Transcript from the PEAT Talk: The AT&T NYU Connect Ability Challenge held on June 18, 2015.

Transcript from the PEAT Talk: The AT&T NYU Connect Ability Challenge held on June 18, 2015.

Welcome and Logistics:

>>Good afternoon everyone and welcome to the first edition of PEAT Talks, the new virtual speaker series from the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. On the third Thursday of each month, PEAT Talks will be showcasing various organizations and individuals whose work and innovations are advancing accessible technology in the workplace. My name is Christa Beal and I'll be hosting this afternoon's talk.

Before we get started I'm going to quickly review a few logistics. On the screen right now is the phone number that will allow you to access audio conferencing and a link to the captions text. We will have time at the end for Q&A, so please enter any questions you might have in the chat window or by e-mailing You can also e-mail if you are having technical difficulties. An archived recording will be posted online and all registrants will be notified via e-mail when the recording is available. We will live tweeting today’s event from @PEATworks so please feel free to join using the hash tag #PEATtalks with two Ts.


Today PEAT is excited to welcome Neil Jacoby of AT&T who is here to talk to us about the AT&T NYU Connect Ability Challenge. As the AT&T’s New York City Executive Director for Public Affairs, Neil has created tech initiatives that challenge coders and startups to focus their talent on software development with human, social, and community purpose.

This year, in honor of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Neil created the Connect Ability Design Challenge, that aims to accelerate innovation of accessible technology and create affordable, scalable and client-centered solutions by encouraging developers to leverage everyday tasks such as smart phones and tablets and collaborate directly with people with disabilities to imagine, design and build technology. Neil has a breadth of political experience and has previously worked with leading environmental groups and organized labor. A 1996 graduate of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University he lives in Brooklyn with his wife Bethany in three young  kids. Thanks for being with us today Neil. I will turn things over to you.


>>Thank you so much. It's such a privilege for me to be here. Can everyone hear me all right?

>> Yes we can, thank you.

>> Terrific. Well, it's a pleasure to be here today and a privilege particularly on this subject when we talk about workplace and employment, accessible technology. I have worked with organized labor and am an IRL  graduate from Cornell and have a deep appreciation for workplace matters and labor concerns. This is a unique intersection of subjects that don't often get explored so it's a pleasure to do that here today.

So, what I'd like to do today with this presentation is briefly describe what Connect Ability is and then just field questions about its impact and future promise for accessible technology in our workplaces and communities. I'm going to click to a slide and I'm going to describe what is on the screen here. This is an event we had just Monday in Berkeley, California at the Center for Accessible Technology. It’s a picture of a young man, a developer demonstrating a technology to two exemplars.

Let me explain why we call them exemplars. These are two women both living with disabilities, one in a motorized chair and the other woman is hard of hearing, has a hearing impairment. The two of them and one other woman not on screen right now who was blind, they volunteered to evaluate software in development for the competition. The purpose of that is to help developers who have never worked before in accessible technology hear from client users how to improve and make the software better for when they do submit to the competition, they’ve got the best technology that is already client tested.

That is very important for AT, and particularly for a young man like this, Tyler, who has never done anything in this space before, he’s never worked with people with disabilities, he’s never developed solutions for people with disabilities, and we provided him with the on ramps so to speak to both have an environment where he can create and build with some incentive and reward, but also to work directly with people with disabilities to get their feedback and input on creating what he’s build here. It is part of a program we have done all over the country. So I’m going to click to the next slide now.

This is just the basics of what is Connect Ability. It is a global design competition launched in partnership with New York University based in New York City. I'm actually sitting in my office in Rockefeller Center right now. We launched it April 6 to some fanfare here in New York because it is the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Like so many big cities in every community in the country there is a vibrant and vocal community of people with disabilities who welcome the attention. It’s not just a ceremony but this is a project to create solutions now for people to use immediately. The competition concludes June 24th, that is next week. We are very anxious for submissions to start flow in. We will be evaluated be submissions from across the globe and on July 26, we will be awarding winners of a $100,000 pot of prices across different functional categories and I will get into that a little bit more in a second.

