website and close your eyes to get the full experience!

A screen capture recording of the Hear The Blind Spot website in English.

Hear the Blind Spot is available in Amharic and English. It is a multi-platform advocacy campaign with several products that target different types of audiences:

  • A screen reader-friendly website in Amharic and English aimed at those inside and outside Ethiopia with internet access, including national and international non-profits and policymakers.
  • Audio files of the story that were played on local and national radio for the Ethiopians who don’t yet have access to the internet or those with visual impairments who don’t have screen readers.
  • Sheet music of the data sonifications and braille scripts that local musicians and people with visual impairments can use to perform the project live in schools and at community events.
The launch of Hear The Blind Spot at FIFAfrica conference in 2019 featured a live performance of the project.

The campaign was launched at the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa in September 2019. The Forum was held in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, for the very first time. The campaign launch was a live performance, with one of Together!’s blind beneficiaries reading Desta’s story using the braille script and a flautist playing the data sonification music sheets. Sighted audience members were given eye masks to deprive them of their sense of sight and encourage them to empathise with those who can’t see.

What Can the Data Visualization Community Learn from Hear the Blind Spot?

We checked in with some of the team members a year after Hear The Blind Spot launched to see what insights they could share on making data more accessible to people with visual impairments.

Valentina D’Efilippo at the Data4Change 2019 sprint in Nairobi where she was the team leader for Hear The Blind Spot
Valentina D’Efilippo at the Data4Change 2019 sprint in Nairobi where she was the team leader for Hear The Blind Spot
Valentina D’Efilippo is a data designer, illustrator, and creative director, originally from Italy, who is based in London, UK.

Valentina D’Efilippo, team Leader, data designer

What was your first thought when you were tasked with leading a team that would work on “visualizing data” for people who can’t see? And was it hard for you to reset your mind and think of how to do this?

Valentina D’Efilippo: My first thought: “Yeah, of course, I want to get involved!”…quick pause, “hang on a minute, this is not going to be easy!” Dataviz is by definition working with visuals to engage our visual cortex: it’s about giving form, colour, and position to information so that the stories behind the numbers can be SEEN. But, what if we remove the human visual system to convey data? In this project, we had to rethink not what we do, but how we do it.

As a data designer, I knew my goal was not to visualise numbers, but rather to communicate insights. So the focus was to explore how to engage senses other than the visual cortex. Hearing, touching, smelling, tasting — when you start thinking about it — there is an untapped world of possibilities.

The challenge was not so much about resetting a mindset, but rather to encourage and push exploration of unfamiliar waters, while keeping a pragmatic approach. I wanted to avoid the risk of getting to the end of the week without an outcome. So we adopted a strategy-lead exploration and, given the broad audience we wanted to reach with our advocacy campaign, we decided to leverage not only online media, but also radio. So we opted to focus on storytelling and data sonification.

Did you learn anything new from working on the Hear The Blind Spot project?
VD: I learned so much and the project brought more awareness to my practice and the small things we can do to make our work more inclusive. I must admit that, despite having extensive experience with digital media, I never truly considered how to make my work fully accessible.

In the field, there is certainly a lot of focus on accessibility. How we can make our designs more accessible is something we constantly discuss. We use storytelling to make our visualisations more relatable. We use accessible colour palettes to make it more inclusive. But, that’s pretty much it.

This project introduced me to the world of Assistive Technology — technologies that help people with diverse abilities to interact with the world. In the case of visual disability, that often implies using a screen reader. And this experience shed a light on how little the field of data visualisation is doing to make charts, infographics, and visual outputs accessible to the portion of the population that must navigate the world without sight.

I also learned about data sonification, digital accessibility, Ethiopian, and local challenges, and the project hugely reinforced the value and power of collaboration. The latter is truly the magic ingredient of Data4Change.

What advice can you give to dataviz designers who want to work with other senses?
VD:
When it comes to making dataviz more accessible, small things can really make a huge difference. Here three basic suggestions:

  • Use alt text to provide a one-sentence summary of the chart.
  • Include an alternative data table (often visually hidden but available to a screen reader).
  • A bar chart or a visualisation is not always the answer — or at least not the only one. We can convey the same idea in multiple ways: repetition and redundancy can be used to reach different audiences with different types of impairments.

Broadly speaking, to engage the audience with other senses, I think it’s important to consider that our job is not completed when we have rendered the data, regardless of the format. We want to aim a bit higher than just rendering. We want to create experiences that allow our audience to sense the data and truly feel the implications of those numbers. We have seen a bar chart, but do we truly understand why a bar is double of another bar and what that implies? We have heard a cool sound generated through data, but does it really convey a point? Dataviz is firstly an act of communication, and to reach its full potential we need design thinking to unlock and give voice to the narrative behind the numbers — regardless of the format or media we adopt.

Ella Hollowood standing in front of a whiteboard filled with post-it notes at the Data4Change 2019 sprint in Nairobi.
Ella Hollowood standing in front of a whiteboard filled with post-it notes at the Data4Change 2019 sprint in Nairobi.
Ella Hollowood is a data journalist who has worked at Information Is Beautiful, Beyond Words, and Tortoise. Since September 2020 she has been working as Data4Change’s Head of Production.

