Tuesday, June 26, 2018

"Access" itself is diverse: Typology & terminology

Two recent items - a tweet by the Office of the President of Niger touting greater internet access as a key to the digital development component its "Niger 2.0" program (below), and an announcement by IAB-South Africa (logo on right) of a campaign for free internet access in South Africa - raise anew questions about (1) what we mean by "access" in multilingual societies, especially in the service of development, and (2) how to clearly signify those meanings in ways that facilitate clear discussion, planning, and action.
In African Languages in a Digital Age (ALDA) I discussed how "access" in information and communication technology (ICT) may refer to many things, but then adopted a binary distinction between on the one hand "physical access," basically the having a functioning digital device with power and connectivity, and on the other hand "soft access," being the software and applications. In a multilingual society, localization (L10n) is, or at least logically should be, a major concern of soft access.

Nearly a decade later, the tendency still seems to be to treat access as one thing, focused on the technical or physical aspects of access (devices, connectivity), and leaving out L10n and a deeper consideration of how people in multilingual societies access and might interact with the technology. In the wake of the 2015 "Connectivity Declaration" and Facebook's Internet.org initiative I discussed this problem at some length on this blog: "Access gap in the 'Connectivity Declaration'?"

What counts as "access"?

This gap in how we frame access is reflected in Wikipedia (English) articles relating in one way or another to access or to localization:
  • Internet access (corresponds roughly with physical access; no mention of software outside of network context or of L10n) & the "right to internet access" (the discussion of which is framed in terms of physical access, and doesn't broach linguistic rights; and the latter article for its part doesn't mention access to the internet or ICTs in general)
  • Computer accessibility & web accessibility ("accessibility" generally concerns people with disabilities)
  • Language access, linguistic accessibility, & variants (a set of terms not covered in Wikipedia, which have to do with a range of situations including, but definitely not limited to ICT and the internet; this terminology "sub-space" does not seem clear or well-elaborated)
  • Internationalization and localization & language localization (include processes leading to software and content in diverse languages, but does not mention access as a goal; in fact, the emphasis is more on reaching people with appropriate messages than it is in facilitating people's access and use of software and content)
  • Digital divide (makes specific reference to access, and only marginal mention of languages, but language of software/content is not clearly evoked as a factor in enhancing access to help bridge the divide; no mention of L10n)
  • ICT for development (ICT4D; references to access, with language mentioned as a consideration only in some ways that do not relate to access; a single mention of L10n)
It should be pointed out that these  Wikipedia articles do get editorial input from people who have some expertise in the topics covered, so while they may not be definitive, they offer a fair impression of thinking on these subjects.

The impression I get from reviewing these articles is that they show exactly the kind of gap between dominant use of "access" on the one hand, and the issues of access related to language on the other, that I had hoped to help bridge with ALDA and other writing.

The back story on "soft access"

When I first started looking at the dimensions of access to ICT in early 2000 - which was around the time of the Bamako 2000 "Internet: Bridges to Development" conference - I used the term "meaningful access" as distinguished from "physical access." This was intended in part to address the language dimension that was discussed at Bamako 2000 (its Plan of Action included "plurilingualism" among its 20 "essential activities"), but was largely overlooked in most of the early enthusiasm about how the internet was supposed to transform African development.

In later work on the PanAfrican Localisation project and the writing of ALDA, however, I instead used "soft access," a term borrowed from a TeleCommons Development Group report released in June 2000. I had a brief email correspondence with that NGO prior to the release of the report, but it is not clear whether or to what extent my input regarding types of access may have contributed to their thinking. In any event, their take on "soft access" (including as it did, attention to the issue of languages) seemed to capture the essence of what I was getting at. And their emphasis on software in defining soft access seemed productive in the context of localization I was dealing with in writing ALDA:
"software and applications which are designed to enable rural African users to utilize ICTs for their own needs and uses once the physical access has been established."

When it came time to translate ALDA into French, there was the question of how to translate "soft access." The resulting formulation - "accès logiciel" - is fine, but also shades the focus even more explicitly toward software and apps. (The translation adopted for "physical access" in Les langues africaines à l'ère du numérique is "accès matériel.")

Return to "meaningful access"? Or, "real access"?

In the years since, I have occasionally wondered if I should have stayed with "meaningful access," for a harder insistence on the linguistic and cultural dimension of access to technology. And more recently whether in fact that term and soft access might not better be thought of as two distinct but complementary access issues addressed by localization: content and interface.

Meaningful access, however, is a term that can be understood - and indeed is used - in ways that don't deal with language or even content. For example, meaningful access might simply refer to the quality of physical access (which would not be meaningful to have if, say, safety or noise were problems). One recent article on helping African women and girls to get online discusses "meaningful access to the internet" in broad terms that also encompass what I've been calling physical access (although it did not mention language):
"having a good, affordable connection and then being able to use it in a way that makes sense for you."

So, perhaps meaningful access might be a useful umbrella term, covering all aspects of "access" that might be left out if the sole focus is very narrowly on hardware and connections. But that doesn't get us too far in a context where language too easily is left on the margins of the discourse.

In this broader use, meaningful access reminds of the "real access" heading used in the early 2000s by Bridges.org (an early ICT4D NGO based in Cape Town, South Africa & Washington, DC, US; logo on left) in recognition that access "goes beyond just physical access and makes it possible for people to use technology effectively to improve their lives".

