Gov 2.0, Web 2.0 clash over accessibility

Text-only websites required to ensure online government engagement is ubiquitous for all Australians
Queensland University of Technology professor, Bill Caelli

Queensland University of Technology professor, Bill Caelli

Though the Federal Government has made headway in the implementation of government engagement and Gov 2.0 practices, public sector information is not yet accessible or ubiquitous enough for Australia, according to Queensland University of Technology professor and Internet veteran, Bill Caelli.

Speaking at the launch of the Internet Industry Association's (IIA) election manifesto, Caelli challenged Gov 2.0 advocate and Labor ACT senator, Kate Lundy, to champion text-only versions of all Gov 2.0 sites to ensure that, until an ubiquitous broadband network is rolled out, Australians with substandard Internet connectivity still have the ability to access public sector information.

As part of its report on government engagement and the availability of public sector information, the Gov 2.0 Taskforce recommended the Federal Government adopt "accessible Web 2.0 tools", including compliance with the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as a minimum for all online community engagement, or guidance from the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) where such compliance is not possible in a Gov 2.0 project. The WCAG guidelines stipulate that websites should provide text alternatives to all content where possible.

While the institution of public consultation blogs from various government departments and publication of government data under Creative Commons by attribution (CC-BY) licenses have thus far been primarily text-based, the heavy use of Web 2.0 tools inherent in Gov 2.0 practices could possibly to impede on accessibility for slower Internet connections.

As of December 2009, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reported that Australia still had 941,000 dial-up Internet subscriptions.

Caelli also pointed to particular locations where little connection choice was available, including Gungahlin in the ACT, the Gold Coast, southern Perth and some areas of Adelaide. Gungahlin has been shortlisted as one of 19 mainland trial sites for the National Broadband Network (NBN), should it continue past the Federal election on 21 August.

"What we must do is make absolutely sure that Gov 2.0 must be uniformly available to all Australians," Caelli said. "Senator Lundy, listen to me, make sure that Gov 2.0 has a text-only site for those who have no access to it except 31.2Kbps on a dial-up, pair gain line.

"Gov 2.0 must be equitable and uniform for all Australians, but other than that, no way. Senator Lundy, make sure you do that, and you do that simply by mandating text-only availability of the site. Or accelerate the rollout of the NBN."

Senator Lundy wasn't present at the launch of the IIA's manifesto, though she later told Computerworld Australia that she agreed with Caelli on several of his points, pointing to other accessibility measures required for truly ubiquitous online government engagement.

"For some people, text space will be what suits them best, so having a range of presentations of that information, the technology allows us to do all of these things and it's a timely reminder that getting the policy right at the top means that we can put in place information in a way that people are comfortable consuming it," she said.

"We need to be mindful that one of the great things technology can achieve is making services more accessible for people with hearing and sight disabilities."

However, she conceded that Gov 2.0 as it often construed - as the use of Web 2.0 technologies to serve government engagement - would preclude those without sufficient Internet bandwidth.

"A higher bandwidth network like the NBN will be required if we're going to achieve Gov 2.0 at its full potential. In the meantime - and probably always, because of how people choose to consume their information from government - it needs to be presented in a variety of ways."

One of the 23 recommendations in the IIA's election manifesto orders for the advancement of the Gov 2.0 agenda as part of the government's broadband strategy, in order to ensure those services are accessible to all Australians. It has also called on bipartisan support for fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) broadband from both major political parties.

Dr Nicholas Gruen, author of the Gov 2.0 Taskforce report, argued that most Gov 2.0 practices in their current form were in fact text-only, save the odd video. However he expressed surprise that more work hadn't been done in areas of accessibility and greater reliability of slower Internet connections in general.

Though Gov 2.0 practices can be seen as a replacement for traditional government engagement measures, Lundy said they were in fact complimentary.

"For government services and Gov 2.0 it's going to be the combination of what we know works as far as service delivery works," she said. "We know that a personalised service and case management in some areas is the best way to do it, so the question becomes how do you use an online environment and all of the increase in connectivity in relation to that, that can offer to build on that approach.

"It's not 'online or bust'; it's very much online in a supportive environment where people can either get used to using the service or it becomes an additional layer to traditional service delivery."

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More about: ABS, ACT, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Bill, Creative, etwork, Federal Government, IIA, Internet Industry Association, Queensland University of Technology, Queensland University of Technology, World Wide Web Consortium
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Comments

Shane

1

Trying to comply with WCAG 2.0 is complete a complete waste of time. WCAG 2.0 was an interesting academic exercise but of no practical use for any real world application. For the life of me I cannot understand why the government requires compliance when there is concensus amongst web developers that the standard is impractical.

Kerry Webb

2

I don't agree with the former poster that there is consensus among Web developers that WCAG 2.0 is impractical. A considerable number are happy to comply - and compliance is not difficult to achieve, providing you make accessibility integral to your design.

Of course, there is the point of view that accessibility is not only the right thing to do; it's also basic good manners.

Nicholas Gruen

3

My comments on reliability of low bandwidth connections were casual ones in which I mused that it was surprising that we'd not developed systems that were more tolerant of poor dialup connections in the country. I was thinking of my own circumstances on my Mum's farm when the electric fence would sometimes make the dialup connection impossible to use, though it was still fine for phone calls.

Since I don't know the technical details, I wasn't saying who should fix this, or even that it could be fixed, but expressing surprise about the state of affairs.

Hutchinson James

4

Thanks Nicholas,

I did pick up on the fact that you were talking about the state of affairs in general - not specifically government consultation blogs - and tried to convey that in the article. I felt it was pertinent to greater concern of Internet accessibility to Australians with sub-standard connections.

Geoff Mason

5

In support for Kerry - accessibility is already a mandated requirement for government agencies and is simple to adhere to, if planned for.

Those developers who are apart of the 'consensus' that it is impractical may like to attend any number of Web Standards Group meetings and meet with other developers who regularly plan and effectively implement accessible websites for guidance.

And thanks to Nicholas for pointing out that the majority of 2.0 services or technologies are text based services. Although access to broadband is an issue, it isnt the only issue - ensuring the government integrates new technologies with traditional communication approaches should be.

Online isn’t the answer – it just helps to find an answer.

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