AXSChat Podcast

Exploring the Convergence of Accessibility and Sustainability

January 13, 2024 Antonio Santos, Debra Ruh, Neil Milliken talk with Mike Gifford
AXSChat Podcast
Exploring the Convergence of Accessibility and Sustainability
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Unlock the transformative potential of blending accessibility with sustainability as we welcome Mike Gifford back onto AXSChat for a riveting third appearance. Prepare to redefine your understanding of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria through our discussion about the essential role of accessibility in sustainable practices. Mike, a seasoned strategist from Civic Actions, draws from his extensive knowledge gathered at a Barcelona conference to illuminate the profound synergy between these sectors. Our conversation ventures into the lessons that accessibility can teach us about forging a more sustainable world, and we explore the shared strategies, resources, and advocacy that can propel both fields forward.

As we shift our gaze to design and technology, we grapple with the concept of planetary-centered design and its implications on industry norms, especially with the rise of AI. Mike offers invaluable insights into the political hurdles and practical challenges of adopting solutions that cater to both human and environmental needs. From the paradox of greener websites endorsing fossil fuel consumption to the potential for AI to shape the future of accessibility, this episode will challenge your perceptions and inspire action. Join us for a thought-provoking journey that not only questions the status quo but also celebrates the innovations driving us towards an inclusive and sustainable digital future.

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AXSCHAT Mike Gifford

NEIL:

Hello and welcome to Axschat. I'm really delighted to welcome back to the show, Mike Gifford. Mike is a regular on the Twitter chats with us, yes Twitter or X or should we call it Twix. And Mike is senior strategist at Civic Actions. It's his third time on the show, a relatively small number of vanishing number of people that have stuck with us, over the best part of a decade and keep coming back for more. So, welcome back, I know you're in lovely south of France at the moment, working extremely remotely. But we have got a great topic today because you were recently, you know bridging the sustainability and accessibility topics at a conference and we thought, well this is something that we want to talk about. So, there is a little more. And of course, tell us a bit, for those of us that don't have long memories about what Civic Actions is, and your role there.

MIKE:

Thank you. I often rush right into the topic and forget about my company and where I've come from. So, happy to go off and have that reminder. So, I used to own a business called Open Concept for 21 years and I was acquired by Civic Actions and have been working, focused on accessibility, since that time. Civic Actions does a lot of the work with the federal government. And accessibility in the US is really quite important and governments around the world understand how important accessibility is. But very few of them really have good approaches to address those. And so training off and building better practices for Civic Actions and our clients and to help to because Civic Actions worked with Open Source software, trying to share and collaborate as much as I can with the platform I've with Civic Actions. So, I went to a conference in Barcelona to speak. I was at a green digital accessibility conference. And it was organised by Green Sense and a number of other people within a university in Barcelona and it was an excellent opportunity for people to talk about sustainability and accessibility and various different aspects of it. The talk I wanted to bring was looking at policy aspects and how policy because in climate change is a really critical issue and we have a limited amount of time to go out and act on it. Accessibility is also a critical issue but there is not the time pressure because humans can continue to go off and neglect humans and it will have a huge impact on the humans but not the rest o the planet. Unlike sustainability. Where, if we have negative sustainability practices, it will have a negative impact on everyone, not just humans but all species on this planet. So, I wanted to go off and just look at what are the things that we can learn from accessibility, what are the lessons that are, that have been taken and should be taken from accessibility and applied to sustainability. How do you bring that forward? And I think there are a lot of similarities between sustainability and accessibility. In the terms of the rigor, in terms of like often accessibility and sustainability are things that are left at the end. Like, if you are aware of them as issues, you're going to deal with them after the project is done. If there is sufficient budget at the end of the project. Right, you're not necessarily going to go off and build that in. But from accessibility, we definitely know that there is a need to try and fix things as early as possible.

NEIL:

Great. So I know the others have questions but I want to cause a bit of trouble first. And that is actually accessibility is part of sustainability. Especially when you start thinking about it in the framework of ESG; right?

MIKE:

Right.

NEIL:

And, certainly, in my day job, we are looking at sustainability in ESG and in European companies, you know, there is all of the, you know, the CSRD stuff, the CSR directive and the reporting directive. You know, it's not just about the E of ESG, which is the environmental impact and the energy impact and so on that people have traditionally thought of as being sustainability. There is also the social sustainability and so on.

