An Inclusive Future Internet

Document edited by Dr. Carlos A Velasco (Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology FIT) and John J O'Flaherty (The National Microelectronics Applications Centre Ltd) with contributions of the I2Web (Inclusive Future Internet Web Services) Consortium for the Future Internet Assembly (FIA) Research Roadmap under the research area «eAccessibility and Digital Inclusion.»

Changes

The population of Europe is ageing. Older people are expected to reach almost one third of the total EU population by 2025 according to the UN, 2006 Revision of World Population Prospects. This demographic change along with the fact that a significant number of current Internet users will be above 60 in 2025, requires the Future Internet to address fully the Internet access and usage needs, especially of the older population. If we add also the current number of disabled people which is 10% of the total population, then the number of people that will be directly affected will be almost 40% of the EU population by 2025.

The Future Internet Community that will be ever more mainstream in people's lives, will further isolate these and other excluded groups, especially as the technology becomes highly interactive and participative (with co-creation and co-design), converging multimedia (TV/IPTV, Games and Web), mobile, distributed and ubiquitous (The Web of Services, Things and Content).

We need to provide the research and tools to develop inclusive and accessible Front Ends to all Future Internet services that will overcome this potentially widening Divide.

Public policy and legislation is placing an increasing emphasis on digital inclusion. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities puts digital accessibility on a par with accessibility of transport and the built environment. As of January 2011, it had 147 signatories and had been ratified by 98 parties including the European Union. The European Commission is now investigating the possibility of introducing a general eAccessibility regulation. Further afield, legislative developments in the USA include the U.S. 21st Century Video and Communications Act, which, for the first time, applies existing accessibility requirements for broadcast television to Internet delivered television content.

Vision

Our vision is Future Internet Services that are fully inclusive and accessible to everyone, everywhere, everytime they wish to use them.

We must address the accessibility challenges in future (if not today's) trends in ICT, i.e., that tomorrow's Future Internet Web content will be even more interactive: sites will not be passive, silent, or simple. They will provide access to a host of functionalities. Content and applications will not be just "on the web" but truly around us. Web content will be available from everywhere (PCs, mobile phones and TV) and should be accessible to everyone. It will be so integrated in our lives that we will use it all the time, without conscious choice, Eventually, for all end users, IT will be like electricity today. Everywhere you go, you will find access to IT. We may no longer need to bring computers with us. They will be available in every room, every environment, all of the time. We must build inclusive access to the Web by supporting developers in deeply embedding generalised accessibility support within future mainstream ICT products and services based on interactive content and accessed everywhere including the mobile phone and the TV.

Just enhancing the computer that older people and people with disabilities use through Assistive Technology products is not enough for tomorrow's fully interactive web content, we must make accessibility tools available everywhere, all the time. By making these available by default, it will become possible to provide more efficient, inclusive and cost-effective access, to allow productive participation and greater independence. It will also become easier for industry and governments to ensure that new Web technologies and services are accessible to those with few resources.

So the Future Internet research roadmap must:

  1. Include advances in an open development model which will allow researchers, disadvantaged groups, and industry to participate and combine their efforts as well as benefit out of it;
  2. Consider various IPR models including royalty-free and commercial, non-assertive intellectual property, allowing use by everyone; and
  3. Open up access in all European countries and their languages by advancing localisation-friendly and culturally open user, device and application models.

Challenges

In conjunction with the demographic change, there are important challenges that the Future Internet must address in the immediate future: the ubiquitous and mobile Web, media convergence (e.g., television and the Web) and user-generated content, all in combination with developments such as cloud computing. These challenges are the result of the evolution of the Web from primarily static pages to inter-related interactive applications. The evolution has occurred partially due to the widespread use of mobile devices, and further due to the integration of the web connectivity in everyday objects creating a true Web of Things, be they appliances or electronically tagged products. The ubiquitous, interactive nature of these everyday objects raises the importance of the context of use, making it possible for people to interact with the web at any time, in any place. Furthermore, with the appearance of Rich Internet Applications (RIAs, also known as Web 2.0), the Web is evolving into a participatory environment where users become content and application providers, leading to a myriad of Web applications such as mashups.

