Semantic Web and the potential for opening up accessibility

I work with visually impaired library users every day in my job as Library Access Support co-ordinator. The benefits of the development of the “semantic web” for these library users is immediately obvious (one thing I have learned on this job is that technology with assistive aspects benefits all of us, wether we consider ourselves disabled or not, hence the success of the iPhone and naturally, the drive towards the semantic web).

Throughout the 10 sessions of DITA, in the back of my mind I have been applying the ideas to library users of my past (youth) and my present (disabled and dyslexic university students) which helps ground the theory in practise for me. Right at the beginning we learnt about Information Architecture, thinking about the importance of structuring web resources well, and now at the end we are investigating the semantic web, which involves the Text Encoding Initiative (which seeks to make documents machine understandable) and the Resource Description Framework (which provides metatdata for digital resources). Who better to judge the efficacy of these concepts and approaches than those who, in navigating digital resources, are relying solely on software entirely dependant on the hierarchies of a webpage being meaningfully structured, or document being correctly tagged. Think about the ‘skill’ we are taught to develop of quickly scanning a document to decide on its usefulness for our research. Without being able to physically “see” the text, imagine the benefits of text analysis tools and topic modelling to quickly pull out the salient concepts of a document.

Reading further into literature on the semantic web, however, I kept getting snagged on the discussions around the creation of ontologies and taxonomies (which any readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear).

Take for example, the Comic Book Mark Up Language. As an ex-comic book shop owner I was fascinated to see this exists. Our store, Cherry Bomb Comics (RIP) specifically sold only those graphic novels made by women, LGBT and people of colour, as well as local New Zealand creators (our blunt instrument way of rectifying the imbalance in the comics world). I remember trawling through distributors’ catalogues hoping to catch sight of a few keywords we had employed to identify the stock we wanted to hold. If all things comics were marked up with CBML (they’d have to be digitised first though, but I imagine most comics are born digital these days) and publishers made them available for text analysis, what a far more accurate way of identifying what we needed. But… As well as removing the serendipity of browsing through catalogues, who decides how to interpret (and then subsquently mark up) a comic or any image for that matter? The artist/author? The publisher? The person they have hired to do the marking up?

At my place of work, we came across similar philosophical difficulties when we OCRd texts from art books for VI students. Initially we tried to describe the artwork depicted (which the blind student would obviously not be able to see), but it quickly became apparent that this was inappropriate as we were describing things inconsistently, and subjectively, effectively “telling” the VI student what an image represents.

The concept of the “semantic web” being about creating knowledge structures is as exciting as it is open to abuse of power and privilege.  What does the web get to “know”?  Whose knowledge?

I wanted to investigate the possibilities for Web 3.0 technologies to aid accessibility and located this study by Koroupetroglou et al, on the “Web For All” site which looks at using semantic web frameworks to create applications to assist visually impaired users.   Conducted in 2006, it’s rather old now in terms of digital technology, but I was interested in their focus on the extensibility that comes with using OWL (the language used for setting the ontologies behind an RDF), and the fact that this openness to addition and change, they felt, leads to increased opportunity for co-operation amongst different groups with expertise in different areas of digital accessibility. The final paragraph in the study sums up the possibilities opened up by using semantic web technologies in a way that I think implicitly addresses the need to be aware of “whose knowledge?” : “Our community is not tightly connected to the web authoring society, which is quite large and difficult to educate in accessibility issues. However, it can work independently upon the products of the web authoring society.”

Reference: Kouroupetroglou, C., Salampasis, M. & Manitsaris, A. (2006) A Semantic-Web based Framework for Developing Applications to Improve Accessibility in the WWW. Retrieved from: URL

Digital representation and realness. And Charlie and the chocolate factory.

Hearing the name “Foucault”  in the first DITA lecture gave me the warm fuzzies, as  a while ago I did a post grad diploma in post-structural feminist theory.  I still takes me forever to crack Foucault’s code and figure out what he’s on about (I finished that degree 12 years ago and haven’t picked up a text book since – apart from to shelve it of course), but it’s always a worthwhile process. The concept of the panopticon still frightens me, and I find it interesting that at Birkbeck where I work, they now use lecture capture technology called…panopto…

Ernesto commented in the first DITA lecture than when we digitise a thing it’s as though we atomise it, with the bits coming together as a digital representation of the “thing” on the computer screen. So one of the first things I found myself thinking about in DITA was Mike Teavee in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Desperate to get “on” the TV he is shrunk by a ray and “atomised”, before appearing on/in the television screen.  And of course when he is comes out of the TV, he remains tiny.

This explained a lot to me as a child, how else, after all, did things appear on TV? It was one of those taken-for-granted technologies, just like “the Cloud” is today. (Has anyone else noticed then when most people talk about the Cloud they seem always to look up at the sky and wave their hands about vaguely? If only Roald Dahl was still around to explain it all to us).

The concept of the “realness” of digital representation interests me.  At Birkbeck Library, for example, when we order an article as an inter-library loan from the British Library, it will come as a Secure Electronic Delivery (SED) which is a link that can only be opened once.  The life cycle of this SED is this: the British Library scans an article from the hard copy of one of their books.  They email it as an SED to Birkbeck Library. Birkbeck then opens the file and prints it out again, before re-scanning it, turning it once again into a digital file. The link to this file then gets added to a reading list in a Moodle module.  The student then, more often than not, clicks the link in Moodle and prints the article again, I suppose for ease of reading.  If the article was Mike Teavee it would be absolutely miniscule at the end of this process.

The reason for all the palavar, is, of course, copyright, wherein the restrictions don’t seem to have caught up with the digital age.  The BL doesn’t want Birkbeck to willy nilly distribute the article online, however, printed versions can be photocopied to death, as has been the case for years.  Somehow the digital is more dangerous? And for the student, the printed copy more tangible?


Update to this post: the UK Government has actually made reforms to copyright low specifically to reflect the digital age:  Of particular interest to me is the way in which these changes have opened the options up for disabled students, as now any students with a disability are legally allowed to modify texts in order to improve accessiblity.

First post for DITA!

I have to admit, before the course began I was a little daunted by DITA.  Where new technology is concerned I veer towards being one of those “it will never catch on!” people until it reaches a critical mass – and then I meekly get on board with it.

Complicating this is the fact that I work in the e-services team at Birkbeck Library, University of London, where the sole purpose of our jobs is to remain abreast of information technology and figure out how best to present it to students (i.e. information architecture!).  I also job share as the Library Access Support co-ordinator, supporting students with disabilities and dyslexia, and assistive technology is hugely important for these students.

So, it’s clearly time for an attitude adjustment.  I’m looking forward to it.

I chose this specific blog template as it seemed the cleanest and simplest to read.  These days, I am thinking a lot about information architecture in the context of my work with visually impaired students.  I work with blind students who utilise software such as JAWS, which reads out loud to the user, and navigates a webpage using keyboard tabbing. This is all dependent on the behind-the-scenes structure of the website, how things are tagged and ordered and so on, and very quickly it becomes obvious which websites have been constructed with thought for the end user – all end users – and which have not.  Reluctantly I have learned to be impressed with Apple, who (despite the many problematic issues around the production of their products and treatment of human workers) create technology that can be navigated by users of all abilities.

In terms of the final look of my blog, in the end I was not very happy with the out of the box colours or size of the text, and I will be changing this down the track when I have more time.  Good information architecture is essential for widening participation in education and the democratic dissemination of knowledge!  All things that drew me to becoming a librarian in the first place.  So, teach me DITA!