For years, technologists and policy makers alike have worked to close the digital divide—the gap in access to information technology like computers, mobile phones and the Internet, which are often found between different socioeconomic groups. As the open government movement picks up steam, there is potential for the “digital divide” to eventually become the “government gap” wherein access to government grows for some groups and declines for others. In particular, open government advocates should be cognizant of the extent to which open government projects deliver benefits for people with disabilities.
People around the world experience a wide range of disabilities including difficulty with vision, hearing, mobility, dexterity and cognition. According to the United Nations, approximately 10 percent of the global population has at least one disability, with eighty percent of people with disabilities living in developing countries. Given advancements in medical care, many people, especially as they age, can expect to spend some years of their life living with disability. Governments have put many policies in place to ensure that people with disabilities can live their lives to the fullest and that all members of society respect their rights, including building accessible sidewalks and designing accessible websites. We need to make sure that these gains do not get lost in the transition to more open government.
After all, open government does not necessarily translate into more accessibility. Consider a hypothetical situation. As part of its open government activities, a local city transit agency decides to publish real-time data on the location of its city buses. A local developer takes the data and creates a mobile app that tells residents when the next bus is coming. The app is enormously successful and is downloaded by many residents. Unfortunately, blind users cannot use it because the developer did not ensure that the app would work with a screen reader—a software program that reads aloud the text on a computer screen. Had the city designed and built the app itself, this feature would not have been overlooked because it is required by local laws. But since the development occurred entirely in the private sector, these rules did not apply. The government could pass a law requiring that all software contain certain features, but it is hard to legislate accessible design because it can be a burden on the private sector. Alternatively, the government could build its own app, but that would be duplicative, wasteful and would reduce the benefits of rapid, private sector-led development.
The example above is by no means meant as a call to put the brakes on innovation—on the contrary, we should all be pushing for our civic leaders to accelerate investment in open government opportunities—but rather it is meant as a reminder that the public values engrained in existing policies will not necessarily be part of open government unless advocates insist on it. After all, there are many ways that the above situation could be remedied. For example, the city could offer rewards to developers who add accessibility features to popular mobile apps that use local data or offer boot camps to train local developers on accessible design.
Last year my think tank worked with the global design firm IDEO to launch an open innovation challenge around the question “How might we design an accessible election experience for everyone?” We learned at least two big lessons. First, for all of the various problems around the world, our communities are not lacking in creativity. The inspiration and ingenuity of participants was inspiring and highlight why open, collaborative projects can be so powerful. Second, important issues like accessibility will not be integrated into the design process unless both governments and activists actively participate.
Many open government solutions involve offloading some work traditionally done by government to the private or non-profit sectors. Since government agencies will be doing “less rowing” but “more steering” they have an important role to play in ensuring that open government solutions deliver benefits for as many people as possible. In the race to create open government solutions, whether it is publishing official documents online, creating new tools for government officials to engage with citizens, or identifying opportunities to have agencies work collaboratively with the public, it is crucial that accessibility for people with disabilities be a key priority.
This article originally appeared in “Open Government: Global Perspectives“.