NRC report calls for making NII accessible to everyone

Government and industry must initiate a major research effort to make the National Information Infrastructure (NII) accessible to the public regardless of individual abilities or where people live according to a National Research Council report released last week.

Although the explosive growth of new computing and communications technology has the potential to make the NII available to almost everyone many individuals find computer technology difficult or impossible to use according to the NRC report "More Than Screen Deep: Toward Every-Citizen Interfaces to the Nation's Information Infrastructure."

While blind people or individuals with other physical disabilities are the most obvious group that may find it difficult to use traditional computing point-and-click interfaces other persons may have trouble using a computer because they have no computer skills or their English may not be good enough to understand instructions or they may have different personal learning styles.

As a result NRC recommends that the government and industry focus future research on developing hardware and software that allow communication between users and their machines so that users have multiple options to send and receive information to and from a communication network.

Potential interfaces to narrow the gap between expert computer users and those that have not been able to access the technology include virtual-reality technologies gesture recognition speech recognition and pointing devices.

"While critical roadwork needs to be done in building the nation's information superhighway we cannot afford any longer to ignore the cars " committee member Bruce Tognazzini of Healtheon Corp. wrote in the study. "Our 1960s rattletrap hardware and 1970s rattletrap interfaces and software are not up to the task of every-citizen access to this nation's information infrastructure."

The NRC recommends that government and industry invest in the research needed to develop the components to make computing networks easier to use. The report noted however that while industry will take the lead in mainstream product development and short-term research federal research initiatives should emphasize long-term goals beyond the reach of most commercial efforts that may have the potential to stimulate the discovery of new technologies.

Facing the Machine

Specifically the report urges government research agencies to break away from 1960s technologies and paradigms and to attempt finding new modes for human-machine interaction. Agencies are encouraged to invest in research required to provide interfaces for all citizens.

The report also recommends that the government encourage research on systems-level design and development of interfaces that support multiple-person multiple-machine groups as well as individual users.

"Studies should be made of the citizenry to find out what their needs are and to make estimates about what technology can do for people " said Alan Biermann a computer science professor at Duke University and chair of the committee that compiled the report. "All computer interfaces now require that you interact in a certain way - like it must be a mouse or it must be a keyboard. Tremendous flexibility is needed which is not available now."

The government Biermann said has an important role in nurturing research designed to improve access for citizens because of its successful history spawning technologies with relatively small investments most notably the Internet and networking. "Just incredible things have occurred because tiny bits of federal money were spent in wise ways."

Tom Kalil senior director of the National Economic Council said the recommendations in the report for federal research are supported by the Clinton administration and that several projects are already under way to try to improve public access to computing. The High Performance Computing and Communications program the umbrella organization that helps coordinate high-performance computing research and development efforts in agencies has added accessibility as a specific area where research should be focused he said.

In addition the White House this year endorsed the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) which is a World Wide Web Consortium project to promote and achieve Web functionality for people with disabilities. The WAI involves the establishment of an International Program Office responsible for developing software protocols and technologies creating guidelines for the use of technologies and educating industry.

While this project is geared toward people with disabilities Kalil said developments could be applied to other uses. For example a technology to allow access to a blind person could also be used by a physician during surgery or a person driving a car he said.

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