Project Update: Supertitle

Screenshot 2015-05-21 13.58.48

So the Supertitle Project is starting to rise up a little bit, and it’s time to talk about where it is right now.  As you know, the Project was funded by the National Lottery to expand it into a broader piloting/research stage.  This means three things for me:

  • We need to find a group of schools that are willing to get involved with a relatively untested project.
  • I need to write some code so that students can see how the subtitles are forming in the classroom, and show them off at home.  Some of this code was already written for the prototype of course, but it mostly needed me present to run it.
  • I need to work out a proper way of doing research to make sure that the project is genuinely having a positive effect.


To make this happen I’m doing a lot of school visits, talking to teachers, finding out the best ways of working with schools so that their needs are met. I’m only visiting schools in the N and NW areas of London at the moment, partly because I live in NW, but also because I have other projects running in other areas of London and I think it’s best not to be bombarding schools with quite so many unusual ideas.   There are three involved right now and I’m hoping to make it ten by Christmas. If you know a school that might be interested, please get in touch.


The code is coming around.  More and more of is is automatic and right now it can be used easily without me on site – but it does need a significant polish to make it pretty and friendly looking. On the other hand – the demos are pretty:

Screenshot 2015-09-29 10.25.22This one is in English, simply because I didn’t have a translation handy – but it demonstrates the use case- students are given a file to edit and another file that lets them bring up the subtitles on a device they can just place near the TV. Everything syncs up nicely.


This is in two parts – on the one hand I’ve got a excellent PhD student who has experience in this sort of work – he’s preparing me a couple of research tools to give to students that are involved.  There’s a bonus to this. While the point of having proper research done on a project is clearly to make sure it works, it is also nice to have a nicely formatted pdf file full of p-values and carefully checked statistics to give to both schools and potential funders.

I’m also, partly due to the Inclusive Technology Prize and partly due to having a NGO-working girlfriend – being encouraged to look at more formal project tools like theory of change models. Some of them I’m finding really useful, some of them I’m finding difficult to get my head around – if anyone has a book called something like ‘Theory of Change for programmers’ I’d be interested to hear.

Looking forward

I’m hoping that by next May, we’ve set up regular Supertitle groups in a range of schools, and released research that show the project makes a significant difference in terms of student outlook. I’m also hoping that the code will be tight, and perhaps we’ll have even attracted a couple of other developers to extend it.



London Catalyst


photo 1

In what can only be called ‘typical’. I’ve once again forgotten to announce some funding on the blog.

Last time I’d forgotten to report that the Supertitle project had won National Lottery Funding, this time I entirely failed to tell readers that AzuleJoe and CommuniKate have won some funding from the London Catalyst.


London Catalyst have been a really interesting group to work with actually – before our application was considered by the trustees the CEO interviewed us at their offices to get a bit more of a sense of the projects and the bid. I think this is a fantastic system; I’m constantly amazed that grant committees can get a real understanding of the passion and potential behind an idea just from the application form itself.

The grant itself is for £2,500 ( £1000 for software and £1500 for outreach, facilitating and volunteer support) and is predicated on us doing a large amount of outreach in London – so we’ll be looking for venues to come and visit shortly.  If you have such a venue – and you know a group of people that might be interested to hear the story behind CommuniKate and AzuleJoe – then please get in touch! 🙂


Funding Success – Awards for all and Supertitle!

So I’ve the last few months I’ve been talking a little about the Supertitle project,  We introduced the concept, talked a little bit about the prototype and dealt with our first funding rejection.
As a bit of a change of fortunes.  This turned up in the post:
letter from Awards for All awarding funding to Supertitle
Awards for all have given eQuality Time £8,995 to pilot the project across London.  The grant covers equipment, training, publicity, and has ring-fenced budgets for all the little bits of overhead that an organisation runs into – things like insurance, accounting, and so on.
We’re a transparent organisation, so we can show you the original application form (with some parts, like director’s addresses redacted).  The intention is that we make as much of the process transparent as possible, so you might get some fairly boring posts coming up over the next few months.
This is a big boost for us, we’ve actually known about it for a few months but we’ve been waiting Award’s for All’s permission to announce.  We’ll be looking for schools for a full pilot soon, so do please get in contact if you are interested.
As you can see by the date of the letter – this post was going to go out months ago – indeed, I thought it had. It was only when I did the logo post and tried to refer back to this one that I realised it was missing… 

Fail post: Supertitle Funding

This is a fail post – a post where I talk about something that didn’t go well.  I think the site should reflect a full version of me rather than an edited one so I make an effort to put up a posts that show when things go wrong. If you’d like more information on my reasoning, feel free to read this post. 

