In this episode:
Mark and Derek interview Daniel Castro, VP of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Earlier this year ITIF published a report benchmarking federal and government sites on eight factors including accessibility, security, and mobile friendliness, among others. All three discuss the results of the study as well as reasons for the wide variabilities between the state ratings. The podcast concludes with Daniel’s broad recommendation to states for improving the accessibility of their websites.
Links of Interest
Speaker 1: Welcome to the IAP, the Interactive Accessibility Podcast, bringing you the people technology and ideas helping to make your world accessible to everyone.
Mark Miller: Hey, welcome to the IAP. I am your host, Mark Miller. I'm here with my co-host Derek and Marissa is our producer. Thank you for helping us keep it accessible and do us a favor, if you're enjoying the IAP, share it. Tell someone about it. Hey, even link to it from your accessible website.
Mark Miller: So, thanks for joining us today, we have a excellent guest, Daniel Castro, who is the VP of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, ITIF, which is probably a little easier to say than all that. Welcome, Daniel.
Daniel Castro: Thanks for having me on.
Mark Miller: Yeah, yeah, you're very welcome. So, I wanna get a little bit, I think the listeners you be interested to know a little bit about the ITIF. And I also was get into this recent report that you guys put out benchmarking the state government websites. I think that's some pretty interesting stuff that you guys came up with there.
Mark Miller: So, can you give us a brief background of what you do for the ITIF and what the ITIF is, real quick?
Daniel Castro: Sure. So, ITIF is a non-profit, non-partisan policy think tank. Now that probably doesn't mean a lot to most people because most people don't know what a think tank is. So, we work on public policy issues and in particular, I work on public policy issues related to technology and innovation. So, most think tanks, historically in DC, have always been tied to a particular ideology. You had your libertarian think tanks, your right-wing think tanks, your liberal think tanks, but ITIF was created to have a think tank that was really focused on just the value of innovation as a non-partisan issue and looking at ways that we can have policy support that. So, in this work, I look at everything from privacy and security issues to things like e-government, health IT and lots of emerging technologies like drones or Blockchain and these types of issues.
Mark Miller: So, that's super cool and I noticed that on your website, as I was digging doing a little bit of research on this, that the word accessibility pops up quite a bit, which obviously really kinda piques our interest over here, being an accessibility company. So, first of all, I think that that's great that there's this big focus on accessibility and that when you're thinking about technology as this think tank, that this is something that's obviously important to you guys.
Mark Miller: Can you talk to me a little bit about the accessibility initiatives and what it is that's important to you guys and what the ITIF has done in the past for the world of accessibility?
Daniel Castro: Yeah. So, we've done quite a bit of work in this space and I think there's maybe two categories of work that might fall under that. First, I think it's just very important that when we talk about innovation and the benefits of technology, that we're really talking about inclusive innovation. And that encompasses accessibility and I think that's what the disability community has been moving more and more towards. And as it works with more allies across different areas of society, I think this idea of inclusiveness is just a common theme.
Mark Miller: Yeah.
Daniel Castro: I think we see that now and how people are thinking about technology within industry and within policy. So part of this is looking at just as we see technological change, what does it mean to be inclusive? Whether we're talking about phys abilities, socio-economic status, race, whatever it is, how do we make sure that technology itself and the benefits of technology are inclusive?
Daniel Castro: The second par of that, the answer is very specific. I've done a lot of work on elections and voting. My background, originally, is in information security, but as I was starting to do a lot of work with the Election Assistance Commission, I got very interested in the question of how do we make sure that we have accessible elections. And so, about seven years ago, I lead a multi-research project looking at accessibility in elections. We did everything from a lot of user testing on ballot design to the actual voting equipment itself, to looking at all the other parts of the election process, whether or not there were changes and challenges in making them more accessible for different people. And what could be dome in that space.
Daniel Castro: And that was really interesting work that then set me on this path of doing more work in this space, particularly in some of the emerging technology areas like the Internet of things where there are big opportunities, I think, to finally make much more technology accessible to people in the way they want to use us. In the past, if you wanted to use a computer, the best way to interface for it was really a keyboard, and then it was a keyboard and a mouse.
Mark Miller: Right, right.
Daniel Castro: You had to meet the computer on its own terms. And what I think is really exciting as we move into this new world of the internet and things, is the idea of these smart devices is that now the technology is increasingly expected to meet users at their level. So if you want to speak to it, if you want to type at it, if you want to make gestures, now the technology is increasingly going to be working for the users in the way they want it, rather than having users conform to the technology.
