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XX.5 September + October 2013
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Digital Citation

Public policy and the global public inclusive infrastructure project


Authors:
Clayton Lewis, Jutta Treviranus

The Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure (GPII) project is an international collaboration to make information technology, and the content and services it delivers, easily accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities. What role does public policy have in promoting this aim? How can ACM members around the world help shape policy in constructive ways?

The GPII project is developing a range of infrastructure enhancements that support automatic personalization of content and services, so that material is presented in a form that users can understand and interact with, whatever their individual needs and preferences. These enhancements will also make it easier and cheaper for providers of content and services to deliver their products effectively to a very wide range of consumers.

Autopersonalization, as supported by GPII, goes beyond today’s accessibility mandates. These mandates require that it be possible for people with disabilities to access content or services, without requiring that access be easy or convenient. For example, there may be a requirement that video materials have captions available, but a user who needs captions may have to specify over and over again, in different ways for different video players, that they want captions displayed. Autopersonalization would allow this user to specify once and for all that they need captions.

While the central focus of GPII is meeting the needs of people with disabilities, the planned services will be available to anyone. This will support people whose needs may be determined by situational factors, such as performing a task while walking (making the use of a pointing device, or reading small print, difficult). It will also support the many people who have particular needs or preferences for how information should be presented to them, but who do not identify themselves as having a disability. Rather than distinguishing “people with disabilities” from “other people,” the GPII autopersonalization approach aims to make it easy for everyone to choose the modes of presentation and interaction that work best for them, rather than expecting everyone to adjust as well as they can to some default presentation.

Autopersonalization offers benefits to developers as well. Today, developers who want to support a range of customizations to broaden accessibility have to create their own means of doing this, for example, to allow users to request captions, and to control caption font size. GPII will provide standard controls that any developer can use.

GPII works by storing one or more preference sets online (“in the cloud”) for a user. In one common usage scenario, the user can authenticate through their browser. The browser would access their preference set and use it to render Web content and services according to the specifications in the preference set. Other means of storing and accessing preference sets are provided for situations where users are offline. For more information on GPII, including more examples of its use and benefits and more about the technical approach and participating organizations, see gpii.net.

The potential benefits of access improvements for society, as well as for individuals, are well recognized, because of the increasingly important role of access to online content and services for economic, educational, and civic participation, availability of health information, and more. Making access easier for people with disabilities combats the substantial social costs of inequality and social exclusion, as documented in a book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett [1]. In view of these benefits, the public has a clear stake in the success of GPII. Accordingly, policy makers, technologists, and other citizens need to consider whether and how public policy can or should contribute.

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Technology Is Global but Policy Is Local

An immediate challenge in the policy space is that the Internet, the Web, and virtually all aspects of information and communication technology have global scope, and so need to be shaped with the global context in mind. Conflicting policies in different parts of the world lead to waste. For example, the same content or service may have to be provided in multiple forms to meet differing regulatory requirements. But most policy does not have global scope.

A notable exception is the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities [2], ratified by 130 countries, which mandates policy aims that GPII can help address. For example, signatories commit to “Promote access for persons with disabilities to new information and communications technologies and systems, including the Internet” (Article 9.2.g). However, there is nothing in the convention that commits signatories to any specific action, and certainly not to any particular initiative like GPII. So, while the Convention is very valuable in clearly marking national commitments, it defines broadly shared high-level aims rather than specific policies. It is therefore necessary to work on policy in many separate jurisdictions around the world.

How Public Policy Can Support the Realization of the GPII

Here are some aspects of public policy that are important for GPII:

Funding. Shared infrastructure is generally accepted as a matter of public concern, leading at least to regulation and sometimes to funding. The road system provides an example: While vehicles are privately funded, the roads on which they operate are created and maintained with public funds. The development of GPII has been supported by public funding in the U.S. (Department of Education: National Institute of Disability and Rehabilitation Research), Europe (European Commission), and Canada. Any decision to allocate some block of funds to GPII, rather than to some other public priority, is a policy matter.

Not all shared infrastructure is supported by public funds. For example, the construction of the rail system in many countries was funded largely by private investment (though often with public subsidies). Unfortunately, private investment rarely addresses the needs of demographically limited groups with limited buying power. People with disabilities form such a group, so public funding may be needed.

Allocation of funds is a good example of a policy matter that is determined separately by supranational bodies like the European Union, by countries, and sometimes by provinces or even smaller entities, but that has global implications. It is crucial that the work of GPII is clearly mapped out, so that entities wishing to support the project can identify how to direct further support so as to complement the work supported by others and not duplicate it.

While public funding is important for GPII, participation of private parties is also crucial. Just as a road system is useless without cars, so GPII will be useless without the content and services, provided largely by private, commercial organizations, that will be delivered using the GPII infrastructure. GPII has to be developed to meet the needs of private parties and deliver value for them. This requires the participation of these parties in the design of the infrastructure.

Regulation. Governments have specific rights, prerogatives, and instruments to constrain what actors in society may do. It is commonly accepted that regulation should be used when market mechanisms fail to produce desirable and attainable social outcomes, and not otherwise. As already mentioned, appropriate inclusion of people with disabilities is often not provided by market mechanisms. Regulations are used, therefore, to enforce basic levels of inclusion in a number of situations.

Information technology, including that embodied in the GPII, poses some special challenges for regulation. Prescriptive regulations, which detail what parties must do to comply, rapidly become obsolete as the technologies people use change.

In some political environments, private parties vigorously oppose attempts to impose regulation. This means that an effort like GPII that depends on participation of private, commercial organizations, as well as public funding organizations, is limited in its ability to shape regulation as a policy tool.

Further, regulation is all too often ineffective. It is one thing to adopt a policy that people must do a certain thing, and quite another to have them actually do it. Enforcement, including both monitoring what people are doing and imposing sanctions when they don’t do what they should, is required, and enforcement is costly in economic and political terms. Obviously, it is far better to create natural incentives that make it in the interests of private parties to do the desired thing, though this is by no means always possible, and regulation is needed when it is not. A major aim of GPII is to provide sufficient value to organizations that deliver content and services online that they will adopt it without the need for regulatory constraint.

Standards. Technical standards are an important way to increase the productivity of economic activity by enabling producers to cooperate without requiring negotiated agreements. For example, Web standards allow makers of servers and browsers to create products that work together, without each server maker having to negotiate an agreement with each browser maker. The creation of and support for the use of standards are important public policy matters.

The operation of GPII will be facilitated by standards in a number of areas. For example, users will specify how they want information presented, and how they want to interact with it, so as to best meet their individual needs. A standard for this preference set, based on the existing AccessForAll standard (ISO/IEC 24751-3:2008), will make it possible for tools that help users specify their needs and preferences, and tools that implement their specifications, to be developed by separate parties.

Standards have to be produced that promote adequate consensus among potential implementers. Bringing this about is slow and often bureaucratic. Nevertheless, the process of standardization, if it is open, itself creates value, even if it is never completed, because it helps developers align their work.

Promoting adoption and use. Communication infrastructure like the GPII is strongly affected by network effects: The value produced by the infrastructure grows rapidly as more people adopt it. This means that the likelihood of ultimate success for GPII depends upon getting enough people to use it. Public policy can play a big role in this.

One measure to promote technology for people with disabilities is procurement policy. In the U.S., Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act commits government agencies to purchase only accessible technology, so that, for example, all federal websites are supposed to meet accessibility requirements. In the European Union, a proposal to update the Public Procurement Directive (2004/18/EC, adopted by the European Commission on December 20, 2011) strengthens the provisions for Web accessibility by stating that: “For all procurement the subject of which is intended for use by persons ... technical specifications shall ... be drawn up so as to take into account accessibility criteria for people with disabilities or design for all users.” The Commission has also launched a proposal for a directive for the accessibility of public sector bodies’ websites, designed in such a way that it can be updated as technology evolves. The proposal builds on the international WCAG 2.0 guidelines, with the intent of ending market fragmentation, enabling Web developers to work across the whole of the E.U. [3].

As GPII matures, it could be appropriate for procurement regulations around the world to mandate that government websites be constructed so as to work with GPII’s autopersonalization system. Further, as the use of technology increases in education, healthcare, and the delivery of social services of other kinds, governments could require, or at least strongly encourage, that systems whose development and operation they fund should support autopersonalization with GPII.

For any of these mandates to be effective, timing is crucial. If requirements are put in place before the GPII infrastructure can support them, compliance will be impossible. But if requirements are delayed, opportunities to benefit from GPII will be lost, and the pace of adoption of GPII will be slowed. This makes it extremely important for GPII to communicate its progress as clearly as possible, so that potential adopters and policy makers can make good decisions about when to act.

Easing of restrictions on access to content. The usefulness of GPII is determined not only by how many people are using it but also by the quantity of available content. Unfortunately, making content accessible requires transforming it in ways that may be forbidden in some situations by current public policy, as expressed in copyright law. For example, in some jurisdictions the production of an audio book from a print book is subject to tight regulation because of fear that availability of the audio format could displace sales of the print format.

GPII will be more useful to more people if these restrictions can be eased by changes in public policy. The DAISY Consortium, an international effort to improve access to audio books, and a member of the Raising the Floor initiative, the parent organization of the GPII project, is working actively toward this goal.

The Role of Evidence-Based Practice and Big Data

An emerging trend in public policy is the requirement that interventions be justified by evidence of effectiveness and impact. The increasing availability of data on all kinds of things, accelerated by the movement of services into the cloud and new methods for extracting meaning from large, complex datasets (“big data”), may accentuate this trend.

This trend poses a potential long-term threat to services for people with disabilities or any other programs that serve heterogeneous audiences. The enormous diversity of people with disabilities means that multiple, complex means of assessment will be needed to do justice to reality. Compared with data from mainstream programs, datasets will be small and complicated.

GPII may help address this threat. Subject to privacy constraints, it may be possible to collect information about the use of accessible content and services delivered via GPII that has been difficult to obtain historically. This data can reflect the impact on a wide and diverse audience of services delivered in a flexible, widely available framework.

