Steve Bratt, CEO of New World Wide Web Foundation, Details Plans To Make the Web More Usable in the Developing World

11/17/09Follow @wroush

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content—creating and sharing and linking to content. No one is focusing on that side of it as much as we’d like. So we identified three things. First, a content gap. A lot of life-critical content is not available to people in ways that they can access it. We don’t want to give people content, we want to train them in how to develop systems to create their own content.

Second, there’s another gap we call the research gap. We don’t really understand how the Web works. Tim says all the time that the Web is not just technology, it’s humanity connected by technology. But when somebody creates a link here, how does it affect life over there? When somebody uses the Web to spread a rumor here, how does it affect the stock of a company over there? There are sociologists and modern anthropologists and computer scientists studying these things, but the idea is to pull these together into a single discipline that we’re calling Web science. The analogy is to cognitive science, where you pull together biologists and neurologists and psychologists who are all studying the notion of how the brain gives rise to consciousness. We want to take the results of Web science and hopefully get that into the field to help people—so that over time we have a better Web and can address its inefficiencies.

Third is the standards or technology gap. What is there in the Web today that inhibits it from reaching its full potential? In some cases the Web inhibits people from using it because it doesn’t support their language, or because they have low literacy skills or disabilities. Also, anywhere that proprietary technologies start to take a dominant role would be a concern for us. You can’t have a Web just for a certain country or a certain model of phone, the way the mobile industry seemed to be going a few years ago.

X: But if you’ll forgive me asking, wouldn’t you agree that one of the great things about the Web is its openness and plasticity? Most of the really amazing things that people have done with the Web have come from the grassroots, from people taking on big challenges for themselves. So why not simply wait for Web users to come up with solutions to the gaps that you’re talking about? Why do you think the world needs another big centralized foundation to do that?

SB: Well, it hasn’t happened yet, that’s one thing. There aren’t people focusing on these particular issues, specifically in developing countries. Also, these are things that eventually need to be addressed at a global level—they have to become part of the Web standards stack or the Web guidelines stack. A good example would be illiteracy. There are a number of groups that have come up with systems to make the Web more accessible to the illiterate, some involving iconography, some involving voice. And we think that is really important, by the way. But if every website does this differently you will have a mess. You want a standard convention for developing countries to follow, so that browsing the Web is not a complete nightmare for people with low literacy. We need to get enough funding together and the right people together to build a consensus around the best system.

Very importantly, we don’t see ourselves as dictating the future of the Web at all. We want to accelerate things that are already starting to happen in particular places. The Web can’t be directed by any one organization. Be we can hopefully accelerate good things that are not being driven by anyone else.

In Part 2 of our interview, coming tomorrow, Bratt talks about the Web Foundation’s specific projects in Africa and South America, the role of voice technologies, and the group’s fundraising plans.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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