• United States

Watching the birth of international standards

Mar 21, 20063 mins
Data Center

This week has been a real lesson in diplomacy and international cooperation for me.  I have had the privilege to be a fly on the wall at a four-day meeting aimed at documenting user needs for the accessibility of information and communication technology (ICT).  The meeting brings together the members of the ISO/IEC Joint Technical Committee 1 (JTC1) Special Working Group on Accessibility (SWG-A).

The ultimate goal is to set one international standard for ICT products and services to ensure that they are usable by all people, including persons with disabilities.  Right now, there are many “standards” that have been developed by various countries, and these standards often differ or even conflict with each other. This is a problem for both the users as well as the manufacturers of these products. 

From a user standpoint, a class of products might behave differently, or have a different user interface, from country to country.  For example, an ATM in one country might offer verbal instructions for people who are blind.  But cross the border to a neighboring country and the ATM could have a Braille keypad instead of voice commands.  The inconsistency makes it challenging for a user who has to adapt to the device, rather than the device adapting to the user.

From a manufacturer’s viewpoint, inconsistent and multiple standards add to cost and complexity.  Let’s say a company develops a PC that it wants to sell worldwide.  That PC has to meet the accessibility specifications of every country where it is sold.  This could mean developing one version of the product to be sold in Japan, and another for Australia, and yet another for the U.S. market.

So for four days in LA, I watched the give and take of three dozen or so delegates on the SWG-A as they worked to agree upon a list of user needs, and developed a “gap analysis” of what regional standards already exist and how they differ from each other as well as from the user needs.  There were representatives from at least eight countries that are leaders in accessibility (in terms of the countries having legislation mandating accessible ICT).  There were numerous representatives of user advocacy groups, as well as other standards bodies, such as W3C.

At times I felt like I was watching the United Nations at work, with lots of polite give and take.  At other times, I admired how the group met early and worked late to come to consensus on user requirements that will ultimately turn into product specifications for the next generation of notebook computers, cell phones, voting machines and more that you and I will soon use.

With my new insight, I have a great respect for ISO (International Standards Organization) and IEC (International Electrotechnical Committee) and how these groups cooperate to create standards for “one world.”