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Information for People Planning Technical Research for Visually Disabled Persons

J M Gill


Abstract.  The TIDE CORE project is studying the information needs of the different groups within the rehabiliation technology field.  However there is already some experience at Royal National Institute for the Blind with information provision for research workers in the field of visual disability.  The most common types of information asked for, by research workers, are:
(a)           What research and development needs to be done?
(b)           What research and development is being done?
(c)           What research and development has been done?
(d)           What are the sources of funding for research and development?
The paper emphasises that nobody in this field can afford complacency in information provision since the nature of the market and the rehabilitation technology actors relationship with it are constantly changing.


1.         Introduction

The TIDE CORE (Consensus Creation and Awareness for R&D Activities in Technology for Disabled and Elderly People) has identified seven main groups of actors in rehabilitation technology as:
1.         Research
2.         Development
3.         Production
4.         Trade
5.         Procurement / financing
6.         Service delivery
7.         Usage

The CORE project found that most rehabilitation technology actors made little use of on-line computer-based information services, but mainly relied on paper-based services; this is compatible with the findings of surveys among those undertaking technical research for visually disabled persons which indicated a desire for printed information on:
1.         Research and development needing to be undertaken.
2.         Sources of funding for this research and development.
3.         Ongoing research and development.
4.         Existing products for visually disabled persons.
5.         Existing techniques.
6.         Published papers and "grey" literature.
7.         Exploitation of research and development.
8.         Demographic data.
9.         Standards.
10.       Organisations concerned with visually disabled persons.

The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) is in the process of integrating its information services for research workers to better meet the changing information needs of this group.  There has been an increase in the number of small companies who do not have the resources or expertise to access on-line information services, as well as many of the information services being inappropraite to their needs.  This has led to an increase in the gap between information rich and poor.


2.         R&D Needed

The identification of research needed by the visually disabled population has been tackled in collaboration with the Research Committee of the World Blind Union, the European Project on Technology and Blindness, and the EC COST project on Telecommunications and Disability.  Various areas have been identified as priorities for future research taking into account the probability of the work being of long-term practical benefit to visually disabled persons.  The current task is to convert the data into a structured form suitable for storing in a database format.

A related area is to bring these unmet needs to the attention of the research community including those who have had no previous connection with rehabilitation technology.  So far, this aspect has been tackled by writing articles and giving lectures in universities and research departments of companies.


3.         Sources of Funding

In the present economic climate, it is essential for most research workers to find external sources of funds for their research work.  As yet, little systematic work has been done on data collection in this area, but there is an increasing unmet need to inform research workers of relevant calls for proposals in sufficient time that they may prepare an application.  There also is a need to advise research workers on how to prepare grant applications to the various grant giving bodies; for instance, some research workers have had difficulty with the style and format of applications required by the European Commission.


4.         Ongoing R&D

The database, which dates back to the early seventies, covers ongoing non-medical research and development for visually disabled persons throughout the world; the main mode of dissemination is as an annual printed publication.  A newer database, funded by TIDE but located at RNIB, covers core actors in rehabilitation technology in Europe; this database is produced in print as well as on computer diskette.


5.         Existing products and techniques

A computer-based system has been developed which includes information about devices which are already on the market; the scope is limited to those groups of devices of greatest interest to research workers concerned with visual disability.  This system will be superceded by the European Community Handynet system when it becomes fully operational.

In addition, a technique is a method of doing something which may not involve any technical device (eg with a long cane, the technique is more important than the device for efficient pedestrian travel).  However information services have avoided attempting to create databases in this area since techniques are very difficult to classify and to describe concisely.  But, it is in areas such as techniques that the research worker needs to be aware so that their prposed research does not re-invent the wheel.


6.         Published material

Traditionally, research workers relied on published papers as their main source of information, but in the fast changing area of technology the information is often out of date by the time it is published.  Also much of the useful reports in the field of visual disability appear in "grey" publications which may not be covered by the main bibliographic databases.  Therefore specialist bibliographic databases are seen by many research workers as less important than they were ten years ago.


7.         Exploitation

Academics working on technological research for visually disabled persons are increasingly aware of the problem of transferring their research to being of practical benefit to visually disabled persons.  Therefore they often ask for infomation about methods of exploiting research results; in general, the earlier this information is requested, the more likely that the research results in a useful product or service.  In the blindness area, the market is often very distorted by substantial subsidies from non-profit organisations; this can mean that a new product has to compete against an existing product which is being sold for less than its manufacturing cost!


8.         Demographic data

Demographic data about the incidence and prevalence of visual disability, age and income distribution, and prevalence of additional handicaps is often requested by persons new to the field.  More reliable, but incomplete, data is now available for the visually disabled population in the UK.


9.         Standards

As well as requiring information on national or international standards which apply to various types of assistive device, research workers often want precise specifications for areas for which there is no formal standard (eg the spherical radius for a braille dot).


10.       Organisations

Research workers often want contact with local organisations concerned with visually disabled persons; most often this is so they can gain access to experimental subjects for evaluation purposes.


11.       Conclusions

The information needs of any given group are a constantly changing target.  Information systems and services must be designed so that they provide appropriate information in a suitable format.  This means that the content and method of delivery must be constantly reviewed to ensure that they are still optimum for the changing needs.


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