Friday, March 05, 2010

Simple web pages are best

Electric bicycle foldabe 20 inch
Had a message from Electric Velocity, who sell electric bicycles in Sydney, to say that they had changed their web pages top ASP. I blogged their electric folding bicycle after seeing it at the Balmain Markets. They commented that they get a lot of referrals from my blog posting, so could I fix the link?

I get such a query every week or two from companies and government agencies. They ask why my plain postings are so popular, when they have invested in Flash, ASP and other technologies and they regularly update their web site. I have to explain to them my postings are popular because I don't use Flash, ASP and don't delect web pages. I use plain ordinary HTML and leave the web pages where they were. As a result the pages are easy for a search engine and a human reader to find and read.

In the case of Velocity their new home page has 15 Errors, 2 warning(s) on a HTML Validation test. W3C mobileOK Checker reports "This page is not mobile-friendly!". A TAW accessibility test reports: 3 Priority 1, 62 Priority 2, 11 Priority 3 problems. Fixing these problems would make their web site more usable. Link

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Progressive display of electronic documents

Faster networks, such as Google's 1 G fibre to the home trial, will not necessarily produce a better Internet service. I suggest we need to design electronic documents, including web pages and videos, to display just what the user needs at a particular time. A by-product of this is that will allow a slower network to be used and allow networks to cope with congestion and faults better.

Providing more data to the user will not necessarily provide more information, it may just increase confusion with irrelevant details. For education, it is often better to provide a simple schematic diagram, rather than a high resolution image. Pushing data on students does not help them. The e-learning materials for my 120 hour "Green Technology Strategies" course consist of only a few hundred kilobytes of data. There are gigabytes of extra readings, audio and video, but the essentials are a the equivalent of 100 pages of text. Even that is provided to the students, progressively over 12 weeks. I asked the students if they would like all the material at once at the beginning, so they could read ahead, but most said they preferred it week by week. Other materials are provided so the students can explore them, when the feel the need. In education-speak this is "mentored and collaborative learning", with some aspects similar to the Montessori method. It is not providing large amounts of information which are important in these learning techniques, but that materials and people, are to hand when needed. One of the educational areas which further work is in teaching students how to cope with an overload of information.

Similarly in medicine, irrelevant detail does not necessarily help. My doctor does not look at the detailed imaging provided by MRI, CAT, ultrasound and other scans. They read the brief text reports prepared from these by specialists. It might make me feel better if they were to examine these in a 3D system and draw circles around areas using a light pen, but it would not improve the medicine delivered.

This can also apply with web pages. Providing a large complex document can overwhelm the reader, whereas a simple introduction and set of links to details can ease them into the topic.

One application where progressive display can help is with smart phones. These devices have small screens, slower links and distracted users. So providing large amounts of material does not help technically nor for the user. The current approach is to create special applications and documents for mobile users. I suggest we can redesign web documents to automatically allow for this.

One simple case is web images. The common web image formats (GIF, PNG and JPEG) all now allow for progressive image display. That is the image file is created so that a low resolution version can be displayed first, increasing in detail as more data is provided. These formats could be used by smarter web browsers to display images in the appropriate resolution for the display device and available bandwidth. Web servers can automatically convert images to progressive formats as required.

Another progressive technique is in the creation of web pages. Web designed web pages and web site allow the user to get an introduction and overview and then select more details. Most web pages will begin to render before all data has arrived. If the important information is at the top of the page, the user can select a menu option without waiting for the rest. The same can be done with some PDF documents. This can't be done with most ebook formats and you have to wait for the whole ebook to download before you can read any of it.

Some new video formats similarly allow lower resolution previews and streaming of the start of the video, without having to wait for it all.

These techniques could make the slower networks most of us will have for the foreseeable future more usable, without having to wait for gigabit networks. Even with gigabit networks, being able to get just the information you need will be a boon, without being overwhelmed with data.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

ABC Heywire website goes haywire

The ABC Heywire website is intended for young people. But I would not like to use the site from the mobile phone of a typical young person, as the poor formatting is likely to result in a large download bill. Even on a wired high speed broadband connection the site was slow. I did some checks and found a typical page was 433.4KB: HTML document 132.3KB, stylesheets 72.4KB, images 228.7KB. Most of the space in the HTML was taken up with text which was not normally visible and excessively verbose formatting. The page failed a W3c Validation Test, with 293 errors. The W3C Mobile Okay Checker reported: "This page is not mobile-friendly!".

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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Some suggestions for ACS in 2010

The first meeting of the Canberra Branch of the Australian Computer Society for 2010 was devoted to hearing suggestions from the members. Here are some suggestions I made:
  • Make web site mobile okay: Currently the ACS home page scores less than zero out of 100 on the W3C mobileOK Checker: "This page is not mobile-friendly!". I suggest aiming for a score of 80/100 on the mobile tests for the ACS web pages. This would be a way to curb the web designers enthusiasm for putting too much stuff on the pages. It would also make the ACS look trendy, by having a web site which works on iPhones and the like. Obviously the ACS should also fix the minor accessibility problems, as indicated by an automated TAW Test. Designing web pages which work on smart phones and which meet accessibility standards, so as to comply with Australian law, is not too difficult and I teach it to the ANU students. To be fair, other IT professional bodies do not rate much better. The ACM home page scores only 1/100 on the mobile tests and only slightly better than ACS on accessibility.
  • Social networking for professionals: The ACS is using social networking for teaching online courses. This could be extended to all members, with online forums and activities. ACS should divert a significant amount of resources to this. At the national level I suggest diverting 75% of what is currently spent on publications, meetings and marketing to online interaction. There is little point in spending effort on meetings and bits of paper which few people attend or take notice of. The ACS could use a mix of the software which it already has installed for education (Mahara ) and external sites, particularly Linkedin.
  • Support for meetings: Using the online tools discussed above, I suggest we should have an online component to all meetings. When there is a branch meeting, members should be invited to discuss the topic online, before, during and after. This can also allow for more fluid and more far reaching meetings. Last year I helped Senator develop her "Public Sphere" format for events. On a smaller scale the first Bar Camp Canberra is on at ANU this Saturday. This is a sort of make it up as you go along conference, using of online resources.
  • Digital CVs: ACS education is providing "e-portfolios" for students, as do some other education providers. I suggest ACS provide certified e-portfolios for members. This would be a web page about the member's qualifications and experience, testified to by ACS. This could then be used when they apply for a job or course. The ACS is already checks and records the member's credentials.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

My School web site design

Hon Julia Gillard MP, Minister for Education launched the "My School" web site today. This is intended to provide information to the public on schools, including the number of students and teachers, socio-economic status and literacy and numeracy test results. Media reports indicated problems with the site responding. I found the site would not respond at about 9am, but by 9pm it was working well. However some simple changes to the web page design could improve the site.

I ran some tests on the page for the Montessori International College (Buderim,QLD,4556) and found:
This school web page contained:
  1. document: 139.1KB (HTML, text and scripts),
  2. stylesheets: 26.4KB,
  3. images: 16.3KB.
The document contains 4.4 kbytes of text, only 3% of the total. This indicates an excessive used of HTML mark-up in the page design. Reducing this would speed up access to the site. Some simple changes would reduce the code size by two thirds.

