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Technology

From sound to sight

New sound recognition technologies can help the deaf

As Ashraf Hossain drives his blue SUV through the pedestrian-filled streets of New York City, he checks his rearview mirror every few seconds, scanning his surroundings. He tries to keep his eyes on the road, but he has to keep looking back: If he doesn’t, he might miss the sound of an approaching siren. Hossain, born deaf, has to rely on his eyesight to know when to pull over. 

When Hossain’s parents realized their young son was deaf, they moved to New York from Bangladesh for better deaf education. Today, with hearing aids, Hossain can hear some noises—though the noises are garbled. He can only distinguish what direction they come from, not what they are. Until recently, he relied on his eyes to interpret the distorted noises.

Now, when an emergency vehicle siren goes off, a notification pops up on Hossain’s phone, alerting him to the noise and identifying it. Hossain’s iPhone does this through a new sound recognition feature in the iOS 14 operating system. It’s an example of how new technologies can assist the deaf and hard of hearing.

Hossain is beta testing iOS 14, which Apple plans to release to the public this fall. The sound recognition feature (users can enable or disable it) continuously listens for certain sounds and notifies users with a pop-up alert when those sounds may be nearby. Hossain gets alerts for 14 sounds, including that of doorbells, smoke alarms, crying babies, barking dogs, and meowing cats. Already, the technology has helped him multiple times when he couldn’t tell he’d left a faucet running in his apartment.

“Before this kind of technology, I felt like I was missing a lot,” Hossain told me by American Sign Language in a phone interview facilitated by an interpreter. Hossain said the technology is showing him an array of background noises he never realized were there. 

Hearing basic noises such as doorbells or alarms is taken for granted by most people. For the deaf community, those sounds are generally inaccessible, noted Howard Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf. He said sound recognition technologies are pivotal to promoting autonomy for those with hearing challenges—around 5 percent of the world’s population, according to the World Health Organization.

Typically, deaf and hard of hearing people must purchase specialized doorbells or alarms for daily life. These expensive devices alert users with flashing lights or vibrations. 

However, that can change with technologies like Apple’s. And other companies offer similar features: Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant offers a home security system that sends a notification to the user’s phone when it detects smoke alarms, carbon monoxide alarms, or glass breaking. Google’s Pixel smartphone monitors for sounds and motion to identify if the user is in a car crash.

While Hossain said the new iPhone feature isn’t 100 percent accurate (it occasionally gives him apparent false positive alerts), he already depends on it heavily. The portable nature of the iPhone allows him to take a normally expensive technology on the go—including through the streets of New York.

—Liz Rieth is a World Journalism Institute graduate

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Technology

Easy streaming

Livestreaming a worship service is so simple even churches without tech teams can do it

For Jennifer Constant, a small favor for her family grew into a big blessing for her church amid a pandemic.

Constant, a 44-year-old mother of three and a member of Lake Hills Baptist Church in Schererville, Ind., said her church’s livestreaming ministry began by accident: She started streaming Sunday morning services a few years ago so her parents, who live in Tennessee, could see their grandchildren singing and playing instruments on the church worship team. “They liked it because they felt like they were worshipping with us,” Constant said. 

The livestream, which she recorded using her smartphone, became a habit. Later a pastor asked if she could begin regularly livestreaming for the church’s Facebook account, which she did. 

So last week, when the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Indiana prompted Gov. Eric Holcomb to call for the cancellation of large-group gatherings, Lake Hills church leaders soon settled on an alternative plan: Cancel their Sunday morning corporate gathering and livestream the worship service instead.

And they used Constant’s phone to do it. Perched on a tripod, the Samsung smartphone recorded the student pastor’s sermon and the worship band as it played and sang inside a mostly empty sanctuary.

With the spread of the coronavirus in the United States and subsequent restrictions on public gatherings, many congregations across the country last weekend gathered online instead of in buildings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended Americans not gather in groups of 50 or more for eight weeks, and some states have implemented even more stringent restrictions.

It creates a dilemma for churches: Congregations have a Biblical mandate to meet together regularly, but generally also wish to follow the law and love their neighbors by avoiding spreading deadly germs.

Livestreaming weekly preaching and worship is one obvious solution in the internet age. For example, Downtown Cornerstone Church, a congregation of about 650 in Seattle, began live-streaming its Sunday morning service to its website two weeks ago. Executive Pastor David Parker said a few hundred people viewed the stream last Sunday.

