Inclusion through tech – near ideal online experiences in less than ideal circumstances

RNW Media is committed to ensuring young people in restrictive settings from across political, ethnic, racial, gender, regional or religious divides can come together in a way often quite difficult in offline spaces. To achieve that objective, we support young people to bust out of their echo chambers and engage in constructive dialogue.

Creating alternative civic spaces in polarised societies requires placing the principle of inclusion at the heart of our work. Our inclusive approach has five pillars: inclusive teams; communities; partnerships; content; and technology. Inclusive technology is a particular challenge. Digital media channels are the bedrock of our work, but we are active in some of the most difficult countries in the world when it comes to internet access.  Internet access is becoming faster and cheaper, but national digital infrastructure is beyond our control. So we focus on strategies to optimise our platforms and make them more accessible where connectivity is poor and data plans are expensive.

Mobile first

All our platforms are developed as mobile first since the vast majority of young people in our programme countries use their phones to go online. These phones may not the latest model, so we also take this into consideration when designing and optimising our platforms.  We make sure our sites load as quickly as possible. The average young person in Rwanda, for instance, has just 80 cents per month to spend on internet access, and every second a page takes loading will eat into that budget.

How do we reduce load time? We reduce the amount of information that transfers from the server to mobile phone before the site can load.  The HTML code to download a website consists of a series of questions between the device and the server—requests to download each image, block of text, icon and so on. An average e-commerce site will have around 200 of those questions, a simple blogging site might have 50-70 of those questions. RNW Media’s team of developers ensure our platforms have fewer than 24.

How we do it

So, how do we do it? We combine requests and remove any data that’s not absolutely necessary. An image, for instance, may contain what’s known as Exif data. That’s information added to a photo, such as the type of camera or phone with which it was taken, what was the light, the colour, the focal length, etc. That information slows the loading process and has no value to whoever’s viewing the image.

We also use ‘naming’; we write code with a combination of characters rather than actual words. So instead of using the word ‘white’ or ‘black’ to describe a background colour, developers use #fff and #000 which mean the same thing but use fewer characters. Similarly, we economise on coding by adapting the visual design of our websites. Rounded corners on blocks of text or images, for example, require more characters than plain square corners. So when designing a platform, our developers seize every chance to reduce and condense the coding.

Shaving off seconds

The result of this painstaking attention to detail is that a Citizens’ Voice webpage 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. A user with a 3G phone in an area with poor internet will see the first elements of an RNW Media site on screen in 7/10ths of a second, and the whole page will load within 2.3 seconds. In comparison, the same Burundian newspaper mentioned above, would take seven seconds for the first elements to come in and 23 seconds to download completely.

RNW Media’s Data and Digital team of, developers, UX (user experience) design experts, analysts and strategists are constantly working on innovative ways to make inclusive technology a reality. The essential focus is the end user—not every technological advance is going to be accessible to users facing a combination of lower income, poor internet connectivity and older model phones. But by questioning conventional ways of working and focusing on efficiency, it is possible to build sites that offer a near ideal online experience in less than ideal circumstances.