The code shows an excessive use of nested DIVs. At one point DIVs are nested ten deep, to display just two images. The large amount of white space which this deep nesting causes may also slow the system down, depending on how the pages and generated and transmitted.

Also automatically generated identifier names appear to be excessively long, such as: id="ctl00_ContentPlaceHolder1_SchoolProfileUserControl_SchoolDescriptionLabel".

In other respects the page is reasonably well designed . It is readable (perhaps more readable) with the styles turned off. However, it is not clear if the general public will be able to understand the complex tables displayed. It might be better to offer an introductory page for each school with summary data. This would also be a way to reduce the load on the server. Most readers will not read past the first few lines of text and therefore downloading the complex tables is a waste of resources.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Viewing a mobile web site

Some web sites automatically adjust for mobile devices. It is possible to see what these look like by using an add-on to a desktop web browser. Apart from previewing mobile pages, this can be useful for slow dial-up and wireless links and for netbooks as the mobile versions of web sites tend to be more compact.

In some cases you enter a different web address for the mobile version of a web site (as an example for the Australian Open). In most cases the same web address is used and a mobile device is detected automatically and different layout and content provided. To get the mobile version your web browser has to pretend to be a mobile device by sending a different user agent string This is described in detail in "How To Emulate A Mobile Web Browser In Firefox?"). The user agent switcher add-on for Firefox comes with an iPhone profile and I was easily able to add one for a Google Android phone.

It should be noted that the mobile pages will not necessarily display exactly the same as they will on a mobile. The version of HTML the browser uses may be different, the screen size is different and some plug-ins the phones have may be missing.

Some web sites provide the same content to the browser but offer a separate set of CSS style sheets intended for mobile phones. These use the CSS media type "handheld". Most desktop web browsers (and Apple iPhone) ignore the style sheets labelled as "handheld". The firefox "Web Developer" addon has option for manually activating it (you can also activate the "print" stylesheet if there is one). Opera has an option for this already built in. As an example, my home page has a handheld stylesheet which puts all the text in one column. Some web site have reduced image sizes and fewer images when using the handheld styles.

You need to be able to switch back to a web profile, as some mobile version of web sites leave out some functions. Some sites allow for this within the web site. As an example the mobile version of the Wikipedia leaves out the edit functions: you can view content but not change it (see the mobile Wikipedia entry for the Bauhaus for example). A footer offers the regular desktop version and also an option to permanently disable the mobile version.

There are specialist programs for emulating different models of mobile phone. But if you just want to see if there is a mobile version of a web site and what is in it, the switcher works okay.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Australian Open Web Page Scores Mixed

Staff from the IBM Atlanta Innovation Centre were telling me yesterday how they designed the web site for the Australian Open in Melbourne with accessibility in mind and with a mobile version. Today I ran the home page through the usual tests I get my web design students to use on web pages. The results were not bad, but also not as good as I was expecting. None of the problems found appear to be serious and not enough to make the web site inaccessible. Some of these are likely to be deliberate design decisions, where the automated tests do not reflect the real world, some don't matter. But the others are things IBM should be able to fix, with a little effort:

Desktop version of the Australian Open web site:
  • Automated accessibility test (TAW): 5 Priority One, 131 Priority Two and 21 Priority Three problems detected on the home page.
  • HTML Validation: 100 validation errors detected.
  • W3C mobileOK Checker reports "This page is not mobile-friendly!". Note that this the ordinary desktop version of the page. Even so, it would be useful if it had some mobile attributes, such as small size, to make it easier to use on slow wireless small netbooks.
Mobile version:
  • Automated accessibility test (TAW): 0 Priority One, 10 Priority Two and 1 Priority Three problems detected on the home page.
  • HTML Validation: 10 validation errors detected.
  • W3C mobileOK Checker scores the page 79 out of 100. This would be a good score for a standard web page attempting some mobile compatibility, but is not good for a web page specifically designed for mobile devices.

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Monday, December 28, 2009

Robust standard web design

Palace Cinemas web site is reporting: "Sorry our website is running a little slow at the moment, we are working on the problem and it will be fixed soon."

This is a busy time of year for the cinema and the site may simply be overloaded by demand. One way Palace could reduce the problem is to design their web pages to be more efficient and more tolerant of communications delays.

Some was to do this are to use modern CSS based design, reduce the use of text in graphics and not have the design rely on Flash. As a by-product, this will allow for a smart phone compatible design.

A W3C Mobile Ok test reports a score of only 12/100. The Markup Validation Service reports 44 errors in the HTML of the web page. A TAW accessibility automated test reports 5 Priority One, 118 Priority Two and 9 Priority Three problems. Fixing these problems would increase the chances of the applicaiton working smoothly.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

What we want web-wise

Tim Jones will talk on "Using Firefox and JavaScript to Combat Apathy among Experiment Participants" at the ANU, 10 December 2009. This work has wide applicability to anyone wanting to find out what people like to look at on the web. I recommend the talk for government and commercial web practitioners, as well as academics and researchers.

It is good to see someone is worrying about real research, while the rest of us are at the government broadband talk-fest in Sydney. ;-)

Seminar Announcement

School of Computer Science, CECS
The Australian National University

Date: Thursday, 10 December 2009
Time: 4:00 pm to 5:00 pm
Venue: Room N101, CSIT Building [108]

Speaker: Tim Jones

Title: Using Firefox and JavaScript to Combat Apathy among
Experiment Participants

A simple way to conduct web search quality experiments is
to log user behaviour when using a new front end (that we
provide) to a commercial web search engine. Unfortunately,
users tend to stop using these new front ends after the
initial novelty period has worn off. This makes it difficult
to collect data about real user behaviour when using web
search engines.

In this talk, we firstly describe the widely used experimental
framework that users seem to stop using. Next, we investigate
this drop off in user participation, discuss some probable
reasons, and then present a couple of ways one might alter
the experiment design to ensure users continue to participate.
We then illustrate the design and construction of a Firefox
addon to augment search engine result pages. The addon is
written in JavaScript using the popular jQuery library, which
makes data acquisition very simple. The talk will include
a quick jQuery primer, as it is a useful tool for anyone
wanting to manipulate or extract information from web pages.

Timothy Jones is a PhD student in the ANU Department of
Computer Science. His primary research interest is Information
Retrieval, but he also enjoys a piece of cake and a good cup
of tea. ...

From: Using Firefox and JavaScript to Combat Apathy among Experiment Participants, ANU School of Computer Science, 2009

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Computer Engineers Need to Fix their Own System

The Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers Computer Society (IEEE CS) sent me a reminder that my membership was due. Unfortunately their online membership system does not appear to be working properly.

I don't recall seeing a previous message, but this may be because they were trapped by my Spam filter. The IEEE was offering a prize for renewal of membership. Unfortunately this and the verbose way the message was written made the Spam filter think this was junk mail.

Having finally received the reminder, my problems were not over. In accordance with good practice I ignored the long URL in the message, in case this really was not a genuine message from IEEE and instead manually entered the IEEE address. I then had to navigate my way through several levels and enter my user id and password twice. Along the way I had to wait watching a blank screen as large amounts of multimedia a web 2.0ish code downloaded. All I wanted to do was pay my membership, not be entertained.

