Monday, October 12, 2009

Replace PDF with Accessible Web Pages

This is for a submission to the AGIMO PDF Accessibility Review. As the Australian Human Rights Commission points out in their DDA Advisory Notes, organisations who distribute content only in PDF format risk complaints for not providing information in an accessible format. While it is theoretically possible to make more accessible PDF files, I suggest that the Australian Government take the simpler course of providing information in alternative formats, specifically as accessible web pages. This would be simpler to do and have benefits for readers generally, not just those requiring to use assistive technology.

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).

See also:
  1. The World Wide Web: For Networked Information Systems, notes on for The Australian National University course "Networked Information Systems" (COMP2410), Tom Worthington, 2009.
  2. Metadata and Electronic Data Management, notes for "Information Technology in Electronic Commerce" (COMP3410) at the Australian National University, Tom Worthington, 2009.
  3. Green ICT Strategies (COMP7310), ANU Masters E-learning course, Tom Worthington, 2009

2 comments:

maelorin said...

Unless, and until, there is a tool (or tools) that easily and properly convert MS Word documents (at least) directly into well formatted and structured HTML (and/or similar web technology) it is unlikely that formats other than PDF will gain traction in government departments or big business.

Mandating the use of (structured) websites as replacements for, or alternatives to, PDF is all well and good - but unless there is a simple way to spit out good code the results will not be optimal.

Most documents are created, edited and maintained by less-than-comprehensively computer literate secretaries and similar. And time constraints enormously favour the "one button press" approach.

I'm not a nay-sayer - I like the idea. I've taught structured web design and architecture to IT/IS and non-IT/IS students (in mixed classes). But I'm sceptical that it's a realistic option given current tools - and the complexity of the technology sans such tools.

Admittedly, with MS Office now using (proprietary) XML formats, it should be 'easier' to translate/transform documents. But to do so into clean, sane HTML+CSS+etc will always be a challenge.

Also, as an aside, I like being able to download documents in a single, portable (in both senses) unit. I conduct academic research into government policies, procedures and the like from legal and technological perspectives. being able to download reports in a self-contained chunk is very convenient for me.

And given how rapidly large-scale storage is becoming cheaper to own and operate, and broadband accessibility is growing, and becoming cheaper to access, I'm not sure cost factors are so important.

I'm suggesting here that properly structured web formats be available alongside one or more formats such as PDF. Both have their place, and their value/s.

Tom Worthington said...

maelorin wrote October 13, 2009 1:31 PM:
> Unless, and until, there is a tool (or tools) that easily and properly
> convert MS Word documents (at least) directly into well formatted and
> structured HTML (and/or similar web technology) it is unlikely that
> formats other than PDF will gain traction in government departments or
> big business. ...


Agreed. But the issue here is that the PDF documents being generated are not meeting accessibility requirements. To meet those requirements will require organisations to structure their source documents better. My contention is that if they have to go to that trouble, it will be easier to produce good quality web documents, than PDF.

> Mandating the use of (structured) websites as replacements for, or
> alternatives to, PDF is all well and good - but unless there is a
> simple way to spit out good code the results will not be optimal. ...


If organisations want to use documents to communicate information, then I suggest they will find the effort worthwhile. It will be easier to produce one good web version of a document which can be printed, displayed on a desktop browser, work with assistive technology and work on a smart phone, than have to produce five versions.

> Most documents are created, edited and maintained by
> less-than-comprehensively computer literate secretaries and similar.
> And time constraints enormously favour the "one button press" approach. ...


A "one button press" approach is feasible, provided that the tools have been properly set up to do it. I have found support staff very willing to use such systems, especially if it cuts down the amount of work they have to do producing multiple versions of documents for different media.

> Admittedly, with MS Office now using (proprietary) XML formats, it
> should be 'easier' to translate/transform documents. But to do so into
> clean, sane HTML+CSS+etc will always be a challenge. ...


MS Office now does a reasonable job producing web documents (with some clean-up tools at the back end perhaps). Of course you can always use OpenOffice.org and other free tools such as HTML Tidy and also Google Docs.

>Also, as an aside, I like being able to download documents in a single,
> portable (in both senses) unit. .. download reports in a
> self-contained chunk is very convenient for me. ...


The HTML based e-book formats seem to offer a good option. These are essentially just a zipped folder of HTML and CSS. The IMS Content package format for e-learning systems, such as Moodle is similar to the format used by e-book readers.

> I'm suggesting here that properly structured web formats be available
> alongside one or more formats such as PDF. Both have their place, and
> their value/s.


Yes. The course I was suggesting was produce a PDF document, if you want to, but don't try and make it accessible, as that is difficult, use the web format for that.