Software for everybody

Let me start with something that has been bothering me for quite a long time. I may have mentioned this before, I know I have repeatedly stated it in one of my many talks but I believe this is a very important point. I work in the industry we call ICT. I assume you do too. If I'm wrong here, ignore this first part and please skip ahead. Now, if I ask my coworkers what ICT (in the old days it used to be IT which has the same problem) means, I usually get a correct reply: Information (and communication) technology. Of course, I never stop there and ask the next question which is "what do those words mean?" And almost nobody gets that part right.

Isn't it sad that people who make their living in an industry don't even know what that industry does? It's vital for understanding what it is you do everyday and more important: why you do it. But if you do not know what the idea behind the industry is, how can you make a worthwhile contribution?

ICT does stand for Information and Communication Technology. So, that implies it deals with all the technology (be it hardware or software) that enables communication and something called information. Communication is something most people have a fairly good idea about what it is. Information however is one term that is almost always used wrong. And that includes me: although I claim to know what it means I also make the same mistake every now and then. It's weird to hear people say we live in the Information Age without them knowing what that means.

I have studied IT. I learned a lot, most of it had to do with alcohol and how to survive Amsterdam as a young student, but one of the things that stuck was the definition of Information. So, here it is:

Information is data that, provided it is

  • Given to the right people
  • Given at the right time
  • Given at the right location
  • And is correct
  • Adds value for that person.

If some piece of data doesn't satisfy all four points, it is data and not information. I quite often hear people saying the information was incorrect. Well, according to my definition that is simply not possible: the data might be incorrect but then it's not information. It's data. What if I were to tell you that Apple's stock price rises 10%? That may be correct (I don't know, I am not inn the stock market business but let's assume it is correct). But if you don't have any shares in Apple or are not interested in acquiring them, you are obviously not the right person for this data. It's just data, it doesn't add value so it's not information. Of course, if you ARE a broker and you spend a lot of money on Apple stock only to find out I meant the rise in the price was 10 years ago, well, you won't be to happy either: the data was correct, it was delivered to the right person but the timing was a bit off. So: it's data, not information. I think you get the point.

The last point is for me the most important one: the data, given the four prerequisites, should add value in order to become information. And that's basically what ICT does: it makes sure that the enormous amount of data that is floating around is validated and brought to the right person at the right time at the right location so that it adds value to something for that person. All the spreadsheets we make do that: they take a large amount of data and turn it into something the user needs to do something worthwhile. All the applications we write do just that: they transform data taken from numerous sources into something the user needs at that point so they have an advantage in something. This is what adding value means.


Knowledge is power. It's an old saying; in fact it is that old that it has become a cliché. But clichés become clichés for one simple reason: they are the truth, that's why everyone repeats them every time over and over again. So I will repeat it as well: knowledge is power. And knowledge can come from information. After all, if some data gives you added value you gain some knowledge. Knowledge others might not have and that gives you an advantage. I am not saying information equals knowledge but there is a strong link between those two. A lot of people benefit from having information and thus get more knowledge about a topic. A business tycoon that knows something that his competitors do not know has an edge. Usually this knowledge comes from information that has been provided to him. More often than not, that information has been made available through means of something the ICT industry has thought of.

Doesn't that make you happy? You as an ICT worker are in the position to provide power to people! We get to decide who gets what kind of information! We are the dealers of knowledge!

Ok, I exaggerate a bit but there is some truth to be found in what I am saying. We as ICT workers are for a large deal responsible for sharing the knowledge. How do we do this? Simple: by enabling people to use ICT. And that is where it all falls apart…

The information gap

In the old days, and by that I mean: before the mid-nineties of the last century, access to information technology was limited to the happy few. Although you could go to the shops to buy a PC very few people actually did so. To operate that machinery required skills, determination and a very abstract sort of mind. Not many people were willing to invest a lot of time and effort mastering the machine. And so even in households where the computer did make its entrance most of its power was used to play games. Then the World Wide Web came along. All of a sudden it was possible for people with limited knowledge of the devices to find data and even get information. Ok, it still wasn't easy to find what you were looking for and the machines were still hard to use but compared to the late eighties it all of sudden became a piece of cake. Lots and lots of people went out, bought a computer, put it in their homes and went online. However, these people only used a fraction of the power of what was available. A browser, a mail program and some simple word processing (and games, always games…) was all they were using. There was software available that might have helped people get information but that software was either hard to use or very expensive. And so even these enlightened people with access to the hardware were only touching the tip of the iceberg. There was a lot of potential information out there but there was a gap between that data and the people who could benefit from it.

The current state

And then Apple came along. They introduced the iPhone. No, they didn't invent the smartphone, or touch, or any other of the many things the ill-informed claim they invented, but they did enable a lot more people to get access to data. And more important: they did introduce a very, very important and often overlooked new thing: the app.