Having finally arrived at the membership renewal form, I decided to check the options for electronic delivery of newsletters. I tried to decline a subscription to "Build Your Career eNewsletter (weekly) ", which I had not subscribed for and never heard of. This resulted in:
Status Conflict
There is a conflict with your last request. Please click the Undo button to undo your last request.
For a detailed explanation of this conflict, please click the Explanation button.(SBL-CFG-00164)
The explanation was not very helpful, but seemed to be saying in technical language that I had tried to un-subscribe from something I was not subscribed to.

Then I got:
"Error Message

Applet: Cfg Cx Runtime Instance Frame does not have the Edit template file specified.

We are unable to complete this transaction. Resolve any error listed above and try again. If the problem persists, please call ..."
I went back to the start of the renewal and started again, but got as far as the checkout, but could not complete the transaction

I have sent IEEE a message detailing the problems and suggesting they might like to add an accessible,e low bandwidth, mobile compatible, non web 2.0 option to their web site. .

I might renew my IEEE membership, if I can get their system to respond.

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Monday, November 02, 2009

Government web guide blog

The Australian Government Information Management Office have set up the "Government Web Publishing Guide Review Project Blog". As the name suggests, this is a blog for the project reviewing the government web publishing guidelines. Like many organisations, the Australian Government has struggled to work out how to use blogs. So far the blog is a little cold and impersonal. AGIMO could afford to lighten the tone a little. But at least they have not made the mistake of some politicians who have tried a young hip cool style which sound phoney. AGIMO's previous attempt at consultation on web guidelines was entertaining, but not very useful. AGIMO also asked about the use of PDF.

My notes on website design and e-document management for Australian National University students may be of interest. These use Australian Government examples and have been used for teaching public servants and staff of companies contracted to the government since 2000. This year was the last I will be giving conventional lectures for, having decided that flexible learning would be better.

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Deployable Civilian Capability Disaster Management Software

According to media reports, the Prime Minister announced the creation of an Office of the Deployable Civilian Capability (DCC) within AusAid, at at the East Asia Summit today. This will have a register of up to 500 civilians ready to travel to disaster zones in the region at short notice. The DCC was included in the Government's response to the Australia 2020 Summit and the 2009-10 budget. A small Deployable Civilian Capability Group (DCC) was established in AusAid.
Regional Security - Deployable Civilian Capacity

Establish a deployable public service that will be able to more rapidly and effectively deliver development assistance.

Agree. The Government has agreed to develop a policy framework to enable rapid deployment of civilian experts to assist in international disaster relief, stabilisation and post conflict reconstruction efforts. An inter-agency task force is being led by AusAID to Undertake this work. Once established, a national deployable civilian capacity will allow more rapid and early delivery of stabilisation and recovery assistance to countries that experience conflict or natural disaster. The program reflects many of the ideas discussed at 2020, and also at the Youth Summit, and will be sufficiently adaptable to allow Australia to tailor our response to a particular event or emergency. It will also improve Australia's integration into multilateral reconstruction and stabilisation operations.

From: "Responding to the Australia 2020 Summit", Australian Government, 22 April 2009
AusAID is leading a whole-of-government taskforce to develop a Deployable Civilian Capacity, an idea raised at the Australia 2020 Summit. Once established, a national deployable civilian capacity will enable rapid deployment of civilian experts to provide stabilisation and recovery assistance to countries experiencing conflict, post-conflict situations or natural disaster. In cooperation with other government agencies, AusAID will pre‑identify, train, deploy rapidly and sustain civilian technical expertise. The program will build on Australia's experience of deploying civilian experts in post‑conflict situations, for example in East Timor and Solomon Islands, and improve Australia's integration into multilateral reconstruction and stabilisation operations.

From: Australia's International Development Assistance Program: A Good International Citizen, Budget 2009-10, Australian Government
As part of this I suggest the expansion of the Sahana open source disaster management system and online training.

Sahana was developed for the Boxing Day Tsunami and has been used in several subsequent disasters in Asia. A demonstration of Sahana available online.

Recently two New Zealand councils of issued a request for Expression of Interest for a Information and Communications System for a joint Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) for emergency and disaster coordination. In response I suggested that a deployable system housed in a an airline carry-on size wheeled bag. Also I suggest that the Sahana system could be expanded from its disaster management role to cover coordination as well. The Sahana community saw this of interest, but not their core function. However, if the Australian Government provided some modest funding, this could be done.

The Deployable Civilian Capability Group could be equipped with low cost portable computer equipment allowing much more efficient coordinated relief operations. This would also take a load off the military communicators who are usually relied on during disaster operations, but are heavily committed elsewhere.

In addition I suggest using Mentored and Collaborative e-Learning to help train the group. The group members will rarely meet and have little time for face to face training. Using training in online groups will allow an esprit de corps to form, as well as make maximum use of limited resources.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Web accessibility and Government 2.0

The Australian Human Rights Commission has released its submission to the Government 2.0 Taskforce. The commission is not keen on PDF and recommends the W3C accessibility guidelines.The Sydney 2000 Olympics web case is described in the submission and my seminar notes for the Oxford University Computing Laboratory are cited.
  1. The Commission believes that government departments and agencies need to improve their provision of equal access to public information, especially for people with disability.

  2. Departments and agencies can improve their web presences by following the standards promoted by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) and the Commission.

  3. Basic web accessibility is mandatory for Australian Government departments and agencies. Allowing sites to be launched that are inaccessible risks complaints under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA).

  4. The Commission recognises the value of Web 2.0 technologies for collaboration with the community, however many of these technologies are not currently accessible for people with disability. Government departments and agencies should provide sufficient technologies to allow participation for all.

  5. Additionally, the Commission believes that online forums developed by the Government should have adequate agency guidelines and Acceptable Use Policies to enable moderators and developers of forums to be alert to discrimination that may occur online. This will help to foster a discrimination-free environment when engaging with the community.

Summary from: Web accessibility and Government 2.0, Australian Human Rights Commission submission to the Government 2.0 Taskforce – Towards Government 2.0 an issues paper, 1 October 2009

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Automated Quality Assessment of Obesity Websites

Ramesh Sankaranarayana will give a seminar on "Automated Quality Assessment of Obesity Websites", 4pm, 29 October 2009 at the ANU in Canberra. This follows previous work on "Automated quality rating of depression websites".

ABSTRACT: We previously developed an automated quality rating technique (AQA) for depression websites and showed that it correlated 0.85 with expert ratings using evidence-based guidelines. AQA scores the pages within a site against complex learned 'quality' and 'relevance' queries using the BM25 ranking function. It then aggregates these scores across sites using a learned combining function. In this talk, we report on our generalisation of the AQA method and our evaluation of its application to a different health domain, namely obesity. We find that correlations as high as 0.80 averaged across ten folds can be obtained, but that performance is quite dependent on the choice of the high quality websites used for generating the 'quality' query. This is ongoing work ....

From: Automated Quality Assessment of Obesity Websites, School of Computer Sciecne, ANU, 2009

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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Simple web designs last the test of time

In 2003 I designed a simple web site for my brother, Dr John Worthington, who is an Educational Psychologist. This consisted of about a half dozen pages of text with a photo and some links. This has proved adequate, with medical practitioners using it to refer patients to the services. Many people print out the relevant page and bring it along for a consultation.

He asked for a small change to the home page and I did a quick check of the code. I found one minor error to fix. Out of curiosity, I ran it through the W3C mobileOK Checker, which scored the page at 80/100. Even so there were a few problems found, which I will fix, but leave the page otherwise unchanged.

