COSP9 held 14-16 June 2016 was the ninth meeting of the Conference of States Parties (COSP). These annual events regard the implementation of the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). At COSP9 the Swedish Disability Federation (HSO) organized the side-event “Right 2 participation – accessible online meetings” (#R2Po). WestreamU was asked to help out with the technical facilitation at the UN Headquarters in New York.
The Swedish Disability Federation (HSO) of course wanted to provide an accessible live stream from the side-event. Their initial ambition also included support for remote video interaction with Africa and Europe. Unfortunately, the latter turned out to be impossible. This documentation explains why, and the technical solutions behind what we finally accomplished. Please see HSO’s own documentation for information about the purpose and results from the side-event per se.
Richard Gatarski from WestreamU AB managed the production and created this technical documentation.
We never managed to find out if and how UN Broadcast and Conference Support Section (BCSS) could guarantee sufficient internet access. That uncertainty ruled out both the option to make our own production, as well as facilitate online video interaction via Skype or similar services.
Instead the UN Web TV team produced the live stream, including cameras and mixing in the sign interpretation as well as three lines of CART. (CART stands for Communication Access Real-time Translation. It may also be referred to as real-time captioning.)
Our task then became to make all preparations for the live stream, book and prepare sign interpreters and CART captioner, coordinate with the presenters’ content (sides, videos, etc.), and document the technical process.
Dealing with the different UN sections responsible for conference support, meeting management, web TV solutions, and technical services requests turned out to be extremely challenging and time consuming.
Despite many difficulties the side event was live streamed in a way that supported accessible online participation with a global reach. Even after considering that the organizer originally aimed for a more innovative and inspiring approach.
Already in 2015 the Swedish Disability Federation (HSO) tentatively asked if we could assist in this production. Late in February 2016 we had our first planning meeting. It was made clear that HSO wanted the live stream to be shown via UN’s Web TV channel, and that they wished for some kind of remote interaction from other countries. We were also shown examples from accessible live streams produced by the UN.
It should be noted that COSP9 was a fairly large event. The main program contained six half day sessions in the General Assembly Hall and Conference room 4. Almost 70 side-events, all requiring real-time captioning known as CART (Communication Access Real-time Translation), were organized in various conference rooms. At least 27 of the sessions/side-events were live streamed, although far from all in an accessible form.
For us one complicating factor was that the formal budget decision from the side-event sponsor, the Swedish Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, came rather late in the planning process.
Another challenge worth mentioning is that the side-event was given an early morning slot between 8 and 9.30 AM. This turned out to complicate a number of planning items. For example, it was unclear if the elevators would work at that early hour. Worse matters were the uncertainties regarding the availability and extra cost of technicians as well as the possibility to prepare the conference room for our needs.
UN Web TV technicalities
We knew from the beginning that the UN Web TV team should be our initial point of contact. From a technical standpoint we found it vital for our planning, and budget decisions, to know about a few details. These included:
- the kind of services UN Web TV provides
- the options for including sign interpretation and CART
- support for any kind of co/cross-production
- conference room layout and technical facilities
- connections and routing for external audio and video
- internet access bandwidth and type of connections
- integration of presentation content (slides, video, etc.)
In late February we contacted the UN Web TV team in order to sort out these questions. To make a long story short (many e-mails with an abundance of cc’s) we only learned that we should request the services we needed; that providing interpreters and CART was up to us; and that the side event organizers had to bring their own laptops for presentations. We also got some indications of the extra cost for live streaming services. Our technical questions remained mostly unanswered.
In mid-May the budget was set, and we finally knew that the side event was going to be realized. We then initiated another round of interactions (tons of) with the UN Web TV team, as well as related support sections. In parallel we did extensive research to find out if the UN had published any information that could provide the answers we needed. One such detail was if power point presentations and videos would be shown in the live stream. Another one was if the sign interpreters should be in the conference room, or somewhere else. Still no answers were given.
Throughout this whole process we received prompt and professional support from Monica Clarke at the Permanent Mission of Sweden to the United Nations. Despite this, it never became clear from who at the UN we should order what. To sum it up, we all did our best and simply hoped that our requirements would be met.
For the sake of the technical documentation, and general support of advances in accessible online participation, we also made several request to the UN Web TV team to meet with them. None of these request was answered. Similar request to external sign interpreters and CART reporters received quick responses. They were indeed interested, but had unfortunately no time left during our week-long visit in New York.
During the planning stage the Swedish Disability Federation (HSO) wanted to include two different kinds of interaction with remote participants. Unfortunately, we faced a serious challenge because of the uncertainty regarding internet access at UN’s conference center in New York.
The first kind of interaction was presentations from remote locations. One such concerned interaction with participants from Rwanda or Tanzania. This was considered too complicated due to unstable internet connections and logistics, so it was solved with a pre-recorded video via YouTube. Another one concerned Mia Larsdotter, one of the Swedish participants. She would ideally participate and make a presentation from her home in Sweden as she typically attends meetings online only, for example via Adobe Connect. Actually, in May 2016 WestreamU live streamed an event where Mia made her stage contribution from home via Skype. In other words, we knew this type of remote participation was pretty straightforward under normal conditions.
