Monthly Milestone: Watching Words

Connecting CTN's Internet-streamed video of government meetings with a Kerrytown Concert House performance by a blind opera singer

The Chronicle’s November milestone column comes to you a few days earlier than the customary second day of the month. That’s because I wanted to include a quick preview of a performance scheduled for Nov. 1 at the Kerrytown Concert House – by mezzo soprano Laurie Rubin.

Laurie Rubin, photo from press kit.

Laurie Rubin. (Photo from press kit.)

The Chronicle has rarely, if ever, written about entertainment. And as I explained to Laurie, when she called me up to make her pitch, our approach to covering Ann Arbor’s community doesn’t include standard “preview” pieces for live performances.

The boilerplate explanation I typically use on the phone includes a description of The Chronicle’s preferred strategy for giving readers advance notice of interesting performances. That strategy is an event listing that runs off Internet standards-compliant data feeds and helps to strengthen the community’s “calendar web.” So obviously the tactic here is partly designed to bore the caller to death, so that they’ll just give up and accept the fact that I’m not going to write a preview article about their performance.

You will find Laurie’s Nov. 1 Kerrytown Concert House performance included in The Chronicle’s event calendar, categorized as music.

Fortunately for you, dear readers, Laurie declined my gambit that she surrender to my boring, rambling talk about data feeds and technology platforms. Instead she expressed a weirdly geeked-out interest in these data feeds and calendars, which I probably seemed very excited about. She instantly grasped the concept of maintaining a calendar that automatically generates a data feed that any publication or individual can access. I didn’t figure that an opera singer would be such a receptive audience for that sort of thing. But at least she had stopped talking about her Nov. 1 performance at Kerrytown Concert House, so that was a good thing, from my point of view.

But in closing out the conversation, Laurie renewed her pitch for a preview article, based on her memoir, “Do You Dream in Color: Insights from a Girl Without Sight.” Even though I was still thinking to myself, “No preview articles! Not even for blind opera singers!” I figured Laurie might be a receptive audience for some additional conversation about a different topic.

That topic is an accessibility project for public meetings that The Chronicle has been working on somewhat sporadically. The idea is to provide digital streaming text for members of the deaf and hearing-impaired community to read – either live at public meetings or during a video replay. Yes, I fully understood that I was talking to a self-described “blind girl” – for whom this particular accessibility project offered zero obvious benefit. Yet Laurie turned out to be a willing conversation partner. And in The Chronicle’s basic technological approach, she saw a potential benefit to the blind and visually impaired community that would never have occurred to me.

By way of basic background, Ann Arbor’s Community Television Network (CTN) now makes two kinds of video available over the Internet for its four channels: (1) live streams (whatever is currently being broadcast); and (2) video-on-demand (recordings of past programs). It’s really pretty incredible, when you think about that. Even if you decide to travel thousands of miles away from Fifth Avenue and Huron Street, you can still watch the Ann Arbor city council inaction (or add a space if you like) from the comfort of your Internet portal.

If you want to know what’s being streamed at any given time, CTN has made that easy by adopting a programming calendar that generates a data feed that can be displayed by any third party.

Sue Deer Hall was set up to provide CART services for the Oct. 16, 2013 meeting of the AAATA board.

Sue Deer Hall was set up to provide CART services for the Oct. 16, 2013 meeting of the AAATA board.

But I think it’s a little surprising that CTN does not provide closed captioning of its broadcasts. I don’t want to dwell on the legal and policy considerations that have not resulted in closed captioning. But in a community that takes a great deal of pride in how technologically cutting-edge it is and where the local business press salivates over new tech companies and the “knowledge economy,” it’s somewhat remarkable that our local public access programming is not accessible to the deaf and hearing-impaired community.

I’m not suggesting that CTN should or could “just do it.” Instead, I’m suggesting that the steps that CTN has taken already create an environment where third parties could help bridge the gap.

CTN is currently providing both types of video – live streamed and video-on-demand – in a way that allows any third party to embed the video frame in a web page. That means that a third party could also embed a text window in that same web page, and provide a viewer with the running text corresponding to the video content.

For a live-stream broadcast, the running text could be provided through a Communication Across Real Time (CART) services provider. For a video-on-demand program, the text window with a transcript would need to be synchronized to the video in some fashion.

For the Oct. 16, 2013 meeting of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority board, The Chronicle demonstrated a proof of concept. AAATA board meetings aren’t broadcast live on CTN. So it was not “closed captioned.” We were just provided a streaming text window in a separate web page. The live streaming text window was embedded from That’s the service used by the CART (Communications Across Real Time) provider Sue Deer Hall – hired by The Chronicle to text-stream the meeting.

The text sitting there now is just a plain text file saved after the last live transmission. [Note that it's uncorrected. CART service providers are very very good. But they are not magic.]

An additional step would be needed to sync up the text to the video through some sort of auto scrolling. That I imagine to be a straightforward javascripting exercise (says the guy who would not be doing the javascripting). The ideal functionality would allow also clicking on a point in the transcript to trigger the video player to move to that point of the video.

