My research at UofT has been focused on figuring out the best way to describe a map in order to attach a text description to interactive maps online and therefore satisfy an important accessibility requirement.

I chose this topic not just because I am interested in accessibility and think that it’s a worthwhile cause and will hopefully contribute to peoples lives in some way…but also because it is related to what I do at my full-time job at Environment Canada.  As a government agency, we are required to satisfy the WCAG checkpoints for everything we release online, as every single Canadian citizen is entitled to access the information.  My group is a major hub for web-mapping development at Environment Canada and groups like ours across the federal government were getting alot of questions concerning the accessibility of web-mapping applications.  Web-mapping accessibility was a great unknown and there were no standards that fit with online maps.

So we did what we could in order to create an accessible web-mapping template, and we’re still working on it.  The biggest and most difficult unknown, how to describe the map, was left to my research…as it was something too far out of scope for any project we were working on.  But in the meantime we finally have a dev link that can be accessed by the public.  We made this temporary site so that other government agencies could view and contribute to our accessible template, but I see no harm in sharing it with interested parties outside of the government realm, as any feedback from Canadian citizens is worthwhile in my opinion.  This template is meant to be general and not geared towards any specific government agency even though it is being hosted by us at EC, it is the result of many peoples work and contributions.  Please feel free to test out the WMAT and provide me with any questions/comments/feedback.  If you are not familiar with the project or accessibility in general it may not be obvious as to what has motivated the various design decisions.  One of my first tasks once I get back to work is to draw this up in order to help explain it all.   There is also an ever-expanding list of features and ideas for whenever we have the resources to implement them, we would be happy to add more.

When we first made this template we basically stripped out all features and made it as basic as possible in order to allow for device-independent navigation.  We had to create two different applications, one accessible and one fully-featured as the accessible one proved pretty unusable for a general audience that is used to the world of google/bing maps.  And we still hadn’t accounted for Javascript or the use of embedded data in the map, among many other things.  You can see one of our first iterations here which might make it easier to understand where we started.

Finally though, because we had a proper basic version to work with, we have been able to slowly add more features through progressive enhancement, which you can see through turning Javascript on and off.  It’s finally starting to be more usable to a general audience…although we still have a ways to go.

So why is this a big deal you ask?  Well, I’ve always hated the idea that we had an accessible version and a full-featured version.  Ideally I wanted a working version that could be used by all, and this is a step in that direction.  Also, it’s alot easier to convince developers and clients that they can satisfy accessibility without compromising the “wow factor” (sorry, that’s a terrible term we use at work all the time, but I’m drawing a blank and can’t think of a better one) of an application when you have something to show them.

Hmm, I always mean for these posts to be short and sweet…but I really like to talk/write/chat/communicate…especially about accessibility 😉