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Friday, July 17, 2009

Wikipedia for iPhones

As pointed out in a comment on my post "Wikipedia for Mobiles", there is a smart phone interface for the Wikipedia at using Ruby. This doesn't divide the pages into smaller pieces, as the mobile phone version does (a feature to add a table of contents and then divide the pages at major headings would be useful). By way of comparison the ANU web page on Online Systems and Services for Teaching is appended. The page is 200 kbytes, not much smaller than the 261 kbyts of the desktop version:

Online Systems and Services for Teaching

In 2009 the ANU introduced a new framework to bring together the online systems and services used for teaching and learning. 'WATTLE' (Web Access To Teaching & Learning Environments) commenced with a pilot of Moodle for selected courses in first semester 2009. The system is being used to support flexible and distance education courses as well as conventional on campus education. Green ICT Strategies (COMP7310), is the first flexible course to use the system.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Wikipedia for Mobiles

A version of the Wikipedia for Mobile phones is now available. This uses the HAWHAW PHP toolkit convert the usual Wikipedia page into a format more suitable for a small mobile phone screen. It also makes the images smaller and chops each page up into segments to reduce download time. The result is similar to Google's mobile interface. This is useful, but perhaps whoever did this might try a slightly less condensed version which would be more suitable for netbooks and smart phones.

Because the Wikipedia has a very regular structure it should also be possible to tune the conversion more. As an example, at present a section heading can appear on the bottom of one page, with the text it refers to on the next page. It should be possible to keep the heading on the next page with the text.

Below is a sample of the mobile version of the entry for the ANU's Wikipedia page. Compare this with the standard version. The mobile version is 63 kbytes in total, whereas the standard page is 261 kbytes. The mobile version is divided into 11 segments, plus a table of contents of 2.5 kbytes.. So if you started at the top of the page, went to the table of contents and then to the page you wanted, that would be about 15 kbytes in total, a saving of more than 90% on the download.

Australian National University

Online Systems and Services for Teaching
In 2009 the ANU introduced a new framework to bring together the online systems and services used for teaching and learning. ' external link[WATTLE] ' (Web Access To Teaching & Learning Environments) commenced with a pilot of [Moodle] for selected courses in first semester 2009. The system is being used to support flexible and distance education courses as well as conventional on campus education. external link[Green ICT Strategies] (COMP7310), is the first flexible course to use the system.


Powered by HAWHAW (C)

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Victorian Internet Bushfire Warnings

A Proposed Interim Report of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission was presented by the Counsel Assisting on 2 July 2009. The draft report in a 63 page PDF document (536 kbytes). Several of the key findings and recommendations relate to the use of the Internet, the web and other ICT.

The commission has done a very thorough and thoughtful job in collecting, analysis and collation of a large amount of information and making sensible relevant recommendations. The recommendations for having a single bushfire emergency web site and using visual as well as text based information and to be designed to function during periods of extreme demand are key. For several years I have been teaching students of the Australian National University how to design emergency web sites.

One criticism I would have of the recommendations which relate to the use of ICT is that they are made peace meal, under the various topics. A key problem which this therefore does not address is the peace meal nature of the resulting systems. What is needed is one system which is used to prepare one consistent collection on bushfire which can be disseminated using different technology to different people.

As an example the commission recommends that warnings be read on air on the ABC, but I suggest that these warnings should also be available via the ABC's web site and particularly their mobile web site and via the RSS and other feed systems the ABC uses.

Also while the commission recommends one single, multi‐agency bushfire information website for Victoria, in my opinion, this does not go far enough. Bushfire is not the only form of emergency which Victoria is subject to. Therefore the Victorian government should provide one emergency information website for all forms of life threatening emergencies in Victoria, including bus fires.

One issued raised by a submission to the inquiry, but not taken up by the commission in its recommendations is the resilience of the proposed National Broadband Network in an emergency. As I have pointed out, the government has not set does not have use of the NBN in an emergency as a priority. If the NBN is not designed to operate during a power failure or in other emergencies, as it beings to replace conventional PSTN telephones, the risk to the public will increase as a result.
2.2. Construction, content of warnings
Key findings ...

(e) CFA bushfire warnings are assigned three “levels”: Awareness, Alert and Urgent Threat. Ideally, each such warning is posted (in a timely fashion) to the CFA website, read aloud on ABC radio and provided to the VBIL. The evidence before the Royal Commission is that on 7 February 2009 this did not always occur in a timely fashion. ...

2.3. Specific methods of delivering warnings.

2.3.1. Single, multi‐agency bushfire information website for Victoria.
Key findings

(a) The public rely on fire agency websites for accurate and up to date information about fires in their area. ...

(b) Currently CFA and DSE maintain separate websites. CFA and DSE are working to present bushfire information on a single website. ...

Proposed recommendations

(a) A single, multi‐agency bushfire information website for Victoria be established and operational for the 2009‐2010 fire season.
(b) The website must provide timely, accurate and up to date bushfire information posted by the fire agencies, that is consistent with the bushfire information being delivered through other modes, including the VBIL and ABC radio. The website must be designed to communicate information quickly and simply, using visual as well as text based information and have the capacity to function during periods of extreme demand.
(c) The website be designed to allow Incident Control Centres (ICCs) to post bushfire information directly to the website.

2.3.2. Standard Emergency Warning Signal
Key findings
(a) The Standard Emergency Warning Signal (SEWS) is not itself a ”warning”. Rather, it is a distinctive alert tone or signal broadcast prior to warnings for major emergencies. It is designed to “alert listeners/viewers of radio/television that an official emergency announcement is about to be made concerning an actual or potential emergency which has the potential to affect them”. ...

(b) The current protocol for the use of SEWS requires the control agency to request the police to authorise its use. Victoria Police (via the Divisional Emergency Response Coordinator) then sends an “Emergency Warning Notice” to the media. On receipt of that formal request to issue a warning, the media are expected to broadcast the warning message, preceded by the distinctive “SEWS tone” for 15 seconds.
(c) SEWS was not used on 7 February 2009 in Victoria. Its use is not referred to in the Emergency Management Manual. Indeed, SEWS has not been regularly used in Victoria, because of concerns that it can be overused and thereby become ineffective and the possibility that it might cause “confusion”. ...
(d) There is no research to suggest that use or “overuse” of SEWS has caused any significant confusion or inconvenience in the community. ...
(e) The Commonwealth has been considering a “relaunch” of SEWS, however it ceased that work in anticipation of the findings of this Royal Commission. ...
(f) SEWS is useful in alerting people to the content of a warning message to follow, and it has been used in South Australia (since 2005) for that very purpose. ...

Proposed recommendations

(a) The Standard Emergency Warning Signal (SEWS) must be used in Victoria to precede each Urgent Threat message in relation to a bushfire and in all circumstances where lives are at risk by reason of bushfire.
(b) The Emergency Management Manual Victoria should be amended to provide that:
(i) the use of SEWS is to precede each urgent threat message issued in relation to a bushfire;
(ii) the use of SEWS is required in all circumstances when lives are at risk; and
(iii) the use of SEWS may be authorised during bushfires by the Chief Officer of the CFA or the Chief Officer of DSE.
(c) The State Government to commence an intensive education campaign to inform the Victorian community that the distinctive SEWS signal will be used before each Urgent Threat message for bushfires and in all circumstances where lives are at risk by reason of bushfire.
(d) The ABC, CFA and DSE to implement a streamlined process for the use of SEWS on ABC radio and television.
(e) The CFA and DSE to invite commercial operators to enter into a Memoranda of Understanding in relation to the dissemination of bushfire warning messages and a process for the use of SEWS by those operators.

