In recent years, cities, states, and national governments have been harnessing the power of the Internet to provide citizens with information and services, and to find out what their people think and want. These efforts began with simple Web sites, but now they can be much more sophisticated. The widespread use of social networking technology makes it possible for citizens to participate in government as true partners with their elected representatives and officials. At the same time, the availability of vast amounts of information, including everything from street-by-street crime statistics to on-time records for mass transit, means government officials and citizens can know with precision how well or poorly the systems we depend on to conduct our daily lives are functioning. In short, governments are getting smarter—and citizens are better off for it.
Unfortunately, not everybody gets an equal shot at connecting and getting the information and services they need. In emerging markets, hundreds of millions of people are illiterate or semi-literate. Even if they could afford a computer and an Internet connection, it’s unlikely they could use it to interact with government. Everywhere, blind and deaf people face similar access problems, and so do the elderly.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Access to government services and participation in civic life can be dramatically increased for this vast group of people. The solutions include mobile Internet connectivity, new voice technologies, and collaboration between technology providers and other interested parties aimed at making such access ubiquitous.
IBM has long been concerned about making it easier for people with disabilities to use computers and access the Net. We support the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines published by the World Wide Web Consortium. They include guides for making authoring tools, Web content, and browsers that support text-to-speech software, text-to-Braille hardware, and other aids to accessibility.
But much more can be done, and we’re working on it. IBM Research Fellow Chieko Asakawa, who is blind, is leading an internal effort to identify all of the technologies and experts within our global laboratories that can help advance the access capabilities of illiterate and disabled people. Our aim is to produce game-changing technology breakthroughs.
Asakawa is already a leader in the accessibility field. In 1997, her research group released one of the first Web browsers designed to read the content of Web pages aloud. In 2004, the team produced software that helps Web site designers improve their pages so its easier for blind people to navigate them, such as using a man’s voice for text and a woman’s voice for links. Now she’s leading a collaborative research project aimed at improving Web access for the illiterate and elderly. IBM’s partners in this effort are the National Institute of Design of India and the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology at University of Tokyo. Over the next two years, the alliance plans on developing an common user interface platform for mobile devices so they’ll be easier to use. The ideas and software the researchers produce will be freely available. “We believe our work will help invite people into the world, so they can fully participate,” says Asakawa.
Asakawa dreams big. She envisions a world where accessibility technologies are designed into the whole array of mobile and non-mobile communications devices from the get-go, rather than being seen as things that can be added on later. By giving every human being equal access to the full benefits of a digital life, we’ll have smarter governments—and a much smarter planet, too.