Digital Accessibility in isolated areas

Digital Accessibility in isolated/rural areas


“Well, this certainly buggers our plan to conquer the Universe”                                          Image source:

Accessibility is something we must think about when we start a Digital Humanities project. The concept of accessibility can be articulated in many ways, depending on how we can share the content we upload in our project space: strategies, media, software, design, and/or any kind of documents that are going to be available for future users. Many of these interdisciplinary projects are connected to a wide network of diverse types of issues, people, and of course, other kinds of projects. Thereby, what DH is doing with information, I think, is actually aligned with the outcomes of what Nicolas Bourriaud claims in his Altermodern manifesto, as an “attempt at contextualizing art made in today’s global context as a reaction against standardization and commercialism.” 

With the sense we have that unlimited knowledge is accessible to all, though one click, sometimes we unintentionally exclude many people who do not have the same amount of accessibility as people who live in first and second world countries, or just even in cities. Even if there is an immeasurable amount of content posted on the web, many people, who sometimes are also the ones least represented in the public-digital sphere, do not have the resources to access the information. This kind of limitation of resources could be explained due to a lack of equipment, or simply because of a lack of digital literacy. Whatever type of limitation exists, the information posted on the web is being underutilized, because it is not reaching every potential user, and in some cases it is probably increasing the gap of digital inequality, or even worse, increasing isolation in these already isolated areas.

In the specific case of Latin America, countries are very city-centric. This means that if you are not in the city (sometimes even just in the capital city), it is very hard to get the same kind of services and products as the ones you can get in the more populated areas. Thus, isolation is a characteristic that determines a considerable part of the population of the area. As Álvaro Salinas and Jaime Sánchez quote in their research paper, “income, education, race and locality have a statically significant effect on access to technology. Nevertheless (…) only one-fifth of the variance between household’s ownership of computers and access to the Internet can be explained by the combined effect of these facors.” In fact, in Chile, my home country, these factors are highly related to each other, with the exception of race as a critical factor because Chile is mostly racially homogeneous. Spreading access and connectivity to mainly rural areas, where people cannot afford technology, is very difficult. Even if people have the money to purchase the technology, it would be challenging to access the places where these products are sold. One might ask: what happens when people in town depend on the state to get access to internet? Because they can’t afford technology, internet, or even wire installation, getting internet to reach their hamlet is a difficult process. Their level of accessibility relies on governmental projects of connectivity. Thus, there may be just two or three computers for a population of 300 people. Or, perhaps, the internet connection in their village maybe slow or unstable?

Of course, Digital Humanities cannot fully address issues related to accessibility of tangible resources, but it can be aware of digital issues about access. For example, Alex Gil’s Jekyll program, as it is described in the webpage, “is a simple, blog-aware, static site generator”. This means Jekyll transforms web templates into light and well-design code-based websites. All the images that you will see in a Jekyll-based website are in fact made with codes, making the site very fast load to and navigate, even with terrible internet connection or with an outdated navigator. This tool makes easier internet navigation even from the most remote and outdated computer, but at the same time maintains a neat and nice aesthetic. An efficient interface does not necessarily mean a boring or ugly design.

One collaborative project based in Jekyll is “Around DH in 80 days”, which aims to collect, curate, and display DH projects around the world. By featuring many different visions of how to think and conceive DH, this project aims to give the user-audience a global view of what has been happening in the field around the year 2014. Unfortunately, this project has not been updated since then, and even some links are broken, which make us also consider that while there are barriers that are broken for greater access, complete access is sometimes denied by simple things as the ephemerality of the web and the fragility of links.

One of the projects featured in “Around DH in 80 days” was “Memorias de la Patagonia Actual” (Present memories of Patagonia). This Argentinian project can be described as part of the mainstream of memory projects that have begun to appear in many countries in Latin America as an effort to preserve intangible heritage in last decade. That being said, maybe it can be considered as “another memory project from Latin America”, which contains an archive of photography, newspapers cuts, time lines, maps, interpretative texts, oral histories, and other written memories. But the real value of this highly ethno centric project is described by their creators as an “extra-centric perspective to hegemonic alternatives”. In this way, “Memorias de la Patagonia Actual” is a collaborative effort by the community and institutions from Patagonia to gather the information of their area, and not a history collected and written by the authorities of the cities from an urban perspective.

According to Salinas’s and Sánchez’s research, “in rural contexts technology is seen by many people as an opportunity to overcome barriers of geographic isolation, offering new opportunities for education and employment as well as access to knowledge and communication with other people”. In this way, the community of Patagonia is taking advantage of the digital resources they have available for telling their own history from their own point of view to the world. This is why the treatment of the elements uploaded to the webpage are intimately connected by presenting the content in a more organic way, and not separately displayed as rigid categories. On the other hand, organic design makes navigation and understanding difficult for a first time user. In “Minimal Computer”, by asking “what do we need?” Alex Gil reflects on issues related to accessibility and creating digital knowledge on our own. In this binary problem of intuitive versus DIY technology, he propose to “displace the reliance on “user friendly” mechanisms, and learn how to make our own, imperfect as they may be.”  While I am exploring the Patagonia project, this last sentence makes more sense to me. Even when the old-looking design of the webpage and files is difficult to navigate because of how they are grouped and classified, all the decisions made here are responses to what the community needs. They do not need a traditional type of curation and cataloguing for their objects and files, which is based on the distance between topics, but to show holistically in one whole story, their past and how it affects their present. Thereby, the main audience of the webpage is the community itself. That is why access was thought in their own terms.

To sum up, accessibility in DH projects is a huge topic itself, and it can be approached from different perspectives. Furthermore, accessibility could be even more complex when we think about rural areas with several technologic issues. Hence, is good to start thinking ways on how to engage and integrate isolated communities into the digital realm. By designing a lighter web, fast to load even with the slowest internet connections; facilitating tools for digital creation, experimentation and interpretation; and also by respecting the diversity of ways on how communities can relate with the digital sphere to communicate their ideas to the outer world, it can give us ideas on how to make DH even more flexible, and how DH can adjust to these specific realities to share digital authorities in an horizontal way.