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The Open Voice Factory (formally AzuleJoe) was awarded the top final prize of £50,000 to help bring its open source communication aid to market.

What is it?

Free software that helps give a voice to people with communication difficulties. The Open Voice Factory aid displays a set of icons that represent words, which a user can look through to find the word they want to express and, once selected, their device will say this word for them.

How does it work?

The Open Voice Factory is the first open source assistive communication software that is free at the point of delivery.

The software enables users to generate Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices by uploading a pageset - a template for communication aids which users look through to choose the words they want to say. It offers the option to customise devices with personal stories and jokes. “You can store your whole life in a device,” says Joe.

The Open Voice Factory makes use of many other people’s APIs, giving greater flexibility than many other existing programs. And it can run on a variety of platforms, from iPads to laptops to Kindles, without a complex setup or installation.

All the code is online on GitHub and volunteers from around the world contribute to its development.

Who’s behind it?

Programmer Joe Reddington, and Speech and Language Therapy Technician Kate McCallum.

Joe and Kate both have younger brothers who use AAC devices, and they met when Kate was working at an independent specialist college, where Joe’s brother went to school. When Kate created the world’s first Creative Commons pageset, CommuniKate, Joe put together a demo where users could try it out. The popularity of this demo was unprecedented. Seeing this, Joe decided to spin the demo out into The Open Voice Factory, a program that can be used with any pageset, CommuniKate or otherwise.

AAC devices like the ones The Open Voice Factory produces do already exist. “My little brother’s life was changed by one of those tools,” says Joe, “But it was £5000. The devices break down a lot, and the supply is not sufficient.” The aim with The Open Voice Factory is to solve these issues and make AAC devices available across the globe.

Joe has been working with a wide range of people to make it happen. “Our sustainability model is about building a large number of volunteers rather than a large number of sales,” he says. However, since it is a global project there has been a lot of red tape to get through. “We still have to take the system through medical registration in every country it can reach,” explains Joe, citing time and money as the biggest hurdles. “But we haven’t overcome them yet.”

The software has changed dramatically over the course of the Inclusive Technology Prize. The semi-finalist prize has contributed to the development of the software, paying for code bounties to entice contributors, in addition to covering the cost of user testing groups and new equipment.

The Open Voice Factory is on its way to achieving its founder’s goal: “Real free speech for all.”

The aim of the Inclusive Technology Prize was to inspire technological innovation from individuals and small businesses to improve or develop assistive living aids, adaptations, products and systems that will make a real difference to the lives of disabled people.