Student winner exposes govt website shortcomings

Some government sites fail to indicate in advance what type of document the user is accessing through a link, says research

The winner of the NZ Computer Society’s annual Wellington-based honours student research contest has claimed his award by uncovering shortcomings in accessibility of government websites for disabled and other disadvantaged users.

Many sites fail to meet government’s own standards for accessibility, Ben Bradshaw found. One of the judges for the award, given last week, was Laurence Millar, head of the ICT Branch of the State Services Commission, which devised and monitors the standards.

Bradshaw concentrated on sight disabilities in his project, using a panel of testers who are blind, colour-blind or have partial sight. He also used a pair of open-source automatic testing programs, Validator and OpenWolf. The match between the sets of trials was used as a check on the functioning of OpenWolf in particular.

Government standards are expected to improve accessibility for users with a range of disabilities as well as those with slow connections, low-resolution screens and less powerful computers.

One particular shortcoming, Bradshaw found, is failure of some sites to indicate in advance what type of document the user is accessing through a link. This can be confusing for blind users, whose assistive technology, such as a screen reader translating into voice, may need adjustment or fail to work at all with certain document formats.

Bradshaw wins a $1,000 prize and a year’s free membership of the NZCS.

The second prize, of $500 and a year’s membership, went to Edmund Horner, who designed an interactive environment to assist the learning of lambda calculus, a key tool in the formal analysis of computation. Manipulating lambda expressions in the conventional way is “tedious and error-prone”, Horner says. His software partially automates the task, aiming to “take the drudgery out of it” while preserving the learning value.

The four remaining finalists were Nivea Nicolas (who looked at ICT governance in New Zealand organisations and its relationship to capability), Eddie Stanley (the Simple Entity Association Language for simplifying SQL database queries), Hartmut Hoehle (the relation between the characteristics and the market-value-propositions of mobile electronic devices) and Chiky Pang (the impact of personalised online services on relationships within an organisation, using Victoria University’s MyVictoria student portal as an example). Those four each received a $100 prize.

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