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Access in Africa: A Personal Perspective

It started with good intentions. There was a need for a user experience professional on a project developing an online resource for scholars in Africa—a place where much of the interaction with the rest of the world has had a recurrent theme of plunder.

In fact, it was the “repatriation” of digital copies of lost or endangered resources that interested me. The digital library planned to present several types of materials, including botanical specimens and publications, cultural heritage materials such as laser-scanned buildings, photographs of places, and long-lost writings about Africa’s history, as well as carefully selected and fast-disintegrating documents of southern Africa’s civil wars at the end of the 20th century. Parts of the project concentrated on finding or producing the materials, while others concentrated on training people to digitize (or “digitalise,” as popularly pronounced there) their own materials and produce usable scholarly metadata that would enable the materials to be accessed online.

So I signed on. After all, what could be so hard about designing a web-based application to search for and serve up digitized materials? (Perhaps the twenty-seven different content types, the viewers that hadn’t been invented yet, and the uneven content that would always be too copious for thorough quality-checking.) I was accustomed to thinking about accessibility. I have issues myself, and I knew about colors, type sizes, text-to-speech, dictation software, and odd trackballs. I started to learn more about browser window sizes, “liquid layout” versus “fixed width,” and handheld devices.

Access in Africa

However, the biggest challenge turned out to be bandwidth.

I preached “lightweight” interface design to the team. And then we attempted to test an early version at places like Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, where the university and major libraries shared a single 56K dial-up line. Our home page took over forty minutes to load. Our contact in Namibia couldn’t even download a bandwidth diagnostic tool we had hoped to use.

We also learned about the impact of the “Global North” on access in Africa (and learned to think about ourselves in the U.S. as part of the Global North, a new concept for us). More than once, our colleagues on the ground alluded to getting work done “before America wakes up,” when access times for our resource in the U.S. would become even longer because of the scarce bandwidth across the Atlantic. We learned about other types of access issues, too. One biologist partner had a new (mostly) dust-free digital lab. Her assistants had learned how to use the scanner and write good botanical descriptions, but the electricity supply was so unreliable she needed a generator.

Even in the most privileged countries, we couldn’t always count on online access. A distinguished faculty member from a South African university presented a webinar using his cellular telephone to provide access to the digital library—and a landline for his speech.

Development teams can sometimes be less than sympathetic to accessibility needs. But what about these kinds of accessibility problems, which mean that none of your targeted users will be able to view your web page?

Dealing with Poor Access

Our design finally did allow users in the more privileged of the African universities to make some use of the resource, without lessening its value to scholars of African subjects in the Global North.

Our primary technique was to serve ultra-light HTML pages, with carefully selected iconic images, cached and reused where possible to minimize download time.

We also used progressive disclosure, where we would show a thumbnail image, and allow the user to select a medium, large, or high-resolution image. Users who made a conscious decision to access large files were less disturbed by longer download times.

As we used distributed data centers, we became aware of similar moves by others providing information to Africa. Some, such as MediaMerx, planned to distribute servers to many African countries and then use local WiFi capabilities. Others regularly ship large numbers of CDs or DVDs to centers of learning.

Our project depended on our digitizing partners submitting high-quality images on hard drives, which we later returned for refill and reshipment. Aside from customs problems in some African countries, we found this to be a useful method. The bottom line is that, while human mental and physical challenges are part of the accessibility picture, the situation for many in Africa is even more fundamental—a lack of the basic infrastructure that the Global North takes for granted.