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