MIKE:

Right.

NEIL:

So, sorry, to be a trouble-maker, but I think that actually, you know, they are part of each other. MIKE: Right? But the green element is an element. It's the E element and the resource usage and all of that kind of stuff and I think we can learn from each other.

MIKE:

Yes.

NEIL:

So, I think, you know, what can years of accessibility practice teach green practitioners and what can the urgency and the attention and the money of, you know, the energy reduction and decarbonisation, teach the accessibility industry and how can we create some kind of symbiosis.

MIKE:

Right, there's a lot to learn from each other and they are different but they are very related issues and there is different people who are working on them and are passionate about it. And you're going to find less people who are. Sustainability is often tied to performance. And so, you have got sort of more technical people in some ways involved on that front. But, you know, accessibility is often tied to the, you know, to rights and civil rights issues and anything. That's less than issue than sustainability. Although of course, if we make our planet inhospitable, that is a big human rights issue.

DEBRA:

Right. What can go wrong? First of all, I think we should promote Neil to, if you all didn't notice his title, I think he should be the Chief Troublemaker. But, just saying. But that's okay, we'll keep you demoted Neil. But this is really a powerful conversation and Mike congratulations for being on the show three times. We haven't had many guests three times and that's how brilliant we think you are. Thank you for promoting yourself Neil, there in the job title. But I know that Neil was talking about. He was one of the first, at least, I heard talking about this. He was using and I forget who coined the term and he'll tell us in a minute talking about pollution and accessibility. I remember he started talking about I thought that was fascinating.

MIKE:

Yes.

DEBRA:

And I know others have been talking about this topic. Mike, you have been talking about this for a long time. I know. Jim Tobias, thank you for being my brain. Jim Tobias talked about it a little bit and then Neil really ran with it. I should say rest in peace, Jim Tobias. We were very sad to lose him like so many other great ones. I know Nabil Iad, who works with me and lives in Syria. He really talks about this and how it is impacting the people, especially, not just people who are disenfranchised but people in really serious situations like, once again, that people that live in Syria or maybe in the Ukraine and everybody knows what I am talking about. It's sometimes chilling to me to talk to Nabil who lives in Syria and to just hear some of the things that him and his family had lived there through. His house has been bombed, partially bombed. Eight times. They right now today live on 30 minutes of electricity. It's winter sometimes in Syria folks. Just saying, there are things these people are living with we do not understand. I can't just see all these wonderful conversations about we got to protect the planet. I can't imagine why we are not protecting the planet we are living on. But, I'm also being a very, a little bit annoyed. Words like ESG and CSR and things like that because, I don't understand, even if you're a big successful corporation, you still live on the planet too, right. So, you still are you have humans running your so, I just think we are all often talking about these problems in a very shortsighted way that just doesn't really address the urgencies. And so, I know artificial intelligence now is stepped into these conversations, has been for a while. And we are looking at these different ones as well. But what I wonder Mike and I am sure you were, some of our chief trouble maker or innovation Evangelist here can answer these big questions for me. But what I'm wondering is, are we focusing on the wrong things right out of the gate. Okay, cool, ATOS you better follow your ESG. Whenever, I think it is really should be applied in a much different way, in that we all have some really serious issues here. Could we please get together and really figure out how to make sure we protect our planet, we protect humans, fragile humans, make sure technology supports. It just seems like everything is backwards. And so, I just wanted to say, thank you all for taking these topics on but at the same time, I want to keep saying that I don't know what is going to happen in the accessibility field. But I do not believe that the direction, that some of the things that are happening right now, big companies gathering up other companies. I do not know if at the end of the day, this is really going to support what we are trying to do here which is making sure that all humans have access to technology, so that we can live our best lives. So, that's something I'm very concerned about right now. As we look at AI and how AI is going to change the job market; right? Is this an opportunity now to step up and say, well could we help our planet and help the people in humanity. So, very important conversations but I still don't think that, I don't know, I think we have to have more of the conversations that I just mentioned as well and I will tell all of the corporate brands out there, all of you leaders out there, if you are not paying attention to what is happening in the world right now and you're not really wanting to make a difference and really be part of the solution, please will you get out of our way, anyway.

