icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an 

ongoing web column edited and published by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.


Chronological Index | Subject Index

The map is not the territory, or… is it?

About the long and winding road of Web Accessibility

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2017). The map is not the territory, or … is it? About the long and winding road of Web Accessibility. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 6.10 (October).

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2017). The map is not the territory. About the long and winding road of Web Accessibility. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 6.10 (October).

London, 15 January 2018 - I have been recently thrilled to learn that the W3 Consortium has produced a Cognitive accessibility roadmap and gap analysis to improve web accessibility for people with cognitive and learning disabilities. I must say immediately that I am not endorsing this roadmap or any other related guideline or technology for the simple reason that I may not know what I am actually talking about: I was involved in a campaign promoting web accessibility in the early 2000s, I designed and offered training courses for more accessible web sites in 2005, very successful for a couple of seasons, but after 2007 I have never worked on this subject again. In sum, my skills and understanding of the technicalities of the matter are slightly dusted and I would not produce any sound judgement or advice on the matter any longer.

The reason why I have found the issue interesting for icm2re is because web accessibility is indeed a wicked land for information designers and data architects, engineers, scientists, managers all together. It is one of those places in which no matter how many evidence you have or how brave you are in creating new evidence, it becomes clear that the map is not the territory, as the famous polish scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski once said.

After a long time I have not been dealing with web accessibility standards and technologies, I imagined that the new W3 documents would clearly state that “cognitive accessibility” is for everybody, catching up with Tim Berners Lee’s proposition. Cognitive accessibility means that everybody should understand what is being communicated online. In fact, everybody can profit from a simple and functional organisation and presentation of online contents. Standard ways to assure high cognitive accessibility would be beneficial for the whole internet and IT ecosystems, not just for people with mental disabilities or people that need assistive technologies (and therefore relies on what a machine understands in the first place).

The issue seems to me indeed relevant for everybody because we all experience at some point in life circumstances such as a temporary disability or the consequences of an accident or a trauma or we may be affected at all times by drops in concentration and reasoning abilities, fatigue caused by chronic illnesses, dementia or just ageing’s degenerative processes.

But I concede that to get to the point and make the case it is inevitable that a minimum level of normative rules must be agreed. Where should we start then? Such consensus requires to look first of all at the requirements of diseases or other genetic or acquired conditions that cause permanent cognitive impairment or a definitive diagnosis of a learning disability due to a genetic condition (such as Down Syndrome or Turner Syndrome). And yet, the requirement for such extreme level of standardisation and accessibility is evidently not realistic and totally biased: people with severe genetic cognitive impairment has generally speaking other priorities that browsing websites, including surviving to ritual killings and mutilations in Africa or coping with cuts to disability benefits and other new types of financial and social abuses that flourish in our very civilised Western Countries.

Anyhow, it seems that the W3 cognitive roadmap is offering a broad and deep analysis of the existing issues at different levels so that if you are going to work on accessible requirements, the document is the right place to start your change journey. And yet, you will have to take into account that getting stakeholders, customers, web developers on board, calling for more normative standards all together at the same time, it is pretty much an impossible task. Actually, it is possibly the hardest task existing on the world wide web scene because it calls for socio-technical changes that are likely to produce work out there for a long, long time.

An example from the prehistory of web accessibility

This is an example from my former italian business Panta Rei’s portfolio. It relates to a website project I managed in 2003 in which I believe three specific technologies and resources - mind mapping software tools, CSS language and usability and accessibility validation tools - turned out to be the critical success factors that allowed me to complete the project on time and on budget and to design lasting solutions - although they were soon judged too much accessible for being stably integrated into the organisation’s systems.

Just to set the context, it must be said that the main problem of the project (what made the case for my engagement as external information designer and contractor) was its timescale with a very tight deadline: the website should be ready for the inauguration of a new multimedia library (Mediateca di Santa Teresa, Milano, a little abandoned and deconsecrated Church squeezed between buildings, only trace remained of an ancient convent) that was due in less than three months time. This inauguration followed the restoration and redevelopment project that had involved national and regional architects, sponsors, institutions and politicians for over two decades.