So I’ve the last few months I’ve been talking a little about the Supertitle project,  We introduced the concept, then we talked a little bit about the prototype.  I’ve also been trying to get a little bit of funding to develop the project
Our first funding application was to Unltd, which actually funded some early development on Project TooManyCooks.
Unfortunately they recently came back to us with a rejection.  I’m surprisingly upbeat about funding rejections – it’s data at the very least and it generally helps to know where you went wrong.  It also means that I’m at least reaching for things that are difficult.  I’m a big believer that if everything is going well, you probably aren’t ambitious enough.
I’m very keen to run eQuality Time as an absolutely transparent organisation, and this includes the failures as well as the successes.  So if you’d like to read my unsuccessful bid for funding, you can find it here: SuperTitleUnltd.doc. (I’ve redacted some of my details and those of my references).  As with all funding proposals, it’s slightly different from the more broad goals that I normally talk about. It’s very concentrated on a small-scale proof-of-concept event.  Looking at it now there is a lot I’d change about it, which is always a good thing 🙂


Prototyping Supertitle

A few months ago I showed you this project for school students with English as an additional language. It was designed as a subtitling intervention to boost both educational standards and community integration.  I’m quite excited about it. Today’s article is about the initial prototyping stages, I’m going to talk about both the things that went well and the things that went wrong.

Finding Schools
For White Water Writers I regularly visit groups of teachers to talk to them about that project.  Over the last few months I started adding an part to the presentation that  essentially said “Hey, so that project is cool and tested and reliable. If any of you are interested in an completely untested and possibly-won’t-work idea, then here’s a 30 second elevator pitch.”
A few schools contacted with me to say they would be interested. I picked a local one in Islington talked the ideas over with the co-ordinating teach and I started to pilot the project with a group of Polish girls (it’s an all-girls school).
The first pilot session
For our first pilot session I provided a few handouts and wrote some simple code to assist. The test case was an episode of ‘The Musketeers’ and I produced a lesson plan with a suggested workflow. I had a very small group (only three) who worked in Google Docs to directly edit an XML file.
Screenshot 2015-05-21 12.02.19You can look at the original file here if you really like.
Students broke down the meaning of the English wording by working as a team, then they discussed the translations, the sense and the meaning. They chose words that were relevant to the age of the characters and their social status. It was clear that they were stretching their knowledge of both languages while also developing their narrative. It went better than I could have imagined.
Screenshot 2015-05-21 13.48.07
Iterating the process 
The initial attempt was wildly successful, and the fact that we piloted on a weekly basis has meant that each week I was able to present the students with a more and more streamlined process.  So on the second week they were editing a more structured Google Spreadsheet rather than a XML file.
Screenshot 2015-05-21 13.41.12
By the time of third week I had added some scripts to make the transfer to a moving image easier and some highlighting code to make things easier to work with.
For the last few weeks (as the group grew) I added some examples of machine translation of each bit of the subtitles (I’d noticed that the students were occasionally resorting to looking up words) and while the machine translations are wrong very regularly, they do allow the students to get that word that is on the tip of their tongue when they are translating properly properly.
Screenshot 2015-05-21 13.42.22
That’s the technological changes. We’ve also changed the workflow. The translation method that instinctively appeals to me is to keep playing small clips of an episode to hear the tone, or to work from a handout formatted as a script,  but this was some distance away from the way the translators wanted to work.  If anything the students would rather do the translation and then watch the episode –  so we changed how we present information.
Screenshot 2015-05-21 13.47.42
Each week I’ve been able to get a stronger idea of the level of television program that works well, and the amount of text that a group can get through in a hour.   With our prototype group we started ambitious and worked down until we found a level that the kids could really manage in a one hour session.  I now realise that was backwards. What I should have done is started with some really simple programs – preschool and primary school style (perhaps several in a lesson) and worked our way up as the kids got used to the methodology.
This prototype phase is an important part of our co-design strategy.  For example, one of the things that wasn’t obvious to me or the co-ordinating teachers was that students aren’t necessarily totally bilingual. Depending on how recently they came to the country they have a greater or lesser proficiency in either Polish or English.  This manifested in a very instinctive ‘production line’.   The students who had grown up in the UK provided much of the English context around the words and the students who had moved here recently provided much of the subtle distintions in Polish.  It was a fascinating thing to watch happen.
Screenshot 2015-05-21 13.47.53
For the final week of the prototype (at which point I think we’d reached nine translators). The translators picked a episode from a TV series and invited parents around to watch it with subtitles.

