Alt text turned out to be the unexpected star of NASA Webb images


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Ever since NASA released the stunning images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope, people have been oohing and aahing. They admired the breathtaking beauty of these photographs and the important lessons about the universe that can be found in these crisp cosmic details.

But not only photographs struck people.

Many were also amazed by the thoughtful descriptions that accompanied them.

“If someone tells you alt text is not important, show them the @NASA alt text for #WebbSpaceTelescope images.” – Kate Meyers Emery tweeted. “They are able to put the wonders and beauty of these places into words, making these breathtaking views accessible.”

“This is not just an amazing image from @NASA, this is a brilliant example of how to use alt text,” the Royal National Institute of the Blind tweeted. “Do you agree?”

“It’s clear that NASA’s digital team paid a lot of attention to how they described the Webb images, and their descriptions seem like a love letter to space exploration and the infinite wonders of the universe,” Alexa Heinrich of Accessible Social. , they wrote in the e-newsletter. “Accessibility expands the world for everyone, making even distant stars accessible. It’s really wonderful.”

The alt text feature on social media platforms allows a person to describe an image in words so that a blind or visually impaired person can use screen reader technology to find out what is being shown. In other words, it makes the image accessible to everyone. And in the case of the recent photos shared by NASA, it made it clear to everyone that they were looking at celestial scenes teeming with colors and shapes.

NASA releases first images from James Webb Space Telescope

NASA, of course, should have included these descriptions in their photographs. That this happened was not surprising. What was unexpected was how poetically vivid and scientifically accurate these descriptions turned out to be.

“The image is divided horizontally by a wavy line between a cloudy landscape that forms a nebula along the bottom and a relatively clear top,” says one of them. “On both sides, a star field is dotted, on which countless stars of various sizes are visible. The smallest of them are small, distant and faint points of light. The largest ones appear larger, closer, brighter and have fuller resolution with 8-point diffraction bursts. The upper part of the image is bluish and has thin, translucent streaks that look like clouds rising from the nebula below.”

This description can be understood even by the blind or somebody who wants to know more about astronomy or anyone who appreciates the care that goes into choosing just the right word.

If you don’t need alt text to interpret an image, this feature is easy to bypass. But the conversations that NASA’s photos have sparked are important because they show how little it takes to get more people into the experience.

They are deaf and blind, and social distancing has made it impossible for them to touch.

The team behind these descriptions is based at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and they are closely monitoring the response.

“It was very rewarding to see how deeply this affected people,” said Tim Rew II, chief non-formal education specialist at the Space Telescope Science Institute. “It’s something deeply personal to so many people. In addition, we do this because we want to make astronomy accessible to everyone. Astronomy and dinosaurs are the gateway to science for many people.”

According to Ryu, the team, which included writers, designers, scientists and educators, worked together to put together a package of images that the public saw, and the alt text was not overdue. He said the team had a relatively short period of time to prepare these descriptions. He only saw the photos a week before the public saw them. But for the previous two years, they had discussed accessibility and worked with a consulting agency to create an alt text stylebook. During this process, they practiced writing descriptions and learned what didn’t work.

“I thought brevity was a very important thing. This is a common misconception,” Ryu said. He pointed to the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” and said recent images require more words than this to fully convey them. “There were over 1,000 words written about each of these photos, and we could go on.”

Extended image descriptions and alt text can be found by clicking the gallery on the Webb Space Telescope website. One alternate text begins: “Two views of the same object, the South Rim Nebula, are shown side by side. Both have a black background with tiny bright stars and distant galaxies. On both, the planetary nebula is depicted as a shapeless oval, slightly tilted from top left to bottom right.

Ryu said the team received messages from the public via email, social media and the website, and that personal stories were the most important to him.

“As a blind person who has dreamed of doing astronomy since the age of 6…thank you to everyone who not only remembered to write alt text for this—but did it in such a beautiful way.”—Software developer and accessibility activist Katie Durden. wrote on Twitter. “I will probably never know who you are. But today you touched my heart, alt text writer.”

After Kelly Lepoe tweeted that she was a member of a “small team” at the Space Telescope Science Institute that created the alternate text, Durden shared the tweet and wrote that he had dreamed of seeing stars since childhood.

“You brought me closer than ever to that dream with your alt text,” Durden wrote. “I don’t have the words to say thank you.”

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