First I want to talk about two of the key values of Connect Ability that have driven this initiative from beginning to end. The first is encouraging developers to leverage everyday technology like smart phones, tablets, cameras, wireless networks and sensors. All the things you carry around in your smart phone every day. It's my belief we don't do a good enough job and when I see we is just as a community of developers and people, the smartphone users, they would do a good nut job of making the most of the power of what is in our pocket. These smart phones have been routinely referred to as having the ability to launch the space shuttle. And that is actually, technically true, that there is enough computing power in your iPhone or Samsung or whatever it is, your smartphone, to pull off a sophisticated function like that. Our challenge to the developer community as this is one of several design competitions that we have staged globally over the past three years. Our challenge to the developers is to apply this technology and power for the social and human good. How can all of us together, whether we are commuting on the transit systems, whether we’re walking out commuting on busy streets with cars and pedestrians and motorized chairs and cyclists, all together to be aware of each other and safe. The challenge of the 25th anniversary of the ADA is how can we apply this technology to help people achieve independence and self expression? And of course this is not a new concept but what is new is trying to do it in a way to be completely collaborative with people with disabilities and that speaks to the second core value of this initiative.

From the very beginning we have had a small community of volunteers recruited by New York University that we partnered with to design the competition from beginning to end. We call them our exemplars. The reason we call them exemplars is they exemplify the commitment and excellence and passion of all their respective communities. We have Gus Chalkias who was blind. We have Shawn Horn, she lives with cerebral palsy. We have Jason DiSilva he has MS and Paul Cautler who can't speak with his voice and has autism. He volunteers with his mother Melinda.

What we asked them to do which I think was very brave and amazing, we asked them to sit in front of the camera and tell their story about life with their disability and how they manage every day and how they use technology to solve some everyday problems, and their vision for the future of how technology can be enhanced and improved to make their lives better. I encourage all of you who are listening to visit the Connect Ability website. The URL will be on screen in a minute but if you Google the words AT&T Connect Ability it will be the first result on the list.

And what you’ll see if you scroll down, are these four videos of our exemplars telling their story, and they’re powerful and potent stories. What they are designed to do is provide an on ramp for developers who have never worked with accessible technology to think about it from the perspective of the client, the users.  And the videos have been extremely extraordinarily powerful and successful in achieving that by getting people and developers in communities all across the country, I’ll tell you about where I’ve gone in just a minute to reconsider their class projects to ask their supervisor for some time to work on this initiative because they’ve never before worked in this space before.

So we’ve inspired and motivated them with these videos to get involved, and then we’ve follow these up with in person virtual activities for them to collaborate directly with people with disabilities to imagine and create and test new solutions and that was the previous slide that I described was a scene in Berkeley, California just on Monday. We held what we call a collaboration session which is the second in a third of series of four we did in the past week. On Friday I was in the Raleigh Durham research triangle and we had a hackathon and hosted several collaboration sessions and then to Denver and then to Berkeley on Monday and did it again.

I arrived this morning from Dallas where we had a successful event with local developers but also one Skyping in from all over the world to hear directly from people with disabilities about the solutions they are creating and how to make them better. That collaboration is the cornerstone of what has made this whole initiative so potent, emotional and impactful is that the input of the client user has happened from the very beginning and it is their input that is leading to these amazing solutions that cross pollinate ideas from different sectors and have people who have never before worked in accessible technology bringing their talents to a new field with the support of the user from the very beginning. We are really proud of being able to facilitate that collaboration and we are very hopeful about the promising solutions it will lead to.

Ultimately what we are looking for are everyday solutions that leverage smartphones tablets  wireless all the things I described. The reason for that also comes from our exemplars. What they express to us is some frustration about AT and the cost. AT&T doesn't have a position on this as a company necessarily, this is an initiative designed by the community people but we learned along the way is there is frustration. People want to use tablets like everyone else and they want the tablets to have the tools they need to express themselves to achieve independence and help the remember things during the day and things that are universally applicable to all of our lives and they want them to live on phones like everybody else has. Tablets, smart phones, wearable devices, Fitbits, smartwatches all of these platforms need to be leveraged to serve people with disabilities instead of relegating to people with disabilities to use tools designed just for them it basically segregates them from the whole. It is been interested lesson I have taken in, city by city, person by person, every family it’s a consistent thread. What has been amazing is how folks have adapted technologies that weren’t necessarily designed for them in mind and basically tap their way to use those solutions to solve problems in their lives. And there are so many examples of this.

