July 2006 Archive

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July 31, 2006

Redesign: Rucksack Readers

@ 2:12 PM

I've had a web design business since 1995, and although over the past few years I've gradually run it down and let clients go, largely to spend more time doing other things, there's one client I've kept on and have no plans of letting go.

Rucksack Readers (external link) was founded in 2000 by a good friend of ours, Jetta Megarry, and it's been great to watch the development of and be involved with a successful, growing business. The company produces guide books for long distance walks, treks and now the seven summits (the highest mountain in each continent). Their books are second to none in their sector - superior design and killer content combine to make them essential for those actually undertaking the routes covered in the books, and the photography is enough to make them ideal coffee table reading or gifts.

Anyway, today the Rucksack Readers website (external link) was relaunched, following a standards-based, accessible redesign which has taken shape over the last month. I was responsible for everything at the web end - the scripts, the CMS, and the front-end code and CSS. The site is visually designed by Ian Clydesdale at Workhorse Design (external link), who also does the design for the books, with Jetta producing the content. It's been a real team effort, and hopefully the results will speak for themselves.

July 26, 2006

Google Accessible Search in a pickle

@ 8:20 AM

Like many others I was very interested to see Google's foray into the accessibility arena this week in the shape of Google Accessible Search (external link), "Accessible Web Search for the Visually Impaired". A nice idea, and great to see accessibility on their agenda, but from a few quick tests my confidence levels in its utility is a tad shaky.

Search regular old Google for Pickled Eggs (external link) and at number 5 you'll find a recipe for this delicacy on The Accidental Smallholder (external link), my other personal site.

Take Google Accessible Search, enter the same query, Pickled Eggs (external link), and we're there again, only at number 44.

Now, I know that The Accidental Smallholder has its accessibility problems, but that recipe page is valid XHTML, has total separation of content from style, contains one image with appropriate alt text, and uses semantic markup. The top five accessible results are a mixture of table-based layout, tag soup, doctype-less frontpage monstrosities and pages from about.com, and I fail to see in what way they are more accessible than my pickled eggs recipe. Harrumph.

The Accessible Search FAQ (external link) makes all the right noises, with statements like:

In its current version, Google Accessible Search looks at a number of signals by examining the HTML markup found on a web page. It tends to favor pages that degrade gracefully --- pages with few visual distractions and pages that are likely to render well with images turned off.

...but it clearly needs some fine-tuning, otherwise how are the visually impaired ever going to enjoy my superior pickled eggs?

July 21, 2006

DTI update - FOI shenanigans

@ 10:10 PM

I've been on my hols this week, and on my return I discovered, as predicted, that the DTI had replied to the follow-up Freedom of Information (FOI) enquiry Bruce Lawson and I submitted to them on 26th June. Unfortunately the DTI has rather neatly, but not necessarily fairly, side-stepped the entire issue, and used a technicality to avoid fulfilling our enquiry.

Here's the email from the DTI in full, I'll leave you to have a quick read and draw your own conclusions before reading mine:

Dear Mr Champion

Thank you for your request for information on the accessibility of the Department of Trade and Industry's website which we received on 26/06/06. I regret that we cannot provide this information, as the cost of administering your request would exceed the limit prescribed under Section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act. This is £600, which represents the estimated cost of spending 24 hours in determining whether the Department holds the information, and locating, retrieving and extracting the information. Where the cost of compliance with a request would exceed the appropriate limit, we are not obliged to comply with that request.

We have received nine separate FOI requests regarding the accessibility of the DTI website. All nine requests appear to have been generated by contributors to the blether.com website and discussion forum:

http://www.blether.com/archives/2006/06/the_dti_respond.php
http://www.brucelawson.co.uk/index.php/2006/stupid-government-websites/

Regulation 5(1) of the Freedom of Information and Data Protection (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations 2004 provides that, where two or more requests for the same or similar information are made to a public authority by different persons who appear to be acting in concert or in pursuance of a campaign, those requests may be aggregated for the purposes of estimating whether compliance with the requests would exceed the appropriate limit.

We have aggregated the nine requests received on this subject, and estimate that the cost of compliance with them would exceed the appropriate limit. We are therefore not obliged to provide the information requested.

However, the DTI is aware of the accessibility issues with the new website. An accessibility audit is planned and the recommendations from the audit will identify accessibility improvements.

If you have any queries about this letter, please contact the DTI Response Centre quoting the FOI reference number above.

Appeals procedure

If you are unhappy with the way the Department of Trade and Industry has handled your request you may ask for an internal review. If you wish to complain, you should contact us at:

Department of Trade and Industry
Response Centre
1 Victoria Street
London SW1H 0ET
dti.enquiries@dti.gsi.gov.uk

If you are not content with the outcome of the internal review, you have the right to apply directly to the Information Commissioner for a decision. The Information Commissioner can be contacted at:

Information Commissioner's Office
Wycliffe House
Water Lane
Wilmslow
Cheshire SK9 5AF

Regards

DTI Response Centre
Tel: 020 7215 5000

For those of you not familiar with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), public authorities subject to its provisions are not obliged to respond to requests where the estimated cost of determining what information the authority holds, locating the information, retrieving it, and, if necessary, editing or redacting it exceeds £600, calculated at a notional rate of £25 per hour.

In addition, under section 12(4)(b) of the Act, authorities can aggregate multiple enquiries for information from different individuals where it appears to the authority that the requests have been made in concert or as part of a campaign.

In short, the DTI is refusing to answer legitimate questions about the processes it followed in procuring certain services, and about processes it may or may not have in place for future procurement.

The FOIA is regulated by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO). The ICO issues guidance to public authorities about their responsibilities under the legislation, and to the public about their rights. The ICO offers this guidance (PDF) to authorities refusing requests due to excessive costs:

In this case the DTI has chosen to ignore the first four of these guidelines, merely providing information about appeals procedures. (Ignoring guidelines is clearly something of a habit for the DTI.) They also seem to have missed the point entirely by stating that:

...the DTI is aware of the accessibility issues with the new website. An accessibility audit is planned and the recommendations from the audit will identify accessibility improvements.

It would be a tad distressing if they weren't aware of the issues by now, but of course what we're trying to discover is how they missed the issues in the first place, and what they are doing to prevent it happening again.

The upshot is that I will be requesting an internal review from the DTI, and if I find that unsatisfactory I'll be perfectly happy to appeal to the ICO.

If anyone reading this made an FOI enquiry about the DTI site please get in touch, since we might as well make it a real campaign if the DTI are going to treat it as one. And if you didn't, and you feel strongly about this, please take Bruce's advice and write to your MP.