There are several great things going on here.  Neither I nor the teacher had any knowledge of Polish, and so the student knew that  a) we weren’t going to be any help and b) we weren’t going to get the blame if someone snuck something rude into the translation. We were trusting them completely. More to the point – the deadline is a hard deadline.  There parents are definitely turning up, and it’s going to be a pretty noticeable if the subtitling goes a bit quiet…

The students performed amazingly.  The translated, proofread, rewrote, altered, worked thought. Some of them took on organising roles and every so often there would be a quick group conversation about such things as ‘Do we change character names to their Polish Equivalent?”

…and then the parents came.  We took over a glassroom with a dataprojector and… everything worked. It just worked.

Screenshot 2015-05-21 13.58.48As a group we watched right the way though an episode of ‘Eve‘ correctly subtitled. It was wonderful.  Once it finished I read the audience (with translation) the audience a congratulations message I’d got from the Series Producer of Eve, which got a really sweet reaction.

Next Steps
What’s been clear so far is that, like TooManyCooks, there’s a minimum size of group for this process to work.  However, we’re yet to work out exactly where this is, and how much it changes with different age groups.  I’ve also got to do a little bit more work on making the technology usable.  Currently I need to be at the school every week to have the more complex bits of the workflow working, but once that’s out of the way the teachers will be able to run the system directly.  And once I’m out of the loop we can expand much much faster.

Supertitle, a project for school students with English as an additional language.

So I’ve been ‘incubating a new project. It’s existed within eQuality Time as a concept for a while and over the last few months I’ve been making connections around it and putting things into place. It’s time at this stage to put the ‘broad brushstrokes’ out there. The intent of this article is to describe a problem space and present the strong case for a particular program that will relieve some of the pressure.  


The context: language can be a barrier both inside and outside of schools

Almost 1 in ten UK households have a non-english speaking member. In such households UK TV is generally not watched to avoid further isolating household members, even if others have a desire (or even, given the politics of the playground, a social need) to consume traditional UK media. This state of affairs perpetuates at the expense of that households. The non-english speaking members continue to be isolated, and barriers are formed between the bilingual members and their peers.
Children in such households are bilingual by necessity, but when you look at their school performance, their results in English are, quite understandably, much lower than their scores in, Maths and Science (in many cases, they still perform better than their peers). Pride and fear of labeling are big reasons why these kids don’t accept extra help from teachers.

Language barriers remain a major obstacle in UK healthcare [1], child protection [2], and involvement in local issues [3]. We developed this project in response to not only the academic research but also from the written and verbal feedback from teachers and students that we have previously worked with on literacy issues.

Our idea: translating subtitles using teamwork and technology

The TooManyCooks project has worked with many skills to improve teamwork and creative writing.  To get TooManyCooks working I had to develop a lot of techniques to get kids to work together on tasks, make sure everyone had a job, a vision, and knew where they were going. I’d like to make use of some of the techniques we developed in TooManyCooks and apply them to this context.
So I believe that every child has a right to sit down with their family and watch Doctor who, and that’s a bit difficult when the iPlayer doesn’t subtitle in Urdu, or in Polish, when it doesn’t include simplified English and in some cases when it doesn’t subtitle it at all. But I’ve got lot of contacts with schools in London who have a lot of bilingual kids, and I have got a bunch of techniques that get kids to work together on literature.  So I want to go into a school, take 10 kids who want to give something back to their community and say to them that we’re going to do an hour a week after school, doing a bit of translation work. And every week they can take home their translation, and have it running in front of the TV.
I see a network of schools: “You are the Eastenders school!”, “You are the Cash in the Attic school!”, “You are the Sherlock school!”, “6th-formers? You get to do the thick of it.”. Everyone shares.
This is just a concept note, but I think it’s a way to bring communities closer, to end isolation, and to sneakily get an hours extra help with English to a group of kids whose pride might stop them taking it any other way.

[1] JACOBS, E., CHEN, A. H., KARLINER, L. S., AGGER-GUPTA, N. and MUTHA, S. (2006), The Need for More Research on Language Barriers in Health Care: A Proposed Research Agenda. Milbank Quarterly, 84: 111–133. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0009.2006.00440.x

[2] Kriz, Katrin, and Marit Skivenes. “Lost in translation: How child welfare workers in Norway and England experience language difficulties when working with minority ethnic families.” British Journal of Social Work 40.5 (2010): 1353-1367.

[3] Livingstone, Andrew G., et al. “The language barrier? Context, identity, and support for political goals in minority ethnolinguistic groups.” British Journal of Social Psychology 50.4 (2011): 747-768.