MIKE:

It is definitely is a real challenge and I think part of it is that we've somehow convinced ourselves that our own story about success as a society is independent of nature, that we can create an economy which is somehow a part of the world that we live in and separate and distinct from and we can create rules that are above and beyond that of nature and separating ourselves from it. And we are not. And we can't. Also, we were talking, I was thinking about another one of the presentations of this conference in that talking about emergency issues and how so often you're dealing with climate change or for that matter, conflicts of war or other emergencies. The information is not accessible. It's an after thought. So, there is people who are so often, forgotten in the process of you know, is there an earth quake, is there a flood. How do you respond to people. If you are not building your systems to assume you're reaching out to people with disabilities, you miss so many people. And especially, we know that during crisis’s, so many more people will have at least temporary disabilities, if not permanent disabilities, broken arms or whether it is somehow you have lost an arm or a leg or eyesight. There is so much of that happens in these traumatic times and yet, again, we don't, as humans we don't want to think about those opportunities. We tend to think about how we are right now and the abilities that we have at the moment and not think ahead to what we are going to be facing in, whether it's tomorrow or five years or ten years and aging is a huge one, right where our abilities are decreasing over time and we need to be able to be aware of that. That our abilities today are not going to be the same as they are in the future. So, how do we grapple with the reality that is not part of the story that we tell ourselves.

DEBRA:

Excellent points. Go ahead, Antonio.

ANTONIO:

And I think it's, you know, we have an ongoing war in Ukraine with you know, a large number of young people, who by reason of what is happening in the war, end up in hospital and they become disabled as part much the process of being fighting in the front. The same is happening in the issue with this issue in Palestine. And those people are, you know, hopefully one day when we are able to leave the war behind us and we are in time of peace, those people they need to continue with their lives. They need to access services, the need to have jobs. They need to live in a building that's accessible and at the same time sustainable. So, the two things are within the mix and sometimes, something that sometimes I came across is when I talk with people you know, that works in the tech sector, they tend to say, well, sustainability is not up to me. I'm a developer. Well, stop it, you know. Your code should be green. Your code needs to be green. What do you mean by that? Maybe when you're writing a piece of code, you need to find ways for that code to use less energy in the systems, where it's going to be used. Well, I'm not sure about it and the same happen when we talk about people in the sustainability area. Oh, you need to look at think more about people with disabilities, oh, do I. I am just worrying about the environment. So you know, sometimes we came across these kinds of conversations where people really are really focused in their area and they don't see the extra or they don't see the other or sometimes the consequences of those who are in the areas of exclusion because they are so obsessed with their focus area. So, I think we need to somehow shift a little bit and focus more on the human side and when we talk about the human, we are not talking about people who live in larger countries, people who live in marginalised areas.

MIKE:

I was listening to a Podcast, I was at the SUX, the sustainability usability Podcast and there is a woman there from Lego, I think who was talking about moving from human centred designed to planetary centred design. Again, not thinking about, you're not excluding the human, but saying we need to be thinking bigger about the processes. So, if you're buying a product that is a, say and you're supporting fossil fuels and building a website for a fossil fuel like, Shell or Xon, or these giant companies, if you have a super efficient, super sustainable website, that is still going to be helping to go off and increases the more consumption of oil and gas. So, how do we try and think about not just the work we are doing but what the end product is and again, our society is focused on these really small niche areas where we often don't see what those links are between the different disciplines.

NEIL:

So, I think you know, the comment about the energy companies was really interesting and obviously, and also there is an overlap. So, a few things, you know, where we have done some work and we've got some experience of, we worked a while back, we have got through multiple rebrands. At one point we rebranded and did a dark mode rebrand. And we did some research on that and we reduced energy consumption because less pixels were being used and so on and so forth. But we also improved the accessibility because we looked at the colour contrast and so on. But beyond that, you can also look at efficiency, in terms of you write green code. It's going to load quicker. You're going to have, you know, you know that creates a better user experience. It reduces resource consumption. Also code should be conforming code so, it also should be more accessible. All of these kinds of things. So, you can start bringing them together and you can have these multiple wins. But it was really interesting to see that COP 28, hosted by an oil producing nation, was still the first COP conference, where there was an agreement, albeit less than we'd like, to phase out fossil fuels. So, I think that

MIKE:

Right.

