Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Voice control combined with text-to-speech

I attended a demo of the well known assistive technology 'BrowseAloud' today. I have known about this service for a long time and there are several similar services available which all work in very similar ways. The idea is to offer assistive services on a website which allows the device to read text on the website out loud, translate the site into other languages (and read it out loud too), convert sections of text into an MP3 file and a few visual aids like enlarge text and colourise text for high contrast.

The model works by selling the rights for the service to a website owner which is installed via a JavaScript code snippet on all pages of the site.  The cost to organisations varies but it can cost between £600 - £1000 per year.  Often, this cost is seen by organisations as a 'Tick-box' exercise to ensure that accessibility is covered.

My concern is that none of this helps a person who has a disability very much.  They cannot dictate which websites they browse to will have assistive tech installled and if so, which one. It is likely that most will not have BrowseAloud or a similar service so for these sites, they are going to have to cope without.  For those with some assistive technology installed, the use will have to use whatever is there. This means having to switch to whichever one is on offer. Each website offers their assistive technology in different ways - some have a link at the top of every page, others at the bottom of every page.  Some will offer some kind of icon and others will require you to locate the 'accessibility' link.  Once loacted, some will offer a link to load up a Javascript toolbar whilst older tools have to be downloaded as software to be installed to the computer. The last option is OK if the user only ever uses a single device but for use on several devices or in a public space like a library or at work, it is likely that the download and install of software will be banned.

So to sum up, a disabled user who uses the web to browse many sites is faced with a minefield of issues, even if assistive products are offered.

This got me thinking about mobile devices and their options for voice control and text-to-speech.

Siri for OS devices and Google Now for Android devices both offer some extensive voice control. They also have some excellent tools to convert text into speech.  The trouble is that there isn't any combination of the two technologies to offer a complete solution.

What is the point of using speech control to search for a web page if the page you find can't be read out loud to you? It is like asking a person a question but requiring them to write the answer down on a piece of paper for you to read rather than simply listening to the answer.  Surely what is required is to transform the most commonly used applications - READ TEXTS, READ MAIL, and READ WEBPAGE.  Some recent updates on both Siri and Google Now seem to have added the ability to deal with texts and email but why have they missed the other most commonly used app on any mobile device - the web browser?

What I'm suggesting is to develop a voice control which will work the web browser AND instruct that the page should be read out. This would means there is no need for assistive tools to be bolted-onto individual websites because every website would be treated the same way.

The best way to test such a service is to blindfold the user. Right from start-up, there should be a voice command which will search for content on Google AND announce the results. If the result is a web page link, there needs to be a voice control to OPEN that link which will load the page in the web browser.  Once loaded, a voice command is required to READ PAGE. The reading of the page needs to include hyperlinks and allow the user to follow those links with a voice command. In this way, a user could browse multiple websites using only spoken word commands combined with text-to-speech spoken content. Headphones could be used to listen to the content.  If translation tools like Google Translate were to be incorporated, the use could use voice commands to TRANSLATE PAGE and then READ PAGE in the selected language.

This isn't only going to revolutionise the way blind and partially sighted people access and navigate the web.  It could easily be used by everyone.  Imagine a driver who wants to listen to a Wikipedia page about the company they are visiting?  Or perhaps a baker in their kitchen who has their hands covered in flour but still needs to listen to the next instruction in the recipe they are following?  Or a motor mechanic who's hands are covered in grease and with their head stuck inside an engine but still needs to hear the next instruction from the webpage they found on their iPad propped out of reach on the bonnet?

Imagine any science fiction story or film you ever saw. Chances are that they all used voice control to request answers from the 'computer' who 'spoke the answers back'. This is no longer science fiction - there are both voice control and text-to-speech software which can mimic all that we've seen in the movies. I just feel that both Siri and Google Now are trying too hard to be clever when they've missed out on a golden opportunity to transform a very basic function of all computing technology - to search for web content and hear the results without typing or touching the device.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Tip on returning goods to

I wrote this as a review of the monitor which became faulty and which I have now returned to Amazon. I don't think they'll publish it though so I thought I'd blog it in the hope it may help someone who is finding the 'returns policy' frustrating.