However, Bridges broke this broad category down into 12 "determining factors in whether or not people have Real Access to ICT" sketches out the environment in which organizations like IAB in South Africa or the government of Niger might try to increase "access" to the internet and ICTs more broadly (even if such organizations are not thinking about it that way). Language is explicitly mentioned only under #5 "relevant content," but a range of linguistic factors are relevant under several others (see my comments below on nos. 2, 4, 6, & 7; I've highlighted their & my uses of language or languages):
  1. Physical access. Is technology available and physically accessible?
  2. Appropriate technology. What is the appropriate technology according to local conditions, and how people need and want to put technology to use? [Comment: Software / apps localized in locally/regionally-important languages and, where needed, appropriate fonts & input systems can also be considered appropriate tech in this context.]
  3. Affordability. Is technology access affordable for people to use? 
  4. Capacity. Do people understand how to use technology and its potential uses? [Comment: User skills including knowledge of languages and basic literacy are relevant here.]
  5. Relevant content. Is there locally relevant content, especially in terms of language
  6. Integration. Does the technology further burden people's lives or does it integrate into daily routines? [Comment: Is tech less burdensome & more easily integrated to the extent it "speaks" the language(s) of daily use in the community?]
  7. Socio-cultural factors. Are people limited in their use of technology based on gender, race, or other socio-cultural factors? [Comment: Linguistic factors, including lack of appropriate language of interface options would presumably fall under this item.]
  8. Trust. Do people have confidence in and understand the implications of the technology they use, for instance in terms of privacy, security, or cybercrime? 
  9. Legal and regulatory framework. How do laws and regulations affect technology use and what changes are needed to create an environment that fosters its use? 
  10. Local economic environment. Is there a local economy that can and will sustain technology use?
  11. Macro-economic environment. Is national economic policy conducive to widespread technology use, for example, in terms of transparency, deregulation, investment, and labour issues? 
  12. Political will. Is there political will in government to do what is needed to enable the integration of technology throughout society? 
In fact, language and L10n in the access equation can also be affected by economic and policy considerations (nos. 10-12). Language is indeed a factor, and used of languages are conditioned by, almost anything that involves communication and knowledge. (This could lead into a discussion of "localization ecology," but I'll save that for another time.)

It is very useful when discussing access to technology (internet or ICTs in general) to spread out the subject, as it were, and to see how it might be disaggregated into specific concerns for specific attention, such as what Bridges did. I'm not currently aware of other similar efforts.

What about "linguistic access"? Or the "last inch"?

So why not just identify "linguistic access" as a key component in a broader "meaningful" or "real" access that goes beyond the usual focus on physical access? That thought occurred, but in the original dichotomy between physical and meaningful access, the latter was intended to go a bit beyond just language, much as L10n also is also concerned with more than just translation.

In a redo of Bridge's approach, one might call out linguistic access as a need addressed by localized software / apps and interface. And also localized content, perhaps still under "relevant content," meaning content created in, and/or translated into relevant languages.

A completely different way to refer to linguistic access is the "last inch" metaphor introduced by Dwayne Bailey and the African Network for Localisation (ANLoc; logo on right) a decade ago. The idea here is explicitly the language of software and interfaces (and content). However the term always seemed to be used only in the sense of "last inch limitations" and "last inch barriers," thus falling into the same trap of discussing lack of a common language first in negative terms that I've discussed elsewhere.* After all, the whole point of L10n is to bridge that "last inch" and thus facilitate linguistic access. Maybe "last-inch opportunities" or "bridging that last inch" to full access?

Wait - access for what?

Maybe part of the reason that the concepts and terms seem hard to settle on is that there is a deeper question that needs to be answered first: Access for what? Bridges discussed people using tech effectively "to improve their lives." One.org's "Internet for all" site, home of the Connectivity Declaration), says "Internet Access is Essential for achieving humanity's potential." These are broad well-intentioned goals - everything will be better with access to ICTs, or more specifically the internet. But what exactly is the vision of what people will do with access that will yield such vaguely wonderful outcomes?

Most examples of use of the internet on site Internet for All (which by the way makes no mention of L10n for access or of languages at all outside of a few translated versions of the Connectivity Declaration) relate to consumption of information and e-commerce. No problem as far as those go - they are important. But is access for all really about increasing markets?

In other words, in what vision of access to technology would linguistic diversity not be important? Is it one where people participating in a market for info and goods are really only those speaking a small range of dominant or "elite" languages? Is our current discussion of "access to the internet" really prioritizing certain uses and certain linguistic and cultural priorities?

I pose such questions as a proponent of greater access to ICTs (powered in part by better provisions for use in more languages). One of the dimensions I see as fundamental is the creation of content which while globally accessible, might be local or regional in relevance. Such non-mainstream perspectives may be as important for global learning as they would be for cultural/linguistic survival and development.

Even if the terminology about types of access might be hard to pin down, and even contested, it is essential to begin with acknowledgement that "access" to the internet and ICTs in general is not one thing and needs to be considered from several angles including languages, whether in Niger, in South Africa, or anywhere else.

* For example the discussions at the end of "Breaking the 'dialect barrier'" or on my other blog, "Reimagining 'language barrier'."

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