Since 2000, when I was asked to give evidence to the Human Rights Commission on the Sydney Olympics Case, I have been looking at how to easily produce accessible electronic documents. Many tools and techniques have been tried by my ANU web design and e-document students since then, including accessible PDF. In the last few years an approach has emerged using structured web design. This is now to the point where it can be used to replace most uses of PDF.
Using now available web standards and tools, it is feasible to create one version of a document which can be read on an ordinary web browser, can be used with assistive technology, can be printed in a similar format to a PDF document and also work with smart phones, netbooks and e-book readers.
The PDF format was created for producing electronic facsimiles of paper documents. This provided a useful transition, from paper to electronic documents. That transition is can now be completed.
Most government material is read online, not on paper. The government should therefore switch its emphasis from creating high quality paper documents, to creating high quality electronic documents. The simplest and most cost effective way to do this is to create government documents as web pages, while ensuring they can be printed in an acceptable format.
As an interim step, I suggest agencies be advised it is acceptable to have a PDF version of a document (which need not be accessible) in addition to the accessible web version. However, the web version should be offered before the PDF (as readers will usually pick the first plausible option on a web page, without reading further). Currently readers waste time and network resources are being wasted with people selecting the full PDF version of multi-megabyte government reports, when all they wanted was an executive summary.
To create good electronic documents will require some training of government staff in e-literacy. Currently staff think in terms of what the document will look like when printed, and how someone will read it on paper. They need to be educated to think about how the document will look on various electronic devices and how people will access this information.
Apart from providing better information to the public, well structured web documents will reduce the server and network resources needed by the government. This will reduce the cost of providing the service and also greenhouse gas emissions from the lower electricity use of the equipment (3).
- The World Wide Web: For Networked Information Systems, notes on for The Australian National University course "Networked Information Systems" (COMP2410), Tom Worthington, 2009.
- Metadata and Electronic Data Management, notes for "Information Technology in Electronic Commerce" (COMP3410) at the Australian National University, Tom Worthington, 2009.
- Green ICT Strategies (COMP7310), ANU Masters E-learning course, Tom Worthington, 2009