NEIL:

So, I think that you have to take those kind of really big holistic decisions and sometimes those holistic decisions that consider all of the different impact analysis of different things don't necessarily appear at first glance intuitive, or right.

MIKE:

Right.

NEIL:

So, I think there is going to be a challenge for people when you start looking at things in a systems thinking way for them to be able to understand it, because the reason we end up with lots of things that are not going so well, is because people want simple solutions and simple solutions don't generally work. They are simple because they are it's nice, but that is you know, how we end up with you know extremism because people are drawn to the simple solutions because things are broken but those simple solutions don't fix them, they usually make them worse. So, we are going to have to go into the cultural shifts and long termism and rounded decision making which I think is going to really be quite a challenge for not just the business community but as a society that we need to think about these things differently.

MIKE:

Yes, it's difficult for politics as well because again, we want to have the simple solutions. We want to have some policy, some politician coming into say, yes, I've the answers and I am going to solve things. But getting back to the code and I didn't want to raise the green software foundation is doing some really work on establishing a framework for improving green digital software and there is also the green web foundation and this is very interesting stuff. There is now a web sustainability guideline that is coming out of a community group of the WC3 and this actually also involves a bunch of other issues that are much bigger than just sustainability. We have tried to write a set of guidelines that is more holistic and structured and look at very much, yes, to look at accessibility as well as other human rights issues within that web sustainability guideline framework and having accessibility. What is the purpose of this particular digital product? Both accessibility and sustainability, I think if we can try and bring it back into a sense of quality. How do we define quality? And if quality work is not just, you know it should include elements of accessibility and also sustainability by default.

NEIL:

I fully agree. I think that is I've been trying to break Debra into that.

DEBRA:

Right. So easy.

NEIL:

I absolutely think you know, we need to engage and we need to get people coming together on this. And yes, the politics is going to be exceptionally challenging in 2024 because everyone is into you know, we are in that point in the electoral cycle, we know, I think so pointless worldwide.

MIKE:

Wow.

NEIL:

So, there is going to be change and huge instability and no one is going to be in it for the long term right now because they are all looking at what sounds like a simple and alluring solution to the electorate. So, one can only hope that, at the end of that process, that we get some kind of outcome where people are prepared to do that and there is no guarantee.

MIKE:

Right.

NEIL:

On some of that stuff.

DEBRA:

You know, one thing that I don't know that is happening and so, maybe it is and I'm just not aware of it. But it feels to me like a lot of the players in the accessibility industry are not paying attention to what is happening and it's just business as usual the way we have always been doing it. Often, I'm going to speak from the lens of my beautiful small country, the United States. It feels like a lot of the accessibility providers and my beautiful country, there is just business as usual, the way we have always done things and that is confusing me a little bit because we do have something that just popped up called AI. So, I don't understand why we are acting like it's just the same because it's not. AI actually has a great potential to solve some of these really big accessibility issues. But at the same time, we should not be talking about any new technologies or anything and not talk about how we are not fully included, the humans and love, love the term coined, centred design. I love the comments that it's to make sure that humans and non humans have a voice.

MIKE:

Right.

DEBRA:

Non humans. What does non humans mean? Right, well, are we talking AI? Are we talking dogs? Are we talking mugs?

MIKE:

Yes.

DEBRA:

I don't hear these conversations. I'm not going to traditional accessibility conferences anymore because I just want to start yelling, what are you all doing, are you taping into? So, nobody wants Debra to lose it. But I'm serious, am I missing it. Why are we not as mainstream accessibility not more, what do you have to go to a conference in Barcelona that is addressing it and thank goodness that I know about this conference now. Why aren't we taking this on more as an accessibility industry, I would ask you three about?

MIKE:

It is definitely so much more of a focus in Europe, where I am now. There is so much more of a focus around sustainability, they've made some huge jumps on accessibility in Europe with the European Accessibility Act. And the web accessibility directive. So, those are definitely great things that are pushing both Europe and in fact, the UK forward. But it's, I think that in terms of the accessibility industry. We have to follow the money and the money is in developing the ports. It's in providing solutions, in brackets. It's not ringing in and fixing the problems upstream.