2.3.3. Community Information and Warning Systems and Dissemination of Warnings
Key findings

(a) In 2005, the Office of the Emergency Services Commissioner (OESC), in partnership with Telstra, ran a successful trial of an opt in land line telephony based community warning system in two communities in Victoria. ...

(b) Since the 2005 trial, Victoria’s position has been that a national community information and warning system should be implemented. Victoria has advocated this position forcefully at the highest levels, including in communications between the Premier and the Minister for Police and the Commonwealth. ...

(c) The use of a nationally consistent community information warning system drawing on such technology is supported in an AFAC Discussion Paper: “A National Systems Approach to Community Warnings”, 3 June 2009. ...

(d) On 2 October 2008, COAG formally noted that “A nationally – consistent community emergency warning system will enhance the current capability to provide timely and accurate warnings in the event of emergencies and provide useful information and advice on individual and community responses. COAG has requested that all remaining tasks, including a cost – benefit analysis, be completed by the end of 2008”. ...

(e) But the period between 2006 and 2009 was largely characterised by delay. There was extended debate between Commonwealth departments about the need for legislative amendment to facilitate access to the Integrated Public Numbers Database (IPND). ...

(f) On 3 December 2008, the Attorney General wrote to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy stating: “As noted by COAG, a telephony based warning system has the potential to save lives”. ...

(g) During the period 2004 to 2009, the Department of Broadband Communications and the Digital Economy maintained the view that changes to the Telecommunications Act 1997 (Cth) were necessary to permit access by emergency services to the IPND. ...

(h) The delay was also in part due to the fact that until after the 2009 fires, the States and the Commonwealth had not agreed on the appropriate model for a national system. ...

(i) In March 2009, the necessary amendments to the Telecommunications Act 1997 (Cth) were made. ...

(j) On 2 March 2009, after the February 2009 fires, and before the Telecommunications Act 1997 (Cth) amendments were made, Victoria Police and the OESC determined to issue a mass warning message via SMS in order to warn of predicted severe weather.

Telstra was instrumental in the arrangements for the dissemination of the message. A review conducted in relation to this event revealed a high rate of recall by recipients and “success” in terms of the message delivery. ...

(k) The SMS message was able to be sent by Telstra because access to the IPND was not required, as Telstra simply sent the message to its customers using their billing addresses. Out of "an abundance of caution", Telstra was also supplied with a certificate from Victoria Police which stated that the message was necessary to be sent by reason of a "serious and imminent threat" to life. Although this certificate echoes the wording of the exception in s287 of the Telecommunications Act 1997 (Cth), Telstra did not in fact purport to rely on that section. Indeed, Mr Consolo accepted in evidence that Telstra has always possessed the capacity to send such an SMS message to its customers, though this message offers no "geo‐coding" function. Mr Esplin, in his evidence, noted that the agreement of carriers to take such a step was, in his view, unlikely to have been obtained prior to the events of 7 February 2009. ...

(l) On 30 April 2009, following a COAG meeting, the Commonwealth announced that COAG had agreed to implement a national telephone emergency warning system. The first stage (which COAG said would be in place by October 2009) will provide warnings in the form of recorded voice messages and SMS messages to the billing addresses of landline and mobile phones. A second stage of the system that would permit sending of
phone messages based on the location of the telephone handset is to be investigated. ...

(m) Despite the development of this new technology, it is clear that multiple methods of dissemination of warnings should continue to be used for the following reasons:

(i) members of the community may obtain information in a variety of ways including websites, telecommunications, radio and informal networks – and tend to like to confirm information received with other sources; and
(ii) it is advisable to preserve multiple modes of disseminating warnings (including old technology such as sirens, door to door visits, radio and new technology such as SMS, official websites, informal websites, Twitter, Facebook) to reach the broadest possible audience and to guard against failure of any single mode of communication. ...

(a) The Commonwealth and COAG should ensure that implementation of stage one of the new national emergency warning system prior to bushfire season 2009‐2010.
(b) The State of Victoria should be an active participant in the development, implementation and operation of the new national emergency warning system.
(c) The State of Victoria should immediately commence a program of community education in order to ensure that Victorians are well informed about the proper use of and response to the use of the new national emergency warning system, particularly in the event of bushfire, prior to the 2009‐2010 season. Such community education program to draw on the experiences of the “Community Information and Warning System: The Report of The Trial and Evaluation”, OESC (2006) ...
(d) If by September 2009, it appears unlikely that the first phase of the national system will be operational, the State of Victoria to make representations to the Commonwealth Government with a view to securing a commitment that the system will be available at least in Victoria’s Bushfire Risk Zones by bushfire season 2009‐2010.
(e) Multiple means of disseminating warning message should be retained including the continued use of ABC broadcasts, a single multi agency website (see proposed recommendation 2.3.1) and sirens where adopted by particular communities (see proposed recommendation 2.3.4).

2.3.5. Publication of Fire Danger Index forecasts
Key findings

(a) The Bureau of Meteorology routinely forecasts the Forest Fire Danger Index and the Grass Fire Danger Index (collectively the Fire Danger Index or FDI) and provides these forecasts to the fire agencies. ...
(b) The FDI forecasts are not included in the general weather forecasts posted on the Bureau’s website or distributed to the media. They are made available to the public only in the fire weather forecasts posted on the Bureau’s website on the afternoon before the day in question. ...
(c) A number of lay witnesses wanted to see the FDI forecasts published more widely. ...

Proposed recommendations
(a) The Bureau of Meteorology include the Forest Fire Danger Index and Grass Fire Danger Index in its fire weather warnings and general weather forecasts posted on its website and distributed to the media. ...

4.9. Application to those in places other than homes – e.g. schools, nursing homes, hospitals

Proposed Recommendations – stay or go (key findings 4.1‐4.9)

(ii) that before the commencement of the 2009 ‐ 2010 fire season they be revised and enhanced to clearly convey the following ...

(M) Advice about when to leave, incorporating a cascading series of triggers
(noting that a warning may not be received and should not be relied upon)
namely ...
• When you are advised to be on alert in relation to a fire that has
commenced. This requires that you pay attention to fire information sources (ABC, fire agency website) on days of total fire ban and extreme fire risk. ...

8. Detection of fires
8.1. Early detection, mapping and prediction of fire spread
Key findings ...

(n) Threat messages issued concerning the Kilmore East fire prior to 18.00 on 7 February 2009 made no reference to the anticipated frontal change. ...

(p) Kilmore ICC authorised at 16.10 on 7 February 2009 release of threat message warning communities from Kinglake to Strath Creek of fire. That message did not appear on the CFA website. ...

(r) Narbethong was the subject of a threat message on the DSE website at 16.45 on 7 February 2009 and Marysville was the subject of a threat message on the DSE website at 17.15 on 7 February 2009. ...

19.2. Communications infrastructure

Key findings

(a) Warnings, both formal and informal, are communicated by a range of means including mobile and fixed line telephones, radio, television and the internet. Members of the public need to be able to contact emergency services in an emergency.

