Project of the Month, April 2011

odt2braille

odt2braille is a free and open source extension for the word processors OpenOffice.org Writer and LibreOffice Writer. Its goal is to make Braille available to anyone who knows how to use a word processor. The extension enables users to use Writer as a Braille authoring environment, to print Braille to a Braille embosser and to export to various Braille formats.

The integration into a major office suite is the main feature that makes odt2braille different from traditional Braille editors, i.e. dedicated software that only support Braille authoring. The creation of Braille documents used to be a multi-stage process, where a separate and specialised application was used to translate and reformat an original document into an accessible version. odt2braille’s approach is to work on a single document with a clear separation of presentation and content. In addition to the rich lay-out for traditional ink-printing (for sighted users), the document can now have basic formatting for Braille output.

Braille conventions are not the same across the world: there are different conventions for Braille contractions, for mathematical Braille and for the layout of Braille on a page. Sometimes there are even several competing conventions within the same country, for example for mathematical Braille. odt2braille supports a number of these conventions and allows a high degree of customisation of the Braille output. This makes the software suitable for professionals as well as inexperienced users. odt2braille is available under the Lesser General Public License version 3.

Why and how did you get started?

odt2braille is being developed in the context of the AEGIS project – a European research & development project funded by the European Commission that started in September 2008. The AEGIS project addresses accessibility issues on the desktop, in Rich Internet Applications and on the mobile platform. Much of its output is or will be available under open source licenses.

odt2braille development started in December 2009. The code was released on SourceForge in the summer of 2010, when we also published a press release to promote the uptake of the extension. We released version 0.0.2 on 31 August 2010, version 0.0.3 on 3 December 2010 and version 0.1 on 25 February 2011.
Before odt2braille, the AEGIS project released another OpenOffice.org/LibreOffice Writer extension that converts OpenDocument Text (Writer’s native format) to digital audio books in the DAISY format. Although less known to the general public, DAISY is also an important data format for visually impaired users.

Who is the software’s intended audience?

The intended audience comprises both individual users (teachers, social workers, etc.) and Braille production centres. However, the accessibility of OpenOffice.org and OpenOffice.org extensions currently poses some challenges on Microsoft Windows, so blind users may experience difficulties in using the extension.

What are a couple of notable examples of how people are using your software?

We are working closely with a Braille and DAISY production centre in Belgium that is considering using both odt2braille and odt2daisy, so they can generate both Braille and DAISY versions from the same text document in OpenOffice.org or LibreOffice Writer.

odt2braille and odt2daisy have been integrated into “Create&Convert”, a free tool that has been developed by the JISC Regional Support Centre Scotland North & East to help colleges and universities comply with the Equality Act 2010 (see http://www.rsc-ne-scotland.ac.uk/eduapps/createconvert.php). In addition, Index Braille, a Braille embosser vendor in Sweden, is considering replacing their own Braille editor WinBraille (which comes with their embossers) with odt2braille.

What are the system requirements for your software, and what do people need to know about getting it set up and running?

odt2braille is an extension for OpenOffice.org 3 or higher and for LibreOffice. It also requires Java, for example Oracle’s Java Runtime Environment 1.6. Java is included in the default download for OpenOffice.org but you may need to install it separately when you use LibreOffice. It is also useful to have Braille fonts, which the odt2braille project provides as downloads.

Due to a compilation issue in an external library, odt2braille is currently only available for Windows, but our goal is to make it also available on Linux and Mac OS. If you don’t have any of the Braille embossers that are supported by odt2braille, you can’t send your documents directly to the embosser, but it is still possible to export to a Braille format, either an ASCII-based format (BRF, BRA) or the Portable Embosser Format (PEF, a newer format based on Unicode and XML).

Using odt2braille should be quite straightforward. It even includes a preview window that allows you to check the Braille output before you emboss or export it.

What gave you an indication that your project was becoming successful?

“Success” is a very relative concept for a project that was released less than 9 months ago and that mainly benefits users of Braille embossers.
The most important indications were:

* The interest shown by the ODF community, manifested by invitation to present odt2braille at the ODF Plugfest in Brussels on 15 October 2010,

* the interest shown by Braille embosser manufacturer Index Braille, who told us they are considering replacing their own Braille editor WinBraille with OpenOffice.org and odt2braille, less than five months after our first release,

* the feedback and testing by a Belgian Braille production centre that is considering using OpenOffice.org or LibreOffice with odt2braille in order to produce both DAISY and Braille from a single source in the OpenDocument Format (ODF),

* the inclusion of odt2braille into Create&Convert (see above), less than four months after its first release.

What has been your biggest surprise?

The early adoption of odt2braille, especially the congratulatory message and the interest in cooperation from Braille embosser vendor Index Braille.

What has been your biggest challenge?

Probably one of the biggest challenges is the large scope of the project and the fact that different countries in Europe (and the rest of the world) have different Braille conventions, alphabets, rules, and conventions. A comprehensive and ambitious approach requires people all over the world to work together and share their knowledge. In addition, it makes flexibility one of the key objectives of the project.

Another challenge is to find a good balance between flexibility, simplicity and a smooth integration in OpenOffice.org. The importance of flexibility shouldn’t put a restraint on understandability and user-friendliness, and the software should be easy to use by both users of traditional Braille editors and regular word processor users.