Neither the average end-user nor Web developers, managers and commissioners are familiar with the complexity of user requirements resulting from personal characteristics and preferences (e.g., for people with disabilities and older people), together with the variety of devices they might use.

The delivery of accessibility depends on four interdependent components in order to ensure wider and deeper impact. These are (a) web content, (b) authoring tools, (c) user agents and (d) assistive technologies (as in the Figure). Web content is produced with the aid of authoring tools, rendered to the user via user agents (browsers, media players) and sometimes, through assistive technologies such as screen readers. All of these components need to be interoperable and complementary if the end result delivered to the user is accessible. In addition to the four core components, accessibility evaluation tools have a central role.

This will have indirect impact on Internal Market and Free Movement, two of the significant pillars of EU policy, and would also be consistent with and supportive of EU consumer policy objectives, and the socio-economic impacts required in the Europe 2020 Digital Agenda. Increasing the levels of web accessibility in existing and future ubiquitous Web 2.0 applications, will be an integral part of the Lisbon Strategy's objective and its successor, the Europe 2020 Open Digital strategy, to ensure that all citizens are enabled to work and live in an Information Society. This is also consistent with, and supportive of the renewed European Social Agenda -COM (2008)412- that recognises the importance of the Information Society and eInclusion and its key component, eAccessibility. This will impact the wider European goals of equality and non-discrimination, as underpinned by Article 13 of the EU Treaty as well as on the Directive on Equality in the field of employment. Furthermore, it supports the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities that has been endorsed by the EU and the Member States and, specifically, articles 9, 11 and 21, which address eAccessibility.

While user-centered design (UCD) is now a commonly used process for designing mainstream hardware, software, and web interfaces, design for accessibility is relatively uncommon in education and practice. As a result, the scope of users and the situations in which they operate products is not as inclusive as it could be. By integrating accessibility into the design process, designers can efficiently create products that work effectively for more people in more situations. In fact, costs for accessibility can be justified in the same way as those for usability, which is now commonly regarded as a mandatory requirement. Designing for accessibility will yield greater usability for all, not just for people with disabilities.

The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) promotes the creation of accessible web sites and applications, leading to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 standard in 2008,  to help Web designers and developers create sites that better meet the needs of users with disabilities and older users: Within WCAG, WAI-ARIA, the Accessible Rich Internet Applications Suite, defines a way to make Web 2.0 content and  applications more accessible to people with disabilities, and it especially helps with dynamic content and advanced user interface controls developed with Ajax, HTML, JavaScript, and related technologies. The Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) are also part of WAI guidelines and address authoring tools, namely software and services that people use to produce Web pages and Web content.

The rapid increase in the multimedia and interactivity of the Web makes the issue of accessibility for users with disabilities and older users much more complex and difficult to solve. As happened with the introduction of graphical user interfaces for personal computers and with the original introduction of the World Wide Web, people with disabilities and older people face the possibility of being unable to use these exciting new applications and participate in the developing information society. W3C has addressed this issue by defining a new standard which provides annotations for Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIAs). With these design constrains in mind, ARIA defines roles, states and properties that support Web designers to describe the functionality of the widgets in their Web applications and help assistive technologies to provide interaction information to the user.

Web authors have traditionally been professionals who are prepared to invest time and effort into understanding particular techniques for web authoring. With the growth of Web 2.0, many authors are now non-professionals who are adding content to the Web simply out of interest and entertainment with no consideration of Web accessibility issues.

Finally, Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) has the potential to fundamentally change the way people interact with their television sets. Whereas previously television was largely a passive experience, with IPTV there is the opportunity to deliver a wide variety of interactive television (iTV) applications to the user. The former television "viewer" is rapidly becoming a television "user", who interacts with different aspects of the programming that is delivered to them.

