Alt text proved to be an unexpected star of NASA web images


In the days after NASA publicly shared the stunning images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, people were rocking and cheering. They were amazed at the astonishing beauty of those images and the important lessons about the universe that might be contained in those obvious cosmic details.

But it’s not just the pictures that fascinate people.

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

“If anyone tells you that the alt text is not important, show them @NASA the alt text for the #WebbSpaceTelescope images,” Kate Myers Emery chirp. “They are able to convey the wonders and beauty of these in words, making these breathtaking views so accessible.”

The Royal National Institute of the Blind tweeted: “This isn’t just an amazing image from @NASA, it’s a great example of how alt text can be used.” “do you agree?”

“The NASA Digital Team has obviously put a lot of thought and care into how they describe the Webb telescope images, and their descriptions feel like a love letter to space exploration and the infinite wonders of the universe,” Alexa Heinrich, of Accessible Social, said in an email newsletter. “Accessibility expands the world for everyone, making it possible to reach the distant stars. It is a really beautiful thing.”

The alt text feature on social media platforms allows a person to describe through words an image so that a person who is blind or visually impaired can use screen reader technology to see what is being displayed. In other words, it makes the image accessible to everyone. And in the case of the recent images shared by NASA, they let everyone know they were looking at celestial scenes full of color and shapes.

NASA unveils first images from the James Webb Space Telescope

NASA, of course, should have included these descriptions with their photographs. That was not surprising. What turned out to be unexpected was how these stunningly poetic and scientifically accurate descriptions ended up.

“The image is divided horizontally by a wavy line between a nebula-forming cloudscape along the lower part and a relatively clear upper part,” one reads. Scattered across both parts is a star field, showing countless stars of many sizes. The smallest of these are the small, far and dimmer points of light. The largest appear larger, closer, brighter and are completely resolved with 8-point diffraction spikes. The top of the image is bluish, It has fragile, semi-transparent cloud-like streaks rising from the nebula below.”

This description can be appreciated by a blind person or someone World Health Organization Wants to learn more about astronomy or Anyone appreciates the care that is taken in 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 encouraged by the NASA images are important, because they show how little it will take to get more people into the experience.

They are deaf and blind, and social distancing has now taken over their ability to touch

The team that produced these descriptions works for the Space Telescope Science Institute out of Baltimore, and they took care of the response.

“It was really encouraging to see how much this has impacted people,” said Tim Roh II, principal non-formal education specialist at the Space Telescope Science Institute. “It is a very personal thing for a lot of people. On top of that, we do it because we want to make astronomy accessible to everyone. Astronomy and dinosaurs are portals to science for a lot of people.”

Roe said a team including writers, designers, scientists and educators worked together to compile the set of images the audience viewed, and alt text wasn’t an afterthought. He said the team had a relatively short amount of time to produce those descriptions. He only saw the photos a week before they were seen in the public. But they have spent the past two years discussing accessibility and working with a consulting agency to create an alternative style book. During the process, they practice writing descriptions and learn what didn’t work.

“I thought brevity was really important. This is a common misconception,” said Rowe, referring to the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” and said the last pictures require more words than that to capture fully. “There were over 1,000 words written about each From these photos, we can go on.”

Extended descriptions and alt text for images can be found by clicking on the gallery on the Webb Space Telescope website. One alternative text begins: “Two views of the same object, the Southern Ring Nebula, are viewed side by side. Both feature black backgrounds speckled with small, bright stars and distant galaxies. Both show the planetary nebula as a distorted ellipse tilted slightly from top left to bottom right.”

Roe said the team heard from the public via email, social media and the website, and that for him the personal stories were the strongest.

“As a blind person who has dreamed of doing astronomy since I was 6… Thank you to everyone who not only remembered writing alt script for this – but did so in a very beautiful way,” developer and accessibility activist Katie Durden Wrote on Twitter. “I will probably never know who you are. But you touched my heart today, alt-script writer.”

After Kelly Lipow tweeted that she was a member of the “small team” at the Space Telescope Science Institute that created the alt script, Durden shared that tweet and wrote about her childhood dream of being able to see stars.

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

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: