Category Archives: technology

What the ICT4D Panel missed…

Technology can either provide increased access for people with disabilities, or it can result in greater alienation. In your experience, how have technology based development projects taken people with disabilities into account? Is accessibility something that is thought of in the design of the project, or is it mostly an afterthought?

This is the question I posed to the ICT4D: Innovation & the Millennium Development Goals panel at the UN Week Digital Media Lounge last week. But the answer I got from Wayan Vota, from Inveneo confirmed my suspicions (you can watch the panel below- my question begins at 37:14)
Vodpod videos no longer available.

I have 2 problems with Mr. Vota’s answer. First off, he said, “Most of the time we’re using tools that are already existing, so if the accessibility is built in we work with the accessibility.” OK. But just because a website meets Section 508 standards, doesn’t mean the person in Port-au-Prince has the hardware to access it.

But what he said next really blew me away.

He said, “Oftentimes in the developing world, accessibility has a different definition. Language is a huge accessibility factor. We’re all speaking English…but in many countries English is an elite language. And the local language… is not English. And often its not even a written language, just a verbal language. How do you transfer that to a device that you look at or that you read. And how can you expect the people in that community to read an English website and have any relevance with it whatsoever. Its definitely a challenge. And a lot of it has to do with getting the local people excited about writing with their own content.’

Wait…, what? People who use a non-written language need to write their own content? And, wasn’t I asking about people with disabilities? Not speaking English is NOT a disability.

Of COURSE language is an issue, but if your development project considers language an accessibility issue, you’re not working with enough local people. There are lots of examples of programs that created all their content in English, only to find the people they were trying to reach don’t read or speak English. That’s not a new problem, but it is a stupid problem.

A lack of literacy (in any language) is a different issue. And many solutions used to target people who don’t read also benefit people who can’t see. So, I guess in this case, development projects are accidentally making themselves accessible to people with disabilities?

But this doesn’t get to the heart of my question. Here we are with these great tools, fantastic technology and amazing potential to reach so many people. Are we?

Some studies estimate that 20% of people in developing countries have some form of disability. And in most of these regions disability and poverty dance around each other in an endless cycle. So why isn’t this a bigger focus?

How are people with disabilities included into these projects? Does, for example, the project that uses mobile SMS messages to remind TB patients to take their medications make use of accessible phones? Features like voice output, voice enabled menu navigation, keys that are identifiable by touch are just a few such features (the American Foundation for the Blind identifies 16 features most commonly used by people with vision loss). Are phones with these features being used in mprojects?  What about speech to speech relay (STS) – does that even exist in developing countries? Is it something that could be incorporated into projects? And people with dexterity problems or mobility issues? Are they included? How are their disabilities accommodated?

Mr. Vota’s “other kinds of accessibility” answer then skewed rest of the panel’s answers… Linda Raftree talked about broader access issues related to gender (certainly an important consideration, but not what I asked about).

I didn’t expect to hear that all the programs on the ground have a statistically representative disabled population (they should), but I had hoped to hear that accessibility for people with disabilities was being considered.  Maybe it is. But if it is, you couldn’t tell. My feeling is that if it were a bigger priority, it would have come up in the discussion…


Digitizing books, one word at a time

(Thanks to Marty Kearns from Green Media Toolshed and Netcentric Campaigns for bringing this to my attention!)

The need to digitize books goes beyond being able to put them on your Kindle. People with various disabilities (not just sight-related) use on screen readers and other audio tools for school, work and pleasure. But the availability of books in digital format can be limited.

In this very interesting video, Carnegie Mellon University professor Luis von Ahn explains how he is using the brain power of you and me to help digitize books, one word at a time, through a program he calls ReCaptcha.

Blog Action Day

I’ll be participating….will you?

Participatory Sensing…or cool things that your phone could do

As our phones get more and more sophisticated, there become more and more possibilities of what they could do.

I came across this video the other day – its a very interesting example of ways to use mobiles and crowd sourcing. Its a little sappy (or maybe just poorly acted) but it is very interesting.

The information I’ve always wanted, but haven’t really been looking for!

Have you ever wondered just HOW socially responsible the companies you frequent are? Maybe you know the histories of a few, (we all know we shouldn’t shop at Wal-Mart) but wouldn’t it be great to have a database standing by to let you know what you SHOULD know about the companies you support? Do they pollute the environment? Break child labor laws? Assert political influence?

I understand the power of my wallet – I think most Americans do. But more often than not, we just don’t do our homework. After all, where do you start?

The folks at have made it just a little bit easier. maintains a database of major corporations and any known issues – including workers’ rights abuses, human rights abuses, environmental concerns, and issues of political influence and business ethics. The database already has information on over 200 companies, and it contains praise as well as criticism.

That’s all well and good. But again, who wants to research a company everytime they run to the store? The question again becomes a matter of getting the information out there.

Again, steps up to the plate with their FireFox extension (more information and download here).  A quick and simple download can help you become more socially conscious as you surf the web. The extension has three main features:

1) Company Website Alerts – if you navigate to the page of Company X and they are in the Knowmore database, an aleart will appear at the top of your FireFox browser.

2) Search Engine Integration- now when you search for brands, or products, Knowmore will display icons next to those companies’ URLs in the search results

3) Amazon Integration – Alongside products in the online catalog, Knowmore icons will be displayed next to any corporation that appears in the database.

This tool is very easy to integrate and use in your daily activities and personally, I look forward to learning more about the companies and products I use.

Great next steps…

– where to write an organization if their business practices are unseemly- a link would be great!

– socially responsible alternatives, although this might be the job of an advertiser, not necessarily Knowmore

What else? Would this make you change your shopping habits? What would make it easier to do something with your new-found knowledge?

The Future of Emailing Congress

Computer with mailbox flagHave you emailed your congressional representative? Did you feel like it did any good?

Congressional offices are receiving hundreds of millions of emails every year, and the workload on staffers is enormous! As the number of emails has increased over the years, the staff size and technology budgets have not.

The Center for American Progress will be discussing this issue and posing some suggestions in it monthly Internet Advocacy Roundtable. As ususual, I’ll be live blogging!

You can follow along here!

Live Blog Coverage of the Internet Advocacy Roundtable

The Center for American Progress holds a monthly event called the Internet Advocacy Roundtable. Today’s roundtable is called “Party On…line with the Republican and the Democratic parties.

I’ll be attending this event and invite you to follow along! Please feel free to post any comments of questions.

If you are seeing this after the fact, you can still read through the blog’s Instant Replay.

To follow along or see the Instant Replay, please click here.

Online Video Distribution for researchers

While searching for a different Ted Talk, I came across this one. It is a fascinating example of how technology can be adapted for different purposes. But I love that in the end the speaker, Johnny Lee, credits online video distribution for the spread of his product. It only took 5 months to go from prototype in his lab to a major commercial product.

Now, to find the kids’ Wii remotes and start tinkering….

Voice to Text as a Development Tool

This morning I read about a web application called, which uses voice recognition to let users send email and text by speaking. The idea is that you call a phone number, select the destination of your message, then speak. The voice recognition program then turns your speech into text and will then send it to recipients via email or text messaging.

You can leave messages to yourself, to others, or to a group.

But here’s where I think it would get useful- Africa.

Internet connectivity is still hard to come by in most places, but cell phone service is much more widespread. Wouldn’t it be great to have a similar application with phone numbers that could be dialed from countries in Africa? Then users could send emails and text messages from places where they have no internet connection.

Currently’s telephone numbers are only available in the US and Canada.