Any attempt via the website to send an item back to Amazon outside 30 days of it being purchased sends you in circles which will infuriate you and is probably designed to put you off. If Amazon or any other retailer suggests that you return the item to the manufacturer for a repair or replacement, they're wrong. Under the Sale of Good Act, your contract is with the retailer that you bought the goods from. This advice is extracted from the January 2014 issue of the Which? magazine in the article "Returning faulty goods|Investigation". Amazon scores only 1/12 in the review (the worst score).

When an item develops a fault before it would reasonably be expected to do so, you have a remedy against the retailer, even beyond the warranty period. This is determined by the Sale of Good Act. You are entitled to a full refund if the fault is identified within 4 weeks of purchase. Outside 4 weeks, you are not entitled to a full refund but you are entitled to ask for a replacement or repair. This also applies to good bought in a sale - the only exception is any goods bought were fault or damage was declared at the point of sale.

So here is some advice on how to resolve the issue with Amazon:

Go straight to and select the yellow 'Contact Us' button under 'General Support'.

Skip Option 1 and select the issue and issue details. I selected 'Problem with an order or item' and 'Item does not work, is damaged or a part is missing'.

Then go to Option 3 and select 'start chatting'.

Don't be put off by the Live Chat feature. It is the best way to get the issue resolved. Before you start the chat, select the option to have the conversation sent to your email. This is really useful if you need to make a complaint later on - especially if the contact handler provides incorrect advice or information.

The opening gambit is to politely provide the order number, the make/model, when it was purchased and a clear description of the fault. After a few exchanges and a few minutes delay, the contact handler will tell you that the item is outside the 30 day return period and then copy and paste several paragraphs of text as follows:
"I've checked and found that return window has expired on [XYZ Date]. Rest assure your item is still under warranty. One option that we find often enables our customers to get to a quick resolution of their issue is by visiting the manufacturer's website or contacting them directly as they may be able to offer helpful troubleshooting and support for this issue. If you would like to do that we can send the manufacturer’s details to you. We'd suggest that you check with the manufacturer to find out whether this is a known issue. They'll have specialist knowledge of their own products and in many cases they may be able to diagnose and resolve the problem immediately. Of course, if they can't help you, please let us know and we'll be happy to help."
The correct response to this is something like this:
"I know about your returns policy and that the 30 day window has expired. However, I am also aware of my rights under the Sale of Goods Act to return a product which develops a fault before it would be reasonably expected to do so directly to the retailer. Respectfully, I would prefer to send it back to you for either a replacement model of the same or higher specification, a repair or for a full refund."
After this, they will still try again to suggest it is easier for you to approach the manufacturer but they should also offer to 'process a refund or replacement as per your choice'. Thank them very much and then they'll email a postage-paid returns label which you can print out and send back via I opted for a refund as they offered it but I'd have been very happy for a replacement.

If it doesn't go well, you can try mentioning 'Sale of Goods Act' again with the words 'I am aware of my rights' and 'My contract is with the retailer, not the manufacturer'. If you still don't get any joy, try mentioning that you've read the Which? report in the January 2014 issue and noted that Amazon only scored 1/12 'very poor'. Amazon are also reported by Which as saying:
"Products that become defective within 12 months can be returned for a full refund or replacement, irrespective of any manufacturer warranty. After 12 months, we advise customers to contact the manufacturer for support and troubleshooting. Thereafter, we will take into consideration all facts and circumstances on a case-by-case basis to provide a fair solution. will review the instances highlighted by Which? as they do not appear to be consistent with the typical customer experience."
It is clear than Amazon have a long way to go if they are to remedy the poor score in Which? but I have found that if you follow this process, you'll not go far wrong.

Here is my customer feedback:

I scored you 'Very Poor' on your policy because my experience matches the 1/12 score in the Which? report in the 'Returning faulty goods | Investigation' in the January 2014 issue. However, I anticipated your approach and planned ahead. I knew that your website sends you in circles when you try to return goods after your '30 day returns window' so I went straight to the 'Contact Us' section instead and used your 'Live Chat' feature.

