Today I went to the Londroid (London Android) Office RNIB Hackathon that was sponsored by Blue Via. The goal was to help app developers to learn more about the needs of blind people.

This was a great event and I would like to thank everyone who made it possible and the kind people from the RNIB, particularly Robin Spink who listened politely to my somewhat contrarian views.

The day started with several lectures which put forward the problems that blind and partially sighted people face and some of the views of the RNIB. Although informative I found them difficult to digest because of the entitlement culture of the speakers who would often tell us what was  “acceptable”.

The provision of many services for disabled people is a pure social cost that does not produce economic benefit for the provider. For example, in the absence of legislation, the market would not provide ramps to every office building just in-case a wheelchair user should get a job there.

Therefore to advance their agenda, advocates for the disabled get laws passed and then provide services to big business to help them comply. This is approach is wholly commendable for commodity and monopoly services such as gas, electricity and operating systems but not apps.

The reason that it is the wrong approach for apps is that it presupposes that there is a market failure and that the only way that accessible software will be produced is if non-disabled people subsidise it in the same way as non-disabled people subsidise the cost of the disabled ramps.

There is, to my mind, no evidence of a market failure. Blind people can be customers just  like sighted people, they have credit cards and mobile phones and can buy software. We are told that there are 1.8 million blind and partially sighted people in the UK alone that could be a profitable market for the solo developer.

The goal of any business is to minimise costs and maximise profits (or social benefits – if the developers work for free).

The problem is not writing code; the problem is building good applications that meet the needs of a reasonably sized segment. To do this we need many things that the RNIB can provide either directly or in a coordinating role.

  • Cost reduction
    • simple design guidelines
    • software libraries for common tasks
  • market research
    • customer archetypes
    • segmentation by disability, age, gender, location, tech use …
    • example use cases (eg wayfaring, clothes matching, cooking)
  • blind and partially sighted testers
  • publicity, marketing communications and app discovery processes
  • international co-operation to globalize markets

The biggest impediment to this may be the culture of the RNIB. As a pressure group it has been very successful (and quite rightly!) at getting the tax payer and other service users to pay. It might be a too much of a shift for it to ask its constituency to open their wallets.

At this point I should say that I am judging a whole organisation by a few presentations and it is the first time they have attempted to engage directly with developers directly. It is a great thing they are doing and I commend them for it. I would also like to thank Kevin of Londroid for organising the event.

Finally, I would like to thank the blind and partially sighted people who came today. It is simply not possible to develop any software without access to real users and they made it real for us.

I am sure that the combination of powerful technology, brilliant users and keen entrepreneurs will produce great products.