There were pretty much no requirements to start with and I must say not even a clear understanding of what should be said about the same Mediateca: mission, history, services, resources or what should be talking about? Even furniture, computers, materials were still to be delivered, everything was behind schedule as it usually is in such occasions and there was no chance for members of staff to undertake formal training on how to build and maintain a website, ah ah ah! that was really the last thing they would like to think about. The same human resources were, in fact, dragged from other services, managed by other organisations involved in the project.

Of course, accepting the job was for myself a sign of some cognitive impairment. I decided there was no much room other than to characterise the Mediateca’s website for what it was and it will be for at least one year or so: the website of an open project in fieri, the same members of staff should consider a communication aid and an operational tool and not at all a burden. It would be supporting the inauguration of the Mediateca to the public - as I was asked explicitly to do - but it would be also recognisable as the site of a project “in progress”, helping with the collection of opinions from the public about the Mediateca’s services and the possible recruitment of volunteers to run a number of activities. It would stimulate reactions and collect contacts and ideas, staying open to influences and debates. And so on and so forth. The contents would document the history of the main restoration project of the building. As far as the website’s technical structure, code, organisation were concerned, these would not compromise any other possible hardware and software decision in the next future - such as the integration of the website within other main content management systems or platforms for which at the moment we had no budget.

Having agreed this special formula (well, a la guerre comme a la guerre…) to turn the chaotic context of the Mediateca’s inauguration into a creative characteristic of the forthcoming website, the next step consisted into getting consensus on what we would say about the project and the extraordinary mess we now agreed to call “work in progress”.

I had recently evaluated software for mind mapping and concept mapping while working on other e-learning projects (matter of other reflections about change in other articles). I suggested we should use these tools to start digging out the contents from a massive documentation about the restoration project and the Mediateca’s services.

“Undigested” documentation was in fact the cause of the impasse on the website’s design and development. The absence of requirements for its contents and features was mirrored by an overload of ideas springing from several feasibility studies and reports the employees had found impossible to prioritise. The various advisory studies and reports had been produced by academics and experts over the years and often used to justify funding and sponsorships for the architectural project. Nobody meant to discard them but from a practical point of view, they pointed to what the Mediateca should be collecting and offering - in terms of electronic resources and services, methodologies, technologies and so on - but not to what was actually being commissioned as products, services or other supplies. There were also a number of wishful contributions coming from debates with local stakeholders (users, academics, experts), politically very important to take into account while communicating with the public but not so relevant for the long term organisation of the Mediateca resources.

Working on the tree structures and visual concept maps I drafted, members of staff identified all the relevant, non conflicting and still up to date ideas on what the Mediateca should be doing that could be also considered sustainable over time - because aligned with the requirements for present and future funding. We would incorporate all the agreed and relevant advice and directions received by former consultants, communicating them at large, about mission, organisation and services of the new Mediateca.

Members of staff learned to review the richness of visions and proposals elaborated in the past and consider it as a legacy as they would start to take responsibility on what to do in the present and in the future, as a number of issues in relation to the new audiovisual and electronic collections and services required they themselves had to figure out organisational solutions, beyond my initial recommendations: for instance, what metadata standard should be adopted or adapted for the treatment of the multimedia collections and the organisation of and access to their catalogs, what policies should be implemented about filtering internet access or charging for access and making digital copies of audiovisual materials, what type of services should be planned as “on site” options and what should be offered as a remote service etc.

Connecting multiple concepts and showing the relationship among ideas and sources, the visual maps we were able to produce in a very limited time boosted at the same time the group’s morale and my own design and productivity outcome, allowing the rapid prototype, testing and publishing of the new website.

Also the idea of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) and photographs - a technology not greatly implemented in 2003 - was extraordinarily useful and crucial in order to ensure total compliance with W3 Standards. I decided to structure the visual interface and the HTML layouts through CSS (this is a declarative language the basics of which are quite easy to learn, easier than a “true” programming language, and it could also be used in templates to automate the production and publishing of new web pages in the future).

Eventually, last but not least, Web Accessibility and Usability principles, standards and above all validation tools would help with the implementation, the updates and the maintenance of the website.

The W3 WAI guidelines ensured we would not compromise the future development of the website whatever content management system or hosting platform would be chosen. The website could be even at its prototypal stage already compliant with new legislation on web accessibility that was forthcoming.

