Scottish Tech Army claims world first in sonification of COVID-19 data

COVID-19 data will now be accessible to people with visual impairments thanks to a team of technology volunteers from the Scottish Tech Army.

The project, which is the first of its kind in the world, forms part of the new Scottish COVID-19 dashboard launched this month, using data sonification to convert visual timeline data into notes of various pitches. These notes create auditory graphs that will help convey current COVID-19 data to users with visual impairments.

The technique is a new element in the publicly accessible dashboard presenting Scotland’s most current Coronavirus data. The tool will allow users to more easily track and understand the situation in their local area, then make informed decisions about their movements, behaviours and businesses in line with wider government advice.

The dashboard updates daily using data made available by the Scottish Government and the NHS under their open data initiatives. It is compatible with screen readers, and incorporates high resolution colour contrast, heat maps and key graphs to track and display infection rates.

The Scottish Tech Army (STA) was founded by entrepreneurs Alistair Forbes and Peter Jaco in the early stages of lockdown. It connects Scotland’s pool of tech professionals with projects that harness digital innovation to create solutions to the wide-ranging challenges posed by COVID-19 and to support the recovery and rebuild process from the effects of the pandemic.

One such individual is Eirini Kominou, an STA volunteer, who helped integrate data sonification into the dashboard. She recently completed her PhD in machine learning and data at the University of Strathclyde and is visually impaired so she knows how valuable this tool will be for those with accessibility needs.

“Most scientific data sets are communicated with the support of visual representations such as graphs, this poses significant problems for many people who cannot easily read data in this format,” she explained. “Sonification has seen some early use in fields like astronomy and geoscience to present and analyse complex data sets, however, using it in the dashboard will bring the technique to the wider public for the first time.”

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