“We don’t believe a livestream replaces the gathered church (i.e. we don’t believe in a virtual ‘local church’),” Parker said in an email. “But we did publicly open up a broadcast [of] a livestream of our gathering as a way to help feed and keep our people anchored in the gospel in this season.” Many churches, especially larger ones, were already broadcasting services online long before the coronavirus became headline news.

But livestreaming raises a question for smaller churches. What if they’ve never livestreamed, and don’t know where to start?

Thankfully, it’s relatively easy to begin livestreaming your church service—and in some cases it can be free.

For starters, all you need is a smartphone and a Facebook account. Any congregant with a Facebook account and the Facebook app on his phone can record the service using the app’s “Live” button. 

To make it an official church livestream, your church should have its own Facebook account. (See here for instructions on setting one up.) As long as whoever is recording the livestream has editor privileges for the church’s account, he can post the livestream directly to the church’s Facebook page. 

You can hold your phone while recording, but you’ll get the best results by using a tripod. Be sure your phone’s battery is fully charged before you begin, and use a reliable wireless connection. If your church WiFi is spotty or nonexistent, using your phone’s data plan may be the best option.

Other tips: Test the angle and lighting of your video before going live. A few simple adjustments—elevating the camera, moving it closer or farther from the stage, dimming sanctuary lights—may improve the video quality for home viewers. Pastors and band members should avoid wearing colors that blend into the background of the stage.

If you position a large monitor within the camera’s field of view, you can display lyrics or sermon notes for the benefit of livestream viewers. (You might need a long cable to connect the computer running the slides.) A large, bold font will be easiest for home viewers to read.

According to Christian Copyright Licensing International, if you’ll be streaming live performances of copyrighted songs during your worship service, you’ll also need to purchase a streaming license. For congregations of up to 499 attendees, the regular cost for the CCLI license ranges from $63 to $93. (You don’t need the streaming license if your worship service will only use older hymns that are in the public domain.)

Lake Hills Baptist is a mid-size church of about 250 or so weekend attendees. (Disclosure: I’m a member.) During last Sunday’s livestream, Constant said the number of live viewers ranged as high as 98. Because many households have two or more people who may have been watching together, the church estimates at least 200 people were watching live.

Constant used her smartphone to record the stream while a church staff member watched the Facebook feed on a laptop and moderated comments in real time, replying to questions or “liking” comments from church members.

The church ran into a couple of glitches: The internet connection seemed to slow for several seconds, and the phone camera went out of focus a few times. Constant hopes to fix the refocusing issue this Sunday by moving the tripod further back from the stage. 

Churches can upgrade their livestream setup by buying a dedicated camera and purchasing or subscribing to livestreaming software. That would allow a church to stream video using its own website and use audio directly from the church’s sound board. Doing so requires technical know-how, but plenty of online resources can point you in the right direction.

If all this seems too complicated, congregations have at least one other option: Join in watching the livestream of another likeminded church.

All in all, Constant said her past experience of livestreaming at her church helped everything run smoothly last week when leaders had to cancel public services at late notice: “God was preparing us then for what we’re doing now.”

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Professor Gregory Rummo with a conch shell that he found 10 miles from the coast. (Handout)

Technology

The fake news police

Who fact-checks Facebook’s fact-checkers?

The debate about bias at Facebook and other media intensified last month as investigators headed by former GOP Sen. Jon Kyl presented an “interim report.” Kyl’s Covington & Burling law firm interviewed 133 conservatives and heard concerns that Facebook’s third-party fact-checkers “skewed to the ideological Left.”

The report, though, did not present any case studies to support those concerns, so WORLD examined one specific bias claim in an attempt to see how Facebook’s fact-checkers work. Before we get to our analysis, though, it’s important to understand the power Facebook has.

The basics: Many people get their news from social media instead of news websites. Facebook, given charges of “fake news,” relies on five outside fact-checking groups: PolitiFact, the Associated Press, FactCheck.org, Science Feedback, and Check Your Fact. Conservatives often criticize the first four. The fifth is a subsidiary of the right-leaning Daily Caller. The International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), part of the journalism think tank Poynter Institute, certifies the fact-checking organizations.

Individual fact-checkers at those organizations then rate posts social media users have flagged or that the fact-checkers themselves question. Facebook demotes in its news feed posts that contain (according to fact-checkers) false claims or false headlines. That means fewer views, likes, and comments for the publisher. Demotions can turn into lost opportunities to advertise or monetize through Facebook, warnings on Facebook pages, and loss of designation as a news page.  

Facebook, in short, forces news outlets to choose: remove the post or face heavy consequences.