In order to create a backup solution, we met June 1 in WestreamU’s studio in Stockholm. Originally the idea was to pre-record a Skype session with Mia Larsdotter. After a brief discussion it was instead decided that Mia should record a voice over to a few illustrative images as a self-contained power point presentation. She submitted that a few days later, together with a written manuscript.
The second kind of organized participation during the live webcast was implemented as a parallel seminar held at HSO’s office in Stockholm. A group of people was invited there to watch the live stream on a projector, and provide feedback to the side-event as it was going on. But as we could not trust that the internet connection in New York would suffice, we decided not to integrate this interaction in the web stream.
The presentation content
A standard requirement from sign interpreters and CART reporters is to get as much advance information about the event as possible. Therefore, we collected all the power point presentations, video inserts, and manuscript in a Dropbox folder that was shared with the interpreters, the CART reporter, and the participants.
We also made sure that a laptop dedicated for the presentations was loaded with the needed content, and ready to be connected to the conference room’s AV equipment.
All side-event organizers were obliged to provide communication access real-time translation (CART). We looked through UN’s list of suggested CART service providers, but decided to ask our established contacts for recommendations. This way we found Accesscaptions. We contacted them May 24, and the very same day their captioner Stan Sakai was booked for us.
Stan had worked many times before at the UN Headquarter in New York. The main thing he needed to know was if we wanted him in the conference room or if he should do the reporting from a remote location. We asked him to be in the room.
The sign language
As far as we knew there was no formal requirement regarding which sign language to provide. After some brief research and discussions, it was decided that we should use American Sign Language (ASL).
The UN also provided a list of suggested sign language interpreters (in a Word-document). From it we selected one provider and asked May 25 for a quotation. But a week later, after accepting their terms and conditions, it turned out that they could not find any available interpreters.
We were then advised to contact Bill Moody. He responded the same day. Bill convinced us to use International Sign (IS), as this was a UN event. He was able to book interpreters, actually two teams of two interpreters each. One hearing team would interpret from spoken English to ASL, and the other deaf team from ASL to IS.
Since Bill Moody had a lot of experience working with the UN, we trusted he would arrange all the technical details. Apparently the interpreters were going to be located in another room. Therefore, Bill needed to be in our conference room to assure that a deaf panelist had an ASL interpreter in front of her.
The live event
We arrived in the conference room about half an hour before the event was planned to start. A few nervous minutes passed until we got in touch with the room’s technician. It turned out he did not know much about neither what we were going to do, nor the accessibility details for our live streaming needs. But after about 20 minutes, while he ran back and forth discussing with his colleagues, we started to believe that maybe things would fall into place.
As you shown in the video embedded here from the UN Web TV archive the live stream combined a camera view (top left) with international sign interpretation (top right) and CART (bottom).
A few mistakes
It can be noted that the first minutes are somewhat confusing. The live stream started on time. But neither the camera operator, nor the sign interpreter were ready. In addition, most of the participants had not arrived due to long waiting lines at the UN’s security checkpoint.
Worse was that during the first 15 minutes the stream that went out live only contained the camera view. It took about 5 minutes for us to realize that, 5 minutes to get the operator’s attention, and 5 more for the UN Web TV team to fix the problem.
Unfortunately, the person who was going to play out Mia Larsdotter’s pre-recorded presentation did not succeed. Instead Mia’s manuscript was read out loud by Mia Ahlgren, Swedish Disability Federation’s representative, who was in the room. Soon after the side-event we published a video version of Mia Larsdotter’s pre-recorded presentation on YouTube.
We also found out that the remote camera production system automatically selected a view on the person who pushed the microphone button when ready to talk. This meant that on a number of occasions, when the deaf panelist’s interpreter pressed the button, the camera was pointed at the interpreter and not on the panelist.
The accessibility production
Bill Moody (sign language interpreter) turned up in the room a couple of minutes after us. The other members of his sign language teams were preparing in a different room (where that was located we still do not know).
Together with the room’s technician we discussed the placement of the presenters, the projector, and the interpreters. Bill managed to arrange a working solution, albeit not ideal. Even so, the sign interpretation went very well. Afterwards Bill told us that he found this particular side-event one of the most interesting of the whole series of meetings that week.
Stan Sakai (the CART captioner) turned up less than 15 minutes before starting time. He quickly plugged his laptop into a display connector in the room, and was up and running within minutes. It was then up to the UN Web team to mix his display output into the video stream.
When the event begun we noted a slight misalignment of the horizontal position of the CART captions on the room’s screen. When we pointed that out to Stan he fixed it immediately. Besides that, the CART went perfect. Upon our request Stan afterwards provided us with his transcript from the whole side-event.
