In-Class Activities, Feb. 4-5

Activity one: A standards hunt

Last week, you worked on breaking your technology into its technical components. Today, we’ll use those components as the basis for diving deeper into each part, to discover which standards are relevant to the technology you’re exploring.

It’s likely that your technology adheres to many different standards — probably too many to investigate at length! Therefore, as you’ll see in the revised write-up assignment, I’d like you to include a paragraph-long overview of the major standards used by your technology, and then, in the bulk of the write-up, focus on just one or two standards to explore at greater length. Choose the standard(s) that you find intriguing, controversial, or especially relevant to your technology.

Today, you’ll get a jump-start on that assignment by performing some preliminary research about your technology and the standards it embodies.

Here are some points to remember about how standards operate. Standards:

  • nest inside each other.
  • embody ethics and values.
  • are relative to communities of practice. (Standards that are easy for some to assimilate may be a nightmare to others.)

(These observations are drawn from an article by Martha Lampland and Susan Leigh Star called “Reckoning with Standards,” which I recommend! I put it in CCLE for you.)

Break down your tech

Make a list of “big” component parts. For example, with TikTok in mind, I think of:

  • the app itself
  • Internet connectivity, via wifi or cellular data
  • the hardware it runs on (phone or tablet)

Now focus in one one of those components. Since only one of these, the app, is really specific to TikTok, I’ll choose that. What technologies does it use? I snooped around online and made some observations. TikTok contains:

  • a video module
  • an audio module
  • a recommender module

Drill down

Now I’ll take each of those modules in turn, with the understanding that it’s likely to contain a nested cascade of standards. Examining the video module by snooping around the internet, I see that TikTok:

  • captures and displays video at a standard frame rate of 30 frames per second.
  • makes use of a compression standard called H.264 to play videos smoothly.

Tip: Remember that we have access to proprietary databases. Here is a list of technology-related business DBs that may be helpful.

Find the standards

Aha, now we can look for the standards themselves! Where might these standards come from? Obviously, a web search will be helpful here, but it’s also useful to know about some of the main technology standards-setting bodies. Note that this is not a comprehensive list.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO)

The ISO is “the world’s largest developer of voluntary international standards.” You can find its catalog of standards here. Note that some ISO standards are free to access, while others cost money. If your standard is not free to access from ISO, see what you can discover about it by reading articles elsewhere.

ITU Telecommunication Standard Sector (ITU-T)

The ITU-T is another international standards body that coordinates with, but is separate from, the ISO. It recommends specifications for elements of the global infrastructure of internet communication technologies. Its standards (“recommendations”) are devised by study groups, which you can find listed here.

Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)

The IETF is an international body that sets standards for internet architecture (including TCP/IP). It is composed of working groups, which are divided into categories called “Areas.” You can find the areas listed here, and the working groups listed here.

National Information Standards Organization (NISO)

NISO sets information standards (including Dublin Core and other metadata specifications) and is the official US delegate group to the ISO. You can find its catalog of standards here.

World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)

W3C is the main international standards body for the world wide web. Its oversight includes setting standards for HTML, the lingua franca of most websites. You can find W3C standards here.

IEEE Standards Association (IEEE SA)

IEEE SA is a “community” that develops a range of standards for multiple industries. It is separate from ISO and some of its standards compete with ISO’s. You can find its standards here.

Think about your standard

Thanks to my sleuthing, I’ve discovered that the H.264 video compression standard is devised and maintained by the ITU-T. I can download it here.

Now that I’ve identified and located a standard, I can start devoting some thought to it. Here are some questions to ask about your standard:

  • What kind of body devised and maintains the standard? What is that body’s governance structure? What kind of representatives are included in that body?
  • Where did the standard come from? Did it evolve from a different standard?
  • What kinds of debates characterize discussion about the standard? (Standards organizations often maintain listservs and bulletin boards, which are good places to look for these debates.)
  • What are the trade-offs of the standard? That is, the standard specifies certain characteristics, so it must eliminate some, too.
  • The trickiest question: If standards “embody ethics and values,” what kind of ethics and values are embodied by your technology? You may find it helpful to think about what activities the standard presumes a user will engage in, how the standard eliminates certain “deviant” activities, and who is included and left out of the standards development process.

Activity two: Accessibility audits

You have a choice! Working with a few others, you can complete an accessibility audit of Young Research Library, Powell Library, or a library e-resource.

Library buildings

We will use a portion of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) checklist, which you can find in its entirety here.

Library e-resources

Choose a database from this list. (Or pick another library e-resource you’re curious about.) Scan it for accessibility in two ways: with an automated checker and by manually checking it against the W3C’s accessibility guidelines. (Multiple automated accessibility checkers exist; you might compare the first checker’s results against the WAVE tool.)

Additional accessibility resources