Communications within and between emergency services agencies are vital to an effective and co‐ordinated emergency response. A reliable and robust communications infrastructure is therefore essential.

(b) The Commission has heard evidence that indicates that Victoria’s communications infrastructure was placed under great stress on 7 February, and that there were difficulties in communicating with and within emergency services, and generally. ...

(c) To date the Commission has heard evidence from the ABC, ACE Radio Broadcasters, Telstra, ESTA, DSE, CFA and Victoria Police in respect of public radio and television, fixed and mobile telephone networks, managed radio networks and the operation of emergency call services. Some of these communications media performed well on 7 February, others less so. ...

(d) The Commission has also heard evidence that indicates that communications in some parts of Victoria are less than optimal under normal conditions. ...

Proposed recommendations
(a) No further recommendation is proposed. Victoria’s communications infrastructure will be the subject of evidence in future hearings. ...

From: Proposed Interim Report of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, Counsel Assisting, 2 July 2009.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Australian Government Web Publishing Guide Review

The Department of Finance and Deregulation is reviewing the Web Publishing Guide provided for federal government agencies. I went along to a Focus Group Session today, run by TNS Social Research. This was entertaining, if not very useful. There is another group scheduled for early July.

I did not have very high expectations for this activity. Given the confidentiality footer on the email invitation, I was expecting to first be handed a non-disclosure agreement and then have looks of horror from the organisers as I opened my laptop and used the wireless 3G to report a lack of transparency in government. Instead there was no mention of confidentiality, apart from assuring us the audio and video recordings were made for research proposes would be destroyed afterwards.

I found one of the participants happily making notes on their 3G enabled sub-notebook when I arrived. This was Pia Waugh, policy advisor to Senator Lundy. Also present was one of the most experienced web experts in government service and a government web master. This was a very opinionated group of people for any researcher to handle, but they handled us well.

There were two government Representatives observing from another room by video camera. Along with the plate of chocolate biscuits and the weak instant coffee, it was a little too much like an episode from the ABC TV comedy "The Hollowmen".

What we were there for was explained to us, we introduced ourselves and then were asked questions about the Web Publishing Guide. This was frustrating, as the questions tended to be about if we liked the web site, while we wanted to discuss policy behind the guidelines.

The Web Publishing Guide is fine, with a good web site. In terms of web site design, it would be useful if the site conformed to the guidelines it is advocating. As an example, the home page has the title tag of "". This is not very useful for the human reader, or a web search engine, and should be changed to something like "Australian Government Web Publishing Guide".

The web guide home page also has some ineffective and pointless controls for changing the text size and the colour scheme. If this provided a very large font and high contrast colours for people with limited vision it would be useful, but it just changes the size slightly and the colours from one muted scheme to another. This lowers the credibility of the content of the page.

In terms of arrangement of the home page, I suggested that the topics be grouped into about three categories. The section on e-Government Policy is not important and should be given less prominence.

However, many of the issues we discussed were problems with policy, not layout. As an example the Copyright Notices for government web pages are clearly articulated in the guide, but the policy itself is outdated and counter-productive. The Australian Government should adopt a Creative Commons style licence.

Similarly "Branding" is clearly stated, but is contrary to good web design principles, as well as wasting government ICT resources. The branding requires the use of the wrong version of the Commonwealth Arms and the inclusion of text in a graphic. As well as making the logo hard to see and the text hard to read, this wastes storage and bandwidth. A significant proportion of government ICT resources are likely consumed by unnecessary copies of this logo, caused by the flawed branding policy.

A problem with the web guidelines is that they are separate from other government publishing guidance. The excellent "Style manual" is now a commercial publication not available electronically. This reflects the lack of a coherent information policy in the Australian Government.

No doubt those undertaking this review are well meaning. However, it was an irony worthy of "The Hollowmen" that I could not comment on web publishing via the web and instead had to travel to the other side of Canberra to do so in person. The obvious first step in consulting about web guidelines is via the web.

Senator Lundy and Pia Waugh demonstrated how to do government policy in the Internet age last week with the "Government 2.0" event at Parliament House. We blogged, we Twittered, we streamed, we talked and now the results are being turned into government policy proposals via a Wiki.

More than ten years ago Geoff Huston gave a powerful presentation to government and industry in Canberra about the role of the Internet. He described the OSI protocol favoured by government as a small creature about to be squashed by the oncoming Internet juggernaut on the information superhighway. I was one of the public servants convinced that day that our policy and practice were wrong. It took more than a year for the OSI policy to be quietly dismantled and the Internet adopted officially.

However, while the Internet is used at the technical level, the Internet way of working has not been adopted by government. We still have old fashioned paper based processes for consultation and policy making. ICT policy makers are tying themselves in knots trying to write policy on consultation and working online, without actually adopting that way of working themselves.

The key to the Internet, the web and social networking for business, is that they are easier to do than to talk about. Just as the PC caused a revolution in how the computer is used, smart phones are about to cause a revolution in the way organisations are run, including government. I am teaching students at the Australian National University how to do this from 20 July in the course COMP7310: Green ICT Strategies (it is not too late to enrol).

A new analogy is needed for a new millennium. Perhaps we could say that government policy makers are big fish swimming around in a small pond of information. The pond is shrinking by the day, as the real information evaporates into the Internet cloud. The policy makers need to evolve or be left stuck in the mud.

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Open Web Education Alliance

W3C, the people who do web standards, have set up an Open Web Education Alliance Incubator Group, to foster education about web standards. See: News, Deliverables, Meetings. and Charter:

The goal of this Incubator Group is to bring together interested individuals, companies, and organizations with a strong interest in the field of educating Web professionals, to explore the needs and issues around the topic of Web development education. This Incubator Group will detail the options for establishing a group dedicated to bringing Web standards and best practices to the process of educating future professionals in Web professions, no matter where this training and education might be provided, and will define the goals, activities, and a clear mission for such an organization, and will seek to establish this organization's viability and role.

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hand washing for swine flu

To wash your hands properly, first wet your hands, then apply soap.In my analysis of the Australian Government's Swine Flu web site I suggested the instructions for handwashing could be improved. The instructions are contained in a 24 kbyte GIF file on the "Individuals and households" page. Here I have separated the four steps into individual images, reduced to 32 colours, and removed text from the images. The result is four files, each of 4 kbytes.

To wash your hands properly:
  1. Wet your hands, then apply soap.

    To wash your hands properly, first wet your hands, then apply soap.
  2. Lather vigorously for 15 to 20 seconds.

    To wash your hands properly. Wet your hands, then apply soap. Lather vigorously for 15 to 20 seconds. Rinse with water. Dry your hands afterwards with a clean towel.
  3. Rinse with water.

    To wash your hands properly, third rinse with water.
  4. Dry your hands afterwards with a clean towel.

    To wash your hands properly, lastly dry your hands afterwards with a clean towel.
Some points to note: I replaced the dash in "15-20 seconds" with the word "to". This is more understandable if the text is converted to synthetic speech by an assisted technology device for the blind. Otherwise the text will be read as "fifteen dash twenty seconds".

Reducing the complexity of the images by removing the shading to make them pictograms would reduce them to 1 kbyte each and also make them easier to understand. A simple animation also could be made from the images.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Building location aware websites

Paul Hagon from the National Library of Australia will talk on "Where am I? Building location aware websites" at the July Canberra WSG meeting, 24 July 2009 at the NLA in Canberra.

