Help people hear: the Brain-Up project is looking for volunteers
Elena Moshnikova and her team worked together to create a platform of interactive exercises to help children and adults with hearing loss. Thanks to the efforts of dozens of specialists, the first version of the product was released in June 2022. Now, developers and other IT volunteers are needed to move the project forward.
Brain-UP is a series of exercises for people with hearing loss. It was developed in collaboration with hearing specialists. The exercise can also be used during the recovery period after a cochlear implant. Elena shares the Brain-Up story below.
How did it all begin?
— When my husband and I were faced with the need to conduct regular training of auditory perception for our daughter, there was not a single Russian-language hearing simulator with online classes. There were only expensive American (English) options. Our child had a rather rare case, and nothing that was available to us at that time really helped. Experts said that if a person begins to have hearing problems, in most cases the situation will only worsen over time.
A few years ago, we began to study with our child using special methods. It became clear that auditory training is basically the same no matter what program you use: voicing syllables, words, phrases, and sentences according to certain rules, and further interaction on this material. This is mechanical, monotonous work that we and many others do in similar situations. It takes patience, persistence, and time. It's quite exhausting, and I thought that it would be great to be able to train audio perception from home with the help of a special online application. I asked myself: “What can I do as a mother, an engineer, and a programmer, who automates this type of work every day?”
Implementation of the idea
— I was aware that a difficult and labor-intensive path was ahead of me, but I could not help but try. I prepared an initial description and discussed ideas with deaf specialists. The experience of participating in large IT projects helped me in the development of the architecture and the choice of technologies. I wrote the first application skeleton and hosted it on the collaborative web service github.com.
At that time, I worked at EPAM, where social projects have always been supported. I also designed an idea for an internal portal where employees could read about the project and join the team as volunteers — and they did, thank you all very much! In parallel, I talked with colleagues from the IT field, and the team expanded.
Around this same time, I saw the announcement of a hackathon. I registered, and five more people joined us. For two years, we as engineers worked continuously to prepare the conceived platform from a technical point of view. We: created an online simulator; added the ability to upload new resources for exercises with simple files; implemented the generation of audio content based on those files; activated the search feature; added pictures to exercises; and introduced adaptive algorithms for providing the user with feedback as they progress through the exercises.
During the examinations of my daughter, I met with an audiologist, Ekaterina Garbaruk, who is a senior researcher at the Pediatric University, and with Ina Koroleva, a professor at the St. Petersburg Research Institute of ENT. Both of them have been engaged in research in the field of audiology for many years. Ekaterina is one of the leading specialists in diagnosing hearing problems. Inna is the author of a series of teaching aids, “Learning to listen and speak,” which have been translated into many languages around the world. Many teachers of the deaf use her methods. With her permission, our team of deaf teachers used them as a basis to prepare the content of our platform. In total, about 10 sign language specialists from different countries took part in the project as content creators for all parts of the Brain-Up series.
What is the status of Brain-Up today?
— Today, the application contains about 2000 exercises in 7 series of classes. For about a year now, my child has been studying on the platform. This took some of the pressure off of us as parents, relieving us from some monotonous but necessary work. It also and gave us, as developers, quick feedback from a user and tester in one person.
All of the exercises are built on the same principle, and they move from simple to complex. The only requirements for using the exercises are the ability to read and the desire to practice.
The user sees in front of them specially selected sets of words, chosen according to different principles (length, frequency, number, etc.). First, the user listens to the entire content completely. Then, there is a sequential voicing of a word or set of words in a random order with repetitions. The user needs to hear, understand, and choose the correct answer. The user’s success in choosing correct answers is calculated to determine whether they will move on to the next level of complexity, or return to the previous level. If the user is returned to the previous level, the task will involve the same words, but in a different order. We "guide" the user during the course of training: every day, only the exercises at their current level are available to them.
Teachers of deal also deal with patients from the simple to the complex. The main advantage of Brain-Up is that you can use it to practice for free, every day, anywhere — you only need a computer and Internet access. Unfortunately, in rehabilitation centers (which are found only in large cities), classes are available only a couple of times a year. To achieve noticeable results, however, the authors of similar foreign programs recommend adhering to a fairly intense schedule of classes: 6 days a week, at least 30 minutes a day. Our application is no exception.
Now, the Brain-Up application is ready to use. You just need to register and you can start practicing. We are happy to receive feedback because we really want to make a useful and convenient product that will help people. We are open to new ideas on how to make the program better.
What are the next steps?
— The next steps are to increase the amount of content. Someone can quickly go through the available exercises, but we are not ready to provide the next level of exercises. Also, Brain-Up does not yet have the first, most basic level of material — intended for people with complete hearing loss. The principle in those cases is that you first you need to help a person learn to identify and distinguish between simple sounds: the rumble of cars, the clatter of dishes. After that, you can move on to syllables, then simple words. Our exercises, however, begin with words, and not simple sounds.
Also, to better understand the dynamics and the results of training, we started developing a diagnostic unit. This tool will help the user complete an online audiological examination before the start of classes, and again with a certain regularity after they begin the classes, to compare later results with previous measurements. This will be a very interesting and useful part of the project, and I hope we find the resources to complete it.
Who is needed for the project?
Since the project is volunteer, almost everyone in the team combines work on the project with their main job. As a result, development is not moving as fast as we would like. Additional “hands” are constantly needed, especially in the Front-end team at Ember.
Right now, the project is available only in a desktop version. A couple of months ago, developers came to us and offered to create an application for mobile devices. This is a great idea; some of the exercises can be made accessible from a small screen. Work has begun in this direction, and the app development team really needs help.
Help is needed in other areas as well. Here is a list of the professionals we are currently looking for:
- Kotlin back-end;
- Ember front-end;
- IOS; and
- UX/UI designers; and
- QA; and
- Test Automation.
— Huge thanks to everyone who worked and is working on the project. I believe that by developing this program, we will help a large number of people with hearing problems. Apply for participation in this project if you can, there is a real and important need for help.