Sunday, January 06, 2013

Victorian Country Fire Authority Website Problems Were Foreseeable and Preventable

Media reports indicate that the Victorian Country Fire Authority experienced problems recently with its website due to excess demand. I tested the home page of CFA website and found it failed a series of standard tests for web pages. None of these errors is in itself serious and are easily correctable, but collectively they would reduce the accessibility of the website. The presence of the errors indicates the CFA did not take sufficient care in the design of their website. In particular, the design of the web site has not been optimized for high levels of use. The failure of the CFA web site due to high demand was foreseeable and preventable.

A W3C Markup Validation Service test of the CFA home page failed, with 9 errors. The web page scored 14% our of a maximum 100% on the W3C mobileOK Checker test. The page had 1 critical, 1 severe, 3 medium and 5 low failures. This is much better than many websites which score 0% on the tests, but again such a critical page should score higher. The web page requires the download of 349 Kbytes of data (not including Javascript), which is excessive.

As an example of some ways to reduce the size of the webpage:
  1. The Map of Victoria showing CFA districts is should be stored as a monochrome image, this would reduce the file size from 70 to 7 Kbytes.
  2. The 247.9KBytes of style sheets is excessive and could be reduced to 20 Kbytes. The in-line styles should be removed to a down-loadable file. In addition the CSS which is retained should be checked to be syntactically valid.
  3. The 658 KBytes of Javascript is excessive and could be reduced. Much of this Javascript does not improve the operation of the web page and is just decoration, which is not a priority for an emergency web page.
The website failed an Accessibility Review (Guidelines: WCAG 2.0 (Level AA)) using AChecker. There were 3 Known Problems. Two were images with no text alternative. The third was the use of the old "i" tag, rather than "em" or "strong". These problems would make the website harder to read, particularly for people with a disability. The Australian Human Rights Commission provides guidance on "World Wide Web Access" and points out failure to do so may breech the Disability Discrimination Act.

It should be noted that the mobile version of the CFA website home page, had fewer problems than the desktop version. There were no errors detected in the  XHTML Basic 1.1 code by the W3C Validation Service. The  W3C mobileOK Checker scored the page 100%. The logos on the page are indexed PNG files, making them smaller than full color ones.  But this page is not perfect, with CSS and Javascript problems. Also the name of the organization ("Country Fire Authority") does not appear on the title or heading of the page. More than 10% of the charters on the page are extraneous. Problems with the caching information may be causing unnecessary copies of the data to be downloaded, making the overload problem worse. The page had one problem with an AChecker Accessibility Review (Guidelines: WCAG 2.0 (Level AA)): "Document has invalid language code". It is not clear why CFA has separate mobile and desktop versions of the website. Resources would be better spent on having one version suitable for both desktop and mobile users.

Such problems have been experienced by bushfire websites in the past. In 2003 I detailed some ways to reduce the problem, using the CSIRO Sentinel Fire Mapping System as an example and provided some Guidelines for Emergency Web Site Design. One of my ANU students prepared a report on Evaluating Emergency Management Websites and Assessment Criteria for Evaluating Emergency Management Websites. A seminar on the results was presented to an audience of emergency personnel. All of this information was available on-line (the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission contacted me and detailed problems with online distribution of bushfire information in their report). In 2009 I tested the CFA website, the Victorian CFA website failed a series of standard web tests.

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