Q & A: Benetech’s Anh Bui on Global Literacy Product Strategy and Innovation

By Benetech, posted on

For this installment of our Q & A with Staff series, we sat down with Anh Bui, Director of Product Strategy for the Benetech Global Literacy Program, and Director of the DIAGRAM Center.

Q: You’re wearing two hats at Benetech—could you explain to our readers what your job on both Global Literacy product strategy and the DIAGRAM Center involves?

A: As director of product strategy for the Global Literacy Program, I lead the team of product managers that helps drive the development of Global Literacy products. These include Bookshare, Route 66, as well as tools that content creators can use themselves in order to incorporate accessibility properties into the content creation cycle. We are building these tools as part of our most recent Global Literacy initiative—Born Accessible—whose aim is to ensure that all digitally produced content has built-in accessibility and is instantly usable by all readers, including those with print disabilities. Some of these tools, like our Poet image description tool—are developed by the DIAGRAM Center, which is another Global Literacy initiative.

My work as director of the DIAGRAM Center is related to the above. In this capacity, I leverage a community of technologists, educators, accessibility experts, standards experts, and toolmakers, who have come together under the DIAGRAM Center to push the frontier of accessibility of images and graphic content. Benetech is part of that community, and also leads the management of the Center. DIAGRAM is funded by the U.S. Department of Education; our two primary partners are Boston public broadcaster WGBH’s National Center for Accessible Media and the U.S. Fund for DAISY. The DIAGRAM Center is a research and development center, so there is, of course, a fair amount of development work involved in it. Some of that work Benetech does, as, for example, in the case of Poet. Other tools—such as tactile graphics, or description templates for common graphics—our partners develop through DIAGRAM sub-contracts.

Q: How do you describe the DIAGRAM Center to someone you don’t know?

A: Imagine you’re a student in a science class—say, biology—and you’re told to turn to a lesson in your textbook. You do so, but then discover that your book has only the text, and all the images are missing. What key information would you be missing out on?

There’s so much information critical to educational content that remains locked in textbook images, posing a high barrier for students who cannot see them.

Benetech launched the DIAGRAM Center in order to rectify this accessibility problem.

The rise of ebooks and of digital reading devices is significantly solving the problem of the accessibility of text. Making images accessible, however, is the next frontier. The DIAGRAM Center is conducting research and development with the goal of making it easier, cheaper, and faster to create and use accessible digital images. We’re also working with the nation’s top community of cross-sector experts in the field of image accessibility. This space includes a broad range of challenges. One such issue is math, which is largely presented as images in textbooks in a way that equations can’t be read by someone who can’t see them.

Some of the solutions we’re working on include image descriptions, touch screen versions users can explore, and tactile graphics one can touch and feel (as, for instance, the contours of a map).

Q: Betsy Beaumon, Benetech’s VP of Global Literacy, often says that her vision for the program is based on the premise that “all content that is born digital should be born accessible.” Could you explain some of the things the DIAGRAM Center does to advance this vision?

A: One important thing we have done is issue guidelines that help production personnel in publishing mark up digital images in textbooks so that they are made accessible to people with visual disabilities. Another area is the development of resources and trainings for authors and other content creators to help them determine how and when to describe an image, so that they can do it themselves. We are also exploring new technologies, like tactiles and interactive widgets, and the creation of a registry or repository where content creators can find accessible images to incorporate into their works or be inspired by. Our goal is to ensure that publishers and educational content creators can easily use these technologies and can make images accessible from the outset, instead of having to retrofit them later.

Q: What is the one accomplishment of your team over the past year that has truly made you proud?

A: This is a difficult question, as there have been so many accomplishments! The teams I work with have been able to achieve so much over the past year. I see their impact everyday; it’s astonishing and humbling.

Our teams’ successes range from delivering better experiences for our users, to creating more opportunities for them to get more accessible materials in a timely manner, to improving data infrastructures by leaps and bounds, to becoming key partner to groups passionate about transforming the approach to images as the world goes digital. Consider this very partial list of accomplishments:

  • We have rolled out Bookshare Web Reader, which delivers an instant “read now” experience to our Bookshare members by allowing them to directly open and read Bookshare ebooks with a web browser, without having to download any files or use additional software reading tools.
  • We have worked with publishers on issuing initial guidelines for creating accessible content based on EPUB3, a distribution and interchange format standard for digital publications and documents—a tremendous step forward in realizing the Born Accessible vision.
  • We’ve created an Accessible Image Sample Book that allows anyone to understand how a digital image can be made accessible today, with code samples so they can now make the images in their ebooks accessible.
  • We completed a major redesign of Route 66, our online literacy program for adult and adolescent beginning readers, making it easier to use than ever.

Q: What is your greatest challenge?

A: The speed at which our industry is moving is fantastic, but challenging. It means that we have to be increasingly more agile and nimble in the face of technological innovation, and place our bets very carefully in terms of how we invest our limited capital.

I wouldn’t trade this innovation at warp speed. It’s a blessing for social enterprises, for it opens up so many opportunities to make greater social impact that touches more people faster. But it’s also definitely a challenge.

Q: What is an example of a user story that has truly moved you?

A: Many gratifying stories cross my desk each month, but here’s one that comes to mind particularly because I’ve been thinking a lot recently about accessibility of math. It came from a participant in a DIAGRAM Center’s webinar on tools for creating accessible math. That person wrote us:

“I am newly blind, totally blind. I went from eagle eyes to total darkness. I went from teaching basic math thru pharmaceutical math as a sighted teacher to tutoring at a math outreach center as a blind volunteer. Your webinar has jumpstarted my imagination, as I will soon be tutoring blind children for the first time. I am in a unique position of seeing in my mind what the presenters are saying and at the same time understanding the children’s frustration, as it is also mine. I am happy to hear that many people are working on math accessibility. It gives me hope.”

This kind of feedback is something you can’t put a price tag on. And that’s why we’re here.

Q: What advice would you give to women in the technology industry?

A: Even if you can’t “have it all,” you can have what you deem important and right for you. Whatever it is that you choose, know your worth. Don’t underestimate your skills. Speak up for your accomplishments. Recognizing your own achievements can help you create even greater impact.