Patterns for Sharing – making algorithms generalisable

Patterns for Sharing

by Paul Curzon and Jane Waite, Queen Mary University of London

A white screen with 8 black arrows emanating from a smaller rectangle drawn in marker pen, representing how one idea can be used in multiple ways
Image adapted from original by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Computer Scientists like to share: share in a way that means less work for all. Why make people work if you can help them avoid it with some computational thinking. Don’t make them do the same thing over and over – write a program and a computer can do it in future. Invent an algorithm and everyone can use it whenever that problem crops up for them. The same idea applies to inclusive design: making sure designs can be used by anyone, impairments or not. Why make people reinvent the same things over and over. Let others build on your experience of designing accessible things in the past. That is where the idea of Design Patterns and a team called DePIC come in.

The DePIC research team are a group of people from Queen Mary University of London, Goldsmiths and Bath Universities with a mission to solve problems that involve the senses, and they are drawing on their inner desire to share! The team unlock situations where individuals with sensory impairments are disadvantaged in their use of computers. For example, if you are blind how can you ‘see’ a graph on a screen, and so work with others on it or the data it represents. DePIC want to make things easier for those with sensory impairments, whether it be at home, leisure or at work, they want to level the playing field so that everyone can take part in our amazing technological world. Why shouldn’t a blind musician feel a sound wave and not be restricted because they can’t see it (see ‘Blind driver filches funky feely sound machine!’). DePIC, it turns out, is all about generalisation.

Generalise it!

Generalisation is the computational thinking idea that once you’ve solved a problem, with a bit of tweaking you can use the solution for lots of other similar problems too. Written some software to put names and scores in order for a high score table? Generalise the algorithm so it can sort anything in to order: names and addresses, tracks in a music collection, or whatever. Generalisation is a powerful computational thinking idea and it doesn’t just apply to algorithms, it applies to design too. That is the way the DePIC team are working.

DePIC actually stands for Design Patterns for Inclusive Collaboration. Design Patterns are a kind of generalisation: so design ideas that work can be used again and again. A Design Pattern describes the problem it solves, including the context it works in, and the way it can be solved. For example, when using computers people often need to find something of interest amongst information on a screen. It might, for example, be to find a point where a graph reaches it’s highest point, find numbers in a spreadsheet of figures that are unusually low, or locate the hour hand on a watch to tell the time. But what if you aren’t in a position to see the screen?

Anyone can work with information using whatever sense is convenient.

Make good sense

One solution to all these problems is to use sound. You can play a sound and then distort it when the cursor is at the point of interest. The design pattern for this would make clear what features of the sound would work well, its pitch say, and how it should be changed. Experiments are run to find out what works best. Inclusive design patterns make clear how different senses can be used to solve the same problem. For example, another solution is to use touch and mark the point with a distinctive feel like an increase in resistance (see the 18th century ‘Tactful Watch’!).

The idea is that designers can then use these patterns in their own designs knowing they work. The patterns help them design inclusively rather then ignoring other senses. Suddenly anyone can work on that screen of information, using whatever senses are most convenient for them at the time. And it all boils down to computer scientists wanting to share.


This article was originally published on the CS4FN website and a copy can also be found on page 9 in Issue 19 of the CS4FN magazine “Touch it, feel it, hear it“, which you can download free as a PDF along with all of our other free material here.


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