Mobile devices with inbuilt GPS, such as the iPhone, are leading to the development of location aware applications. This trend isn't just limited to the mobile arena. Advances are being made to bring this technology to desktop and laptop browsers. Services exist to allow you to share your location to a variety of applications. How can we incorporate this technology into our websites and what are the technical and social implications of doing so? ...

From July Canberra WSG meeting, Web Standards Group, 2009

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Monday, June 08, 2009

Australian Government Swine Flu Outbreak Web Information

Wash Hands signThere are some technical faults in the Australian Government's "Swine Flu Outbreak" web page. Below are some suggestions to fix the faults, improve the site and a general approach to improve the provision of such information online.

In a major emergency, such as a pandemic, all that the authorities can provide to the community is advice. There are not sufficient resources to provide each individual with material assistance. It is therefore important that useful advice is provided. The web would be a useful way to provide such advice, if we could to learn to use it effectively.

The Australian Government has provided some useful information online, but the formatting and arrangement of that information could be improved. Better use could be made of the web to distribute and present information. The PDF versions of information brochures could be replaced with easier to read web pages. Simple animations which demonstrate techniques such as hand washing could be created. These could be displayed on web pages and also be suitable for use on smart phones, iPods and on digital signage in schools, offices and workplaces.

The Australian Government home page provides a link for "Swine Flu Outbreak" as the second feature, after the Economic Stimulus Plan. This appears to be an appropriate level of priority. Unfortunately the link is to a web page with the vague title of "Heath Emergency" and subtitle of "H1N1 09 Outbreaks" <>. Many readers are likely to stop at this point, think they are in the wrong place. The page should have a title like that of the home page "Swine Flu Outbreak".

The web address for the page is generic, referring to "Heath Emergency", however there appears to be no provision for more than one health emergency, nor of distinguishing between them. There is also no provision for government information on other forms of emergencies. The Australian Government should establish a web address for emergencies and include health under that.

The information on the "Heath Emergency" page is not intended for the general public and is not suitable for them. The page is intended for health professionals, school administrators and business people. The page lists information for individuals and households last in a menu of seven items. It is unlikely that many people will even notice this menu item. This should be changed to put the information for individuals on top of the home page.

The "Individuals and households" has a menu at the top which lists "Personal protective equipment" as he first item. However, this is not the most important way to combat flu, which is good personal hygiene, and so should be the first item. Many people will click on "Personal protective equipment" and thus miss the first section "Protecting yourself and others".

The web address for the page contains upper and lower case text. It works with all lower case text. The mixed case will cause confusion and should be replaced. The web address is too long and should be made one third the current length.

The page has been formatted to omit the left menu when printed and prints well. The bottom of the page contains details of where to get further information. However, there is no link to state and territory health departments. There should be a link to the corresponding health department pages.

The web page failed a TAW automated web accessibility test, TAW 3.0 (6/8/09 12:51 AM) Validation conform to WAI guidelines, W3C Recommendation 5 May: 1999. There was one Priority one problem, 12 priority two and 1 priority three problems. There is a ALT text tag missing from one image on the page, which should be added. It would also be useful to offer audio and video versions of the information and in other languages.

The page scored 79/100 with the W3C mobileOK Checker, which is a good result.

The page is 53KB, with 34KB for the images. The text of the page is 16 kbytes, indicating that there is not an excessive amount of formatting used. However, the page might usefully be split into two smaller pages.

The image providing advice on hand washing is relevant and useful but should be optimised for online use.

The image is a 24 kbyte GIF file. It contains text which makes the image file unnecessarily larger and is not accessible by those using assistive technology. The image contains 203 colours, which is more than needed for a simple line drawing. If reduced to 8 colors, the image size decreases to 6 kbytes. Consideration could be given to reducing the complexity of the images, making them simple pictograms.

The web page lacks keywords, description and other metadata in the HEAD. This should be added and the irrelevant "powered by IBM Lotus Workplace Web Content Management(r) 2.0" removed.

The web page failed validation, due to the missing "ALT" on an image.

The validation also noted that:
"The character encoding specified in the HTTP header (utf-8) is different from the value in the <meta> element (iso-8859-1). I will use the value from the HTTP header (utf-8) for this validation. "
The missing ALT should be added and the character set mismatch corrected. Consideration should be given for using a later version of HTML than HTML 4.01 Transitional, for the document.

The web page contains a link to flu posters and information brochures. However, most of these are not relevant for individuals and could cause confusion and panic, with mention of protective gloves, gowns and respirators. The items on this page should be reordered to place those relevant to the general public, such as how to wash and dry hands, first and the ones for professionals lower down.

To assist the community, I had the Australian National University COMP2410 students undertake their web design assignment on a swine flu advice web site for Australia. That experience is now available, if needed.

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Thursday, June 04, 2009

DimDim web meeting disappointing

Last night I was scheduled to give a talk about how to use ICT to reduce carbon emissions. One technique is to telecommunicate and so I tired using the DimDim web meeting tool to allow people to participate online. It did not work well.

I was disappointed with DimDim. While it worked in test, it failed on the night. The major problem was with the audio, which for most of the time just produced a hiss.

There are confusingly several sets of controls for the audio and video with DimDim: one in the DimDim software itself and one in the Flash plug-in used for the audio and video. I tried to set these to minimise bandwidth use, but suspect I ended up with a conflict between the settings. I may have been better off leaving the defaults set.

What made the problem worse was DimDim's limited support for accessibility. Because I have trouble reading the text on the screen with the default font, I increase the size. DimDim's text then starts to overlap, making it hard to read. Also the Web 2 interaction is a bit problematic. I found pop up windows for setting parameters which did not fit on the screen and some times I found myself chasing the popups around the screen with the cursor. There are a lot of windows on the DimDim screen and it is hard to follow what is going on and give a presentation at the same time, even without the overlapping test and runaway popups.

Also I was using a desktop relay facility which I am not entirely happy with. With this you install an application which copies everything from your screen to the remote users. Apart from the security implications, the copy process slows down the host computer and there is the problem of the quantity of data to send. DimDim has a more efficient facility to share a web page, but at the last minute I found it is not compatible with the HTML Slidy web based presentation tool I use.

You can nominate a web page in DimDim and that page will then be opened in a window on the remote viewers computer screens. When you scroll down the web page their copies also scroll. When you click on a link, the new web page is opened on their screens as well. However, I found that JavaScript based navigation is not relayed to the remote user. So while I was clicking down through my slides on my screen, the remote viewer was stuck on the first slide.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Audit of Online Government Documents in Parliament

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) issued "Online Availability of Government Entities' Documents Tabled in the Australian Parliament" 25 May 2009 (Report Number: 37). Government agencies are required to keep online, and publicly available, the documents they present to Parliament. The Audit office found that 90% of documents were online, but 95% of these were in PDF format and did not meet guidelines for accessibility to the disabled. Somewhat paradoxically, the ANAO's own report is in PDF and so appears not to conform with the guidelines which the report recommends be used. The Auditor thought AGIMO’s web publishing guidelines were not at fault.

You can download the Audit_Report_37 in PDF, or view a web summary as a
Audit Brochure. Below are the key findings:

Key Government entities’ compliance with online publishing policy (Chapter 2)

The ANAO undertook a desktop review of a sample of papers tabled from 2000 to 2008 to assess their online existence, ease of discovery online, online accessibility, and consistency between the online and printed versions.