OUR CASE STUDY begins in July when chemistry professor Gregory Rummo learned via Twitter that Townhall.com, a conservative news site, had retracted his recently published column, “Apocalyptic Sea-Level Rise—Just a Thing of the Past?” 

Rummo was surprised. A week earlier a Townhall.com editor had emailed him to say a Facebook fact-checker had flagged his column as “false news.” Rummo sent the editor information to validate the article and assumed that would resolve the issue. But it didn’t.

Facebook ordered Townhall.com to remove Rummo’s article because of the “false news” flag. 

If Townhall.com refused, it could face the penalties Facebook levies against “false news” publishers: demoted posts. No designation as a news page. No ability to make money through ads.

Rummo writes for the Cornwall Alliance, a group of Christian scholars and scientists known for their stance against “climate change alarmism.” The organization has about 200 articles published in various outlets per year, says Cornwall Alliance founder Calvin Beisner, but this is the first article to be retracted.

Townhall.com never told Rummo why it purged his article—not just from Facebook, but also from Townhall.com. Townhall.com editor Leah Barkoukis did say in an email to Beisner that Facebook “would not accept anything but a retraction,” even after Rummo and Beisner sent research to back up Rummo’s claims.

Who decided Rummo’s column was false news? Climate Feedback, a division of Science Feedback, fact-checked Rummo’s article and posted the analysis to its website. According to the fact-checker’s website, “The Science Feedback editor provides feedback to the journalists and/or editors of the outlet of the original article reviewed.”

But Rummo never heard from Climate Feedback—other than a tweet boasting the article’s retraction with what Rummo called “lethal triumphalism.” It tagged Rummo and Palm Beach Atlantic University, where Rummo teaches.

Townhall.com replaced Rummo’s article with a note saying the column “incorrectly cited a graph.” But Rummo accurately referenced a graph that “shows two previous periods when temperatures were warmer than they are now,” namely the Roman Warm Period and the Medieval Warm Period. Rummo says his article, which focused on sea level rise, “wasn’t really breaking any new ground” by including the graph.

If climate scientists disagree with the cited study’s findings, they should take issue with the study itself, Rummo says. Climate Feedback’s report calls Rummo’s citation of the graph “factually inaccurate” with “flawed reasoning” even though Rummo accurately stated what the graph showed. “It wasn’t really a fact that was incorrectly reported,” he said. “It was the fact that [Climate Feedback reviewers] don’t like.”

Climate Feedback subscribes to the IFCN code of principles, which requires a commitment to nonpartisanship, fairness, and an “open & honest corrections policy,” among other qualifications. Rummo and Beisner don’t consider the retraction nonpartisan or fair. The IFCN says it expects “fact-checkers to be more committed to correcting the record than anyone else” and requires its members to have “robust corrections policies.”

Is it possible to appeal the decision? Technically, yes. Townhall.com would need to appeal to the fact-checkers that found issue with Rummo’s article. But the website hasn’t appealed. I asked Townhall.com editors about the decision, but they did not respond to my phone calls or emails. They seem to be following the adage “Don’t poke the bear.”

Rummo also decided against appealing because he didn’t want to “stir up the hornet’s nest.” Whether or not fact-checkers agree with Rummo’s claims, Facebook’s ability to silence one side of an argument is alarming. And Rummo wasn’t even debating the amount or cause of global warming now: He was referring to a scholarly report on temperatures two millennia ago.

WHAT’S NEXT? Last month Facebook gave fact-checkers free rein of Instagram as well. Instagram (which Facebook owns) will limit the audience reach of “false information” posts by downplaying them on the site’s “Explore” page. The concept is comparable to Facebook’s, except Instagram users won’t even be notified when their posts are flagged.

Facebook/Instagram now wields doubly dangerous authority. Its fact-checking partnerships are intended to limit the spread of false news. But if fact-checkers are biased or just mistaken, they can stifle debate and even historical research that challenges current pieties.

Facebook last month announced new initiatives to address perceived anti-conservative bias: Four staff members will now deal with bias complaints. Facebook also announced it will appoint an oversight board with “a diverse range of intellectual viewpoints.” We’ll see whether that result is different from Google’s: When some on the left protested the appointment of Heritage Foundation head Kay Coles James to an ethics board, Google dissolved the board before it ever met.

Media Research Center President Brent Bozell denounced the Kyl report and Facebook’s response, calling it “nothing of substance.” But Kyl’s team promises additional reporting in several months: Kyl said, “There is still significant work to be done.”

—This article was corrected to reflect that the Cornwall Alliance has about 200 articles per year published in various outlets.

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