This is the third part in a four part series of posts on the subject of open formats in Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). You can read the first part here, and the second part here. (The last part is here).
EDIT: Bob Cunningham (SR. VICE PRESIDENT, CHIEF TECHNICAL OFFICER of Dynavox) was kind enough to comment on the post and clarify a few things from Dynavox's perspective - I've put some edits in the post to reflect this. I must applaud Bob for coming on and commenting - it's (in my opinion) exactly the way for a company to enguage with its users, but a lot of managers would hand it off to a customer relations person to absorb all of the flack.
I was going to use part 3 of this series to talk about open source and why there doesn’t appear to be a true open source AAC solution available, but I’m going to talk about another aspect of open formats, and that is openness of access to the files themselves: if a user can’t access them, it really doesn’t matter what format they are in.
To do so I’m going to use a recent release from Dynavox as a case study, but really this could apply to any manufacturer of AAC devices.
Dynavox turned up on my radar this week: someone who had read my previous post in this series mailed to tell me that the new T10 from Dyanvox doesn’t support transfer from previous Dynavox devices. That is, not only can you not transfer from a competing manufacturer, but if you have been a loyal customer of the company though each generation of device, you cannot transfer over to a new one without having the device programmed by hand.
Being entirely honest, I genuinely don’t understand the reasoning for this (one of the other computer science researchers I work with suggested that the company might simply have accidentally deleted the source code for previous versions of their software, and I confess, that I can’t think of a better reason).
EDIT - Bob tells us that this is definately something the company is looking at in the future, and I should say that matches the opinion of the Dynavox Twitter account. I think it's great that this is something that Dynavox are considering working on - but I'm still raising an eyebrow that it's not a core feature.
I started having a closer look at the new Dynavox. One of the selling points of their new software is that it’s cloud-based, and the Dynavox Twitter account was kind enought to confirm that the data is that the data is stored in Canada.
— Dynavox (@DynaVoxTech) October 10, 2013
@joereddington They are located in Canada. Thanks!
— Dynavox (@DynaVoxTech) October 10, 2013
Cloud storage is an area of interest for me. Last year, with LCK and PW, I wrote an article for the Information Security Technical Report journal on the subject of AAC device contents being stored in the cloud. You can read the paper over here, although we didn’t look at things from the perspective of open formats, but instead from privacy and legal perspectives.
Some of the problems with an AAC company storing user pages in the cloud include:
- that some health services prohibit information to be stored in cloud services in foreign countries;
- that the information is accessible by members of the company staff, which is the sort of thing that is fine right up until the point that it’s not;
- and that it’s not clear what happens if the company goes bankrupt.
Now, consider that, instead, the company opens up the system. It provides the same service, but with some extra options, first of which being the option to store the data elsewhere: Dropbox, your own server, Apple’s Cloud service , maybe Amazon’s Cloud. It’s a bit more code for Dynavox, but it is a lot more security for users: if Dynavox fails as a company, I start backing up with Apple and I don’t miss a beat. Plus if my health service doesn’t like Canada, then I can use a local server. If I’m worried about someone reading the erotic poetry I put on a device, then that’s fine, I leave it encrypted (Dynavox encrypts for transfer but decrypts again when putting into their servers).
Of course, this makes support harder – and for many users the need for good support outweighs all other factors, but users are all different shapes and sizes. Some want privacy, some want safety, and some want to make sure that they aren’t going to be left high and dry.
EDIT Bob was kind enough to point out that the T10 does actually have the ability to store to a USB stick, which deflects much of the irritation I displayed above, and in fact, for my money, places the T10 in a much better position regarding these issues than many of the iPad-based solutions. To reflect this I've replaced 'Dynavox' in the above with 'an AAC company' - I think it's obvious to the reader generally that this applies to a host of AAC-companies, particularly the new ones, but I wanted to make doubly sure that I wasn't giving undeserved bad publicity to Dynavox...
You’ll note that this post isn’t so much about open-formats, as it is about openness in general. The model of ‘We store everything in the cloud so you don’t see any files ever’ moves us even further from transparency and user-focus. The key thing is this: if someone has put their thoughts, feelings, intellectual property and large parts of their life into a device, then it would be nice to get it back out again. To feel like you owned your own voice, not that you rent it from somewhere.
I should say that my little brother’s first AAC device was a Dynavox, and it changed his life. When I visited the company in Pittsburg everyone I spoke to was lovely and the support and maintenance that was given to the devices was second to none, and I think my comments in this post should be considered in that context. More to the point, they apply to almost all modern AAC manufacturers. The cloud is a great idea, but maybe users want a bit of choice. And maybe an AAC device should give choice to the users and not take it away.