Mark Miller: Right. You know, what I find really interesting is that you started off the explanation with the use of the word "inclusive", which I really appreciate because I think that people think of accessibility and they think of accommodating and they think of this separate area where we need to do things for people with disabilities. And really the effort is about including everyone.
Mark Miller: And when we look at accessibility and we look at that inclusiveness, often times, we're coming up with solutions that benefit everyone, so when you started talking about the Internet of things, or even the voter aspect of it, a lot of ... Internet of things, I just saw the new Facebook has the ... I can't remember what they call it, it's Facebook, it's like a portal, you know, you can do video calls on it and you can ask it questions and all that kind of stuff.
Mark Miller: And really, like Alexa, like Google Home and all these things it's using voice commands and voice commands was an assistive technology, it was out there to help people with disabilities. I think it really showed up in the Dragon product initially. Initially helpful to everybody but certainly something that somebody who had struggled with a keyboard would use for input. And as these technologies perfect, then we all find a place where it makes it easier for us. And just this idea that we're not doing it for a group of people necessarily, but we're doing it so we're including everyone. Whatever that means to all the different people.
Mark Miller: So, I really appreciate you use that language and I think that you're right on the money with the Internet of things. And for those of you out there who don't ... I think most people know what the Internet of things is, but that's your refrigerator being connected to the internet and giving you advantages that way or all the technology that we see in the cars now and technologies sort of leaving the computer and entering common and maybe uncommon things that we interact with every day. So, there's the Internet of things and that is the next area I think that we see for accessibility.
Mark Miller: The one thing that I wanted to make sure we got into today is that you guys have done some interesting research. You have a report that benchmarks the state government websites for the accessibility of the state government websites out there. Can you talk to us a little bit about what inspired that report and you guys looking into that and some of the maybe interesting things that were uncovered?
Daniel Castro: Sure. So about two years ago, we did a report, we set out to ask this question of what's the state of government websites. And we started with federal websites. And we started there because there's a lot of requirements around how federal websites have to be designed, how they should perform across things like accessibility but also security and whether they can load quickly, whether they're mobile friendly, there's a lot of design requirements out there. Some of those are in law, some of those have been propagated as guidance.
Daniel Castro: And part of the question was to say, I spent a lot of time looking at many of these really interesting emerging technologies like the Internet of things and asking how is government going to use them. But I'd like to go back and say, "Well, how is government using the old technology that's been out there already for 20 years?" We've been talking about using websites as the face of government for 20 years. How well are they performing to these guidelines and standards. And many cases have been out there for at least a decade.
Mark Miller: Yeah.
Daniel Castro: So we started looking at the federal websites and we did it twice and we found a lot of issues and problems. I'm happy to talk about that. But after we looked at the federal government, we said, "Well, let's do something similar looking at the states". And what's good about the states is you have 50 states, so you can compare them so you can get a real good sense of how they're doing and what kind of differences you see.
Mark Miller: Oh, yeah.
Daniel Castro: And so with the states, what we decided to do was we looked at eight key functional areas that we thought people typically are going to the state website to complete some task. A task like pay your taxes, renew your drivers license, get election information, register for a business, pay some kind of traffic fine or get a hunting or fishing license. As well as we looked at the primary state government websites, so like texas.gov.
Daniel Castro: And we went through each of these functional areas and we did a number of assessments, looking at page load speed, so how fast the website was, how fast it loaded, whether it was mobile friendly, whether it was accessible for people with disabilities according to the [inaudible 00:10:10] 2.0 standard and whether it met certain security features. Specifically, we looked at whether they had implemented SSL on these pages or whether they were encrypted and whether they used DNSSEC, which is a way of ensuring that the site that you typed into your web browser is actually the site that you're getting back, that there hasn't [inaudible 00:10:29] attack.
Daniel Castro: And so, we assessed basically 50 states times eight different functional areas. We looked at all these sites. We ranked them across these criteria and then we created an overall index and we really installed the data on this and then wrote up a report on our findings. And on accessibility, we found a lot of problems just across all states, across all areas, there was discrepancy between the states at the top and the states at the bottom. So the states that where near the top were Michigan, Georgia and California, New York and Missouri, for the top five. The bottom five, West Virginia, Louisiana, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Indiana. Just in terms of their average scores.
Daniel Castro: And it was kind of disheartening to see that but the takeaway is there are lots of opportunities for improvement and what we found with our report is we did hear from the states, a number of states that were interested in improving. And one of the things we did before we released the report was we talked to states that were doing really well, that performed well and we started asking them questions about "How have you been thinking about these types of issues? What have you done? Were you successful by accident? Was this intentional?"