The other point of the competition is we need to accelerate development. We can't wait years and years for these solutions to make their way to R&D or the FDA on how to do Medicare reimbursement. People deserve solutions now, right now, and that is what we will have on July 26th. When we announce our winners we will have a gallery, of I can’t speculate how many solutions, but we’ll have a whole gallery of all of these different software tools, whether they are android or iOS that may involve a wearable or not that are available now and that is our intent is to bring to market help these individuals with startups and entrepreneurs bring this solutions to market and make them available now because we know the whole world of mobility and mobile devices is transforming every corner of our society and our communities. We know it's going to take time. If you are living with a disability you deserve a solution now so that is what our intent is. The developers are submitting on July 24th it’s not just solutions but also a video that demonstrates what it is and how it works. So I think in follow up with people we will make sure you have a link for that gallery. It is very exciting to see this in action and see the energy and effort that is gone in from all over the world. That's what I'd like to talk about next and give you some updates on our Connect Ability progress.

This is actually dated now, I did this slide yesterday.  But what it says is 297 registrants from 23 U.S. states and 28 countries. Today this afternoon we surpassed 300 we had developers yesterday in Dallas, one from Kenya, one from the UK, two from India, there’s a lot of activity in India. I've been on Skype with folks from Austria, we had a group from Sri Lanka, Malaysia, New Zealand, I could go on and on and tell you the countries because it is a diverse array and this is a universal need and I believe also a universal conclusion, people are saying Aha we’ve made this investment in tablets and smartphones, our wireless carriers like AT&T have made this investment in their networks, how can we leverage this enormous investment to benefit people with disabilities. That is what this competition is designed to do. Accelerate and concentrate and focus that effort so that we get products on the market.

We do these events called team formation workshops designed for both people who have experience in accessible technology and people who’ve never worked in it before to learn about the competition and know what it takes to win. We did one in Wisconsin, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University. I told you we were in the research triangle and a partnership with a faculty member at Duke University. Denver, Colorado, folks from Stanford.  Also MIT folks. Dallas, Texas and many others. All of these are designed to get developers in the competition on track and what resources they have and know they can contact us if they don't have in their lives in their communities people with disabilities to give feedback on the solution they’re creating. ATT provides that via Skype or in person.

We have had dozens of these Skype sessions with people all over the world and it is just so exciting to have an AT&T employee with a disability, we have an employee resource group called ideal in every city and state that you can imagine. Our employees who volunteer to do activities, it is so exciting for them to sit in front of the camera and hear a presentation from a developer from say Germany about a technology they are developing for them and they have exemplars participating from other cities as well, a very alive conversation that we've had the privilege to participate in many times.

We are coming to the end of that sadly. It has been an amazing journey for me personally but I what I know is I have seen amazing technology in action. Things that are not available on the market now that will be as a result of this competition. Technologies that leverage, particularly gaming. It seems to be a lot of area of transferability with a lot of hands-free, gesture based facial recognition and control of the screen. Wearable, people who have Fitbits and haptic devices to provide impulse control, substituting the brain of mechanical devices motorized chairs and smart phones. All these things are in the trough right now and our team is working really hard with the developers to ensure they will be ready for the deadline.

The next slide is a picture of one of these collaboration sessions. I’ll describe what’s onscreen. This was the American Underground in Durham, North Carolina. It is kind of a hackathon community space where they so graciously invited us to host this event in here. On a television screen across the table is Gus Chalkias and Shawn Horn, two of our New York City exemplars featured in our videos. Around the table are a bunch of North Carolina developers who created a technology, I don't know what it is and forgive me for that but basically they presented to Gus and to Shawn and Shawn gave them feedback and in the room as well are AT&T production staff who facilitated the conversation to make sure it is focused and on track. What this photo demonstrates is this collaboration in progress. This is what it looks like. You have developers who never worked in AT before, hearing from client users who are giving them feedback and criticism some of it positive some of it negative. Basically telling them how to improve or go back to the drawing board, and what to do more of and this is what it looks like. It is a very dynamic and exciting process.

That's basically the competition in a nutshell. I have up on the screen right now the hash tag #Connect Ability so if you are tweeting if you will so kindly use the hashtag #ConnectAbility so our partner organizations and friends can see what is going on and they can retweet. As well as the website like I said if you just Google the words Connect Ability AT&T it will be the first result in the google results. What is included are the technical briefs, the price categories, descriptions of how to build for instance and audio accessible and an audio described YouTube video when you submit your challenge as well as the videos which themselves are all audio described and titled.

