Accessibility or Bust

(Photo: “Cable Confusion” by e-magic)

It’s been obvious since the 1990s that the communication and collaboration technologies that have evolved from the internet and mobile telephony are changing our planet – its culture, its environment and its economy. What’s differentiated those who’ve succeeded in applying those technologies from those who’ve failed is their ability to integrate them with society.

By society I mean people and the economy. People in the sense of the consumability and accessibility of technology; and the economy in the sense of adding value to the interactions between people. If technology isn’t consumable and accessible by people, and if it doesn’t add value to their interactions, it won’t be used.

James Watt and Matthew Boulton got this absolutely right in their industrial and commercial exploitation of the steam engine, which Jenny Uglow argued in her brilliant book “The Lunar Men” was the catalyst for the Industrial Revolution. Reuters got it right when they started a business using one of the original low-latency messaging technologies to distribute news around the world faster than anyone else – carrier pigeons.

We’re living through an era of acute financial, demographic and environmental pressures that we expect technology to rescue us from. The Internet of Things and Open Data will make information available to anyone, anytime to take better decisions, and use resources more efficiently. Internet entrepreneurs will continue to create innovative new business models. Cities everywhere will build digital industries to drive economic growth. The cost of transactions in public service and commerce will fall as delivery becomes “digital by default”.

Or will they?

People can only use information to take better decisions if they understand that information.

Take the transformation to open, digital, public services and personal budgets, for example, in UK public services. If individuals are to choose effectively which care services to purchase with their care budgets, then they need to be presented with comprehensible information that describes the range of services available to them. They need information describing what the services do; the quality of service outcomes and delivery; and who the provider of the service is. They need information describing who measures service quality, and how. They need information that describes whether they are eligible for the service, how much it costs, how to access it, and how to complain if something goes wrong. And that’s just for starters.

This is starting to sound like an awful lot of complicated information. Because we’re talking about social care, it needs to be presented to vulnerable people, who may have difficulty understanding it, and may not be able or willing to use digital technology.

Solving our problems using technology is not about Open Data, Open Source, or Agile Development or supporting the nation’s technology SMEs. All of those things are important, but they’re not enough. We need an acceleration of the rollout of broadband connectivity; we need to look at whether channels such as digital television and mobile can be used effectively; we need a really effective network of “living labs” to explore how people can interact effectively with these technologies; and we need to examine indirect user interactions with digital services, where a carer, a friend or a family member uses technology on behalf of someone else.

I’m exploring some of these issues in Sunderland, where the city has invested in broadband connectivity, Cloud computing, and a network of 39 “e-Village Halls” (see short articles on the Council’s website here  and here) which provide access to online information and transactions from community and neighbourhood centres in a trusted environment where help and advice are available. A few years ago, the Council ran a scheme called the “Let’s Go” Card where more than 2500 disadvantaged young people were given a smartcard with £33 a month to spend on leisure and educational activities that could be booked through an online portal. Many of the people in the scheme didn’t have direct access to the internet themselves; but they could get it through friends. The scheme was a huge success, with 94% of the eligible young people taking part.

The TSB’s Creative Industries KTN has looked recently at applying their expertise to the consumability of information provided by Smart Meters and other “Internet of Things” technologies; and I know of some other high-profile organisations who are developing similar plans. They’re starting to draw many private sector companies and Universities into their activities, and I think the results will be fascinating.

IBM’s own Andy Stanford-Clark has been interested in this subject for a while, and has explored the concept of ambient information interfaces which communicate information about domestic energy use in a non-technical way. And the NHS in the West Midlands is exploring effective ways to communicate healthcare information within a community of patients and employees through the NHS Local site. They have engaged a television production company, Maverick Television, to design the site using their expertise in communicating through technology. I hope that all of these initiatives will contribute to our ability to design smarter, digital city systems that we can all engage effectively in.

For me, this is the real shape of things to come. There’s been a lot of focus recently on improving the teaching of technology skills in the UK economy. But as I commented recently on this blog, to develop technology with real societal impact, we need to focus on a broader combination of technology, information, scientific, creative and entrepreneurial skills.

To put my money where my mouth is, I’m hoping to start a study project soon to explore that idea in more detail and create some recommendations for doing things differently. I’d be delighted to hear from anyone who’s interested in taking part.

About Rick Robinson
I’m the Director of Smart Places for Jacobs, the global engineering company. Previously, I was the UK, Middle East and Africa leader of the Digital Cities and Property business for Arup, Director of Technology for Amey, one of the UK’s largest engineering and infrastructure services companies and part of the international Ferrovial Group, and before that IBM UK’s Executive Architect for Smarter Cities.

7 Responses to Accessibility or Bust

  1. Pingback: Open Data isn’t free data « meme-too

  2. Pingback: The world is at our children’s fingertips; and they will change it « meme-too

  3. We need to find our Steve Jobs; we need people and institutions that can build this dialog and sell it. I know many digital deniers; well educated people who do not see the benefits so we will have to work incredibly hard to persuade those who have not even considered the issue or whose daily life pressures are so intense that a digital dialog may only lead to a diatribe


  4. Chris Cooper says:

    Rick, great blog by the way. Endorse your viewpoint on skills for the future. Being a social scientist in engineers clothes now, I agree we need broader & deeper skills for the future. I will start this by trying to educate the two units under my parental control that a multi-discipline foundation is best.


  5. rickrobinson says:

    @chris well those will be two highly successful social and economic capacity units in due course I’m sure!


  6. Pingback: The simple idea behind Smarter Cities: take better-informed, more forward-looking decisions « The Urban Technologist

  7. Pingback: How Smarter Cities Get Started « The Urban Technologist

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