Once here, I scored the 'Ease of working with Amazon' as 'Average'. This is because, as expected, your contact person immediately threw in the standard paragraphs used to defer me to the manufacturer (just as the Which? report said would happen). I firmly quoted that I was aware of my rights under the Sale of Goods Act and was soon offered the chance of a refund and sent a returns label.

I scored your service rep 'Excellent' because, given his situation, he did what he was told but  he was very polite and very quickly realised that the only sensible option was to offer the refund.

Can you please consider altering your returns policy and get rid of the loop a user of your site experiences after the '30 days' is up?  Your quote in the Which? magazine clearly indicates that the company will give a full refund or replacement on goods returned within 12 months. Please reflect this in the website and retain the 'returns' buttons next to products for a full 12 months.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Can cyclists and motorists get along together?

The answer seems clear to me - of course they can. Or at least they should be able to. In theory anyway.

The statistics say that most cyclists are drivers so therefore most drivers are also cyclists. They also say that 60% or collisions between cars and bikes are the fault of the driver which means the other 40% is the fault of the cyclist.  That tells me that both sides have more-or-less equal responsibility which makes the title of the Department of Transport's THINK! campaign launched today in Essex at police HQ so appropriate.

In most cases, the average cyclist and the average driver can and do get along with each other. It is true to say that everyone can always benefit from some reminders every now and then and as a cyclist and a driver I found the tips for both side from this campaign to be highly useful reminders.

Somehow, I missed out on a cycling proficiency test when I was at school but I very pleased that all my children have benefited from the modern-day equivalent which is called 'Bikeability'. I've been riding as a commuter since I started work 28 years ago and I'd like to feel I follow the rules, always wear a helmet, light myself up and provide clear signals of my intentions well in advance. So far (touch wood) I've not had an accident on my bike and I've never had anything bad to say about a driver. The worst I've experienced on my journeys to work is the death-wish attitude of boys walking to school who seem oblivious to all road users and have an unnerving  tendency to switch from the pavement to the road without looking into who's path they are stepping into.

As a driver, the most frustrating issues with cyclists I've experienced are those who will not use lights in the dark and those who don't wear a helmet. Both of these point were clearly made today at the launch of this campaign.
"If you don't take away anything else from today, take these two things; always wear a helmet and always light up in the dark."
My concern is for those drivers and cyclists who seem to hold extreme views on this subject.

I've already seem some Tweets from the 'extreme cyclists' this evening. It seems they are hell-bent on defending their rights and can't bear to hear anything which suggests cyclists are anything other than 100% perfect and that everything bad that happens to them is the fault of a driver. I'm quite sure there are drivers who demonstrate the same belief that they are the kings of the road where cyclists are nothing but a nuisance.

Everyone I listened to today was talking perfect sense. Like the campaign says, there are things both cyclists and drivers can do to improve and it is an undeniable truth that the roads are there for everyone so everyone has to share.

Finally, hats off to Alex Dowsett who was the car enthusiast/world class cyclist who put his name to this campaign and encouraged both drivers and cyclists to think about their actions when out on the roads of Essex. There was no targeting and no 'sides' were taken. Alex is a first-class young man who was a pleasure to listen to and meet and I know the vast majority of people will agree with his words and those of the campaign 100%.

Unfortunately, there is a minority who want to disagree 100%. No compromise. No time to listen. I fear these are the people who need to think on this occasion. However, I don't think they ever will.

And finally - here is a screengrab of some of the footage I shot today using a GoPro camera mounted on my cycle helmet. We rode out after the press conference with three officers and Alex leading the way and me following up behind. It was raining by the time we departed from Essex Police HQ, through Springfield via Arbour Lane and Lawn Lane, out onto Essex Regiment Way, Rectory Lane (past Anglia Ruskin University) and into Victoria Road as seen in the photo. Bearing in mind I only ever cycle 15 mins at a time on my commute to work on a heavy hybrid bike with full mudguards and panniers, I was quite pleased I managed to keep up. I say I kept up but when they got to Springfield Road they shot up the hill like it wasn't there so I gave up and lost sight of them.

View Alex ride-out 11/11/2013 in a larger map

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Facebook posts - sheep mentality

I thought I'd write up some thoughts on a police Facebook page post appealing for help to locate a missing person.

