Smart Cities for All – the need for accessibility

The Smart Cities for All initiative aims to make sure that smart city projects do not exclude elderly or people with disabilities

Many smart city programs actually make the digital divide worse, not better, says Thurston.
Many smart city programs actually make the digital divide worse, not better, says Thurston.

Sixty percent of experts say that smart cities are failing people with disabilities - James Thurston, vice president of G3ict (The Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs) and managing director of Smart Cities for All explains how the initiative wants to work with city leaders to ensure that their programs enable people instead of creating barriers.

SmartCities Arabia: What is the general state of digital accessibility for people with disabilities?

James Thurston: At G3ict we are committed both to understanding and improving the digital inclusion of the one billion persons with disabilities worldwide. Through our Digital Accessibility Rights Evaluation (DARE) Index, we do an annual survey and analysis of the state of digital inclusion and ICT accessibility in countries around the world.

From the DARE Index we know that globally we have a lot of work to do on accessibility and digital inclusion. For example, from our 2018 DARE Index we know that just 48% of countries, less than half, have policies or programs promoting the accessibility of Inclusive ICTs in education. We also know that of those countries with policies, less than 1% are fully implementing those inclusive education policies. With the DARE Index we can also do benchmarking of countries and how well they are doing on digital accessibility.

SCA: How does that reflect in the state of accessibility in smart city programs?

JT: One of the policy and program areas that G3ict looks at through our annual DARE Index is whether and how countries are promoting the accessibility of e-Government and Smart Cities initiatives. In 2018, just 38% of countries had some kind of policy or program to push for accessibility in smart cities and government digital services. According to our analysis, none of them were fully implementing those commitments.

Three years ago, we launched our Smart Cities for All global initiative with strategic partners like World Enabled. In the first year of the initiative we did a global study of smart cities and digital inclusion. We did a series of roundtables in cities around the world and we surveyed more than 250 experts worldwide. That survey and the global study confirmed that today Smart Cities are actually making the digital divide for persons with disabilities worse not better. 60% of the global experts said that Smart Cities are failing persons with disabilities. Just 18% of the experts knew of a city using ICT accessibility standards in the technology development and deployments. We want to improve this situation.

SCA: What are the aims of Smart Cities for All?

JT: With Smart Cities for All we want to eliminate the digital divide for persons with disabilities and older persons in cities worldwide. We know that cities of all sizes and in all regions of the world are undergoing a digital transformation. They are buying and deploying technology, mainstream and increasingly leading-edge technologies, to support the amazing range of services they offer – from public safety to transportation to education to waste removal. Consistent with G3ict’s collaborative approach to achieving our mission, Smart Cities for All is working together with governments, civil society, and leading companies to help cities be not just smarter but also more inclusive. We want to help cities use innovative technologies to benefit persons with disabilities and older persons.

SCA: What has been the response to the initiative so far?

JT: We are seeing a strong interest in cities. We have met with city CIOs in many different countries. These are some of the best technologists in the world. I like to say it is often a very short conversation to get them to see why they should care about the digital inclusion of persons with disabilities. We quickly move to discussing not ‘why’, but rather ‘how’.

Cities are eager for tools, best practices, and collaborations to help them be more inclusive. To address this demand for assistance, Smart Cities for All has created a set of tools that is now available in ten languages, including Arabic. We are continually adding new tools to the kit. In fact, we just began piloting our newest tool, a Smart City Digital Inclusion Maturity Model, which helps a city assess and even benchmark their approach to digital inclusion. In January, we worked with Chicago as the first city to pilot the new tool. We are about to announce the next cities to pilot the tool. It would be great to see some cities in the Middle East pilot this new tool!

SCA: Do you see any common problems or issues from smart city programs that fail to consider accessibility?

JT: Yes, certainly. The primary problem remains a lack of awareness. No city sets out to be inaccessible to persons with disabilities and older persons. They just are not aware that they can take steps to ensure their smart programs and technology deployments are accessible – to ensure that they work for everyone. They have not made inclusion an integral part of their smart city vision and strategy and as a result, they likely are not taking important steps like using global ICT accessibility standards, making accessibility a requirement in all their technology tenders, and involving persons with disabilities in the design and implementation of smart programs and digital services. These are the kinds of factors that our new assessment tools measures. Our toolkit is designed to help cities address these problems.

SCA: Do you see many smart city programs actively considering accessibility?

JT: Absolutely. We have worked with some leading Smart Cities that are eager to increase their commitment and capability on accessibility and digital inclusion. Certainly cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo in Brazil. Chicago and New York in the US. London, Quito, Barcelona, San Francisco - all are taking innovative steps to build accessibility and inclusion into their smart programs.

SCA: How should city leadership or smart city initiatives go about ensuring their activities are inclusive and meet the needs of persons with disabilities?

JT: First and foremost, involve persons with disabilities. Build a culture of inclusion by involving persons with disabilities in a broad range of roles related to smart city initiatives, eg. developers, testers, procurement, etc. Hire persons with disabilities as city employees across all city departments. In our Smart City Digital Inclusion Maturity Model, how cities engage persons with disabilities is a key determinant of whether a city scores well or not. We also know from our G3ict DARE Index that the countries that have the best accessibility and digital inclusion outcomes are the ones that engage persons with disabilities in effective ways.

SCA: Are there any programs or initiatives that stand out as good examples of best practice?

JT: While no city does everything perfectly well when it comes to digital inclusion, many cities are taking exciting and creative steps to be both smarter AND more inclusive. For example, in Chicago when we piloted our new assessment tool, we learned about a series of programs they are deploying to close the large digital divide for persons with disabilities. They want all citizens to benefit from their smart programs and digital services and so have created programs to support access for persons with disabilities to technology and connectivity and the skills to use them. In London, Transport for London (TFL) makes enormous amounts of valuable data available to the large developer community to create all kinds of interesting apps and solutions. TFL also provides training to that developer community on accessibility to encourage them to make their new transportation apps and solutions accessible. It would be great if more smart cities adopted this approach as part of their open data initiatives. Rio de Janeiro has a city communications guide for all employees with rules for how to provide information to the public. They recently updated this important guide with key steps to ensure that city communications, documents, and forms are accessible for persons with disabilities. They recognize the power of accessible information. Recently, in a meeting with leaders in Guadalajara, we discussed not only strategies for making sure that technology deployments are accessible for persons with disabilities, but also how can they be using technology and data to solve long-standing urban accessibility challenges common to all cities, like streets and sidewalks that are impassable to persons with disabilities. There are good accessibility and digital inclusion practices in many cities. At Smart Cities for All, we are beginning to catalogue these and looking to share them broadly with cities worldwide.

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