Q&A with Patrick Timony: From Library Stacks to Coding Hacks


Gone are the days when librarians merely helped customers find books among the stacks. Nowadays, some of these information professionals specialize in helping to build tools that meet the needs of their community, including the "print-disabled," or people who are unable to read print material, whether due to blindness, dyslexia or another disability.

Patrick Timony is a librarian of Adaptive Technology at the DC Public Library. "Adaptive technology" (AT) includes things like built-in access devices on standard computers, or unique combinations of software and hardware, such as those needed for voice or Braille output.

The DCPL's Adaptive Services Division helps the deaf, visually impaired, older adults, veterans and injured service people better use the library by running free AT trainings and regularly scheduled meet-ups, including an AT user group, a Accessibility DC meet-up and a professional Adaptive Services interest group. Their services help make storytelling and information accessible to all.

Last year, Timony teamed up with  mobile app developer Zaid Al-Timimi to organize an Accessibility Hackathon during Digital Capital Week in November. The event invited developers and project managers to spend a day on collaborative computer programming, with support from Bookshare, Random Hacks of Kindness, LibraryLab and others. The event was similar to other hackathons from last year, like October's AT&T Mobile App Hackathon and November's Startup Weekend, with a special focus on accessibility for the print-disabled.

Timony and Al-Timimi said one of the key people who made the project a reality was DCPL’s head adaptive services librarian Venetia Demson, who won the American Library Association’s I Love My Librarian Award in December 2011. She heads a division that contains several services, including library service to the deaf and hard of hearing communities, an adaptive technology program, services to at-home readers, and the DC Regional Library for the Blind and  Physically Handicapped. All of these services provide technologies, including video phones, screen readers, and digital talking books, that bring stories to life for people with disabilities.

Al-Timimi said he used the hackathon experience to refine his own app creation, The Mashup App, which allows users to "mashup," or group, disparate data in multiple formats—picture, audio, video, etc.—from their digital devices. Al-Timimi said he originally coded the app while taking care of his chronically ill father for several years. He used it to remember everything about his father’s medications and share them with doctors. The database is made available offline, but it can also share information via email and sync with a Web-based server, if necessary.

Now, instead of just a list of medications, the app can hold a gallery of snapshots from picture books, which can be read aloud by a robot voice recording that can be stitched together and sent along with the snapshots to an organization that specializes in making books accessible. The app has been used, for example, to create an e-book for individuals with diminished sight or who are blind.

I spoke with Patrick Timony to learn more about DCPL's efforts to design tools to improve mobile and Web accessibility for all users.

How many hackathons have DCPL hosted?

The DC Public Library’s Accessibility Hackathon held at Digital Capital Week included a problem identification workshop, hackathon prep session, and the actual hackathon. It was our first accessibility hackathon and the first hackathon at the library. It arose from collaboration.We’d had accessibility unconferences in October (learn more at accessibilitycamp.org), as well as a monthly Meetup group that has met for three years. The group helps a developer community interface with the adaptive tech user community.  Katie Filbert of Wikimedia District of Columbia has hosted related events, for example, on geo-mapping. They had an open data hackathon a few weeks later. There are possibilities in spring 2012 for a larger hackathon.

How did you first meet The Mashup App developer Zaid Al-Timimi?

There is a regularly occurring user group – Saturday Tech training sessions. It’s mostly presentations. On November 5, for the first two hours, we held a regular user group meeting where adaptive tech users shared information about iOS, iPad, iTouch, as voice-over users. They discussed what they tried, what worked, what they needed, and what they would like to have.Then, Zaid and other folks came and said we can we can build something to meet that need. You can find the list of ideas that were generated at wikimediadc.org/wiki/Accessibility_hackathon. Around 20 to 30 people participated. There was a core group of only a few folks: about four people who are developers who produce things at a high level, and three to four folks who speak the language and are in touch with the user group community and can specify the requirements of an app.Later that week, a separate session was held with Bookshare, with about ten people, including people from the users group and developers.

The actual hackathon included about 20 to 30 participants. The same core group of about ten people stayed the whole day and created one actual hack that they finished. The hack was a CAPTCHA box for a Wikimedia sign-up page. The next app we developed was the mobile accessible book generator, that Zaid worked on.

Accessibility DC is a monthly group that has met for 2 to 3 years. People who code web pages for accessibility get paid money to help institutions comply to 508 standards, which cover access to electronic and information technology procured by federal agencies. They can make money by networking using the library space and get to know the user community, rather than just coding for specifications. We’ve worked with Refresh DC. We also held a BarCamp in DC, and an AccessibilityCamp. It’s a great area to share contacts and get the word out to the right people. Innovations come out of the user community.

How has the project been received?

It will be introduced to the Braille Book Club for Kids. The purpose of the app is to make children’s books accessible to people who read Braille. We will be introducing the app to kids who are learning Braille, who are blind. It will be an opportunity to have Zaid announce his app. It will be introduced at a Saturday Technology Training Session on February 18 from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. in Room 215 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library at 901 G Street NW in Washington, D.C.  So far the community is very excited.