Steve Bratt, CEO of New World Wide Web Foundation, Details Plans To Make the Web More Usable in the Developing World

Only 25 percent of adults around the world have access to a computer that they can use to reach the Web. But 75 percent have access to a mobile phone. So the simplest way to open up the wealth of information on the Web to more people would be to make it usable via voice connections—for instance, through some combination of speech synthesis and speech recognition technologies and voice-driven interfaces customized for each region.

Making that happen will be the first mission for the new World Wide Web Foundation, officially launched November 15 by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web and the director of the Cambridge, MA-based World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Berners-Lee unveiled the foundation’s plans in a speech before the Internet Governance Forum, a non-governmental organization meeting this week in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. (Watch the video.)

It was 20 years ago this year that Berners-Lee proposed the Web’s basic markup language (HTML), its data protocol (HTTP), and its system of document addresses (URLs). “The thing that made the Web work then and the most important thing about it today is its universality,” Berners-Lee said in his speech. “Two Webs doesn’t work. It has to be one Web for all sorts of information, no matter what hardware you have, no matter who you buy your computer from, and now more importantly, no matter what sort of device you have.”

Steve Bratt, CEO of the World Wide Web FoundationThe basic tenet behind the Web Foundation is that the Web can empower people around the world to help themselves, if only barriers of language, literacy, location, and income can be overcome. The foundation’s first efforts in this direction will include support for an emerging discipline it’s calling “Web science,” as well as collaborations with VU University in Amsterdam and the Center for Digital Inclusion in Brazil focusing on the deployment of Web-based mobile communications technologies among farmers in Africa and schoolchildren in South and Central America and elsewhere.

A non-profit founded in 2008 and operating largely under the radar until now, the Web Foundation is subsisting for the time being on a five-year, $5 million seed grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The organization (which is not using the acronym WWWF, perhaps to avoid confusion with the World Wildlife Fund and the World Wrestling Federation) is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. But its CEO, Steve Bratt—formerly the CEO of the W3C—is working from a newly opened office in Boston’s downtown financial district.

Bratt met with Xconomy on Monday morning for his first detailed Q&A session about the creation of the Foundation, the philosophy of its early projects, and his and Berners-Lee’s ambitious plans for making the Web more accessible. Part 1 of our interview appears here; we’ll publish Part 2 on Wednesday.

Xconomy: What’s the mission of the World Wide Web Foundation, and how is it different from the mission of the World Wide Web Consortium?

Steve Bratt: Our overarching theme is empowering people through the Web—giving people the power through the Web to accomplish their own goals. It’s about helping people, not just having cool technologies. You never hear Tim Berners-Lee give a talk without talking about the universality of the Web. So the foundation is a direct reflection of Tim’s desire to make the Web a more democratic space for everybody. We talked about just having the W3C expand, maybe by having a research group and an in-the-field group, but sometimes it’s better to keep to your mission, and W3C is focused on the technical aspects of Web standards. We can focus on the problems people have and the challenges, and hopefully help organizations like W3C or the Web Science Trust work on research and standards to address those needs.

X: How long has the foundation been in the works, and where did the idea come from?

SB: I would say in 2007 we started talking about what more we could do. By April of 2008 we had presented the idea for the World Wide Web Foundation to the W3C advisory committee. We had a lot of support—they thought it was a great idea, and that it was good for it to be separate. Then, May 2008 was when we had our first contact with the Knight Foundation. They are all about the future of news and journalism, and they believe the Web is critical to the future of not just the profession but the whole notion of how you convey information to people. So that was really quite miraculous that we made that connection, and that they shared our vision of the Web as an empowering agent. In September they announced a seed grant of $5 million over five years. We got the first payment on that in January of this year. And finally, I left my job at W3C in July.

X: Why was it so important for the foundation to be a separate entity?

SB: W3C itself is a complicated organization. It’s actually a partnership between MIT and a European consortium called ERCIM and Keio University; that is the legal basis. So already, there was that complication of how do you create a new non-profit entity. But also, from a business point of view, W3C does a good job and people in the technical areas appreciate what they’re doing. Here at the foundation we can focus on things that people believe in, things that people think are important. We don’t have to take on all the controversies in the world right away, but we definitely want to take up challenges that people are not paying attention to.

A good example would be putting more money into things like internationalization, which is something that all the W3C members think is important, but they don’t have a lot of resources to put into it. Also accessibility and making the Web more available for people with low reading skills. A billion adults in the world can’t read, so a written Web isn’t going to be used by them.

X: What are the issues where you think the foundation can make the biggest difference?

SB: A lot of people are working on global Internet connectivity and on getting laptops and other hardware into developing countries. Those things are important, but what’s driven the Web revolution has really been content—creating and sharing and linking to content. No one is focusing on that side of it as much as we’d like. So we identified three things. First, a content gap. A lot of life-critical content is not available to people in ways that they can access it. We don’t want to give people content, we want to train them in how to develop systems to create their own content.

Second, there’s another gap we call the research gap. We don’t really understand how the Web works. Tim says all the time that the Web is not just technology, it’s humanity connected by technology. But when somebody creates a link here, how does it affect life over there? When somebody uses the Web to spread a rumor here, how does it affect the stock of a company over there? There are sociologists and modern anthropologists and computer scientists studying these things, but the idea is to pull these together into a single discipline that we’re calling Web science. The analogy is to cognitive science, where you pull together biologists and neurologists and psychologists who are all studying the notion of how the brain gives rise to consciousness. We want to take the results of Web science and hopefully get that into the field to help people—so that over time we have a better Web and can address its inefficiencies.

Third is the standards or technology gap. What is there in the Web today that inhibits it from reaching its full potential? In some cases the Web inhibits people from using it because it doesn’t support their language, or because they have low literacy skills or disabilities. Also, anywhere that proprietary technologies start to take a dominant role would be a concern for us. You can’t have a Web just for a certain country or a certain model of phone, the way the mobile industry seemed to be going a few years ago.

X: But if you’ll forgive me asking, wouldn’t you agree that one of the great things about the Web is its openness and plasticity? Most of the really amazing things that people have done with the Web have come from the grassroots, from people taking on big challenges for themselves. So why not simply wait for Web users to come up with solutions to the gaps that you’re talking about? Why do you think the world needs another big centralized foundation to do that?

SB: Well, it hasn’t happened yet, that’s one thing. There aren’t people focusing on these particular issues, specifically in developing countries. Also, these are things that eventually need to be addressed at a global level—they have to become part of the Web standards stack or the Web guidelines stack. A good example would be illiteracy. There are a number of groups that have come up with systems to make the Web more accessible to the illiterate, some involving iconography, some involving voice. And we think that is really important, by the way. But if every website does this differently you will have a mess. You want a standard convention for developing countries to follow, so that browsing the Web is not a complete nightmare for people with low literacy. We need to get enough funding together and the right people together to build a consensus around the best system.

Very importantly, we don’t see ourselves as dictating the future of the Web at all. We want to accelerate things that are already starting to happen in particular places. The Web can’t be directed by any one organization. Be we can hopefully accelerate good things that are not being driven by anyone else.

In Part 2 of our interview, coming tomorrow, Bratt talks about the Web Foundation’s specific projects in Africa and South America, the role of voice technologies, and the group’s fundraising plans.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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