Daniel Castro: And every state that we found was doing very well on accessibility had really put a lot of thought into that work they were doing there. A lot of them had partnered with a local institution. So, for example, a school for the blind, and they had local users who they were getting standard user feedback testing on, and they were talking to them, there was definitely a connection between the CIO's office or the web project management team and different communities and they were asking these questions about what's working, what's not working, how can we improve and they were getting beyond the standard and actually thinking about design for the user.
Derek Bove: Daniel, this is Derek. I think the data in this report is pretty fascinating, right? You said a few points. Number one, it seemed like 50% or around half of the states primary facing government sites had accessibility issues. And looking at the data, I'm curious to get your thoughts on, I think you alluded to it a little bit, but you've got states like my home state of Vermont, which is a much smaller state, they're at 16. And then you've got states like Florida, where I live now, much larger state, assuming maybe they have more budget, they're at 41. It doesn't seem like there's any correlation between potential budget, and this is speculative, and sizes, right?
Derek Bove: You've got states like California and New York in the top five, which is excellent. But the one that stuck out to me, interestingly is Pennsylvania. It seemed like they were towards the bottom in almost every one of those stats that I saw, so beyond support from local agencies or maybe state agencies. Is there any other tidbits or information you can share with us that maybe you'd heard from some of these states?
Daniel Castro: Yeah, no, that's a great question. Well, first of all, there is the question of making this an actual requirement. We weren't able to do a comprehensive review but there's definitely a huge difference between federal websites and states websites in terms of accessibility. Federal websites, for all their problems, they do a lot better on accessibility. Frankly, a lot of them are doing better than even the private sector because there's been law, there's been focus. Again, they have a lot of problems but just looking at some of the metrics, they are doing better.
Daniel Castro: On the state side, there isn't that same requirement on a state by state basis. And there's certainly not that same level of emphasis where everyone on the team knows that's requirement even if they're not fulfilling their requirement very well. They're just not thinking about it and so even getting states to just start testing and looking at the metrics and looking at opportunities for improvement, I think that makes a big difference because it allows ... one of the things types of problems you see is that sometimes you have a web development team in a particular state that is good, they know about these types of issues, they know a lot about user time impact but they're not necessarily empowered to make the final decisions about how their site looks.
Daniel Castro: They're getting a directive from the top that says, "We want more flashy graphics" and "Why don't you embed these other features?" And they don't really have the ability to push back. When there are laws that say your site must be accessible or secure or mobile friendly or whatever it is, then they actually obviously are more empowered to come back and say, "Well, it's not just that we know that this is bad user design, it's that there's actually also a lot that says you can't do this".
Derek Bove: Right.
Daniel Castro: So we can take what you're saying and adapt it to something that is accessible but ... so that's important too. So I think in a lot of states, the starting point has to be, are we actually making this a law? Is this a clear state requirement? And then how is it enforced? Do we have good accountability here? Do we have public metrics on this that are shared? So that states agencies that aren't following this, they're held accountable and that the public knows this.
Derek Bove: So do you see a lot of states that are starting to create laws? I know the state of California came out with AB 434 and I have to say, just following that a little bit, that a lot of the observations you just made, I would say are happening how California where people are now empowered to push back when requests are made that may not lend themselves to accessibility. And the focus on accessibility certainly has shifted for the different state agency websites. So there seems to be kind of a marked ... like, this occurred, and now we're focused on it. Do you see other states that are starting to head in that direction? Or is there a general tenure across the 50 states where they're starting to change their view on this?
Daniel Castro: There's not. Again, I guess I can't say conclusively since I haven't reviewed every state law in this area, but we did look to see what we could find in this space. We found some states that were doing it, Idaho also had some policies in this space, for example. But again, there just wasn't consistent laws across the board on this. And the secretary of state, the one that's going to be running the elections website, for example, and so any requirement that the governor's office might put out on state accessibility isn't going to apply to the elections websites.
Daniel Castro: And you have that type of issue crop up again and again in different states where the way the state is actually set up, the way that different agencies have independence, the way that they've just grown over time, they're not actually responding to certain laws or they're not held accountable because of the way they're set up. And so those organizational issues, they end up having a big impact on the way these websites ultimately function.
Derek Bove: I really think that this kind of research is important now and that just doing this type of report and coming up with these results and just developing this insight and understanding is probably what it's going to take to start making a shift.
Mark Miller: Well, we have run out of time. So this is Mark Miller, thanking Daniel Castro and thanking you all for listening and reminding you all to keep it accessible.
Speaker 1: The IAP, Interactive Accessibility Podcast, is brought to you by Interactive Accessibility, the accessibility experts. You can find their Access Matters Blog at interactiveaccessibility.com/blog.