Access for all – better tech is inclusive tech 

Engaging young people via digital media channels is the bedrock of RNW Media’s work – but we are active in some of the most difficult countries in the world when it comes to internet access. Yemen, for instance, has the slowest internet in the world and, along with other countries where we work, ranks poorly in the UN’s global poverty index – meaning internet connectivity may be unaffordable. RNW Media’s developers are pioneering new ways to tackle these challenges and make our technology as inclusive as possible.

Andrew Killen has been leading RNW Media’s efforts to optimise the Citizen’s Voice websites, making them amongst the fastest in the world to access via mobile phone. But the work he and his colleagues in the digital team are doing isn’t just about speed.

“It’s the efficiency that’s important – and thinking about our audience. The average kid in Rwanda has 80 cents a month to spend on internet access so we better use that money wisely. Our users are about 90 % mobile. Maybe they’re in internet cafes. Maybe they’re in the middle of a conflict zone. They rely on their mobile phone to get all their information. And they don’t have a lot of money. So the sites they visit had better be quick, better be efficient, better be small, better give them all the information they need straight away.”

The key to increasing the speed and efficiency of the websites is reducing the amount of information that needs to be transferred between the server and mobile phone before the site can be loaded.

“You don’t see it, but when you click on a site, your phone downloads the HTML code and in that code are a bunch of things the phone needs to use to build the webpage. And your phone will ask the server questions -hey, can I have this image please, and that image will come back to your phone. It reads a bit more code and again asks hey – can I have this please and that process keeps on going till the site is loaded. An average e-commerce site would have 200 of those questions and a simple Dutch site like a blog might have 50-70 of those questions. We bring our codes down to under 24 questions”.

The key to the process is combining requests and removing any data that isn’t absolutely necessary. An image, for instance, may contain what’s known as Exif data – information that’s added to a photo such as what type of camera or phone it was taken with, what was the light, the colour, the focal length. It’s all information that has absolutely no value to whoever’s actually looking at that image – but it will slow things down. Another process that helps reduce the amount of information needed to load a site is ‘Naming’.

“When it comes to HTML code, every character counts – instead of using the word ‘white’ to describe a background colour, we use #fff, it means exactly the same thing but it’s a character smaller, just as ‘black’ is longer than #000. We try and use all these little capabilities to reduce something that’s very big into something that’s much smaller and more condensed.”

The result of this painstaking attention to detail is that a page on a Citizens’ Voice website is an average of 140 kilobytes – compared, for instance, to the home page of one of Burundi’s major newspapers which weighs in at 3.5 megabytes. And that translates into a significant increase in efficiency – especially for disadvantaged users:

“With an old 3g phone in an area with poor internet you’ll see the first elements on screen on one of our sites in 7/10ths of a second, 700 milliseconds, and the whole page will load within 2.3 seconds. This feels very much as if you’re on a desktop with a good connection. If you were to try loading a page from that newspaper we talked about, it would take 7 seconds before you saw even the first elements and 23 seconds to complete. ‘

Seven seconds might not seem like a long time to wait, but time feels different when you’re online, says Killen.

“It’s to do with wondering if it’s working, I’ve clicked it – nothing’s happening, is the website broken? Is my phone broken? Is the internet broken’? It’s that fear factor that comes in and we can completely strip that away with what’s like an instant response.”

To get a feeling of how fast our Yaga Burundi site is for our target audience, check out how quickly it loads using the free Wi-Fi available on Dutch trains – a notoriously slow network.

Killen has been developing his skills in website performance optimisation for more than 15 years and says its essential to keep the user in mind. Not every technological advance is going to be accessible to those users facing a combination of low income, poor internet connectivity and old phones. But by questioning conventional wisdom and focusing on efficiency above all, it is possible to build sites that can offer a near ideal online experience in far from ideal circumstances.

And he’s proud of work he describes as ‘pioneering’. RNW Media’s sites in Africa are now faster than African news agencies like Mail and Guardian and Iwacu and faster than global news agencies such as The Guardian and The Washington Post. When Killen shared RNW Media’s work with a Facebook group dedicated to helping developers speed up their sites, the reactions were enthusiastic

Ivan Igor Vidaković  the site is blazing fast on normal desktop connection even in EU.

Jeff Cleverley Fast, very fast, on 4g mobile loading articles nearly instantly… but I’m in China and that’s proxying through my Outline/Shadowsocks server on a Vultr LA instance.

Ivica Delic Crazy fast site! Congrat :-)

Mike Andreasen Be honest, how often do you visit just to enjoy the speed? ;)