Softbridge : a socially aware framework for communication bridges over digital divides
Computer scientists must align social and technical factors for communication technologies in developing regions yet lack a framework to do so. The novel Softbridge framework comprises several components to address this gap. The Softbridge stack abstraction supplements the established Open Systems Interconnect model with a collection of technical layers clustered around 'people' issues. The Softbridge stack aligns the technological design of communication systems with awareness of social factors characteristic of developing regions. In a similar fashion, a new evaluation abstraction called Quality of Communication augments traditional Quality of Service by considering socio-cultural factors of a user's perception of system performance. The conceptualisation of these new abstractions was driven by long-term experimental interventions within two South African digital divides. One field study concerned communication bridges for socio-economically disadvantaged Deaf users. The second field study concerned a wireless telehealth system between rural nurses and doctors.The application domains were quite different yet yielded similarities that informed the Softbridge and Quality of Communication abstractions. The third Softbridge component is an iterative socially aware software engineering method that includes action research. This method was used to guide cyclical interventions with target communities to solve community problems with communication technologies. The Softbridge framework components are recursive products of this iterative approach, emerging via critical reflection on the design, evaluation and methodological processes of the respective field studies. Quantitative and qualitative data were triangulated on a series of communication prototypes for each field study with usage metrics, semi-structured interviews, focus groups and observation in the field. Action research journals documented the overall process to achieve post-positivist recoverability rather than positivistic replicability. Analysis of the results from both field studies was iteratively synthesised to develop the Softbridge framework and consider its implications.