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Inf@Vis!

The digital magazine of InfoVis.net

Accessibility
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 90]

Access to information and its corresponding transformation into knowledge is more and more indispensable. Information Visualisation seeks to enhance accessibility but, nowadays, it’s still in a very preliminary stage

Recently I had the opportunity to travel to Korea and Japan for professional reasons. (No, I’m not a football journalist). Travel has the virtue of putting you in contact with different cultures that, many times, allow you to put conventions and beliefs into perspective.

In this case, the textured tiles that are present in many of the most important streets of Japanese cities made me think about the problem of accessibility, understood in a broad sense, not only as the accessibility related to handicapped people.

It appears that these tiles serve as a guide to blind people on their walks through the city. You can find them in two types (see the photos below):

  • Tiles with elongated protrusions. They serve to indicate the direction to follow. They are placed one after the other on the floor in such a way that the elongations signal the direction of the path to follow. Of course you can follow it in either direction.

  • Tiles with circular protrusions. You find them wherever a change of direction is possible, in the crossings of paths or in front of an obstacle where the path is cut, for example in front of stairs or a ticket window, in front of an elevator, etc.
TokyoCiegos.jpg (72312 bytes) TokyoTickets.jpg (76699 bytes) TokyoStation.jpg (50208 bytes)
Crossing of  two paths. Notice the dotted texture of the three tiles that delimitate the crossing. Tokyo Central Station 25-05-02. Photo by the author. Click on the image to enlarge it. Detour towards ticket windows. At the end of the branch that leads to the ticket windows there's a terminal with dotted tiles indicating the end of the path and the existence of an obstacle. Tokyo Central Station 25-05-02. Photo by the author. Click on the image to enlarge it. Localisation of an obstacle. A staircase. You find a zone with double line of dotted tiles over the whole extension of the obstacle. Tokyo Central Station 25-05-02. Photo by the author. Click on the image to enlarge it.

The idea itself, along with the profusion and consistency of its use in all the important streets and especially in the railway stations of the widespread Nippon railway network appeared to me an excellent example of accessibility, that facilitates the navigation of handicapped people in a complex environment that is unknown beforehand. 

Something quite similar to what happens in many situations of the digital world today. Navigating through cyberspace is nowadays like walking blindly through the streets of a metropolis. In a highly non-linear medium where you can suddenly appear in any page of a web without knowing in which part of it you have landed, we are guided by elementary navigation aids, like the line of “breadcrumbs” that shows where in the hierarchy of the web we are.

Richard Saul Wurman considers in his book “Information Anxiety 2” that accessibility is the antidote against information anxiety. To have access means having the possibility to do and use whatever anyone else can do or use, having the liberty to take advantage of the available resources.

Unfortunately the resources available in the interior of a computer program or in a web site are not directly accessible. Typically we use just a minor part of the whole range of possibilities that the software offers. (Don’t tell me that you know all the possibilities of let’s say MS Word). Most of the times we see only a fraction of what a web site has to offer.

Graphical interfaces have implied a quantum leap in simplifying and increasing accessibility, lowering the learning curve. The same happened with the web. Since its implementation, navigating through cyberspace has been enormously simplified and popularised. 

Nevertheless, despite the unceasing search for new ways of visualisation, it appears that we are lacking a good direction in which to move.

Information Visualisation is in an effervescent moment, but we are still moving blindly, following the lines painted on the floor, with big difficulties in transmitting, in an easy and simple way, powerful mental models that could help in the conversion of data into knowledge.

We’ll speak more about this in forthcoming issues.

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