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Stimulating Research into Accessibility of Information and Communication Technology Systems and Services

 

 

1      Introduction
Information and communication technology (ICT) systems are now pervasive in education, employment and daily living.  Therefore restricted access is a significant aspect in an individual’s ability to fully participate in modern society.  The general approach has been to adopt inclusive design wherever possible.  If that does not resolve all the issues, then provide an interface to an assistive device (eg a hearing aid loop facility), and if that still does not meet the needs then provide special assistive devices and services.

Universities have the skills and structures to undertake pure research but they are often reliant on external funding.  They also undertake applied research but can have problems in exploiting the results.  On the other hand commercial companies are often adept at producing and marketing products.  However relatively few companies have the skills to market products to people with disabilities.

There are a number of areas in which neither universities nor commercial companies have the motivation to address.  One important area is standardisation when it relates to people with disabilities - there is little academic content and usually little commercial benefit for participants.

 

2      Supporting the Research Community
The research community are potentially interested in working in areas related to the accessibility of ICT if the funding is available.  Few organisations have the resources to directly fund research at a significant level, so methods have to be developed to make best use of the funding that is available.

Funding organisations as well as research workers want advice on what are the areas most likely to be of long-term benefit to people with disabilities.  A typical university-based project will last from 3 to 5 years and exploitation will often be after the end of the project; so one is looking at potential benefit 5 to 10 years ahead.

Basic research, such as studies on tactual perception or modelling the visual processes in the human brain, may further knowledge in a particular area but not directly lead to any new product or service.  However such basic research is essential if other developments are to be based on sound scientific data.

2.1     Encouraging New Research Workers
Historically there was a tendency for the best research workers to enter the pure research field leaving others to address applied research.  However it is important to attract more high calibre research workers to be involved in accessibility of ICT systems and services.  This will involve encouraging more people to study for PhDs in this area as well as ensuring that there is perceived to be appropriate career development opportunities.

In recent years few high calibre scientists have entered this area and most of those have subsequently moved on to other areas of research.  One approach to lessening this problem is to establish research groups with base funding - typically such groups would have between 3 and 7 research workers plus support staff.  The leader of such teams needs to be highly motivated and have a clear idea of the direction to be taken by the team.

In the past some of the non-profit agencies encouraged young research workers by providing grants to permit them to visit other research workers and establish their own network of contacts.  It is difficult to measure the benefits of this approach other than to study which of the key figures in the area acknowledge that this was a significant help in getting themselves established in this field.

2.2     Current Research
Before one can provide support services and identify gaps in current research, one needs to know what research is being undertaken and by whom.  It is relatively easy to obtain basic information on research funded by public bodies, but increasingly commercial reasons are being given for not releasing the details.  There are various databases of ongoing research but none are comprehensive or up-to-date.  One problem has been setting the boundaries for what is included (eg inclusive design often involves improving usability for everyone).  Another problem has been in subject indexing the research projects when convergence means that many technological boundaries are being blurred.

One such database is at www.tiresias.org/research/researchers/projects which is linked to a list of about 93 research workers at www.tiresias.org/research/researchers which also includes their recent publications.  However the present database demonstrates what could be done but resource would need to be allocated if it is to reach a level to give a useful overview of current research in this area.

2.3     Sources of Funding for Research
Funding for medium and long-term research on accessibility of ICT comes from international and national sources.  A significant international source of funding is the European Commission which funds projects of €1M to €15M which typically last three to five years.  They also fund a few network and survey projects which are typically less than €1M each.  All these projects involve partners from at least three countries in the European Union and can involve up to 60 partners.  Applying for a European grant is a complex process and is beyond the resources of a recently qualified research worker.

At national level, the government is the main source of funding for university-based projects.  In the UK, this is channelled through the various research councils (for accessibility of ICT the key organisation is the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council).  However the government also directly provides some funding for collaborative projects between academia and industry.  The Technology Strategy Board (previously part of the Department of Trade and Industry) is now funding research in selected areas such as ambient assisted living.
 
Funding bodies often welcome 'road-maps' to help them allocate their finite resources to areas most likely to lead to long-term practical benefit.  However reaching a consensus on a series of road-maps is not a trivial task.