All of this is the central hub for activity there is very active conversation threads going on among challengers and developers and AT&T, the challenge post that hosts the site as well as our faculty partners at NYU. We have built a virtual community that spans the globe and focused on this mission which is to create technology that leverages every day resources in our pocket like wireless connectivity and smartphones and tablets to benefit people with disabilities today to help them achieve independence and self expression and honor the 25th anniversary of the ADA. It’s an amazing accomplishment for America and we are just so proud as a company to be part of this community. That is the gist of the presentation. Any questions, I’d love to hear from you.


>> Thank you, Neil. Were going to open things up for questions. If you have a question please enter it in the chat window or again you can tweet #PEATworks or send an email to Neil, I'm going to start with one of my own. What is AT&T's motivation for hosting an effort like this?

>> You got right to the heart of the matter. That's a great question. Why would AT&T do this? This is, Connect Ability is an example and a broad array of AT&T programs designed to ensure what we call digital inclusion. That is making sure everybody has access to mobile technology no matter where they come from or their background and their capabilities, either physically or cognitively or their communication ability. We need to make sure mobile technologies are transforming our communities, economy and workplaces so that everybody has that equal access. We need to adapt the environment to our clients and consumers and not necessarily the other way around. This is not just enlightened self-interest. This is not just about building more market share.  We have a lot of customers and a lot of smart phones in the United States. AT&T as a company is the largest private sector investor in infrastructure of any single company in the United States.

Energy as a category is bigger but among technology and telecommunications, AT&T is the leader and has been for many years. So we have a big stake in this. This is also personal for us. We are company with 254,000 employees nationwide. Our employees are in every community. We have many tens of thousands of employees with disabilities or are caregivers and family members to people with disabilities. This is personal for us. We see it in our workplace and we are committed to ensuring everybody has equal access regardless of your ability. That is the inspiration. It is digital inclusion in this critical moment in our culture and our society and economy that is, mobility is upending so much of our lives and transforming and optimizing the way we function every day. That nobody is left behind, that everyone is included, is the motivation.

>> Great, thank you. Where the question come in, how do people with disabilities get involved in the challenge?

>> That's a great question. So seeing as we are a week away from the submission deadline, unfortunately our collaboration sessions are done at the moment. I think the way to get involved right now is to follow us on social media and promote this to your friends and partners and participate in public voting. We will have a segment of the voting. We will announce this and will be sure to make sure that PEAT is completely aware and tuned into the public voting process. Give us your opinion of the solutions you like and the ones you want to see win. The public voting will take place I believe July 17th I believe, I may be making that up but that is what I believe. But this will be promoted to PEAT and I know we can count on you to help us get the dates right. This is a process we can go online and evaluate all the solutions in the gallery and give us your $0.02 about which ones you like and don't like. It is particularly important we are hearing from people with disabilities because those are the kinds of users we need to reach and their opinions can really count most to us.

>> Thanks for that information. One of our questions is: How is AT&T educating developers about accessibility so they can successfully create solutions?

>> That's just such a great question. This is a reflection of my experience traveling and meeting some of these developers and leaders in the disability communities across the country. So it is a reflection and observation and not a position, just wanted to make that clear. I've learned a lot and my company is learned a lot so we are just taking this all in. But to your point, what have we done to educate? It is a two-way dialogue. We have developer communities, the United States is home to so much vast technological talent in information technology and computing. So many of these folks don’t even know it exists as a sector as a segment of our economy.

 On reflecting on that it's a little bit strange because it is such an enormous group of users. 20 million is that the number, I've heard a few times at Berkley, 20 million in the United States. From a market perspective that is enormous. What we have been doing particularly with our volunteers and exemplars helping us spread this message and motivating people, we've educated a lot of folks who have never before thought about AT as a pathway for their talent. One of the learnings I've had that’s been so amazing is how transferable and applicable are the skills of the gamer, somebody who designs for gaming.

Which in the United States it is an enormous market by revenue end-users. It is hugely capitalized. The Centers for Excellence in Utah, Rochester, New York University, MIT and several other places that are also home to occupational therapy or some sort of disability focus in their academic community. These people aren't talking to each other and that is astounding for us. What we have done is bridge some gaps unintentionally, purely out of a desire to recruit developers and source solutions. We made some connections that hadn’t existed, one of the big learnings is how can we tap gamers, that’s a conversation we are having with one of our key disability partners called RESNA, some of you may know of them, the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America. We have downloaded a lot of this learning for them so they can develop programs and outreach and one of them is around gamers.