DEBRA:

Yes.

MIKE:

Historically looking at open source. Here's a solution that's really very accessible in that we should be investing in. Because, if we solve these problems centrally, complicated difficult problems then everyone can benefit and we can invest in fixing the problems once and everyone can benefit from those results.

DEBRA:

Everybody. Mike, how do I sell my company for 250 billion dollars; what? Sorry.

MIKE:

Follow the money. Exactly.

DEBRA:

It just makes me sad sometimes. It just makes me sad.

ANTONIO:

Let me just, two notes. We have seen a lot of the developments in an area, you know, we are talking about sub titles, you know. Five years ago, we were no, it was really hard to get them right. And now, they have improved greatly. So, that's a sector. Now, you know, there is some recent posts about accessibility that is going to you know, things are still not still there. There are a few things that are not possible, we are not able to do yet but there are, you know prospects that they might improve and that developments will bring them to a higher level and a higher standard; okay. So, with all these developments and following what is, what happened is in the space of subtitles, how they develop so fast in a short period of time. What is actually the role of companies that are actually only focused on accessibility. What is their space, you know. Considering that suddenly, AI just jumps outs of the can and suddenly, a lot of people who were not really working in the space of accessibility, can do a lot more with the AI, that they couldn't do before? What is the challenge? Where is the disruption there?

MIKE:

AI has a lot of potential. It is both, it is an amplification, right. So, it will amplify the good and the bad. And is based on, most generative AI is based onlooking on what has happened historically. It's going to be learning from code that is bad because it is not looking for sustainability and not written for accessibility and propelling that forward. Now, it could be improved upon where you're weighing the learning model to go off and embrace accessibility and there are some people like Joe Devon, who are trying to do that, trying to build good models, around accessibility to try and support that, which is great. But we also think that we need to, in some ways need to go off and look for, what are machines good for and what are humans good for. And we are never going to solve all the problems with AI. We are still going to go off and have people and understand what the tools are supposed to do. And what the context is supposed to be doing it within. So, having more engagement with people with lived experience with disabilities is going to be very important. Having more manual testing. Having more quality around that. All of that is going to be quite useful. But on a sustainability topic, it's also quite useful to go off and note that AI, is going to have a very big environmental impact as well. So, all of these data centres, the AI maybe in the cloud, but the impact is very much physical and it has a huge impact on the planet. You know, if we are using AI to go and to degenerate Alt text that's taking resources and it may be more efficient to go and use AI to do that. But if it's producing low quality Alt text it probably isn't. It's probably better to train people to go off and to use their abilities to go off and write better. But, we are in a difficult time because things are changing very quickly and I think that there is pros and cons to all of this.

NEIL:

I think it that's nuanced and most people don't really get yet and you know, the energy and resource consumption of AI is not visible to the end user and therefore, they don't really understand the impact that some of their actions might have because, again these are externalities, these are negative externalities of an IT product that possibly help happen. So, I know we need to close shortly but I think on a positive note, we do know that we can change policy stacks.

DEBRA:

Right.

NEIL:

So, the resource consumption of block chain initially was enormous but changing it, you know, the configuration, for you know and the way that we dealt with proofs, reduced the energy consumption and I think the same thing can happen with AI or AI models as well. So, I think that that can help, but we need to find appropriate balance between the two, proof of work and proof of stake. You're right, Mike and then, you know, we can look at how we can integrate some of that ability to do stuff fast and to scale and everything else from AI, with the human in the loop. So, I need to thank Amazon and My Cleartext for keeping us On Air and keeping us captioned. Real humans doing the job here. And I really look forward to the chat on Twix shortly.

DEBRA:

And Neil, real quick before we go, Mike, will you just tell the audience how to contact with you?

MIKE:

So, I'm available on most social media as M Gifford. M G-I-F-F-O-R-D. I can also be reached at you know, mike.gifford@civicactions.com. If people have questions from this. And I am on LinkedIn and on most places so, you can find me wherever you like.

NEIL:

And you can still come by the geographical meta data.

MIKE:

On my Flickr pictures.

NEIL:

All right. Thank you everyone.

MIKE:

Take care.

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