Police missing person

The missing person post started life with a photo and an appeal to let the police know that the girl is safe and/or where she is. There are many posts like this but the thing that caught my eye was the development of a sharing trend I'd not seen before.

Comment 1 - There's a poster to share on MissingHelpFindUs
Comment 2 - Shared
Comment 3 - Shared
Comment 4 - Shared
Comment 5 - Shared

It carries on like this until the first person who commented like this:

Comment 13 - Shared Dagenham

From this point onwards, almost all the 186 comments followed this pattern. In the end I plotted this pattern on a map and it is amazing how accurately the sharing activity matches our original appeal (which didn't ask people to share the post).

Facebook share locations on a map
It appears that once a pattern of comments emerged, people were inclined to join in. This activity has driven 134,400 people to see the post so far and the regularly added new shares seems to have kept momentum flowing. The police helped encourage this activity and acknowledge the shares by 'liking' each of them. It also seems to have focused attention on one single aspect of the post rather than the tendency to stray off topic. The first few comments could so easily have been a derogatory observations about the girl or her circumstances which could have kick-started a similar trail of comments but on a completely different theme.

Learning from this could be interesting. Starting off on the right foot is really important so could the police influence it rather than leaving it to chance?

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Forthcoming TV movie tracker and reminder app

A Quick 'note to self' and appeal to anyone who may know if this already exists. If it doesn't, feel free to pinch my idea but tell me when you've built it so I can use it!

I used to belong to LoveFilm but I found that even though my subscription was cheap as chips, I wasn't using it often enough to justify the cost. I was having films delivered which I never got around to watching and just sent them back again. Many of the films were 'older ones' which Amazon sell for about £3 each.  I realised I can just buy the films I want to watch cheaper than hiring them (plus I get to keep them with the option to watch again one day).

My son just asked my if we still had LoveFilm because he wanted to watch Bruce Almighty. I checked and found that you can buy that film on DVD for £3.76 and BluRay for £9.52. On DVD it is cheaper than my old LoveFilm subscription.

I was about to buy it when I had another idea.  That film is often broadcast on ITV or Film4 so I suggested we may as well keep an eye out for it and when we see it in the listings, we can watch it or record it.

My wife often mentions that she'd like to watch 'Along came a spider' when it is next on TV. That is another film which always seems to be on TV but by the time I realise, it is halfway through (and more than the hour so I can't even go to the +1 version of the same channel).

Herein lies the issue which I think is in need of an app.

How about an app which firstly connects you through to IMDB, Wikipedia or some other online movie database which you can use to create a wishlist of films you want to watch at some point if they were to be broadcast but are not so urgent that you need to purchase or hire them right now. With a list created, you then find the data for the TV listings and compare that to the films wishlist. As soon as one of your film matches the listings, the app alerts you via email, text, pop-up message etc. This could be a smartphone app but could also be built-into the set-top box listing services themselves. By placing a film in a wishlist, a set-top box could automatically record it when it finds a channel which is broadcasting it.  The list could be refined - 'only on non-commercial channel', or 'only in HD'. The app could also build up history statistics to give you a rough idea of how often a particular film is broadcast and therefore how long you can expect to wait until it comes around again.

OK - off you go and build it please. Let me know when it's ready :-)

Monday, 8 April 2013

Essex County Council Elections May 2, 2013

April 12, 2013
Thank Crunchie - it's Friday.

Over the last few days I've exchanged more Tweets with the Chelmsford Lib Dems. I also heard from one of my many posts on the various Labour Facebook pages. I've emailed Richard for some more information.

I was prompted to update the blog following a Conservative party election broadcast on BBC1 just before the One Show. I can stand most treatments for these but this went too far. They asked members of the public if they are paying more or less for their council tax. They broadcast people saying it had stayed the same.  They then 'corrected' them by saying their council tax has reduced by 10% in real terms because this Government has helped freeze council tax.

So - in my book - that is 'stayed the same'. The public got it spot on and were still told they got it wrong.

In Chelmsford (on average), it has gone up slightly from £1489.91 in 2012/13 to £1498.36 in 2013/14. Let's not split hairs. If it is costing more, it has gone up.  If it is costing less, it has gone down.  Trying to play the 'in real terms' card doesn't really cut it.  The main increase is due to the 3.49% rise for the police by the new Police Crime Commissioner followed by Chelmsford City Council's 1.98% rise and a 1.41% average rise for the parish councils.

