If you are reading this essay, you are among 86.3% of the global adult population that is literate (UNESCO, 2018) and has had access to education. If you’re reading this online, that means you’re connected. Only 49.72% of the global population has access to the internet (ITU, 2017).
For something to be accessible it must be able to be reached or entered. It should be easy to obtain or use, and it should be easily understood or appreciated. And for this to happen we need to talk about accessibility and inclusivity. For us at Data4Change these two are inextricably linked, and both strike at the very heart of what we strive to achieve in all our work. As a non-profit our primary goal is to bring a new perspective as to how civil society could function through creative disruption and meaningful curated conflict. One of the ways this is done is by bringing together talented individuals from diverse backgrounds together from across the globe to support civil society organisations and NGOs to humanise their data and unlock the hidden stories behind their numbers. So, what happens when you take 40 complete strangers and give them a dataset and a problem to solve? What happens when those 40 strangers come from a multitude of different countries, have different educational and cultural backgrounds, different perspectives on religion, politics and society, different creative processes, and different skills in data, design, journalism and technology? And to amplify the situation, what happens when these 40 strangers who have varied levels of experience are placed in a relatively flat hierarchical structure?
Curating conflict to spark creativity
On paper, none of the above should work. The teams participating in this endeavour ought to be fraught with ideological conflict, but as each collective of individual perspectives, approaches, and ideas collides, it opens up opportunities for collaboration and creativity to thrive. It is the teams’ disparate nature, their non-uniformity, that is their true superpower. These motley crews each possess a diverse arsenal of perspectives to draw from to solve the challenges they are presented with. It is precisely this type of environment primed for conflict that helps nourish creativity and is the nexus of the sprints we hold. We as a data design and communications community and as a field of practice can no longer afford to move forward together with purpose without diversifying the workforce and de-siloing our disciplines if we are going to be successful in clarifying and shedding much needed light on some of the world’s most pressing political and social issues. We have seen the success of this approach in the sprints we run that have addressed a myriad of topics and issues, including opening up spaces for LGBT communities in repressive environments like Tanzania and Uganda, tackling sexual harassment in Egypt, and making it safer for women to report gender-based and sexual violence to the Kenyan police. Projects like these would not have been as successful as they were, without the environments and people outlined above. It is crucial however that there are structures and mechanisms in place to resolve and cultivate conflict at every stage of the process, because it is in the collisions of ideas and the articulation of compromise, where true collaboration and meaningful creativity can come forward. We’d like to share with you a case study that illustrates how these ideas and concepts above can make accessibility and inclusivity more ascertainable and possibly a default outcome.
Case Study: Perceiving Yemen
How do you collect, design, and communicate data and information in an environment where electricity and internet access is intermittent and the literacy rate is increasingly low?
These obstacles are compounded by the fact that the country is also engulfed in a civil war. These were the challenges one of our teams encountered during a sprint held in Beirut in 2018. Walking into the room on the final morning of that sprint, you would have seen Hoda Khoja, an award-winning graphic designer from Libya, huddled around a laptop monitor with her team members, Adrián Santuario, a data researcher and software engineer hacker extraordinaire from Mexico, Matthew Conlen, a web developer from Seattle, and Colleen McEnaney, a data journalist based in London.
Their team leader Marwa Boukarim, a designer from Lebanon, conducts the quartet through their final cadences as they put the finishing touches on a prototype for Yemen Polling Center, a non-profit working towards the closer integration of public opinion into the policymaking process.
The design team is not alone at the table. Their journey has been steered by Amr Moqbel and Tawfik Aqlan, two representatives from Yemen Polling Center. Amr and Tawfik took a 24-hour bus journey through an active war zone from their home city to an airport on the other side of Yemen to travel to Beirut for the sprint. Let’s reflect for a moment on accessibility.
In March 2018, at the time of the sprint, Yemen was three years into a civil war and much of the country’s infrastructure had been destroyed. In Yemen, internet access and electricity are intermittent at best. Yemen Polling Center usually uses satellite internet to maintain its connection, but this is expensive and dependent on electricity. Accessibility.
In addition to the challenges posed by intermittent electricity and poor internet penetration rates, Yemen also faces a growing population of people struggling with literacy issues. More than 2 million children are currently out of school in Yemen and 3.7 million are at risk of dropping out as schools are being forcibly shut or have been destroyed in the war (UNESCO, 2019). Accessibility.
The team needed to understand and learn more about Yemen Polling Center’s advocacy goals and getting to know the target audience and where to reach them. The sprint team drafted a few user personas with Yemen Polling Center, but the most compelling was ‘Ali’, a young male who has dropped out of school. Ali is at risk of becoming radicalised and joining a local militia; it’s the only paid job prospect he has. He meets friends regularly to chew Qat, a shrub that produces a stimulant effect. They like to share memes and the latest news with each other. They don’t always have access to the internet, but they all have smartphones with an in-built networking facility that doesn’t require an internet connection.
