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MinneWebCon Reflection

On April 23, the Digital Scholarship (DS) program participated in the MinneWebCon held in McNamara Alumni Center at University of Minnesota. A two-day web conference that encourages inclusive grassroots knowledge-sharing, MinneWebCon 2018 features a general theme around artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR). While at MinneWebCon, the DS interns and supervisors attended 2 keynote talks and 5 information sessions. As the Accessibility intern on the team, I naturally picked sessions that are more accessibility-oriented, i.e. AI and Improving the Experience of Users Living with Disabilities and Building Advanced Experiences with Simple Accessibility Solutions, among others.

One thing that struck me from the sessions is the remarkable variety of accessibility concerns that are present in our daily lives. While I was working with accessibility tools on some of Carleton’s websites, I mostly focused on issues related to vision or hearing, i.e. color contrast and page navigation with screen readers such as ChromeVox and VoiceOver. Sue Ann Rodriquez (@WeCo5 on Twitter), the Director of Accessibility Services for WeCo. and one of the session speakers, introduced a wide range of disabilities that I have overlooked in the past. For example, I did not really take cognitive-related or mobility-related disabilities into consideration. To elaborate, some users might struggle with disorders such as ADHD and dyslexia. For this particular group of folks, having too much information displayed on the web is often more overwhelming than helpful. We can improve their experience by implementing simple yet impactful changes — keeping graphics and images simple; having sufficient white space and a clutter-free look; reducing motion and movement to minimize distractions and prevent seizures. These seemingly basic (and not even technical!) alterations can drastically enhance accessibility for web projects. Religions in Minnesota, one of the projects that our team is managing, features a large number of photos and texts that aim to facilitate learning and knowledge-sharing. While the abundance of information is helpful when our users want to browse through and understand different religions and their respective traditions, it is too much for users with cognitive disabilities. Some kind of middle ground should be achieved to make the website more accessible – whether through cutting off some contents or creating a version of the website that renders easily and is relatively clutter-free.

The other session that left a strong impression on me was Jade E. Davis’ keynote speech: The Already Augmented and Virtually Real. In the talk, she focused on the ramifications of advancing technological improvements in the areas of AI/VR without thinking about the potential ethical problems. She used the scandalous example of the use of pornography to shock the audience — when VR becomes highly commercialized and attainable, pornography would almost surely creep its way into people’s lives in new and exciting ways. The very likely proliferation of “more real”, “improved” and “more sensual” pornography was just one example that Davis brought out. By extension, it is not hard to come to the realization that the popularization of VR might further perpetuate social problems. However, when the world is overwhelmed by the joy and excitement brought forth by AI/VR, as promised by the tech giants, how many of us are really going to analyze its controversial parts?

Overall, MinneWebCon broadened my horizons as a coder/designer standing at the intersection of front-end development and accessibility, allowed me to reflect on the areas I have overlooked in the past, and given me the opportunity to network and socialize with other like-minded individuals. I thank the Digital Scholarship program for providing the interns on the program with this amazing opportunity and hope that the future cohorts can learn and have fun at similar conferences or events in the future!

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