Fantastic Beginnings: Open Subtitles Design Summit

Late last week, the inaugural Open Subtitles Design Summit convened.

On September 29th, forty-five people, all dedicated to some aspect of captioning and/or subtitling, arrived at the beautiful OpenPlans penthouse in NYC’s Soho neighborhood. The self-introductions immediately made it clear that there was a lot of diversity in the group—backgrounds ran the gamut: engineers, accessibility advocates, standards experts, educational courseware providers, public media producers, international bloggers, and more (here is a list of participants).

Photo of many different people working together in a discussion

Since our group included a number of deaf participants, an individual who was visually impaired, and one person who was profoundly hard of hearing, some participants acted as both experts on the technology and practice of captioning, seasoned accessibility advocates, and caption users. This added a powerful dimension to the event, giving us a real sense of purpose and urgency.

To accommodate the different accessibility needs, a CART operator transcribed the proceedings live, and a number of American Sign Language interpreters worked on behalf of the deaf participants. It further enhanced the dialogue and awareness of issues of accessibility and translation.

A photo of Gunner, the meeting facilitator, talking to a group of participants

The summit was largely organized in real time, via a group created a topic-matrix of sticky notes. This fast paced brainstorm set the tone for the two days, and sessions such as “Best Practices for Caption and Subtitle Authoring and Presentation“, “Managing Subtitle Communities“, and “Subtitling/Captioning Offline” emerged (explore the full agenda here).

Many post-it notes on a wall - a sticky note brainstorm

One of the most exciting parts of the summit was that people were working at very high levels in many different (and often very separate) capacities, surrounding captions and subtitles. Over and over, participants expressed enthusiasm for being exposed to groups of stakeholders that had, until then, remained under their radar. For instance, some who had traditionally focused on subtitles and translation learned about accessibility concerns they otherwise hadn’t considered. Some in the accessibility world seem to have left seeing mechanical and crowdsourced captions in a slightly different light (although this may be hopeful thinking on my part!). Many high-value dots were connected and we all left the summit richer as a result of the interactions.

Gorgeous view of the NYC skyline from the OpenPlans building in SoHo

Moving forward, we have a number of projects, as well as an OSDS community discussion list. Emerging projects include a quality manifesto coming out of the “Best Practices for Caption and Subtitle Authoring Presentation” sessions, a working implementation of a subtitle lookup protocol, and an open subtitles/captions ecosystem blueprint.

A group of participants discussing caption metadata

Another major goal is to maintain the momentum of the group and keep various stakeholder groups talking and consulting one another when questions or potential collaborations arise. And a third aim is to expand the network; if this stuff sounds fascinating to you, please get in touch ( or check out the discussion list).

Group Photo of everyone at Open Subtitles Design Summit

I must thank the Open Society Institute; without their generous support, this meeting would have been impossible. OpenPlans provided a beautiful space for the summit to play out. Aspiration, Gunner, and Matt Garcia were amazing facilitators and agenda designers. Anne Jonas provided critical logistical support.

Every person who participated was fantastic and contributed to a real sense of progress, momentum, and inevitability. At risk of sounding overly triumphant, I do believe this meeting will have a positive impact on the spread of subtitles and captions online. Thanks again to all the participants!!!