Raising the Floor: constructing an organization that enables a Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure

Origin of Raising the Floor

The concept of “Raising the Floor” first arose in connection with work on accessibility standards around the Web. Gregg Vanderheiden was involved extensively in both the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (as Co-chair and Co-Editor) and in the US Governments 508 guidelines renewal. In the process of working on these guidelines it became clear that the assistive technologies that were available to everyone were not powerful enough to handle the emerging rich web content.  Since it was not practical or productive to lower the technologies on the Internet down to the level of the assistive technologies that were affordable to all, it became clear that we needed to raise the base level of access technologies that everyone could afford.  Gregg coined the term “raising the floor” to describe what needed to be done: to raise the base, or floor level of access technology that was available to everyone, up sufficiently that users would be able to reach and use the modern Web content and digital technologies they are encountering in all aspects of life.

In a proposal to the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR),  US-DEd, Dr. Vanderheiden’s team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Trace Center proposed the creation of a consortium called Raising the Floor to address this issue.  Quickly a group of interested and like-minded people gathered. Jim Fruchterman from Benetech joined to explore how it could help with his work on accessible books. Jutta Treviranus at the University of Toronto’s Adaptive Technology Resource Centre was already working on key aspects of the problem, including personalization, and brought her team of over 50 designers and programmers from around the world to the team.

Within a year there were over 50 leaders and key programs who had joined the project from both mainstream IT and the accessibility fields, with more coming on board weekly as they became aware of the effort.  They came from widely varying backgrounds but all were interested in helping to address the problem of raising the floor to close the gap between them and the requirements of modern and evolving information and communication  technologies.

Origin of the Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure (GPII)

The need for, and concept of, a National Pubic Inclusive Infrastructure (NPII) within countries was introduced by the Dr Vanderheiden in his comments to the US Government’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) during the FCCs preparation of the National Broadband Plan for submission to the US Congress.  The NPII concept recognized that a technical infrastructure would be needed if we are to reduce the growing digital divide and address the problems being being created by a technology that is advancing so rapidly, moving to the cloud, and proliferating across platforms so quickly that assistive technology developers cannot keep up — and are in fact losing ground.

The support for the NPII concept in the US quickly grew, and the effort was joined by groups from other countries and continents.  The NPII quickly evolved into the Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure. By the end of 2010, Raising the Floor moved from an in informal group to an official non-profit organization, choosing Switzerland for its home in order to emphasize the international nature of the effort.  Gregg Vanderheiden and Jutta Treviranus joined to lead this international effort.  Raising the Floor – International is now the official home for the effort to build the GPII, with local affiliates in the US, Canada, and just recently, Korea.  The coalition has grown to over 50 companies and organizations and hundreds of individuals.

Building the Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure (the GPII)

The foundations for the GPII were laid at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Trace R&D Center, and the Inclusive Design Research Center at the University of Toronto and later at OCAD University.  The Trace Center laid the groundwork around virtual accessibility and the GPII concept and roadmap.  The IDRC brought their many years of  work on personalization and adaptive interfaces in both education and public access. In 2011, the European Commission, who had been following this work closely, put out a call for funding in this area as part of its 7th Framework call that year.   A consortium of over 28 partners and collaborators in Europe Canada, and the US submitted a proposal to that competition under the title Cloud4all to start the research and development of the ‘ “auto-personalization from preferences” (APfP) components of the GPII (see below).  In November of 2011 the European Commission funded the European partners with Canada funding the Canadian partner (The IDRC) and the US participation covered by existing funding in the US.   This was followed by a contract from the US Dept of Education to a consortium of companies, NGOs and universities in the US and Canada to work on the “First Discovery” component of the GPII under the Preferences for Global Access project.   A second call came out two years later from EC that led to funding of another major portion of the GPII through a project titled Prosperity4All. This project which began in February 2014, brought a different, overlapping consortium of 25 companies and organizations in Europe, Canada, the US and Korea together to work on the development and developer support portions of the GPII.  Also in 2014 the Trace R&D Center secured funding from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research from the Administration for Community Living, to form a consortium of organizations in the US to do the R&D on the remaining component, the shopping/alerting aid, and to explore the use of the GPII in libraries.

Next Steps

With research on all of the components of the GPII underway, and prototypes of it key architectural components in the final stagers of research and testing, the next major hurdle in the development of the GPII is to move it from research prototypes to something that can actually be deployed in the field and used by the many individuals and sectors it has been designed for.

Like the internet allowed ICT to be reinvented, the existence of the GPII can allow accessibility to be reinvented.   But also like the internet, the GPII must be up with 99.99 reliability or it can’t achieve its mission or potential.  No-one can build on an infrastructure that may disappear occasionally.    It also must be robust enough to work across all technologies, scalable enough to accommodate all who need to use it, and secure enough to preserve all of the user data in it safely.

To create such a 24/7 99.99% reliable, robust, scalable, and secure infrastructure,  a consortium of ICT companies, University research groups, and key consumer and stakeholder groups are being assembled and sufficient funds secured.  Unlike the R&D efforts to date, whose outcome is knowledge about how to build this infrastructure and proof of concept prototypes, this next effort will be to move these concepts from from research to the industry quality, reliable and scalable implementations that are needed for deployment and use in the real world by consumers, employers, education and training organizations, governments, etc.   This will be the greatest challenge yet for the consortium and require all of the expertise of its accessibility and mainstream ICT members to bring it to pass.