The support for Braille embossers is also a major challenge. When you install a regular printer in an operating systems, printing facilities become available to any application that needs it. This is not the case for Braille embossers, for which support needs to be integrated on an individual basis. It is only possible to check whether an embosser is supported by actually using the embosser with odt2braille. But Braille embossers are very expensive (they typically cost more than Ä 4.000), so we rely on other people to test the embosser support for us. Support for the Portable Embosser Format (PEF) by Braille embosser manufacturers would make our work easier. Finally, making odt2braille available on platforms other than Windows turns out to be more problematic than expected.

Why do you think your project has been so well received?

odt2braille adds Braille support to an office suite, i.e. a piece of software that was designed for the general public instead of a niche product for people with disabilities. OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice are office suites with a wider user base than any dedicated Braille transcription software and that allow users to create mathematical content, footnotes, tables of content, etcetera. Adding Braile support to an office suite is more straightforward than turning dedicated Braille transcription software into a full-featured office suite. With odt2braille and odt2daisy, production centres of accessible formats can now use a single source – the OpenDocument Format – to produce both digital talking books (in DAISY) and Braille books.

What advice would you give to a project that’s just starting out?

When you create software that produces accessible formats, integrate your product into mainstream software instead of creating yet another niche product for people with disabilities.
Focus attention on the user. It is important to listen to feedback and respond to requests, especially when you aim at a small audience.

Where do you see your project going?

The project is currently funded by the AEGIS project. When the project ends, we will need to find new contributors or now funding opportunities (or both).
Contributors are not “magically” attracted to open-source projects, especially small projects that are aimed at a very small audience (not all blind persons are able to read Braille).

What’s on your project wish list?

* Making odt2braille work on Linux and Mac OS.

* Adding support for a larger number of embossers.Support for input in Asian languages

* Extending support for mathematical Braille conventions (these conventions differ from country to country and sometimes even inside countries).

* Making the user interface truly accessible.

* More contributors.

What are you most proud of?

That we are able to compete with professional, commercial Braille software.

If you could change something about the project, what would it be?

When we started the project, we didnít know that creating user interfaces through OpenOffice.orgís UNO API creates some accessibility issues for screen readers on Windows. If we had known, we could have investigated some other options such as the Standard Widget Toolkit (SWT) from the Eclipse project.

How do you coordinate the project?

Coordination is hardly needed because there is only one developer, so all bugs and features requests are assigned to the same person. The AEGIS projectís testing activities are coordinated by persons who are not involved in development in order to avoid bias in test procedures and results..

How many hours a month do you and/or your team devote to the project?

One developer has been working on the project almost full-time since the start, with one other person providing advice when needed.

What is your development environment like?

* NetBeans 6.x with the OpenOffice.org plug-in;

* Microsoft Windows; occasionally Mac OS and Ubuntu Linux.

Milestones:

Date Version / Milestone
July 2010 First release (Alpha 0.0.1)
4 August 2010 Press release
31 August 2010 Release Alpha 0.0.2
2 December 2010 Release Alpha 0.0.3
25 February 2011 Release Beta 0.1.0
March/April 2011 User testing in AEGIS project
Next release: After AEGIS user testing

How can others contribute?

* Users who have an embosser: please get in touch with us to help us add or improve support for your embosser. We work in close collaboration with BrailleUtils, an open-source and cross-platform API that handles the embosser communication and the conversion to various Braille formats, and that is part of the Daisy Pipeline. This means that any embosser that is added to odt2braille will be available in the Daisy Pipeline and vice versa.

* Braille experts: please help us improve the quality and accuracy of the Braille transcription. odt2braille is powered by liblouis, an open-source Braille translation library. This project relies on contributions from volunteers and feedback from users. liblouis supports an impressive number of languages, but there is still room for improvement with regard to accuracy. Also, we wish to support more official Braille formatting guidelines. Please contact us if you want to share your expertise on this matter.

* Non-developers can improve and extend the documentation and translate it into their own language.


More projects of the month
odt2braille

Project name: odt2braille

Date founded: July, 2010

Project page: http://odt2braille.sf.net/

Project Leaders

Bert Frees

Location: Leuven, Belgium

Education: Master of Engineering: Electrical Engineering, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven



Christophe Strobbe

Occupation: Researcher specialised in accessibility of ICT and document formats for people with disabilities

Location: Leuven, Belgium

Education:Licentiate in Germanic Languages (English and German), Ghent University; Diploma in Complementary Studies in Informatics, Ghent University

Why did you place the project on SourceForge.net?

SourceForge already hosts odt2daisy, another outcome of the AEGIS project. SourceForge also provides a comprehensive set of tools – source code management, bug tracking, feature request tracking, web space, forums etcetera – so all we need is in one place.

How has SourceForge.net helped your project succeed?

The mail notifications for new bugs and feature requests help us respond faster to user needs. The download statistics are also useful for reporting in the AEGIS project.

The number one benefit of using SourceForge.net is:

Being the “one-stop shop” for source code, downloads, bugs, feature requests, mailing lists, etcetera.

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