On the positive side
On site we realized that the free Wi-Fi network provided by the UN conference center at least was sufficient for message interaction with online participants. Via Skype the viewers at HSO’s office in Stockholm could quickly alert us about that the live stream initially contained neither sign language nor CART. Furthermore, they contributed with questions and comments during the side-event’s closing section.
All mistakes of course provided useful lessons for future productions. And it can be noted that the organizer’s basic mission was fulfilled.
After the side-event we were happy to hear from many online participants/viewers that they highly appreciated the accessible live stream and found it very useful.
Two days after the event we were positively surprised about the possibility to download an archived version of the live stream from the UN Audiovisual Library. As we understand it (even though not clearly explicated), HSO has the right to re-publish the video in part or whole.
A tricky conference room
The side event was allocated to Conference room 12 in the UN Headquarters’ building. Before leaving Sweden we had no idea of how the room looked like or what kind of technical equipment was available.
The day before our event we managed to get a sneak peek into the room. But since another meeting was going on, and no technicians were to be found, that did not help our preparations very much.
This 360 video captured with a Theta S gives an idea of how the room looked like. Unfortunately, it only shows the first 25 minutes of the side event (after that the camera turned off to prevent over heating). Hopefully the video also generates ideas of how remote participation can be enhanced by 360 technologies.
The image here shows the presenter panel sitting on the right side during our event. On the right wall behind glass windows are presumably some interpretation booths.
In the very middle you can see the CART captioner Stanley Sakai sitting in front of his laptop. Left of him is the sign language interpreter Bill Moody. On Bill’s left side is the personal sign interpreter to one of the panel members who is deaf.
As can be seen in this image, the screen with camera or presentation content (slides/video), sign interpreters and CART is on the wall opposite to the presenter panel. This makes it virtually impossible to at the same time watch what is being projected and the presenter/panel.
The room is probably designed for other types of meetings. We were told that in order to combine it with the adjacent room, the wall behind the projector screen could be removed. This explains why it is not possible to place the panel/presenters on that side.
The wall to the left has another set of windows. On the far side is the control room where a technician operated remote control cameras and other AV equipment. The only way we could get the technicians attention was by waving outside the window.
Lessons and suggestions
With some guesswork we have been able to afterwards figure out a few things that we were never informed about. In no particular order of importance, we will finally discuss some of these findings together with a few suggestions.
Closed versus open systems
The history of technology clearly shows the value of open systems, standards and flexible solutions. Increasingly commercial enterprises, government organizations, and non-profits therefore publish information about how to interact with their systems. Concepts such as user and customer forums, open source, and application program Interface encompasses the importance of openness and interaction for innovation in modern development processes.
We therefore found it frustrating not being able to even know about basic stuff such as internet availability and if power point slides would be visible in the live stream. And we certainly would have appreciated ways to get in contact with other side-event organizers who were struggling with accessible live streams.
The interpreters and the captioner asked us if they should perform their task in the room or from a remote location. So clearly there are some ways to hook up externally. Unfortunately, how that is done is still unclear to us.
To our best knowledge UN Web TV only support one type of layout when combining the original camera video with sign interpreters and CART. This is as far as we understand it accomplished in an (unknown) video production mixer. Mixers like that tend to be very flexible in how content can be re-positioned.
It would be valuable with other designs. For example, offering closed caption support. Or letting the individual viewer decide for sign interpretation or not. Not to mention alternative languages for text, audio, and sign.
By co/cross-production we refer to a situation where one producer (e.g. UN Web TV) mix in live content from one or more other producers. The other producer/s may be on site, or a remote location connected via internet. In our case we would gladly have produced a live Skype interaction with Mia Larsdotter in Sweden.
Furthermore, it would be useful if the stream could be picked up for co- and/or cross-production purposes. For example, using the original live camera stream and add accessibility features, such as sign interpretation and closed captions. Or combine with other streams, like one from a parallel event.
We were seriously considering using Text on Top to be able to provide CART, automatic translation into other languages, and support for closed captions. Another idea was to use chroma key for the sign interpreter. Both these solution requires some way to combine productions into one or more live streams.
Clearly tell us what and how
It is worth repeating that we spent way too much time interacting with various people at the UN offices. This in comparison to other conference facilities we have worked with over the years. Our general impression is that instead of giving answers, our questions were forwarded somewhere else. We assume this is is an organizational management, issue beyond the scope of our task here.
Most likely things would improve much if the proper UN offices (e.g. the Broadcast and Conference Support Section, BCSS) at least published the most basic information. This would be extremely valuable not only for event organizers and their speakers, but also for us who develop new solutions for accessible online meetings.
Supplementing the list of technicalities above such basic information include:
- advice and instructions for organizers, interpreters and captioners
- descriptions of the conference rooms and how they are equipped
- what can be supported in terms of live streaming options
- the available accessibility features
- the cost for various services
- where to request what, and in which order