Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Web Standards for the Australian Government

Greetings from the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) in Canberra, where the October Web Standards Group meeting was held.

This meeting is sponsored by the Defence Department and so the location is appropriate. However, the ADFA Adams Hall is not the best location for a meeting. This is a multi-purpose hall with a polished wooden floor and steeply ranked seating at the back. It looks like a US college gym and at any moment I expected a cheer leading squad to march in.

Today's speakers were:

1: Neil Philips - FOI Legislative Requirements to Publish Information On the Web
2: Raven Calais - WCAG 2.0 and the Website Accessibility National Transition Strategy
3: Gordon Grace - Making Better Use of On-line Data
4: Eileen Tannachion - Changes to the Australian Government Locator Service Metadata Standard

These are all interesting topics, but this seems like twice as many speakers as it is reasonable to fit into such a format.

The MC for the day was Tony Corcoran, Assistant Secretary, Freedom of Information and Information Management Branch, Department of Defence. He admitted that the Defence Department was not well prepared for new Government FOI legislative requirements (but it sounded like they were making rapid progress to be ready in time). Defence is doubling the capacity of their records management system from 30,000 to 60,000 users. An imaging system is being installed. Also many routine manuals which are currently on the internal intranet will be moved to the Internet to avoid the need for FOI requests.

Tony modestly said that his area of Defence was not "technical" being staffed by policy people. I have no doubt that there are suitably qualified people from information disciplines in Defence to write policy (I used to be one of them).

1: Neil Philips "FOI Legislative Requirements to Publish Information On the Web".

The new FOI procedures from 1 May 2011 are for more proactive disclosure. Public servants have protection under the legislation if they accidentally release something they should not. The legislation provides for agencies to sell documents, but hopefully most material will be provided freely online.

The main requirement is that the agency publish on its web site a list of information about the information they have (metadata) an organisation chart and other details about what the agency does. What was not clear to me was if there are standards for the format used for lists of information. It would make sense if all agencies used the same format and there was a government wide search facility provided. The Information Commissioner is expected to produce guidelines in November.

2: Raven Calais - WCAG 2.0 and the Website Accessibility National Transition Strategy

Raven started by saying the presentation would be provided afterwards, so I shouted out "in an accessible format?". She replied that there were some accessibility problems with Powerpoint and so the presentations would be offered in other formats.

Raven pointed out that accessibility is not just for a small group identified as "disabled", such as just the blind. Accessibility is an issue for much of the community at different times in their lives. Currently 20% of the Australian population identify themselves as having a disability. People with a disability have a higher unemployment rate. Accessibility is about social inclusiveness.

The Online and Communications Council of Australia agreed that all federal, state and local government web sites would be WCAG 2 complaint by November 2012.

Federal FMA agencies are required to be Level A compliant by 31 December 2012 and Level double A by 31 December 2014.

AGIMO has a National Transitional Strategy. This involves agencies first taking a stock take of what web sites they have, then checking current compliance, then assessing the publishing process and what barriers there might be. Barriers might be a lack of training in accessibility for web staff in a decentralised web publishing process.

AGIMO is developing a Community of Expertise (COE) under the AGIMO blog. This will then be updated to be a forum and have a document repository.

Raven stated that PDF, RTF and MS Word files are not accessible and so accessible HTML alternatives are required for these. I found this a refreshingly frank and practical approach. In theory it is possible to create accessible PDF, RTF and MS Word files, but as Raven says, there are not sufficient tools and techniques to support these in practice. In my view a sensible approach for agencies would be to implement accessible HTML which also displays and prints well. Agencies could then dispense with the complexity and expense of creating versions of documents in PDF, RTF and MS Word. The one HTML version would be suitable for all uses.

Raven nominated Canada as leading the way with accessibility.

Expected skill sets for roles are to be released soon. This would help me in teaching web accessibility to public servants at ANU.

I was very impressed with Raven's practical approach to accessibility.

Funnelback then provided afternoon tea.

3: Gordon Grace then talked on "Making Better Use of On-line Data".

Gordon pointed out that data web sites are not that exciting and data.gov.au (which is not online yet) will be no exception. The idea is to provide access to "raw data" which can then be combined and processed. To me this is conceptually very similar (and uses many of the same technical standards) as data repositories for research. The USA's data.gov was launched May 2009, Australia's beta data.Australia.gov.au ina October 2009, UK's data.gov.uk relaunched May 2009. AGLS, AGIFT, DCAT, Dublin Core, hCard, vCard and X500 were some standards used for gov.au.

Gordon pointed out that budget papers are now being published under a creative commons licence, but the data tables are currently GIF images and so not usable as data.

Gordon mentioned that he would not be able to in in GOVDEX online discussions of data in the future as he had left the public service and so would not have a gov.au email address. I found this curious as I have previously taken part in GOVDEX discussions as an industry expert.

Gordon showed an interesting example of XHTML with RDFa embedded. This allows data fields (such as phone numbers) to be identified in web pages. This allows both human and machine readable web pages. He pointed out these could be particularly useful for smart phones, if standards were supported. One difficulty this will cause is that "hits" on web sites may be reduced as data can be extracted from the web site once and provided via an intermediary. Gordon suggested that academics working on citation statistics might have a solution for this, but judging by the session I attended at ANU yesterday on assessing research.

Gordon suggested that providing data would be one way for agencies to easily able to meet FOI requests.

4: Eileen Tannachion - Changes to the Australian Government Locator Service Metadata Standard

Eileen started by pointing out that AGLIS is now a Australian Standard AS 5044-2010 and so is not just for government use. The updated standard supports new Dublin Core features. Thesauri are AGIFT and TAGS.

AGRkMS is a subset of SPIRIT. AGLS has considerable compatibility with AGRkMS but is not a strict subset of it.

Recent changes to AGLS include: linked data, semantic web and 2008 DC abstract model. AGLS qualifiers are "aglsterms". Some XML examples and encodings were removed. Five additional DC terms were added and included in AGLS. Two new AGLS terms were added: dateLicenced and protectiveMarking. The document type vocabulary is now common with AGRkMS. AGLS.audience has been replaced ith DC.audience. DC.Coverage.postcode will be replaced with a geo-spatial term still being worked on. Some other vocabularies have been updated. Some properties are now "recommended".

Challenges with AGLS include implementing in HTML 4.01 (I wonder about HTML 5?). Also the issue Google is starting to collect some of the metadata (will Funnleback?).

Social media advice was issued September 2010. Web Archiving Policy was will be issued the end of October 2010. The new AGLS manual will be issued as an exposure draft in November 2010. This will be useful for my new "Electronic Document Management" course at the ANU.

Ruth Ellison ended by asking for help with future WSG events: organising, speakers, venues and sponsors.

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