Solutions

To address the eAccessiblity Challenges of the Future Internet, its Research Roadmap needs to include a specific focus on them, with specific R&D on:

  • Model and visualisation techniques to support all stakeholders (professional developers, commissioners, plain users) of ubiquitous and mobile Web 2.0 applications to understand and implement the accessibility compliance issues of these applications.
  • Integrated user/interaction, device and application models (including Cloud Computing) in the design and delivery of ubiquitous and mobile Web 2.0 applications, by combining them with the former techniques.
  • Integrated modules in different domains like IPTV/iTV, IDEs, Enterprise Content Management Systems and Multichannel Delivery Systems via state-of-the-art and future development environments.
  • User evaluation of these systems by people with disabilities and older adults in a wide variety of environments. These evaluations should ensure that the system Front Ends resulting from use of the developed tools will meet usability and accessibility criteria. While the socio-economic impact of their take-up and use should also be assessed.
  • Extension of existing and upcoming standards in all the relevant areas that will allow the use of the developed systems.

Within the context of user requirements and capabilities, the Future Internet Research Roadmap must bridge the gap between the world of guidelines and standards and the world of software development. There is a need to support the integration of accessibility in the software engineering process by providing a set of semantic models (User/Interaction, Device and Application Models) and a set of tools for developers that facilitate the analysis and improvement of accessibility and adaptability compliance for ubiquitous Web 2.0 applications, without the complexity of reinventing ad-hoc approaches and solutions to implement accessibility.

Semantic models of users, devices and applications should support transparent, dynamic and context aware adaptations, providing applications with a self-configuring capability to provide an accessible interface. Using Application MetaModels, User Models and Mobile Device Models, the R&D can incorporate Web Compliance Tools into standard development environments to address accessibility/usability/Design-for-All (DfA) issues at design/runtime. This should be addressed  to 3 user groups (a) professional developers, (b) disabled and older people, and (c) others, who contribute content to the web. To ensure its sustainable impact, these results should be co-designed and fed into W3C, the Open Social initiative and other standardisation bodies.

An open, scalable, dependable service platform architecture and online space is required, with specific DfA platform components, enabling automatic service description, discovery, composition, and negotiation with a multiplicity of reusable inclusive services, which may be mobile or nomadic, multi-device, multimodal and multi-context. Evolution and interoperability of service platforms should also be included, and scale and complexity in dynamic, distributed heterogeneous environments, including open service networks, should be addressed. Full account will need to be taken of the convergence of IT/telecom/content systems and opportunities for breaking down the barriers between the web telecommunication and hybrid services.

This work will need to provide both industry and the public sector with tools and frameworks that support seamless accessibility integration in distributed development environments.

Beyond simple preferences for presentations, the user models for IPTV should go further in describing the personalization of interactive content. This has the opportunity to transform the viewing experience by creating interaction models for each individual user type. For users with disabilities, older user or mainstream users, it would be possible to transform the content of interactive applications so that they are optimized to the user's preferences. This combination of models, representing a virtual user, goes beyond the types of personalization and provides a rich R&D area for true adaptation to both the person and their choice of devices.

While the modelling of devices has been always an industry-driven effort from mobile device manufacturers, there is a need to develop standardised generic device profiles that can respond not only to everyday scenarios today, but also can be flexible enough to cope with future scenarios coming from the ubiquitous Web 2.0. There is a clear gap in application modeling in Mobile/Ubiquitous Web 2.0 and Cloud Computing to cope with assistive devices and the Web of Things, Services and Content. Not only that, but context/location-awareness, seamless roaming and portability, privacy and trust problems should all be addressed in the Future Internet Roadmap.

Finally, all of these areas require the research and development of Web Compliance Engineering and Accessibility Evaluation Tools to be included in the Future Internet Roadmap. A holistic approach is required to deal with the increasing complexity of Web applications, the challenges of a wide variety of mobile devices, the richer user interfaces coming out of Web 2.0 and the non-uniform policy environments worldwide.