London Beyond Sight

How do you convey the emotional attachment that Londoners have to their neighbourhood red post box? Or their local pub, park, statue or theatre?

Reading the Wikipedia article about each of these things is a good start, but what you really need is the personal touch… VocalEyes, a UK charity for people with a visual impairment, did that with its project “London Beyond Sight“. Audio descriptions of London landmarks by key Londoners, for blind and partially sighted people. However, don’t let those last few words fool you into thinking these recordings aren’t useful for sighted people too, far from it!

[Tony Robinson describing his local pillar box, embedded from Soundcloud]

A couple of months ago I met with Matthew Cock, the Chief Executive of VocalEyes, to discuss potential Wikimedia collaborations. Actually, we met because we’d not seen each other for several years and wanted to catch up – but we ended up talking about potential collaborations nonetheless! The “low hanging fruit” we identified were these 40 audio files. Their copyright belonged to the organisation, they were short, clearly spoken, fully transcribed, and specifically associated to particular landmarks the local area. Almost all of them correspond on a one-to-one basis with a Wikipedia article. Moreover, the speakers are notable people too!

[Lady Cobham describing the All-England Club, embedded from Soundcloud]

So, Matthew went ahead and relicensed these files to CC-By-SA, transcoded them to .OGG and uploaded them all to Wikimedia Commons! You can listen to the full playlist of the 40 recordings on Soundcloud, on the VocalEyes website.  I have now embedded into the English Wikipedia articles about their subject- see the full list here using the GLAMorous tool.

If you listen to several of these lovely recordings, you might notice a peculiar style… Not quite personal oral-history, not quite scientific-analysis, these are “audio descriptions” made primarily for people with visual impairment. Therefore, their task is to give an accurate impression of the subject. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this these audio descriptions attempt to paint with words. And, as a result, they work marvellously in Wikipedia articles.

One of the benefits of working with free-licenses is that it allows other people to re-purpose your content, giving it an unexpected new context. Wikimedian Andy Mabbett, who just concluded a Wikidata speaking-tour in Australia) took those files and edited them to just the “hello my name is… and I am a…” section, thereby augmenting the existing “voice intro project” that he pioneered. Dozens more Wikipedia biographies and Wikidata items will now have the their subject pronouncing their own name correctly!

[Shami Chakrabarti describing Parliament Hill, embedded from Soundcloud]

People who have been following GLAM-Wiki for several years might recall Matthew’s name from 2010… At the time, he was the Head of Web at the British Museum, and the first GLAM manager to accept my, then controversial, proposal to be a volunteer Wikipedian in Residence. Given this is the first disability access-focused content donation to Wikimedia (that I know of), that means he now has TWO Wikimedia “firsts” to his credit!

If you would like to learn more about Audio Descriptions and the other work of VocalEyes, and especially if you are a Wikimedia affiliate organisation and would like to try to replicate this project in your country, you can contact VocalEyes via their website.

[Bettany Hughes describing the Roman-era river crossing of the River Brent, embedded from Soundcloud]

If someone would like to help me with adding the transcriptions of each recording to their respective Commons description, that would be really helpful. All are available as MS Word documents on the project’s homepage. Just download the document, copy the text onto the description field of its associated Wikimedia Commons file page, and save.

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