I’d say the second, that is my reflection on how we are educating the non AT community but in terms of the accessible tech community, there is also a gap there and their understanding about the computing and design that exists outside of their realm but for commercial purpose it could be for entertainment. It could be gaming or any of the other, but there are some bridges to be built among these communities they shouldn’t be disparate because truthfully everybody in their world and their home has somebody with the disability.

I was at the Center for Accessible Technology in Berkeley, where Dmitri Belsar the Executive Director, just an outstanding individual who hosted our event for us on Monday. He said the disability community is the only minority community that you can join if you’re not a part of it. I just thought that was amazing because he’s right and that speaks to why there needs to be collaboration among different sectors of our community, communities and also disability communities because there’s a common thread and as that’s our human experience and our families and communities and people with disabilities, all part of our lives and that is very exciting. It is a two-way street educating developers both in AT and outside of AT. Probably one of the more rewarding aspects of this initiative.

>> All right, we have time for just one more question. I do want to mention that PEAT is managed by RESNA so there are a lot of connections there. One more question we have for you: Once this challenge is complete and the winners are chosen how are these solutions going to be brought to the community?

>> We’ll that's a really important aspect of this. Once we get to the end of the competition we are not just going to say we are done. We are developing currently an array of initiatives to help our developers make introductions and meet venture capitalists, meet community organizations and thought leaders. This is something I have done before, I have run these competitions for AT&T for the past three years.

I would say a comparable example, is we did a traffic safety initiative. How do we use smart phones and wireless connectivity to help pedestrians and cyclists and drivers to be aware of each other and be safe on city streets. It was very successful and is called Connected Intersections. The winners, I'm still working with them today facilitating introductions to the New York City Department of Transportation, the Taxi and Limousine Commission to potential bases where they can trial and demonstrate their solutions in a live environment which is a critical next step. Once you have created a prototype and a beta version of your software now you need to get it out in field use it and test it ruin it fix it and that is how you're going to attract the venture capital.

What we are trying to do is to facilitate those introductions and meetings. We are continually funding some of these continued research and development of our winners to help them get in the market. It is an iterative process and takes a lot of time particularly when we’re coming up against government which just operates at a much slower pace and rightly so than the private sector so we are helping them shepherd them through that process and leveraging AT&T’s vast network of contacts and government and nonprofits and academia to bring to bear the talent they need to get their solutions to market.

What we are also doing in the meantime is we’re shining an enormous press spotlight. $100,000 is a lot of money, a ton of money, but from the perspective of the start up, it is really not that much. You really need seven figures to get a company going. What AT&T can do is give a little bit of acknowledgement and seed money just to keep working, and bring our vast communications and media operation to shine a spotlight on their solution and that’s what we did with our traffic safety as well as our transit winners. We work with the transit authority in NYC, the FTA on similar design competitions that have resulted very successful transit apps that went on to get acquired by major companies.

We hope to continue to provide that support to our winners to help bring solutions to market. AT&T has no VIP stake with any of these companies. We don’t claim it, it is entirely their own, this is a mission to bring inclusion into the marketplace across all different segments of the population and that is our interest in doing this. And look, we like the press attention, it’s great and helps us tell a story about our  company We have an amazing legacy when it comes to accessibility. We are proud to tell that story. But fundamentally this is about helping people connect to our network and have the tools we all share and have that in common among us all that everyone is included in the digital revolution and nobody’s left behind. To do that requires a lot of grunt work and years of effort and leveraging every resource and pulling every string we can to help our winners make successful companies and solutions that can help everybody.


>> Unfortunately, that's all the time we have today. I'm sorry if we weren't able to get your question but you can tweet to AT&T using the hashtag #ConnectAbility and they’ll try to get back to you. Thanks again everyone for joining today's first PEAT Talk. Be sure to join us for next month’s PEAT Talk on Thursday July 16 featuring Dennis Lembree. Dennis is going to be speaking about Easy Chirp, a twitter web application that provides the ability to tweet accessible images. You can find the registration link today on twitter at #PEATworks or look for an email from PEAT in the near future in the coming weeks. Thank you to Neil to speaking to us today and also helping us kick off the series. Enjoy the rest of your afternoon.