The University of Miami in the US has got together with the University of Dundee in Scotland to work with IBM on a project to develop open source software designed specifically to address the needs of older people, and help them to adapt to and remain productive in the 21st century workplace.

While I can certainly see that workforces in many developed countries are aging, and at the same time the pool of available younger workers is often shrinking fast, I am not convinced that the answer to lost skills and knowledge as this older workforce retires sits with software, open source or not.

IBM argues that as the trend towards a retiring work population continues as we approach the end of the decade, companies can use the opportunity to innovate and gain a competitive advantage by "ensuring skilled older workers have the tools they need to be effective and by offering advantages to promote retention." One way to do this, IBM continues, is "to support maturing workers who have age-related disabilities is to find new ways to increase their comfort level and ability to use technology."

"IBM strives to aid companies in developing solutions to accommodate the maturing workforce, as well as prolong and increase productivity" Dr. Vicki Hanson, Manager, Accessibility, IBM Research told DaniWeb. OK, all well and good but just how does the Open Collaborative Research (OCR) program help? Quite apart from the fact that I find the acronym confusing seeing as it already exists in the IT world, and I am not even anywhere near retirement age yet. IBM's OCR program, rather than scan text from paper into digital documents, develops concepts with IBM Research and universities working on projects and making the results available as open source software code. All additional intellectual property developed based on those results will be also be openly published or made available royalty-free.

At the University of Dundee, within the Assistive and Healthcare Technologies Group, there are eight faculty, including three full Professors and Royal Society of Edinburgh Fellow, Dr. Anna Dickinson, who have a focus on assistive technologies. The university provides a multidisciplinary attack on the problem with researchers not only from the School of Computing, but also from Psychology, and from the Schools of Media Arts & Imaging and Design in producing visualizations and interaction scenarios. "This collaboration is a superb opportunity for the group in Dundee to apply our wide experience of research with older people, and of developing better ways of accessing technology, in an exciting new transatlantic partnership with IBM and the Miller Medical School in Miami," said Professor Peter Gregor, Head of the School of Computing at the University of Dundee. "The open source focus makes the challenges particularly rewarding because it means that knowledge gained and systems developed will be available freely to the people who need them and to other developers."

Meanwhile, over at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, the collaboration will build on research conducted at The Center for Research and Education on Aging and Technology Enhancement (CREATE) and the Center on Aging. CREATE is a multidisciplinary, cohesive center of research and education on aging and technology funded by the National Institutes on Aging. CREATE represents a consortium of three universities, each with its own research team: The University of Miami, Florida State University and Georgia Institute of Technology.

And I am still no nearer understanding how any of this impacts upon the aging workforce issue. Perhaps the fact that the Miami emphasis is on technology in employment settings with part of it examining training programs with regard to designing e-learning software so that it is effective for older adults is a clue? "Older workers represent an extremely valuable resource. However they need to have tools available to them to be able to compete in today's technology driven workplace," said Professor Sara J. Czaja, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. "We are excited about the opportunity to collaborate with IBM as it provides us with a unique opportunity to have the results of our research efforts translated into actual products and tools. It also provides a wonderful opportunity for our students."

Great, I am still in the dark then. Maybe a trip over to the IBM Research site, which the IBM press people assure me has worked for several years on usability issues for older adults and has created software deployed worldwide addressing the needs of older users, will finally shed some light on the matter? Well, there is the aDesigner tool which is actually a disability simulator that provides a visual representation and reports, based on selected criteria, of how accessible and usable Web pages are for people who are visually impaired. Or how about IBM CaptionMeNow which makes rich media accessible to a broader audience through dynamic captioning using speech recognition software? Then there is Easy Web Browsing which IBM says can help in solving the digital divide problem when a Web site delivers information and services to people with low vision or novice users, and ViaScribe which utilizes speech-to-text technology to provide real-time captioning of classroom lectures and real-time transcription, alignment and preparation of e-learning materials. Finally, WebAdapt2Me technology is designed to make the Web easier to use. WebAdapt2Me is software that enables people who have vision, cognitive or hand limitations to customize the way Web pages are presented to them.

At last the penny drops, the IBM OCR project is actually developing accessibility software which can be used by any worker who has particular visual, audio or mobility needs. Why didn't it say that in the first place? Not everyone who reaches retirement age requires such help, what most really need are employers who don't consider them fit only for the scrap heap because they have hit 60. And I cannot see open source software doing much to change that particular mindset it has to be said.