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Working with NASA

The main panel of this graphic is an artist's illustration of a close-up view of a quasar and its jet, which resembles a beam of multicolored light shooting from a spiraling red ring. The distant ring is shown at our lower left, and the beam shoots toward us, crossing the image diagonally before exiting at our upper right. The red ring features a tangle of fine red lines encircling a black disk. This is the quasar; a rapidly growing black hole. The black disk at the quasar's center is the event-horizon, and the fine red lines represent the material swirling around it. Emerging from above this distant quasar is the multicolored beam, or jet. This jet is made up of energetic particles redirected away from the quasar. In the artist's illustration, the high-speed jet is brilliant white at its core, with streaks of violet and electric blue. A distinct orange and red cloud lines the motion-blurred jet.

Shortly after my friend Christine Malec and I launched the Talk Description to Me podcast we got an interesting call.

Dr Kim Arcand, Visualization Scientist and Emerging Tech Lead with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory had heard the podcast, and she wondered if we might help draft descriptions of the deep space images that Chandra released to the public.

We started testing right away, writing standard Visual Descriptions like I would for a museum or gallery. But they kind of fell flat. Luckily, because we had a description user on our team, we quickly discovered why those descriptions weren’t working.

If we were on a gallery tour and I said: “Before us is a painting of five dogs, sitting around a table playing poker,” you’d probably paint a pretty decent mental picture, because we all know what dogs are, what a table looks like, and what poker is. We share a basic frame of reference.

But when we wrote: “Here we have an image of a quasar with an X-ray jet,” the description fell flat. Because very few people know what those things are, let alone what they look like.

So we developed an approach that combines scientific explanation and visual description: Science Integrated Description. Our description of the quasar and its jet now includes visual details about the multicoloured beam shooting from a spiralling red ring, but it also explains that the beam-like jet is made up of energetic particles redirected away from the spiralling quasar, an active supermassive black hole at the centre of a distant galaxy.

This was a new kind of description offering! So NASA asked us to do training sessions for some of their other telescopes and observatory teams. Science Integrated Description is now being adopted by other Space Agencies and telescopes around the world. Telescopes like James Webb are releasing their images with Science Integrated Description as the ALT text. 

And the reach has been extraordinary! When the Webb team released their first image in July 2022, it was shared on Twitter by Webb, NASA and President Biden, and their Science Integrated Description was in the ALT text. The description caused such a stir that NPR and the Washington Post even wrote articles about the ALT text!

NASA then released that image to the public without any copyright attached, and they included the Science Integrated Description in the metadata. That image was published by countless organizations all around the globe, and was liked and retweeted hundreds of thousands of times — all with the Science Integrated Description firmly attached. It was undoubtedly the most shared ALT text ever written.

That kind of excitement and innovation doesn’t happen when we treat accessibility like a chore. It only occurs when diverse teams are given broader, loftier goals. When teams that include community members are encouraged to be creative, and are tasked with using their knowledge and skills to create dynamic, accessible offerings that will truly engage all audiences.