Here's the video - Council Tax question from 1:15:

April 10, 2013
Notification of Election Candidates - a spectacular PDF document which tells me who the election agents are in each division. This apparently is where claims,
notices, writs, summons, and other documents intended for the candidates can be sent. All very nice but absolutely nothing here which adds to my quest to find out why these candidates would like my vote.

Next document is due on April 17th - 'Notices of Polls'. Not sure if this will help but we'll wait and find out. In the meantime, I'll continue looking on the doormat and online for additional clues and I'll report back here as soon as a potential answer is uncovered!

However, a fantastic response from the Lib Dems.  I tweeted a link to this blog and it got a reply from Chelmsford City Council and councillor Mark Springett.

I totally understand the stance of the City Council - they are not allowed to promote any of the candidates and it is their responsibility to do that themselves.

Hats of to Mark Springett who has provided a link to the Lib Dems' Chelmsford website which has news which is up-to-date along with loads of information about their ECC election manifesto pledges. Clear, easy to understand and all making perfect sense in plain English. All those mentioned duly followed.

Not so good from Labour - No replies to any of my posts on the various Facebook pages.

April 7, 2013
A few weeks ago, we had some Poll Cards placed through the letterbox.  I've just got round to looking at them.

It is far from clear but it appears I am being asked to vote on Thursday May 2, 2013. It tells me when and where but it doesn't tell me anything else.  So I went to have a look.

There is a website address: Strange because on the Poll Card it says Essex County Council. Odd.

The web page tells me a lot about elections; registering to vote, voting by post, types of elections, how to register, voting by proxy, election results, voting in person, polling stations and even how I can stand to be elected.  Everything except what I wanted to know - some things about who is standing for the elections to lead me to a decision about who to vote for.

Ah.  At the very bottom of the screen a small and insignificant link - 'upcoming elections' followed by 'Essex County Council Elections'. Bingo?

No. the next page take me through more of the same plus 9 PDFs the only useful one being 'Statement of Persons nominated'.  This shows me the names and addresses of the people standing for the election in my 'division' (whatever that is).

David Howell, Jeremy Jacobs, Mike Mackrory, Jean Murray and Nicholas Tidman.

The previous page informs me that further information will be published on April 10, 2013 including 'notice of poll' and 'notices of election agents'.

Well, call me impatient but I tried to find some information from these people about why they want me to vote for them.  I didn't do very well:

David Howell has no Twitter, website or LinkedIn pages and I can't find his phone number or an email address.  He does seem to be on Facebook via about 6 pages although none of these tell me anything useful. Not knowing which one to use, I posted a question on all of them.  We'll see if I get an answer.

Jeremy Jacobs has no Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, phone number or email address I could find. The only way I'll find out anything from him is to write to him.

Mike Mackrory is listed on the Essex County Council web page. He has a website on the but it doesn't work. His phone number and email address is listed but I could find nothing on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook. I am familiar with the occasional letter he posts through my door so I'll look out for that.

Jean Murray lives just round the corner from where I work. She is a City Councillor so her phone number and email address is listed on the City Council's website. She apparently isn't using Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn either. I found the Chelmsford Conservative's website but that only shown 1 link to a page about a councillor. This turned out to be a mistyped URL which took me to a Japanese page about cemeteries. The latest news entry is September 2011 which didn't really inspire confidence.

Nicholas Tidman has no contacts details whatsoever including all of the above I 've already mentioned.

I'm presuming all these people would like me to vote for them but I fear they are not making it very easy for me. Do they think I'll vote because of their political party? Perhaps they think I'll prefer them based on the street they live in or maybe their name sounds friendly?

The only common thing is their address.  This is the 21st century. the age of the social web, smartphones and free WiFi.  Am I really expected to write a letter to each of them and ask them to provide me with their manifesto or other reasons they'd like me to vote for them? Sounds like something I'd be expected to do in 1913 not 2013.

I think I'll hold judgement until Wednesday when more information is being published on the City Council website.

I'll update this later in the week!