Canute: of and for Blind Communities “Nothing about us, without us”

We work with communities of blind people and engineers whilst developing Canute, most significantly the Braillists Foundation and the Bristol Hackspace.

The Braillists Foundation: an International Community of 480 Braille readers

The most important aspect of the project is probably our very close relationship with the Braillists community group. Currently they have 280 members and growing fast. They are dedicated to supporting Braille use through proactive projects.

They have tested every version of the Canute from mid-2014 onwards. They keep our designs on the straight and narrow. They make up the majority of the user interface team. The Canute would have failed a long time ago without these volunteers, and the Braillists wouldn’t have built up to where it is today without the Canute.

If you would like to be involved in this community effort, either in testing Canute or with other projects the Braillists involves itself with, the best way is to sign up to their newsletter and join us on their forum.

What follows is an excerpt from “Designing Canute with the Blind Community”;

“Bristol Braille Technology had been developing refreshable Braille concepts since its incorporation as not-for-profit social enterprise in 2011, always with the aim of helping to reverse the decline in Braille literacy. Late in 2012 we began work on our first multi-line concept; Canute, which will cost less than a Perkins Brailler or an iPad. Canute demonstrates the cost of electronic Braille can be reduced to approximately £2 per cell, with up to 16 lines of Braille. This is intended to put digital Braille within the budgets of blind people all around the world, starting with the 85% of blind people in Britain who are unable to afford existing Braille displays.

“By early 2014 the core Canute technology had been developed to the stage where it was clear that the idea had promise. In 2014 the company consisted of half a dozen sighted engineers working part-time, with many volunteering their labour. It operates out of a shared community workshop called the Bristol Hackspace and had, at the time, no more than £10,000 in backing. The team therefore recognised that the severe limitations of money, time and a lack of direct personal experience with blindness made them incapable of properly exploiting this exciting new mechanism. As a result a meeting between a dozen Braille enthusiasts from the local area and the company was arranged.

“At the first meeting the company explained its aim of helping to reverse the decline in Braille literacy and asked those assembled their view on Braille as a medium. A common refrain was a perceived distance between those who used Braille and those who developed the technology around it; a sense that they were being ‘gifted’ solutions rather than being consulted or presented with genuine options.

“The meeting had been convened with the fairly simple goal (for the company) of finding Braille users willing to volunteer their time to test and feedback on the Canute. However it quickly became clear that there was an opportunity for something far more significant; a genuine partnership between engineers and Braille users. The former had the bare minimum resources necessary to develop prototypes, but none of the experience or market research required to turn this into a viable product. The latter possessed a wealth of personal and professional experience with blindness and Braille, of its strengths relative to other mediums, of the uses to which it could be put that were being chronically under-explored with current technology, but felt disempowered and unable to shape Braille technology.

“Over the next couple of meetings this group of Braille users decided to announce themselves as a separate and independent community advocacy group called the Bristol Braillists, with an aim that could be expressed with the saying, “Nothing about us without us”. After Sight Village 2014, when the Braillists were represented by members of the Canute team, their numbers swelled to over eighty. By mid-2015 they had become simply the Braillists, with groups in Bristol, Dublin and Reading and an ever increasing membership. At the start of 2016 the Braillists stands at over two hundred, is poised to open new groups around the UK in Sheffield, London, Birmingham and Worcester and is in the process of registering as a charity.

“This growth has been fuelled by both the promise of playing an active role in promoting the medium, the chance to shape the technologies that relate to it and by an assertion of equality in these development partnerships with companies like Bristol Braille Technology. These partnerships are only one aspect of how the Braillists aim to promote the medium, but it is the main aspect that this paper will focus on.

“Meanwhile development of the Canute had entered a far more rapid phase. The commitment to regular design and testing meetings with the Braillists, which kept the team focused and held it to account with the people who would be using the technology, gave Bristol Braille Technology the impetus and drive it needed. This combined with greater funding (as a result of the more compelling case and increased credibility the partnership gave the project) propelled the Canute from a two cell prototype early in 2014 to a 112 cell prototype by mid-2015. The next design is due in April 2016 and will have either 256 or 512 cells, complying entirely with the latest plans set with and by the Braillists.”

— Background, “Designing Canute with the Blind Community”

Fig: Canute Mk6 being tested by Elizabeth Standen, from the Bristol branch of the Braillists, with notes being taken by Jonny Taphouse, from the Canute team.

Fig: Canute Mk6 being tested by Elizabeth Standen, from the Bristol branch of the Braillists,
with notes being taken by Jonny Taphouse, from the Canute team.

“Bristol Braille Technology CIC (‘BBT’) is recognised as a sponsor and key partner of the Braillists. BBT will continue to work closely with the Braillists on all its projects, and the Braillists will continue to support and test the Canute, for as long as both parties continue to actively promote Braille literacy.”

— Braillists Foundation, May 2017

The Bristol Hackspace

Most of the Canute team are members of the Bristol Hackspace. In its own words;

“Bristol Hackspace is a social enterprise which aims to open up technology to anybody who takes an interest in it.

“We want to ‘open’ technology both in the sense of taking things apart to learn how they work, and how to mend or adapt them; and in the sense of sharing the knowledge we gain from doing so. We are committed to the principles of Open Source and Open Knowledge.

“If the words ‘hack’ or ‘hacker’ make you slightly nervous you should read”What is a Hacker?" by Eric Raymond.

“[There are] a bunch of definitions of the term ‘hacker’, most having to do with technical adeptness and a delight in solving problems and overcoming limits. … There are people who apply the hacker attitude to other things, like electronics or music — actually, you can find it at the highest levels of any science or art. … The basic difference is this: hackers build things, crackers break them.”

— “What is a Hacker?”

We run a small lab based in BV Studios in Bedminster. The hackspace is on the corner of Philip Street and Stillhouse Lane. Here we are on Google Maps.

“It is currently only open to members most days although we do run public access courses and workshops. We welcome enquiries from potential new members and anybody else who is interested in what we do. We meet in the lab almost every Thursday evening at 7pm and coming along to one of those is probably the best way to see if you would like to get involved. Feel free to drop us a line, sign up to our mailing list or chat with us on IRC.”

— Who we are, Bristol Hackspace

Fig: Nic Marshall building the Canute Mk8’s wooden chassis in the Bristol Hackspace’s wood-working area.

Fig: Nic Marshall building the Canute Mk8’s wooden chassis in the Bristol Hackspace’s wood-working area.