Cancer institute site boosts accessibility

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is launching a new Web site with improved accessibility for people with visual impairments that will allow visitors to chart cancer mortality statistics nationwide using interactive maps.

Epidemiologists and other researchers can use the maps to determine which states have higher or lower cancer rates. The system will be available by Aug. 1, said Dan Grauman, a computer specialist at NCI's division of cancer control and population sciences.

To make the maps accessible to those with visual impairments, and thus compliant with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, NCI used software from CORDA Technologies Inc., based in Lindon, Utah. Corda's products, PopChart and OptiMap, mine databases for information and display it graphically.

"What we've done is taken [out] the maps that were up there until now, which were very good, very innovative maps, but not really accessible to people with visual disabilities," Grauman said. "We're replacing them with Corda's maps." NCI already uses Corda's charting software, which turns the data into pie charts, bar graphs or other representations.

Technological solutions that help government Web sites comply with Section 508 include software that can read text and convert it to speech, which requires all the key data to be available as text. Information contained in graphics, such as charts or maps, is difficult to make accessible.

Corda converts the data its software returns to a text document. So while a normally sighted person may see colors superimposed over a map to represent a particular cancer's prevalence, a visually impaired person would hear a text reader program reading the name of the state, the type of cancer and the number of deaths in a given time period.

The software is indicative of the progress companies have made in meeting the government's needs, said Terry Weaver, director of the Center for Information Technology Accommodations at the General Services Administration. The initial 508 compliance deadline was June 2001.

"Companies said early on that they were very supportive of Section 508, and [also] that they couldn't get there overnight. It's part of the product development cycle," she said. "We're two years into it and companies haven't lost their commitment to doing it. We're starting to see some of those features. Now we have to buy it."

Corda's technology has limitations, however, Grauman said. Although it conveys the information to people with visual impairments, they miss the benefits of seeing the information on a map.

"A geographer would tell you it's not really accessible because you don't know what's east of what, what's west of what," Grauman said. "But you do get more out of the current map than the map that was there, which was nothing."

NCI's database gets an annual update from the National Center for Health Statistics. The data only goes through 1994, but NCI plans to update it through 1999 soon.

Cancer mortality rates tell scientists little about current conditions in an area. They are "reflections of exposures 15 or 20 years ago," Grauman said. "Epidemiologists use it to see where there might have been exposures in the past. It's mostly people looking for patterns in the past."

NCI is also working on compiling data on cancer diagnoses, which will have much more relevance to the environmental and lifestyle factors that might affect cancer rates in an area.

Corda's product is replacing a full-scale geographic information system (GIS) that NCI was using before. The GIS offered more detailed data but also ran slower and demanded more bandwidth than Corda's OptiMap.

The displacement pleases David Vandagriff, Corda's vice president of sales and marketing.

"This is one we really like because we're replacing an existing GIS system," he said. "We had not done mapping before this most recent release. We're much faster and easier to implement. We cost much less to implement because you don't have a steep learning curve. All it takes is the level of a common Web developer."

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