Information access for all

Innovative federal program managers have moved more than 100 million pages

of information onto the Internet during the past five years. Despite these

valiant efforts, information is still unnecessarily hard to find and use.

Why? Roughly 20,000 federal World Wide Web sites were constructed around

project, program and organizational stovepipes. They were built to serve

narrow communities without regard to the ease of search and retrieval.

To make matters worse, only 20 percent of the pages have proper meta

tag information — akin to an e-mail subject line — which is required by

many search engines to locate desired links.

The challenges faced by millions of Americans with vision or hearing

disabilities are even greater, according to a recent Justice Department

report. Vision-impaired individuals often rely on screen readers to describe

what is displayed. If graphics lack textual descriptors or if information

is presented by color only, the screen readers are ineffective. Audio clips,

likewise, require closed captioning for people with hearing impairments.

As for content, Web sites too often contain information of little value

to users. This is typically the result of inattention by the site owner

to maintaining the content or a lack of appreciation for what users may

want. If a site owner cannot find the necessary resources to maintain the

content, then the site is too big and should be consolidated or scaled back.

Stale, outdated and irrelevant content casts a shadow on the value of the

entire site.

These issues are not difficult to address. They simply require time

and dedication. Faced with complying with Section 508 of the Workforce Investment

Act, which requires that we make Web sites and office equipment accessible

to disabled people, we have an excellent opportunity to dramatically improve

all of these areas. When one considers the current emphasis on electronic

government and seamless citizen access to information, the timing couldn't

be better.

So what should we do?

n Log on to the Section 508 home page (www.section508. gov) and become

familiar with the accessibility requirements for all federal Web sites.

Guidelines and useful tools for testing accessibility can be downloaded

from the site.

n Update inventories of all Web sites and develop a plan for bringing

them into full compliance with Section 508 requirements.

n Use this opportunity to consolidate sites and to purge outdated content,

dead links and Web pages that just require too much attention to keep current.

In true Internet fashion, rely on links to others' sites instead.

n Place meaningful descriptor information in the meta tags for every

single page. This will make finding information much easier for citizens,

stakeholders and fellow feds.

Performing this housekeeping will ensure that all Americans can access

the information agencies produce and publish with tax dollars. It also will

reduce the number of pages to be maintained. Most importantly, though, it

will prepare the foundation for building a seamless information portal that

can become the enabler of electronic government.

—Piatt is the chief information officer at the General Services Administration.

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