Icon Chat and Search Engine for People with Low Literacy

Following on from my post about “Taking Symbols for Granted“, where I reviewed Jonathan Chetwynd’s paper entitled “Communication with symbols: from the web to the internet and beyond”, Jonathan has just let me know about the launch of his Icon Chat and Search Engine at openicon.org. The Opera browser is recommended for viewing the site, although you can use FireFox to get the general gist (IE7 is rather intermittant).

The site includes links to three short YouTube videos describing:
* how to chat and search with icons using the application. It shows how chat can take place using symbols, such as using a “heart” for love;
* how to create a web page with a live icon – i.e. a graphic feed which updates, for example a weather symbol which updates as the weather is updated for that location;
* a look at a feed which uses icons, i.e. Zanadu (SVG enabled, so may not work on Internet Explorer), which has live image feeds of pet images from Flickr, the latest news, the latest weather, a direct link to play Radio 4, etc.

The aim is to present information in the form of images or symbols, which are drawn in from feeds. This is similar to a widget based approach, but the concept behind this site allows people with low literacy levels to use the internet without having to navigate complex external sites.

Taking Symbols for Granted

The Journal of Assistive Technologies (Vol.2, Issue 3) has recently published a paper entitled “Communication with symbols: from the web to the internet and beyond” (see the list of contents and a sample article) by Jonathan Chetwynd.

Chetwynd begins by reminding us of how many symbols there are around us – from road signs in the physical world to emoticons in the virtual world. We use them so much in our everyday life that we take them for granted, even seeing and understanding graphics before (or even without) reading any associated text (c.f. the Apple iPhone interface, which has large symbols for each application and a small text name underneath).

Symbols are useful means of communication for people with low literacy levels or who do not speak the local language (although some symbols may also have localised or cultural meanings, which may be different from the universally understood meaning). Chetwynd suggests that as online computer games almost completely rely on graphics and symbols that games developers may be well-suited to make useful contributions to the development of symbol-based communication.

He also laments the fact that many groups which have an influence on web accessibility are effectively only open to people from large organisations, because of the financial or resource costs required. However, it’s not all bad news. The W3C SVG (World Wide Web Consortium Scalable Vector Graphics) Working Group has opened its work up to the public and has recently chartered a public interest group. Chetwynd’s peepo website is SVG enabled.

SVG is a graphics specification which can include text and metadata descriptions, so that they can be searched. It is a very flexible format and is well-suited to small and mobile devices. Most browsers (with the exception of Internet Explorer) have built-in support for SVG and even some mail clients are SVG-enabled. Theoretically, this means that e-mails containing symbols only can be exchanged and understood.

Chetwynd’s paper reminds that we don’t just live in a text-based world. Symbols are all around us. They instruct and remind us, and help us to communicate and navigate. They can be seen as a common, almost universal language, and provide benefits to people who, for whatever reason, have difficulties understanding text or language. By using them more on web-based resources, alongside text labels, not only will we help others to communicate but we will also help ourselves.