For research workers entering the field, it is difficult to identify the appropriate sources of funding.  A sample list of the sources of funding is at www.tiresias.org/research/funding but this list would require significant work before it becomes sufficiently comprehensive to be a useful source of information.

2.4     Standards
Standardisation is an important aspect of ensuring accessibility to ICT systems and services, if the relevant standards are enforced.  Lack of awareness of the appropriate standards is a significant issue.  However there is a comprehensive list of the relevant standards and information about standards under development at www.tiresias.org/research/standards

Active participation in the creation of accessibility standards is an area which is often not attractive to either academic research workers or industry.  Often accessibility is just addressed in a few clauses in a much larger standard, so participation involves sitting through detailed discussion of other aspects which is not perceived as being the best use of time.  However failure to participate is likely to mean that accessibility aspects are left out of mainstream standards which can result in systems which are less accessible.

2.5     Access to Experimental Subjects
Too often academic research is based on very small or unrepresentative samples of the user population.  Many times this is because of the difficulty of a university-based research worker getting access to appropriate experimental subjects.  The RNIB Scientific Research Unit used to maintain a database of experimental subjects which was made available to approved research workers.  This gap has not been filled by other agencies.

2.6     Information Dissemination
In the past the main problems were perceived as finding out what had been published (and obtaining a copy of the publication), and finding somewhere to publish research papers on accessibility.  The internet has completely changed the situation.  Now a significant problem is filtering the vast quantity of information available to identify the key sources.

Traditionally academics have relied on presenting papers at research conferences.  The problem used to be in getting a paper accepted; nowadays there is rarely a problem in that there are more conferences than good quality original research papers to fill the agenda.  Research conferences can provide a useful forum for new research workers to establish contacts in the field; such contacts can be useful when forming consortia to submit research proposals.

However industry frequently relies on conference presentations to keep up-to-date in developments in their field.  These are not research conferences but industrial sector conferences.  In this case, the need is for presentations on accessibility of ICT systems and services which have a content relevant to the particular audience.

There are various websites which include lists of forthcoming conferences - none are comprehensive.  These lists tend to disappear after a while since they are labour intensive to maintain and the scope tends to widen as the compiler appreciates the range of conferences which may include papers on accessibility.

2.7     Research Skills
There can be problems for research workers in acquiring the necessary research skills in an area which is multi-disciplinary.  Universities often have problems in paying for young research workers to go on appropriate courses, so they tend to encourage their staff to work in just one or two disciplines.

2.8     Reaching the Market
This area is sometimes referred to as technology transfer.  There is a poor track record of the results of research projects becoming of practical benefit to people with disabilities.  There are a large number of factors involved, but a significant problem is the lack of available funding to convert a prototype into a marketable product in an area where the potential return on investment is low.

Some of the results of research into accessibility can be used to refine the guidelines for designers of ICT systems.  The most comprehensive set of guidelines is at www.tiresias.org/research/guidelines.  However such guidelines are of modest use unless they are widely promoted.

2.9     Identifying the Gaps
There are a number of methodologies for identifying gaps in an area and determining priorities for future activities.  However these tools tend to perform better in single disciplinary fields.  In the area of accessibility of ICT, there are a number of additional factors like the distorted market (ie often it is not the end user who selects or pays for the product).

Holding a seminar on priorities for future research on accessibility of ICT might be beneficial to administrators but is unlikely to be perceived to be useful by research workers.  However more focussed seminars (eg on subjects such as ambient intelligence, augmented reality, or adaptive interfaces) might be more attractive to the research community.  The outcomes of such seminars need to be published in an appropriate form for the various stakeholders.

 

3      Exemplar Products
Another possibility to stimulate the market is to fund the development of exemplar products to show what can be achieved with respect to accessibility.  However it is often necessary to write off the development costs to make the products affordable to potential purchasers.  This, in turn, can deter other companies developing and marketing similar products.  So the aim of stimulating the market can result in alienating the companies already in the field.  At the worse it can result in one product effectively having a monopoly which can discourage further development while mainstream products are further evolving.

 

 



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