How Accessible is Web 2.0?

powerbook on porch

Last week, I attended a seminar on the accessibility of web 2.0 technologies at the IDEAS conference.  IDEAS 2007 is the Federal government’s annual conference on Section 508, presented by the GSA.  Here are my meeting notes:

How Accessible is Web 2.0?
Web 2.0 technologies and hosted services such as wikis, podcasts, social networking, and blogs, are shaping how government does business, including how their employees communicate and collaborate and how they interact with the public. During this session, experts discussed accessibility aspects of these technologies.

Mary Mitchell (moderator from GSA)
Jared Smith (Web Accessibility in Media)
Phill Jenkins (IBM)
Lisa Pappas (AccessAbility SIG of the Society for Technical Communication)

Phil spoke on “The 3D Internet” and the challenges that this presents usability practitioners.  How do you make 3D environments, like Second Life (SL), accessible for everyone?  There are no Sec. 508 standards for the 3D Internet.  The standards were written for the 2D, left to right, top to bottom, linear world of text web pages.  Automated screen readers can cope with these pages.  However, how would a screen reader deal with a 3D world like Second Life?  There’s too much data.  How much of this world would a screen reader describe?  SL is very mouse-driven and visual, which makes it difficult also for seniors.  Deaf people would need captions for videos and sounds.  Another solution might be to have avatar guides for the blind, to help them navigate SL.

Jared spoke on “Rich Internet Applications”.  He began by describing the differences between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0.  Web 1.0 is static content, links for more information, forms you fill out, things you click on.  Web 2.0 is dynamic content with real-time updates, things you drag, user-centric and user-generated.  Google Maps is a great example of a Web 2.0 app.  Flickr is another good example – it pushes updates from your friends onto your Flickr page.  Digg, a collaborative news service, is another good example.  In the Web 2.0 world, content is often divorced from design.  For example, if you’re reading an RSS feed from a web site in Google Reader, you don’t get that site’s look and feel.  Content is on the HTML level, then design is applied with CSS, then interactivity though Ajax.  This separation of content from design makes accessibility easier.

Lisa discussed the development of accessibility standards for “Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA)”.  ARIA standards are in the works.  These standards will provide semantic information for readers and other features, like keyboard shortcuts.  Firefox 3 will support these standards.  They’re also developing a best practices guide for developers.  In terms of accessibility, Web 2.0 applications should be evaluated as software, not web pages.

During question time, the subject of blogs and wikis came up.  The panelists were of the opinion that blogs and wikis presented no major accessibility problems, since they could be easily read by screen readers.

For more information, see the draft of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0:

Comments on Government Blogs

Government agencies have been slow to embrace blogs.  The reason, IMHO, as a gov’t web site manager, is that government’s approach to content is different.  Government sites are held to a higher standard and subject to more reviews and requirements than commercial sites are.  Agencies are nervous about unmediated communication from official government sites.

For example, the site I work on, NOAA Ocean Explorer, has a YouTube channel.  On the channel we post cool videos of underwater exploration.  One early issue that came up was – what should we do about comments?  We didn’t want our videos to be swamped with comments filled with curses, links to porn sites and other inappropriate material.  However, we didn’t want to be accused of censorship (which has been an issue when it comes to science at NOAA).  Also, unfortunately, we don’t have the staff time to respond to comments.

So, we decided to turn off the comments.  This against my personal ethos of web 2.0 inclusion but in government, the rules are different.

There was an interesting article about DipNote, the State Department’s blog.  They allow comments and there’s been an interesting discussion about the role of women in Saudi Arabia.

Another leader in the field is the Library of Congress’s blog.  They have a very common-sense policy when it comes to comments from readers:

 “This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user’s privilege to post content on the Library site.”

So, government web sites are slowly coming around to the brave new world of blogging, which is really encouraging.

Blogging Under Your Real Name

An excellent post by Penelope Trunk on blogging under your real name. As someone who’s been online in one form of another since 1996, I couldn’t agree more with her advice.

As I said in my comment, blogging is a great way to increase your visibility online through that arbitrer of importance these days, Google. If Google can’t find you, do you really exist? We’ll leave that philosophical question for another time. In practical terms, being online has greatly helped me find jobs, expands my network and allow old friends to track me down.

Why did I initially decide to go online? Vanity. I was a writer of short stories who felt that I should be more widely known. My stories had been accepted in some very very small literary publications with circulations of less than a thousand subscribers. The process of your story being accepted by one of these journals is to snail mail it to an editor and wait 3-12 months for them to get back to you. This ancient process still exists today.

After AOL announced that they would provide space on the Web for their users, I taught myself HTML and published several pages online. (Unbelievably, they are still there.) I was not a computer person or a geek, just a frustrated writer who wanted to publish his short stories online. I’m not sure how much the world was interested in my tales of adolescent longing but my vanity led me to a whole new career as a web person.

Government Web Content Managers Workshop

I attended the Web Content Managers workshop on April 24 at the FDIC training center in Arlington. It was a great workshop, with lots of opportunities to meet other gov’t web folks and learn new things. Here are my notes from the conference:

Pierre Guillaume Wielezynski, The World Bank Group, “Social Media: Transforming Communication Between Government and Its Customers”

  • World Bank gets criticized in the blogosphere, drowning out the Bank’s message (this was before the latest scandal). The Bank needs to be part of the conversation rather than being defined by it.
  • Solution is to let groups of employees blog, provided that each blog has a strong governance body and that users are interested in it.
  • Example: Private Sector Development blog has personal stories of staffers in the field. This blog gets more traffic than their department’s web site.
  • “Communication 2.0” is to help the experts communicate rather than controlling the process.
  • Social media is evangelized throughout the organization by the installation of RSS readers, so staff can follow blogs, and a “BuzzMonitor”, showing mentions of the Bank across the web.

Alex Langshur, PublicInsite, “How to Re-Orient Our Websites Around Users’ Top Tasks and Get Top Management Support”

  • We should reorient our sites around the keywords that users use in searches, which demonstrate the type of content they want.  This means to change the categories of your site to match those keywords and to optimize your pages around those keywords.
  • Outdated pages should be deleted since they gum up your search results.
  • Use data on what users are “voting” on with their clicks to depersonalize the web site debate.  Let the data decide rather than the “Hippos” (highest-paid person in the room.)
  • What’s the mission of your site?  It must be a measurable criteria.  What are the top tasks of your users? Iterative improvement over time.  No major redesigns, just constant tweaks and changes.

Kathryn Summers, UMBC, “Getting Users From Point A to Point B: Designing & Writing Tasks for the Web”

  • Nearly 50% of the US population reads at an 8th grade-level or below.
  • Log-ins, forms and search are difficult for low literacy readers (she showed heartbreaking videos of older people who couldn’t figure out how to log in to banking sites).
  • Breaking up long paragraphs and sentences, avoiding acronyms, using simple words and shortening text are all ways of improving comprehension.  This also improves comprehension for high-literacy readers.

Brian Dunbar,, “Success Stories From the 2006 Web Best Practice Award Winners”

  • Web stats on usage are used to counter critics.
  • Most popular items on his site are images, lesson plans and mission coverage.
  • NASA is decentralized with multiple web sites.
  • is relaunching in October, the 50th anniversary of the agency.

Some (but not all) of the presentations from the meeting are online.