I-STEM: Accessible content conversion for children and youth with disabilities
The UNICEF Innovation Fund is proud to see a portfolio member I-Stem graduate. They’ve come a long way – from numerous product iterations to deep diving into understanding their ecosystem better and strengthening their business model. They’re now ready to collaborate at a larger scale – as they find new pathways to work with partners, investors, and the open source community.
People with disabilities, 1-fifth of the global population, continue to be one of the most underrepresented and marginalized communities. Over 98.1% of the top 1 M webpages according to a recent WebAIM study are inaccessible to those with print disabilities, while a substantial number of document and audio/video content created and shared digitally also remains out of reach. Covid-19 has only exacerbated the challenge with a proliferation in digital content thereby increasing the divide between people with and without disabilities in accessing information and content. This has also led to people with disabilities effectively excluded from Covid response in several cases since they were unable to access the inaccessible emergency content, threatening their basic rights. The last year has highlighted the urgency and gravity of this problem. But what if there were a system that could take in any inaccessible content (documents or audio/video) and convert it into a variety of accessible formats in real-time? This is exactly what I-Stem seeks to provide.
The I-Stem portal is an AI-powered solution that converts inaccessible documents and audio/video (irrespective of the content type and layout) into a variety of accessible formats. this means that a person with a print disability is then able to access and navigate the content effectively using their assistive technology (e.g. screen reader), while a person who is deaf or hard of hearing can access the audio/video with highly accurate captions and the AI models able to handle domain-specific terminologies.
The last year has been very eventful and fulfilling for I-Stem. Not only have we substantially expanded the type of content that we can support through our document accessibility services (e.g. multicolumn layouts, documents containing math, images, tables etc.) pushing the ability of the document accessibility systems, but have also been able to onboard key partners, academic institutes, corporates and over 800 individuals with disabilities. In the process, we have been able to build a strong community, going beyond just the accessibility services to also include other crucial services such as mentorship and recruitment. In particular, here are a few highlights from the last year.
Increased the overall accuracy of our document accessibility service to around 92% including the processing of complex layouts, tables, images, STEM content etc.
Onboarded over 800 individuals with disabilities that use our services for their content accessibility needs
Five active pilots with academic institutes and nonprofits in India for conversion of their inaccessible content into accessible formats for their students and beneficiaries
Collaborations with inclusive employers using our business portal to hire candidates with disabilities
Development of automated algorithms to match people with disabilities with mentors that can provide them guidance and support
These highlights are a culmination of an exciting journey involving user research, iterative development and user testing.
One key aspect of user testing was the participation of the community and the co-creation process. While all of the I-Stem co-founders are people with disabilities having first-hand experience with these challenges, we wanted to ensure that our priorities and product features were dictated by the broader community. Thus, we regularly organized consultations and user testing sessions with people with disabilities and other stakeholders including nonprofits, academic institutes, corporates, training centers among others. This not only helped us plan better but also get effective feedback and insights about the performance of our service and targeted areas and opportunities to improve given our user base. For instance, this was the first time that many of our users were accessing math content independently.
While our service provided accessible content that could be accessed with assistive technologies, many users were not familiar with the tools and the specific processes to consume our content. This prompted us to add tutorials about math access to the portal in addition to resources on a variety of assistive technologies and accessibility-related topics. Yet another example was the ease-of-use of our interface. User feedback allowed us to make the overall experience not only accessible but very easy and intuitive. Finally, user feedback and testing helped us improve our AI models on data from people with disabilities (as the images taken by people who are blind, for example, can be very different from those taken by people who are sighted), helping to ensure that we were truly able to meet the needs of our users.
Despite the progress, we continue to work on several challenges such as expanding our market in India which involves not just creating awareness about our product but also around the need to invest in assistive technologies. Our current progress in this area has been very encouraging with several academic institutes and organizations embracing and acknowledging the need to provide support and accommodations for an equitable experience for their students and employees with disabilities. Yet, we are only starting out, and have a long way to go. Similarly, we are looking to expand internationally as not only will it give us much more exposure but also feedback from more mature markets.
COLLABORATORS & NEXT SET OF GOALS
Further, as we continue on our journey, it has been very encouraging and reassuring to be recognized for the impact that we have already started to have. For instance, we won the third position in the Entrepreneurship Sports Generation (ESG) 2020 organized by the Global Education and Leadership Foundation (TGELF), a global entrepreneurship competition out of over 300,000 startups globally. We were also accepted to StartX, a prestigious accelerator for high potential entrepreneurs from Stanford, and Digital Impact Square, an initiative of TCS Foundation that works with social entrepreneurs to accelerate and scale their impact. We have also secured funding and support from some of the leaders in the tech and mobile space, and this will help us scale our impact, collaborate with many more organizations, support more students, improve our models further, and ultimately, achieve our vision of a world where every person with a disability can live a dignified and independent life.
UNICEF INNOVATION FUND
In this entire journey, the UNICEF Innovation Fund team has played an important role well beyond the financial support. The network and connections were very helpful to get feedback and insights from assistive technology experts particularly from other markets. Similarly, discussing challenges and brainstorming solutions, especially around structuring pilots and onboarding organizations, was key to getting user feedback. Business strategy and developing and executing on an open source plan were other crucial areas that mentorship from the team was particularly helpful. Open sourcing also helped build credibility and trust with our users while promoting a culture of collaboration and community.