Balancing Centrifugal and Centripetal Forces

The evolution of technology at the global scale is pulled apart by centrifugal forces. That is, there are forces that lead to people doing the same or similar things in different ways, rather than using shared approaches. These centrifugal forces include:

  • Regional and national differences, for example, different attitudes toward intellectual property.
  • Rapid emergence of new technology that draws early adopters away from settled practices used by others.
  • The fact that problems crop up in contexts addressed by different professional communities. For example, problems of access for people with disabilities arise in education as well as in healthcare, but the professional groups that operate in these settings are almost completely disconnected, making it likely they will adopt different approaches.
  • The need for commercial entities to differentiate themselves in the market. Profits are greater for firms that offer something better than their competitors, and better necessarily means different.
  • The pull on commercial entities to exert exclusive control over market segments. A firm may want to discourage its customers from doing business with other firms, but doing things in a standard way makes defection easy.

The evolution of technology is pulled together by centripetal forces, which provide benefits when approaches are shared. These forces include:

  • The power of network effects. As discussed earlier, more value is produced if people use a single infrastructure, rather than dividing themselves among two or more.
  • The economies of sharing. In the world of information technology, replication is almost free, so that two people using the same thing costs half as much as when they use two different things.
  • The advantages to commercial entities in reaching broader global markets.

The interplay of these forces makes the public policy arena complex and full of conflict, especially where regulation and commercial rights are concerned. Money and ideology are both at stake. It is counterproductive to seek simply to eliminate the centrifugal forces. Some of them, such as the push of technical innovation, are good; others, such as the need for differentiation in commerce, are good in some ways and perhaps wasteful in other ways, but very powerful. Public interest requires striking a balance among the forces, recognizing that a shifting, dynamic, partial equilibrium can be attained.

As an entity, the GPII project plays a deliberately limited role in the public policy arena. It does not seek to influence regulation, though it does support open standards efforts and seeks public funding for infrastructure development and outreach. This scope reflects the need to work cooperatively, by consensus, within a coalition of many partners—commercial, academic, government, non-profit—with differing interests.

What Role Can ACM Members Play?

Because the GPII project itself can shape only some aspects of the global public policy environment in which it operates, there is a substantial need for public participation. ACM members, with their technical understanding and their professional contacts, can do much to move public policy in constructive directions, working in their various settings around the world.

Members can help government agencies understand the benefits to society of inclusive access to information and services. The right of everyone to full participation in society, as called for in the UNCRPD, depends increasingly on access to online resources. We can help policy makers to understand this, and to understand that the benefits of full participation extend to society at large, and not just to people with disabilities, as articulated in Wilkinson and Pickett [1].

Further, members can steer policy toward shared, inclusive infrastructure. Investments in inclusion will be more effective if made in the context of shared infrastructure rather than in isolated technical aids.

Here are some suggestions for how ACM members can exert their influence:

Provide public comment when it is solicited. Many bureaucratic processes include formal calls for public comment, and, in part because many people do not respond, the impact of well-reasoned comments can be large. In the U.S., some agency-funding priorities are directly influenced by public comments. Public comment is solicited on a very wide range of regulations at http://www.regulations.gov. In Ontario, Canada, the development of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act is influenced by “town hall” consultations. At the federal level, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission regularly solicits participation in public proceedings on accessibility. The European Commission offers a variety of opportunities for public participation. For example, the annual Digital Agenda Assemblies offer online discussion in advance of the physical meetings. Participation in the 2013 event is described at ec.europa.eu/digital-agenda/node/54693; one of the discussion groups addressed accessibility for digital public services.

Participate in standards development and related activities. For example, the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium has an open call for participation at http://www.w3.org/WAI/participation.

Volunteer your efforts to advocacy groups. The DAISY Consortium (http://www.daisy.org/joining) welcomes new members to work on standards development and on copyright policy.

Seek a temporary or permanent role in public service and encourage students to do so. In a democratic world, the government is us. But governments everywhere have far too few people who understand information technology, its potential, and its limitations. Many agencies have opportunities for temporary assignments, for those not wishing to make a career commitment. Governments can be better and more responsive if more of us become directly involved.

Acknowledgments

The authors thank Elin Emsheimer and Joost van der Vleuten for useful comments and information.

References

1. Wilkinson, R.G. and Pickett, K. The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. Allen Lane, London, 2009.

2. United Nations. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; http://www.un.org/disabilities/default.asp?navid=14&pid=150.

3. Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the accessibility of public sector bodies’ websites 2012/0340; http://ec.europa.eu/digital-agenda/en/news/proposal-directive-european-parliament-and-council-accessibility-public-sector-bodies-websites

Authors

Clayton Lewis is a professor of computer science at the University of Colorado, Boulder and consultant on technology for the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research in the U.S. Department of Education. He was named to the CHI Academy in 2009 and serves as vice chair of SIGACCESS.

Jutta Treviranus is director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre (IDRC) and professor at OCAD University in Toronto. She has played a leading role in developing accessibility legislation, standards, and specifications internationally (including WAI ATAG, IMS AccessForAll, ISO 24751, and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act).

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