Ella Hollowood, data journalist

Your team opted for data sonification for this project, can you tell us why you picked sound as your sense rather than, say, touch?

Ella Hollowood: The main reason we picked sound rather than touch was that we wanted to be able to reach more people and in more rural areas. We learned from the team at Together! that radio is one of the most widespread forms of news and communication in Ethiopia. Given that Ethiopia is a predominantly rural country (79% of the population lives in a rural area) we also wanted to create something that wouldn’t rely too heavily on a ‘physical’ delivery. Finally, we felt that creating music out of data would be a particularly effective way to create an experience that people with and without visual impairments could share at the same time — that’s something we were keen to do from the start, as our top goals for this project were to both empower and build empathy.

How important is the storytelling aspect when you do non-visual data communication?
EH:
We decided early on in the sprint that we would use data sonification for the project with Together! and it didn’t take us long to realise that we would need to provide a really clear audio narrative to accompany the sonification — otherwise the data just wouldn’t make sense. We’re so used to being able to look at a line chart and instantly know, at least broadly, what’s going on, but we needed to be told things more explicitly to get oriented with a data sonification. So much so, that we decided to make the narrator of Hear the Blind Spot a named character called “Desta”. I’m not sure that data storytelling is any more important for non-visual data communication than it is for visual data communication, though. Communicating data with sound naturally lends itself to a linear narrative with a strong emphasis on storytelling. But, communicating data through touch or taste would arguably lend itself better to a less linear and more exploratory communication style.

Did you learn anything new from working on this project and, if so, what?
EH:
Lots! I particularly loved learning about traditional Ethiopian music that Together! shared with us as inspiration for the sonification instrumentation. I think we all learned tons not only about the challenges of communicating data through sound, but also how rewarding it can be, especially when what you’ve made becomes a shared ‘live’ experience. I will never forget our final presentation, watching the audience’s faces with their eyes closed, listening to Desta’s story for the first time.

Kim Albrecht a German information designer sitting at a desk at the Data4Change sprint in Nairobi 2019
Kim Albrecht a German information designer sitting at a desk at the Data4Change sprint in Nairobi 2019
Kim Albrecht is an information designer from Germany who works with the metaLAB (at) Harvard whilst doing his Ph.D. at the University of Potsdam in the field of media theory.

Kim Albrecht, information designer

Tell us about how you turned the data into sound, was it easy peasy or super tricky?

Kim Albrecht: It was very much an experiment. While the various dimensions of visual mapping are at least well defined since Jacques Bertin’s Semiology of Graphics, the translation between data and sound is, at least for me, still an untold territory. I experimented with mapping sounds to various instruments, sound levels, tones, tone lengths, trigger attacks, etc. The aesthetic of sound is entirely different from images. The mediation of an image functions in space, while sound functions throughout time. It was great to have the team members listen to the various experiments. You get direct feedback to figure out what works and what does not work. There is still so much to explore, and I am looking forward to continuing to work within the realm of sonifications.

Did you learn anything new from working on this project?
KA:
What intrigued me the most was the speed and coordination of Data4Change. The group came together super quickly and created something wonderful in almost no time.

Awoke Dagnew is the Plan and Monitoring and Evaluation Officer at Together! in Ethiopia.

Awoke Dagnew, Together! Ethiopian Residents Charity Organization

What impact has Hear The Blind Spot had on the visually impaired people in Ethiopia that you support?
Awoke Dagnew:
Very few of the Ethiopian government institutions' websites are accessible to people with visual impairments. Most of the people we support who have visual impairments lose hope when they try and access these websites for vital information. For visually-impaired people in Ethiopia, Hear the Blind Spot was a realisation that you can create web-based projects that are completely digitally inclusive and, as a result, they have become more vocal about demanding accessible online content.

What role has the project had in your advocacy work to prevent digital exclusion?
AD:
The project has caught the eye of many policymakers and officials in the Ethiopian government as well as international NGOs. We often promote the project during our ‘dinners in the dark’ programme, an advocacy service about the challenges and capabilities of persons with visual impairment. Hear The Blind Spot always creates an “aha moment” for them, and as a result, they promise to urge all their own stakeholders to amplify digital inclusion in their respective services and products. They say that Hear The Blind Spot offers lessons in digital inclusion to learn and expand other services, too.

Has there been any reactions from the media and the public?
AD:
The media loved the project because it targeted persons with visual impairment and the sighted together. One of the most popular Telegram magazines covered the project and it’s also been promoted on radio. The project is described as a pioneering when it comes to digital inclusion.

Those who have attended our live events admit that creating an experience that sighted and visually impaired people can share alike is crucial to the public to build empathy and greater awareness about the digital exclusion of persons with visual impairment. Once it is safe to do so due to COVID-19, we hope we can continue with our plan to start performing Hear The Blind Spot live in schools so that more people can experience it.

Data4Change is a UK-based non-profit organisation that supports people and organisations to harness the power of data to forge real change and lasting impact. To find out more about our work and how you can get involved visit https://www.data4chan.ge/.

Nightingale

The Journal of the Data Visualization Society