In endorsing the campaign for full accessibility of web contents and services, the Mediateca’s website would also echo and emphasise the openness of the physical building that had been restored and redeveloped according to the most up-to-date building regulations, favouring people with disabilities. In 2004 Italy promoted a new law (Provisions to support the access of disabled people to IT tools known as ‘Stanca Law’) for which the Mediateca was already fully equipped (similar legislation has been introduced in the UK in 2010).

Having had such successful and pioneering role with the anticipation of the web accessibility legislation, somebody found appalling that the year after the inauguration, the accessible layouts disappeared. Myself and other colleagues received hate messages and we were treated as traitors of a major cause! In fact, almost inexplicably for somebody, the year after the inauguration the Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense (that retained a technical supervisory role on the Mediateca) integrated the management of the website into other content management processes, keeping its structure and organisation but giving priority to the needs of regular users of the Mediateca who would indeed prefer to use its website to search and browse the catalog of an increasing number of very valuable electronic resources not available online instead of just browsing pages of a “work in progress”. At the end of the day, the chairs and the computer had arrived and the Mediateca had now opened for regular services. Also most of the textual information that had been prepared for the inauguration was kept online (and it is still there, fifteen years later!) but the layout, the look and feel and the visual appearance of the website changed several times since then, to become at times non at all accessible at all and not compliant with the standards that it had initially so strongly promoted.

The original code and the design philosophy of the website’s prototype accessible to everybody, that I called an “accessible and fluid website” (or SAF that is an acronym that stands for the italian “Sito Accessibile e Fluido” ) was even made avaiable as open source to the public and discussed with other librarians and documentalists who had similar jobs in the public sector. Most of my current website’s code is still made with ideas and pieces of the Mediateca’s CSS layouts I designed in 2003 and its plain “flat” use of photographic impact embedded in the CSS layout anticipated mainstream endorsement in this technique by major players (Bing, for instance, among the many).

Conclusions

Designed and delivered mainly on customer premises “under development”, reading and producing digital and printed documents and writing requirements while people was running after electricians and carpenters, the new Mediateca’s website was useful to think in a systematic and yet holistic way to the web and the internet not only for the short term - that was actually what I had been asked to do helping busy colleagues - but also as the hidden implicit infrastructure of a new service, the multimedia library, that would deeply impact habits and professional practices among both members of staff and end users for many years to come.

Many of the lessons learned through the Mediateca’s website project inspired me in 2005 to design and deliver a two days training course I entitled “Web accessibility for libraries in a hurry: how to make a website compliant with technical standards and legislation” that was well attended by public and university librarians and training professionals for not less than three or four editions in the following two years.

Furthermore, I have used and cited this case’s examples in several circumstances, since the problems encountered are still very topical. It seems a stupid thing to do and it is surely counterintuitive but when the chaotic mass of undigested stuff we deal with through constructive collaborative platforms and catalysing systems reaches unhealthy levels of nonsense, there is no better productivity booster than stop everything and just do structural reading and content analysis for all the damned documentation that is threatening you, with the purpose of drawing a map of all the very important and baselined concepts in a couple of hours. It is not impossible, if you are the knowledge worker, the computer scientist, the qualified librarian or the software engineer you say you are: in fact, these are the skills you should have acquired long ago and if you feel you are out of exercise, the cognitive accessibility challenge gives you no better moment to practice them.

Having said that, what is required to go beyond the mere formal compliance to HTML / XHTML standards and assure cognitive accessibility falls outside the remit of everybody involved in the process but, possibly, for website designers or digital officers: these are the professional roles that unfortunately many organisations still do not have the budget or the courage to justify in their payrolls.

Make it simpler for people to understand what we are talking about prevents loss of productivity, inefficiencies and sophisticated forms of inequalities. For many it is hard to say where to start though.

I hope the example shows the extreme difficulties that lie beneath the cognitive accessibility roadmap, full of abstract and subtle aspects of structure and information design together with other more technical, organisational, socio-economic and political potholes, and ethical traps. For some members of the public, web accessibility will always offer opportunities to… traitors, prostitutes, criminals, pedophiles, fraudsters and so on. In sum we should not mistake the roadmap for the road, as the map itself is indeed for somebody the whole of the territory on earth!