Accessibility as the Measure of IT

Tom Yager is arguing in his Infoworld column that accessibility should be the key measure of success for IT systems. But the key to this argument is what is defined by Accessibility. Lets listen in on what Tom has to say:
“Accessibility is the measure of successful IT. On a macro scale, accessibility refers to the ability to touch my content, wherever it lives, from whatever device Im using, and all the access to content takes place as though the information is stored on my device.”
Does this sound familiar ? Yes this is the basic tenets behind the 6As we have been advocating for assessment of the interface to systems. Notice in our analysis how we tie the 6As back to basic IT abilities such as scalability, reliability and availability. But Tom carries Accessibility beyond the 6As and gives it a socio-economic mandate.

“Accessibility also means empowering every person on the planet with IT. When IT takes off, it will become so much a part of life, governance, public safety, and commerce that cultures and subcultures wil become as dependent on IT as they are on rain. IT can assuage the fear that people have of wind and rain, too, because it evolves. It will become better able to spot the currently invisible conditions that presage potentially devestating weather, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and the like. ” This broad mission of IT supporting all aspects of existence including not prevention but immediate responsiveness to natural disasters echoes the pronostication and insights of Alvin Tofflers Future Shock/ThirdWave/Powershift and more recently Tom Friedmans The World is Flat. Both of these authors see a similarly pivotal role for IT in all aspects of society.

But for the past twenty years we have been told that we are in a post-industrial, knowledge-based revolution. So what is new here ? Well Tom is saying what others may be discounting – no references to HBRs Nicholas Carr required. That permeation of IT throughout societies with or without the $100 laptop is just around the corner. And so Tom seems to be arguing here that we as IT providers better have good measures of how IT is performing . And Tom appears to be arguing for accessibility.

What is Accessibility ?

It is important to look at the nature of information when describing accessibility. Many have done so; but the complexity of informtion is its multi-dimensions. Too often thinkers try to cram information into too narrow a strait-jacket. Our endeavour to define information is seven dimensional and emphasizes the spasmodic nature of information. Quiet and static for periods of time – then subject to dynamic and sometimes wholescale change. Information is the concepts, explanations, beliefs and trackings of how things work/behave. Information is the driving core of models of a) what is happening plus b) why/how things are working that way (and likely to work in the future). Models and information are intimately tied together. The whole of Cognitive Psychology is built on the premise that we do not attend and perceive in a blank slate fashion, but rather as Ulric Neisser points out, our knowledge and internal models of how things work shape what and how we attend and therefore perceive things.

So by its very nature, accessible changes depending on what information we are seeking. If I want the score of the Cardinals in the National League playoff game this October 2006, that is certainly different from the information required to make an appropriate investment decision in the markets of October 2006. And the difference in information goes beyond quantity and scope but also starts to invoke reliability and trustworthiness. But Tom and I would probably agree that accessible implies 1)convenience to acquire regardless of what device is used and location where requested, 2)timeliness of the information acquired (not the score of the playoff game 20 minutes ago but within the last minute or two), and 3) presentation in a format that is not just easily readable but also readily usable including communicable to other interested parties or transferable to other information contexts (perhaps the speadsheet that calculates the rankings of all the players in the Playoff Pool).

We would also probably both argue that accessible implies a low cost of acquisition – although precisely what in dollars and cents plus time and effort would vary with our definitions of its utility. However, I would return to the notions of trustworthiness and reliability. I am not sure they are contained within the confines of accessible or should stand on their own.

Trustworthy

I want to be sure that the IT services I get are trustworthy. First, that information I get is true and up to date. The score is 6-0 at 5:28PM – or more importantly, the size and recoverable value of the Gulf of Mexico oil deposits are 1.5 billion barrels not 3 or 0.125 billion. In other words I want to be sure that my information lines have not been hacked into so false values have been entered or that the underlying source is corrupted. Second, I want to be able trust that as I receive and/or send out this information in secured form to other parties that it wont be intercepted and deciphered readily by others. Third I want to be ensured if I add this information to my content stores it will be done promptly and then will become as accessible(or even more so) than before. Fourth, I want to trust that this information and all of my other “contents” will be backed up and restored such that any damage/failure of the underlying storage devices will be largely transparent to my usage of my “contents”. Fifth, I want to have the confidence that whenever and however I want to use the contents and comunication capabilities of IT it will be a)available and b)use the same methods and procedures I am familiar with. In the case of changes to the access procedures, I get to determine the timing, pace and scope of change of those processes. Sixth, I want to be able to trust that when I get and send out information; it cannot be repudiated – that is the sender cannot deny having sent it to me nor can the receiver deny that the information was at least sent out- they may very well choose to balk at receiving it. But even that balking can be noted and stored appropriately.

Now in the past 20-30 years of computing Trustworthiness of IT and processes has relied implicitly upon simple passwords,occasional encryption, restricted “glass house” access and Geek-knowledge – i.e. only a very few geeks would know how to do such a perverse thing. But as IT entwines into all our daily activities from the most mundane to the most intimate, private and/or critical; the risks of tampering and criminal use have increased dramatically. So now it pays to phish and scam with the same or higher sophistication than we develop and utilize IT. Trojan horses or social engineering are as much a threat as spyware and viruses. Hence Trustworthiness along with Accessibility or as the critical component of Accessibility has to be a key measure of IT success.

(c)JBSurveyer 2006