A somewhat different approach would exploit the “track” element of HTML5, but I’m not sure if adoption of that standard is wide enough to make it feasible. The synching piece is a “future project.”

In any case, the proof of concept we demonstrated shows that when CTN is broadcasting live, it would be possible to supply what would be the equivalent of closed-captioning of that live event – with a text window embedded under the embedded video stream. The only barrier to that is cost and availability of a CART services provider.

As an alternative, I’ve experimented with re-voicing meeting talk in real time with products like Dragon Naturally Speaking. It’s technically feasible, but requires tremendous concentration. Also, it can’t be done from the back row of a city council meeting – because that would be super annoying to other meeting attendees. (But that’s perhaps part of a case for a new council chambers meeting facility with an isolated soundproof “press box” separate from the general audience.)

Here’s what is encouraging: By making these video streams accessible in the way that it is, CTN is creating an environment that might allow for third parties to help bridge gaps in accessibility to its programming.

It’s important, I think, that CTN continue to provide video in a way that allows for third parties to explore different technical approaches to providing text for video. I don’t have any reason to think that CTN would arbitrarily discontinue providing video in this way. But sometimes organizations alter their operational procedures in ways that unintentionally undo positive impacts those organizations don’t even realize they’re having.

What Does a Blind Girl Care About Streaming Text?

One byproduct of this approach to “closed captioning” is a text file transcript. That transcript itself has a value to almost everyone in the community, not just the deaf and hearing impaired. That’s because text is much easier to machine-search than real-time video is. If you want to know exactly when or if the mayor of Ann Arbor said “withdraw the nomination” during a city council meeting, it’s easy to search a text file and answer that question.

But what good is a transcript to a blind person?

In talking to Laurie Rubin about this project and its basic technology, she immediately saw the potential for an additional benefit – to the blind and visually-impaired. It’s conceivable that a third party could provide an additional audio channel to the Internet streams that CTN is providing – to give the blind and hearing impaired a description of what’s on the screen. The concept of “descriptive video” – an additional audio channel to provide descriptions of the action – isn’t new. Laurie told me she grew up with descriptive video listening to Masterpiece Theater.

But an additional audio channel with descriptions, streamed at the same time as CTN’s video, creates the potential for increased access for everybody. The commentary could include not just the description of the physical action (e.g., “Eli Cooper is now approaching the podium…”) but also clarifications and annotations (e.g., “When Cooper just now said, ‘when we did this before’ he’s talking about the demised Fuller Road Station project…”).

For Laurie’s Nov. 1 performance at the Kerrytown Concert House, I imagine the descriptive audio channel could start off something like this: “The stage is empty. Laurie and her pianist Jennifer Taira are not yet on stage. The camera is now showing the packed house, so pre-concert publicity must have been great …”

Dave Askins is editor of The Ann Arbor Chronicle. For the first four years of publication, a milestone column was published every month in The Chronicle. Now the column is only an occasional feature. When the milestone column does appear, it’s usually on the second day of the month – to mark the anniversary of The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s Sept. 2, 2008 launch. It’s an opportunity for either the publisher or the editor of The Chronicle to touch base with readers on topics related to this publication. It’s also a time that we highlight, with gratitude, our local advertisers, and ask readers to consider subscribing voluntarily to The Chronicle to support our work.


  1. October 29, 2013 at 5:44 pm | permalink

    Descriptive video is a huge bonus for folks who are blind/visually impaired. I just watched a podcast from Perkins School for the Blind that included it…alsovery helpful for multitasking people who have the podcast opened in one tab and are answering email in the other :)

  2. October 29, 2013 at 6:22 pm | permalink

    What does it cost per minute or per hour for this service? If it is modest enough I could imagine this coming from the CTN budget.

  3. By anna ercoli schnitzer
    October 29, 2013 at 6:44 pm | permalink

    Thanks very much, Dave, for your creativity in focusing on accessibility–so vital to those who have certain disabilities and, as a bonus, also helpful to many individuals who do not consider themselves to be disabled. Either way, it’s a type of universal design that is win/win for everyone.

  4. October 29, 2013 at 7:09 pm | permalink

    Re: cost for CART services

    Ballpark rule of thumb is about $100 per hour. However, an additional barrier besides cost is availability. For a city council meeting, for example, you’d need more than just one CART services provider scheduled.

  5. By Jeff Hayner
    October 29, 2013 at 9:28 pm | permalink

    Nice idea, let’s also get CTN to fix the standard video stream so that it plays on an iPad. We have two generations of iPads in our house, and the standard video stream doesn’t work on either one of them.

  6. November 10, 2013 at 5:32 pm | permalink

    Re: “… let’s also get CTN to fix the standard video stream so that it plays on an iPad.”

    A couple of days ago Lisa Wondrash, communications director at the city of Ann Arbor, passed along the fact that Hayner’s comment was noted by CTN staff and that the stream has been made to be compatible with iPads. I checked with Hayner when I saw him at the Nov. 7 council meeting, who was able to confirm that the live stream does now work on his iPad.