Overall, our testing indicated that the proportion of the tabled papers examined found online has improved from 54 per cent in 2000 to 89 per cent in 2008. This improvement is due to a number of factors, including an increased focus on the delivery of online services by government entities.

However, no more than 90 per cent of the tabled papers examined in any one year were available online. The main reasons that this level has not increased is that either some individual government entities still do not have a web presence or that they are not fully aware of the requirements to publish tabled papers online. Further, MOG changes have caused restructures of entities and their websites. In essence, the merger or creation of a government entity and the subsequent new website can result in documents or links to such documents being inadvertently removed. In either case, web users are hindered or prevented from finding documents online.

The ease of discovery of an online document was quite high, having increased from 89 per cent of documents examined in 2000 to 100 per cent in 2006, although it declined slightly in each of 2007 and 2008. The tabled papers we found online were generally able to be discovered through publicly available search practices. Where discovery was difficult, the cause was usually poor website design that hindered navigation by web users.

Online accessibility was examined in two parts: providing access to web users without the need to use proprietary software and providing access to web users with a disability. In the first part, the recommended formats are HTML which any web browser can view; and plain text or RTF which any text reader or open source word processing software can view. The use of these formats to publish documents online has varied considerably since 2000. In particular, of the documents we examined in 2008, about 25 per cent were in HTML and less than five per cent were in RTF.

In contrast, over 95 per cent of the documents we examined in 2008 were in PDF, being a proprietary software format. Although PDF can have a free reader associated with it, a link to a reader was only supplied for about 65 per cent of documents.

The second part of online accessibility pertains to the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 that requires government bodies to provide equitable access to people with disabilities, where it can reasonably be provided. To give effect to the requirements of the Act, the AHRC endorsed a standard15 on web accessibility. This standard recommends the use of HTML or text based formats. As mentioned, our testing has indicated that the use of HTML and text based formats is low. In addition, a number of government entities only publish documents online in PDF, which does not comply with this standard.

The authorised version of a tabled paper is the printed (hardcopy) version that is tabled in Parliament. It is important to ensure consistency between the printed and online versions. Our testing of online Parliamentary Papers for 2007 found over 90 percent of documents were consistent with the printed version. Based on our analysis, the ANAO considers that there are a number of useful practices to ensure consistency between the online and printed versions of a document. They include, but are not limited to: maintaining communication between the print and online publishing functions; ensuring that the document author verifies the online version prior to web publishing; and placing the final PDF version provided to the printer online.

Although the level of results achieved indicated an improvement in online availability of tabled papers, the ANAO considers that further improvement can be realised. Government entities should review the level and nature of their online publishing activity and assess the risks of them not complying with the online publishing requirements related to tabled papers. Specifically, entities with a high risk of not complying with the requirements, such as those having no web presence, those producing multiple documents for tabling in Parliament each year, or which have been subject to a MOG change, should address any shortcomings in a cost effective way.

Overall, increased government entity compliance in the above matters would benefit from further cooperation between the Department of Finance and Deregulation (Finance), the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) and the Departments of the Parliament to confirm respective roles and responsibilities.

Government entities’ online publishing practices (Chapter 3)

Based on the results of our desktop review, we selected entities for detailed fieldwork that exhibited a medium to high level of compliance with the Government’s online publishing requirements to allow this audit report to convey practices that would lead to better reporting by all government entities.

Each of the audited entities had sound online publishing practices. In particular, each entity had:

  • a range of informative policy and guidance material to support staff performing online publishing functions;
  • well-defined processes for publishing documents online, including controls to restrict access to online publishing functions to authorised staff; and
  • processes and practices to help manage and provide assurance about online content, including obtaining advice as to the timing of the tabling of documents in Parliament.

In addition, each of the audited entities had controls in place to assist in managing the validity of their online content. In particular, all but one of the entities had a formal content management system (CMS). The ANAO’s audit report on Government Agencies’ Management of their Websites discusses entities use of specialist software to manage content.16

Only one of the audited entities specifically referred to the requirements for publishing tabled papers in its online publishing policy and procedural documentation. The ANAO considers that those government entities that have multiple documents tabled in Parliament would benefit from emphasising this requirement in their online publishing policy and procedural material. Further, in some entities the monitoring and reporting of web-related statistics was ad-hoc.

Overall, we considered that AGIMO’s WPG (which informs entities of the Government’s web publishing requirements) was relevant, accessible and easy to use. However, the following opportunities were identified to improve the level of guidance in the WPG about the online publishing of tabled papers and improve entities’ awareness and understanding of the requirements:

  • specify the requirements relating to tabled papers with greater clarity;
  • provide advice on the period of time that government entities must maintain documents online; and
  • provide advice on whether an entity can archive electronically its Parliamentary documents after a number of years.

Further, the ANAO considers that stronger alignment between AGIMO’s online publishing requirements and PM&C’s guidance for presenting documents to the Parliament could improve the effectiveness of entities’ online publishing practices for tabled papers.

15 The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which is a series of documents that explains how to make web content accessible to people with disabilities.

16 ANAO Audit Report No.13 2008–09, Government Agencies’ Management of their Websites, available from <>.

Summary of entities' responses

Each of the audited entities, including AGIMO, agreed with, noted or supported the three recommendations. In addition to the audited entities, we sought comments on the draft report from four other entities mentioned in the audit, the Department of the Senate, the Department of Parliamentary Services, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Australian Human Rights Commission. Where provided, entities’ responses to a recommendation are included in the body of this report, and entities’ general comments are in Appendix 1. ...

From: "Online Availability of Government Entities' Documents Tabled in the Australian Parliament", Report Number: 37, Australian National Audit Office, 25 May 2009

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Monday, May 25, 2009

Making local government accessible

Leichhardt Council have made their Draft Management Plan and Budget 2009/2013 available online. Unfortunately, as Annandale on the Web says, this 1.5 Mbyte 298 page PDF document is not particularly public friendly. The council might like to consider making the plan available as a set of web pages which meet accessibility standards, in accordance with the Australian Disability Discrimination Act. An automated test appears to indicate that at present the Council's web site does not comply with the Act.

While not a legal necessity, it would be useful to have the web pages follow mobile web guidelines. The Council page which describes the plan scores 62/100 on the W3C mobileOK Checker, which is not a good result. The council should aim for at least 90/100. This would make for a much easier to handle document, in small easy to download and read segments. As well as working on devices such as iPhones and Blackberries, this would make the plan easier to read on older computers with slow Internet connections.

But apart from the poor formatting, there is much to be positive about in the plan, including support for light rail.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Web support for Victorian bushfire rebuilding

In response to concern expressed in the media about delays with permission to rebuild after bushfires, some Victorian councils have put in dedicated staff to assist with bushfire related building planning issues. However, what might be more useful is if the state government introduced uniform procedures and a web based approval system to be used by all councils. The one team of helpers could then be used across the state, accessing the system via wireless laptops and smart phones in the field while with the residents. It should then be possible for most permissions to be granted via the system on site in a few minutes. The performance of the councils can also then be monitored, with the time between and application being lodged and approved being reported to the minute, for all councils across the state automatically with daily reports on the Victorian Government web site.

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