The app is short for application but it is more than that. To me, an application is a complex piece of software that does a lot of things, mostly centered on a set of task but not limited to that set. An app is simpler: it allows you to do one thing, and one thing only, but it does that very well. Thus, with the advent of the app and the devices that support it, all of a sudden people were able to use more and more software and get to more and more data. Since the law of large numbers started kicking in, more and more people had access to information.

Apps are easy to use. They do not require extensive training, they do not need long manuals. They are easy to use, usually are operated by one or two fingers and are very easy to take control of. Everyone can use them. And since a lot of people have very, very powerful but also very, very portable computing devices (we call them smartphones but that's what they really are: very portable powerful computers) a lot of people can have a lot of information at their fingertips. Everyone can gain knowledge. Everyone can benefit from the work us developers do.

The cold, hard truth.

But that's not true, is it? We as developers tend to think the situation I describe above is how the world looks like right now. And from our point of view it's true. If we look at the devices we have, if we look at all the data available, if we look at our peers, family members and so on we are tricked in believing we have reached a perfect world. A world where everyone can get to all the data they need and thus get all the information. However, we as developers often fail to realize we are "the chosen ones". We understand technology. And usually the people around us more or less understand it as well: it's either because they work in the same field, have the same level of education or simply because we taught them how to get the data. I think all of us have told our parents how to Google…

But there's a very, very big world out there that we don't teach. A world we don't reach. A world we usually don't even see. There's a very big group of people that still have no access to the knowledge we take for granted. The elder people for instance. They don't know how to use their shining new Lumia 1020 with 41mp cameras. They don't even know how to use to call their grandchildren. The result is they are getting afraid of the devices. It's expensive and they might break it (they think). So they don't use it. And they don't get the data they need.

A while ago I volunteered for a project where we spend 48 hours working on a piece of software that helped people prevent stress situations. We were invited by a Dutch institute for mental healthcare to talk to their clients and see what they need in order to get a better grip on their situation. Techies as we are, we thought of a nice solution that kept track of stress moments; the system would learn from daily entered data and thus warn the user that an upcoming situation might be stressful. However, we designed this system to run on a smartphone. After all, they would carry this with them all the time and so they could enter all the data it needed. The clients loved the idea but they had one tiny issue: none of them could afford a smartphone. These people were people who lived on social benefits and have no access to the devices we take for granted. They could use the computer in the treatment area if they wanted to (and that's where the final version would eventually run) but they had no fancy powerful portable computer of their own. We as technical people tend to forget these people.

And what about other groups? People like refugees? They could use a lot of data, they need information about the situation in their homeland. But they can't get it that easily. Hardware is not readily available and if it is (usually in the form of a shared PC) it's hard to use. Sure, they can use Bing and a browser to find something, but that's what we had in the last century. We can do a lot better.

Or take a look at people with disabilities. Sure, a smartphone is a great device but not very useful when you are visually challenged. You can't feel a keyboard on it, you don't know what they display is showing so it's useless for you.

And how about people from developing countries? They are even worse of. They don't even have that shared PC. And if they do it's usually some old third-hand Pentium II based machine with Netscape on it (if you know what I am talking about you know how terrible that is!). It's better than nothing but it's nothing compared to what we have here.

This is the way it is right now. A very large percentage of the world's population do not have access to information. They do not have the easy way we do to get knowledge. We do. This means the gap between the haves and the have-nots widens, at least when it comes to knowledge. And I think that's a bad situation. I think we need to do something about it.

So, what's next?

To be honest: I don't know. I don't have the solution. But I do know I feel very strong about this subject. I am not in a position where I can help people get to more hardware. If I could I would, but that's not what I do. What I do know however, is that I can focus on other groups. People who can have hardware but who are unable to use the devices because of its complexity. I spent a lot of time thinking about other ways to use machines. I have built software for the original Microsoft Surface (the big touch table) especially with these people in mind. I experiment currently with the Leap Motion device that allows controlling hardware without actually touching. I feel there's a way to help others with this but I haven't found it yet. But I will.

Software is still hard to use. Although we have come very far, we haven't even reached the point where I can say it's satisfactory. A very large group of people still do not know how to operate the device they are in front of. This is not only true for the PC but I also see a lot of people struggling with the iPad. And with the Android Phone. And with the Surface RT. It's still way too hard. By not designing software in such a way that these people (the elder, the disabled, the less talented, and so on) can use the machines as easy as we do, we are denying them access to knowledge. And to me, that is completely unacceptable.

So. The next time you start your compiler to write that great app for the smartphone, please take a moment and think about these people. If you're writing an app for displaying train departure times, please remember that during off-peak hours most of the travelers in trains are elderly people. But they don't understand the current apps. Make sure they get it. Make sure these people are not left out. Bruce Springsteen said it a lot of times during his concerts "Nobody wins, unless everybody wins". Please keep that in mind.

On behalf of the people who cannot say thank you online: thank you

Print | posted @ Tuesday, January 5, 2016 8:00 AM

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