SAS technology enables blind to ‘visualize’ graphs

As demand for people with the skills to fill jobs in analytics and data science continues to outpace supply, Cary-based software giant SAS wants to ensure that no one gets left out of these fields – including the blind and visually impaired.

SAS’s Graphics Accelerator software, which was released last month, allows people with visual impairments to interact with charts and graphs created with SAS software in a new way: “visualizing” them through sound.

“We created technology that enables blind and visually impaired users to access charts and graphs, and we do that by displaying charts and graphs using sound,” said Ed Summers, senior manager of accessibility and applied assistive technology at SAS.

The Triangle native knows first hand how this technology could help students and professionals looking to enter science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. As a child, Summers was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative retinal disease, and gradually lost almost all his vision over the years. Now he navigates the hallways of SAS with the assistance of a cane and a guide dog named “Chewy,” after the popular Star Wars character Chewbacca.

The free internet browser plugin that he helped create alerts users if there is a SAS-created graph on the webpage they are viewing and then converts the visual graph into alternative formats, including text descriptions, tables and sound.

Using speakers or headphones, the sound pans from the listener’s left ear to the right ear as he or she navigates along the X-axis of the graph using the arrow keys on their keyboard. The pitch represents the value, like the height of a bar in a bar graph, with higher pitch indicating a higher value.

As Summers demonstrated the technology, he sat facing a wall with two speakers – one on the left side and right side. His head shifted from left to right as he followed the sound across the wall between the two speakers.

“That entire wall becomes the canvas for where we can paint graphs,” he said.

Text descriptions of the graphs also are available and can be picked up by screen readers, software programs that verbalize text on the screen.

Amy Bower, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, was a beta tester for the technology before it was released. During her more than 30 years in oceanography, her vision has steadily declined, and now she is legally blind. About 285 million people worldwide are visually impaired, according to the World Health Organization.

“As my vision has declined, I’ve been constantly looking for ways to access graphics,” she said. In particular, Bower often uses line graphs for tracking information like the temperature in the ocean at a particular location over time.

Screen readers have made it possible for her to read and write at work, but she said there has been a barrier for using graphics without the assistance of another person.

“This was the first tool of its kind that I felt like I could actually use in my research,” Bower said. “I’m very excited and starting to work it into my own research. It is really a cutting edge contribution to this really big need.”

The Graphics Accelerator software also works in conjunction with SAS University Edition – a free product that allows students and educators to access the company’s software and learn quantitative skills.

The goal of the SAS University Edition is to encourage further interest in STEM fields, particularly as demand for the skills grows. The average salary of a data scientist nationally is $113,436, according to recruitment agency Glassdoor.

“That is employers – SAS customers – sending a signal that we need these skills,” Summers said. “Our vision for this technology moving forward is that students of all ages and professionals can use the technology to learn quantitative skills and also acquire one of these high-paying jobs in STEM fields.”

Kathryn Trogdon: 919-829-4845: @KTrogdon