Accessibility and the Web of Things – an interview with Dr Scott Hollier and W3C WAI’s Shadi Abou-Zahra

While lots of people are passionate about the digital access cause, Shadi Abou-Zahra, the W3C Accessibility Strategy and Technology Specialist, is one of the hardest-working and dedicated people I’ve ever met in the field, and a great bloke too. It was my pleasure to welcome Shadi back to the column for an interview on the topic of accessibility and the Web of Things.

Those of you who have been following this column since it began, may remember an interview conducted several years ago with Shadi Abou-Zahra. While all of Shadi’s work is important, it’s his recent efforts to spearhead access work in the area of the Web of Things that highlights the exciting access potential for the Internet of Things, as you’ll discover from the interview that follows.

SCOTT: Terms like the 'Internet of Things', 'Internet of everything' and 'web of things' all sound similar, but there is a distinction. Could you share a bit about the similarities and differences between the Internet of Things and the Web of Things?

SHADI: I don't think there are absolute definitions. In some ways the Internet of Things is the connectivity of sensors, actuators, devices, and many more ICT objects. It extends the current Internet with just about anything imaginable including mobile phones, watches, and tablets, as well as home appliances, clothing, and vehicles. The Web of Things is an open, universal interface that builds on and extends the Internet of Things, much like the Web is the interface for the current Internet.

SCOTT: What are the key issues that prompted W3C to work on the Web of Things?

SHADI: Interoperability. Technologies are continually converging onto the Web.

For example, radio, television, and digital publishing are increasingly web-based. You often can't distinguish between web and desktop apps, especially on mobile phones and portable devices. The universality of the Web allows it to run on nearly any device, so it seems natural to evolve it to become the interface to the Internet of Things as well.

SCOTT: What is the significance of the Web of Things in terms of accessibility?

SHADI: It facilitates equal access for people with disabilities to the wealth of opportunities provided by the Internet of Things. The Web of Things should provide the adaptability, alternative modes of operation, and interoperability with assistive technologies that are much needed for accessibility. For example, a home automation system that is web-based could be accessed and operated by an eye-tracking system for people with mobility impairments, rather than be limited to a specific app.

SCOTT: There's currently a number of exciting developments on the agenda for 2017 including WCAG 2.1 and Silver, aka WCAG 3 – so does Web of Things fit into that work plan?

SHADI: For sure! A lot of the work by W3C on accessibility is perceived to be the accessibility guidelines only. But there is much more that is done to support these guidelines. This includes ensuring that W3C standards and technologies, such as the Web of Things, support accessibility. I also expect that future accessibility guidelines will reflect the many changes on the Web resulting from the plethora of connected devices.

SCOTT: What do you see as the biggest barrier to access in the current Internet of Things space today that's holding it back from becoming more useful?

SHADI: I think a lot of the current business models are not built around open platforms. It seems that vendors and providers are trying to claim space, much like what happened in the early days of the Internet. Yet with closed environments, it will be more difficult to achieve the consistent level of interoperability that is needed for accessibility. Hopefully, we will encounter the same trend to openness that eventually prevailed on the Internet.

SCOTT: At the recent 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), it seemed like it was 'Alexa everything’ with Amazon's digital assistant being used to control so many devices. With clear benefits to people unable to reach buttons on objects, or unable to see screens, what are the benefits and issues with one company dominating the digital assistant space?

SHADI: Amazon might have been early into the market, but several big rivals are quickly catching up. Again, we have previously witnessed similar developments on the Internet, for example with AOL and CompuServe, or when Microsoft's Internet Explorer was the dominating web browser. It seems cyclic but overall diversity and competition contribute to more innovation and development, including for accessibility.

SCOTT: The Web of Things is just one small part of the vast work you do. Could you provide us with an update of your other W3C WAI responsibilities?

SHADI: Currently there is a lot of accessibility standardisation activity in Europe, which is keeping me busy. Also work on accessibility testing and evaluation through a recently launched W3C task force is in my purview. In parallel, I support education and outreach activities, W3C training, and my new responsibilities in the W3C strategy team.

SCOTT: One of the hottest topics at the moment in accessibility circles is WCAG 2.1 as mentioned earlier. Can you share a bit about its likely applicability to other types of content such as apps and documents?

SHADI: WCAG 2.1 is expected to be backwards-compatible with the prior 2.0 version, and offers improvements for people with cognitive and learning disabilities, low vision, and mobile device users. It will have the same scope of applicability, only with improved guidance for these areas. We invite users, researchers, experts, and others with an interest to participate and contribute to this exciting development.

SCOTT: It's been a little while since we last did an interview. What things are you up to in your spare time these days – assuming you get any spare time!

SHADI: What a coincidence… ‘spare’ rhymes with ‘rare’. In between interviews I completed a part-time MBA degree, which was a great experience for me – I think particularly as an engineer with no prior background in this field. With family, friends, and a little bit of wheelchair rugby, there isn't much more spare time left. By the way, congratulations to Australia, the current wheelchair rugby world champions and Olympic games winner!

SCOTT: Thanks for that Shadi, we’ll take all the sporting accolades we can get! Thank you so much for your time and fantastic information about your W3C work.

I’m sure you’ll agree that Shadi’s work in the Web of Things area and his other W3C activities offers up great potential as we move into a world of connected appliances and digital assistants. If you would like to know more about Shadi and his work, I encourage you to read Shadi’s W3C profile page.