The Web Accessibility Directive of the European Union (2016) meant that authorities had to provide their web contents in an accessible way so that people with disabilities could get the same information as people with no disabilities. In Finland, the national legislation was passed in 2019, and it came into effect in 2020. Because of this, in the Records Office of the Parliament of Finland, we had to create a way to produce suitable text alternatives for parliamentary videos. The Finns are used to captions on TV, but captioning every video would have required too much effort with the resources we had. This is why we started to produce text alternatives that are similar to plenary session reports. Luckily, we had already used automatic speech recognition (ASR) at plenary session reporting, and that proved to be an essential tool for producing text alternatives as well.
Plenary session reports as a kickoff
Our plenary session reports served as a good start. They are already published speech by speech during the session. However, there was still a need to develop a way to connect and synchronise the text to video. Because our plenary hall information system already provided us time codes and other speaker information, we decided to use them to synchronise a copy of the report to the corresponding plenary session video. The result is a scrolling text alternative that a citizen can easily follow beside the video. One can jump from one item or one MP to another, and it even works on a mobile phone. There is always a text alternative for a plenary session available on our website on the following day after the session.
New recordings, new text alternatives
Our committees usually meet behind closed doors. This means that they report only the topics discussed and the decisions made. However, the increasing amount of citizens’ initiatives have encouraged the committees to organise public seminars and hearings that are streamed live and published as a video recording on the parliament’s website. The videos are meant to stay permanently available online, which has called for text alternatives.
Because the nature of the recorded formal occasions is somewhat similar to that of plenary sessions, we decided to produce similar synchronised text alternatives with the help of ASR. This way, we didn’t need any new tools or further education to provide the service. There is no speaker data provided automatically in the videos, which means that speakers’ names and time codes have to be logged in text manually. If a video lasts longer than 30 minutes, we divide the editing task in order to be able to publish the text alternative withing a week or two after streaming. The editing principles are close to the ones used in plenary session reporting, but they lean a bit more into transparency. For example, reporters include a few more non-verbal events that are happening around the speaker. This way, the text alternatives can provide more information for those who can´t hear or see everything.
Introducing closed captions to parliamentary work
Because captions still are the most familiar text alternatives to the general public, we have also trained a small team in their production. There are few officials who produce closed captions for selected videos, for example videos of short press conferences. Captions serve a wide audience. Even if a person doesn’t have any problems with hearing, the captions will help them understand a video in a noisy environment or if the language used isn’t their mother tongue. In addition, closed captions can be switched on or off by the viewer.
Fortifying the resources
As shown above, accessibility regulations have brought us new duties. We didn’t hire any new officials for them, but instead the working hours of our part-time senior specialists were increased by 20 percent from 60 to 80 percent. ASR serves as our basic tool in improving the accessibility of videos by producing drafts for us to edit and publish. We are investigating ways to enhance the captioning process but still retain high quality. The quality of automatic captioning is quite poor in Finland, and it does not fulfil the national quality requirements for closed captions in television which we aim to follow. This means that we mostly have to produce captions manually and this leaves us plenty to do.
There is always an authority who supervises how accessibility requirements are fulfilled, and in Finland that authority is the Regional State Administrative Agency of Southern Finland. The agency has just audited our web services, and we are currently negotiating with them about how to best solve all the remaining accessibility issues. Providing the best possible accessibility is certainly a challenge, but with feedback, experience and new technology, we have tools to tackle it.
Riikka Kuronen is a parliamentary reporter at the Parliament of Finland.