March 2007 Archive

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March 31, 2007

Revish & redefining success

@ 4:21 PM

Revish (external link) was launched yesterday, pretty much on schedule. Everything went smoothly, and so far the feedback has been largely positive, with some consensus emerging about the most beneficial improvements that need to be made.

If you enjoy reading and haven't signed up yet you should try it out - it's certainly not to everyone's taste but there's already a fairly diverse user base busy adding books to their lists and the occasional review.

Two questions about Revish that I've been asked repeatedly over the past week or so are "how is it going to make money?", and "how will you know if it's a success?". Both interesting questions, and in many of the questioners' minds they appear to be linked.

Let's deal with the money thing first. It seems that the phrases "social network" and "web 2.0" can't be uttered without someone getting excited about Round A funding (whatever that is), entrepreneurship and angel investment. So my bad for occasionally describing Revish in those terms without considering the consequences.

Fact is Revish was not created to make money. It was created because I wanted somewhere to record what I was reading, and I didn't get along with any of the existing book sites out there. It cost next to nothing to setup other than my time (please see the next answer before jumping on that one), a nice dedicated server from the awesome folk at LiquidWeb (external link) (which will be used for many more Champion IS (external link) projects), and a licence from OCLC (external link) for xISBN (external link) (because LibraryThing (external link) decided Revish was competition, so I can't use thingISBN, which is a shame because it's got much better coverage than xIBSN).

Which leads nicely to the second question. If the objective of Revish isn't to make money, how will I know if it's a success? Simple - it already is a success for me. Why? Because I've learned a huge amount while developing the site. Some of this learning has been technical, some business, some human, but by getting out there, moving out of my comfort zone and doing something that has expanded my horizons I've already realised an awesome return on those hours I've put in. You can't buy training that delivers experience like that. The fact that a lot of people seem to like the site is a real bonus, I get a buzz from creating something that people are using.

I've also picked up a lot of excellent advice along the way, which I'll be passing on to anyone coming along to Refresh Edinburgh (external link) next week. None of it is my advice, I've just benefitted from it - on the shoulders of giants and all that.

The one piece of advice I do feel qualified to pass on is this - if you've got an idea for a product, be it a website or anything else for that matter, do something about it. Take that first small step. Fear of failure can be crippling, but treat it as an opportunity to learn and you can only succeed.

March 2, 2007

Better Connected & web accessibility

@ 9:35 PM

SOCITM's Better Connected 2007 is published next week. Almost a year ago to the day I posted somewhat critically about the report's use of SiteMorse, and its reliance on automated testing for some of its findings. This year I've become rather more personally interested in the report - I was disappointed to learn earlier this week that ClacksWeb is not one of the 2 sites which were found to conform with WCAG level AA.

I'll cut to the chase. BC's assessment of the accessibility of local authority websites is fundamentally flawed. Admittedly this is a reflection of the use of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 as the instrument of measurement, but it's flawed all the same.

The single most important aspect of that flaw is this: syntactically valid HTML is not a primary indicator of web accessibility, and by the same token syntactically invalid HTML does not categorically indicate an inaccessible website.

Valid HTML is at best a proxy indicator of web accessibility - that is an indicator that doesn't have a causal link with the outcome (in this case an accessible website), but rather is something that is likely to be found where the outcome exists. Simply put, web developers who appreciate the issues around accessibility are more likely to be informed professionals who also appreciate the benefits of adopting and adhering to web standards. However, just as with SiteMorse's much maligned league tables, using HTML validity as an initial filter to identify "more accessible" sites is wholly invalid.

For the purposes of Better Connected an arbitrary threshold of 50 errors across 200 tested pages was used. Any sites reporting less than 50 errors went forward to be considered for WCAG AA conformance, those reporting more than 50 errors did not. Leaving aside this arbitrary limit, this also shows a gross failure of logic - to conform to level AA of WCAG a site must surely report zero errors across its 200 pages? A single error breaches checkpoint 3.2 of the guidelines, rendering it unable to conform to level AA.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are 8 years old this year. In web terms they are at the very least pensionable, and quite probably pushing up the daisies. And remember they are guidelines, and as time passes it becomes more important that those using them as guidance recognise this.

Education is the key to improving the state of web accessibility, whether we're talking about government or any other sector. Web developers and managers, content editors, suppliers of applications that produce web-based output - all of these people require a sound understanding of the accessibility issues in their respective areas of operation to achieve and sustain an accessible online presence, and that understanding can only come through learning.

A good start would be to make the findings of the automated tests for BC available to the local authorities themselves. I was disappointed to discover 158 validation errors had been found on ClacksWeb - was it a single error across 158 pages, or one really bad page? The two scenarios have quite different implications for me as a manager, but to date I've been unable to elicit the details, and the errors aren't apparent on the site any longer.

Little fault, if any, should be attributed to the RNIB for this state of affairs - there is no practical way 468 websites can be adequately tested for accessibility on an annual basis without a significant financial and resource commitment.

The solution, however unpalatable it might be to the bean counters who seem to have a desperate need to rank and score us all, is to abandon the concept of ranking 468 websites for accessibility, and to stop testing them against an 8 year-old set of guidelines. Instead SOCITM should much more wisely employ the expertise of the highly skilled and knowledgeable staff at the RNIB to identify, highlight and promote best practice in web accessibility, both in the local government sector and beyond. I'm certain the WAC staff could come up with some fantastic educational resources if they were given free rein with SOCITM's financial contribution for BC. The current state of affairs is like asking the Michelin Guide to judge restaurants on the quality of their cutlery.

The question that I keeping coming back to is this - what does the Better Connected reporting of web accessibility achieve? Last year it painted a fairly depressing picture, and this year that picture is almost identical. If SOCITM wants to be an agent for change it needs to do more than just reporting a problem exists, and start putting its members' best interests first by helping them to address the problem.

BarCampScotland

@ 4:22 PM

Tomorrow I'm off to Edinburgh for BarCampScotland (external link) the first ever BarCamp to be held in Scotland. It's also my first BarCamp, so I've had a read through the rules (external link) and some tips on what to expect (external link) but I'm still excited by how unknown it all is to me.

The event's wiki has some names familiar to me - Blair (external link) should be there, Tessa Darley (who is forever a star in my eyes, if only because her dad sent me some horseradish roots to plant last year), and John Sutherland (external link), one of the organisers of Refresh Edinburgh (external link).

Haven't decided what I'll talk about yet - probably Revish (external link), but other possibilities are where we're headed with accessibility (Isofarro has sparked a much needed debate (external link) which might be worth pursuing), setting up a company (I'm going through this right now, and many of the basic things that need doing are news to me), or maybe curing and smoking bacon.