“The team’s data researcher and software engineer from Mexico, made it possible to download the entire site as one, single, tiny, 4.3MB file, which could then be distributed offline, again via WhatsApp or Bluetooth”
So, what solution did this team from Yemen, Mexico, the US, the UK, Libya and Lebanon come up with?
During the Discovery phase the sprint team identified two crucial pieces of information that were instrumental to the success of their prototype. First, through Ali’s persona they uncovered that ordinary people gather daily in Yemen to share news and updates with each other in person. And second, the data showed that Yemeni youth, like Ali and his peers, all have a smartphone. Of course, those smartphones aren’t often connected to the internet, but there are other ways to connect. The team couldn’t count on electricity or the internet being available, but they could certainly leverage the potential for connectivity offered by Bluetooth and offline WiFi.
Yemen Polling Center required a digital platform for two main reasons. Battling against waning press coverage on Yemen in the international media, they aspired to communicate their research findings in English to a larger international audience. They also needed to reach local and government authorities and leaders without having to travel across the country, which puts their team in danger.
The data Yemen Polling Center collects is detailed and granular. Their team travels across Yemen’s governorates administering surveys to large representative populations, particularly youth. Before attending the DATA4CHANGE sprint, they had visualised their data in large stacked bar charts, but they realised this was not helping them to achieve their advocacy goals as it was too complicated to understand.
The sprint team delivered a working prototype of Perceiving Yemen on Day 5 of DATA4CHANGE. It is a bilingual platform that lets users explore Yemen Polling Center’s data. It provides a comparative overview of life in each governorate in Yemen and gives international audiences, local leaders and ordinary citizens access to valuable information about, among other topics: security, access to medical care, electricity and internet access. To make the web platform more accessible for people not familiar with data visualisation, the sprint team decided to only use two data visualisation methods: scaled bubbles and a choropleth map. For those with a lower literacy level, an audio file recorded in Arabic describes how to interpret the visualisations. Accessibility.
Since electricity and data are a precious commodity in Yemen, the colour scheme for Perceiving Yemen is intentionally dark, so as not to drain valuable battery life. Except for a small selection of icons, the only true image file on the platform is the photograph on the landing page. All of the charts are rendered entirely in code, but users can download any visualisation from the website as an image file, generated on the fly, which can then be shared with others using WhatsApp or Bluetooth. Accessibility.
An even more magical moment arose when Santu, the team’s data researcher and software engineer from Mexico, made it possible to download the entire site as one, single, tiny, 4.3MB file, which could then be distributed offline, again via WhatsApp or Bluetooth, without any reduction in functionality. Accessibility.
The sprint team then pieced together small hubs using Raspberry Pis to distribute to community centers and local authorities in Yemen. The hubs include a custom-built survey tool, so that Yemen Polling Center can push out new research and collect survey responses. The hubs make it easier for Yemen Polling Center to share content and safer to collect data because it reduces the need for Yemen Polling Center’s researchers to travel across Yemen to survey geographically dispersed populations. Accessibility.
When the hubs are connected to the internet, Yemen Polling Center can push, pull, or update content and data. Regardless of whether the hub is connected to the internet, users can always connect to it and browse or download Perceiving Yemen, or participate in a new survey that Yemen Polling Center has distributed into the field. The entire platform, hub, and survey creator runs on three Google Sheets, which can be accessed by anyone within the team from anywhere in the world, as long as there is an internet connection. Accessibility.
Diversity is a superpower
For something to be accessible it must be able to be reached or entered. It should be easy to obtain or use, and it should be easily understood or appreciated. At DATA4CHANGE we encourage participants not only to understand audience needs better, but also to understand how products or projects might inadvertently marginalise or exclude people.
To move towards accessibility and inclusivity it is important to look beyond traditional interpretations and dictionary definitions and to acknowledge our shortcomings. And most importantly, we need to embrace diversity and cultivate conflict.
Without DATA4CHANGE, the Perceiving Yemen sprint team would never have had the opportunity to collide and create. Without Discovering the true needs of Yemen Polling Center’s audience, or leveraging the potential of existing technologies, they would have created something inaccessible and exclusive. Collaborating is not always working with people on the same wavelength, and creativity is not always thinking outside the box. At DATA4CHANGE we believe the best collaborators are a mixture of the usual and unusual suspects, and that hacking the box often leads to better results than thinking outside it.
We have a responsibility — as a community working in data design and communication — to share our privileged access and opportunities. As we enter a new decade filled with immense social, political and environmental challenges it is more important than ever that we push for and provide safe spaces for people to tackle these issues in a creative and collaborative way, spaces where diversity is not just an afterthought but is seen as a vital problem-solving tool. These spaces are places where people can collide and collaborate, places where we push to democratise the design process to be more accessible and inclusive