Increase the Reach of Open Data

November 05, 2020 by Melissa Crowe

Increase the Reach of Open Data

Open data has the ability to empower communities, but just because data is "open," doesn't mean it's accessible to everyone. Gaps in the digital landscape may inhibit underrepresented populations from accessing and using open data.

The World Health Organization estimates 1 billion people, or 1 in 5, experience some form of disability. Government leaders can take specific steps to ensure their efforts to democratize data includes open data portals, public dashboards, and downloadable databases all designed with accessibility in mind. That means not only prioritizing accessibility, but intentionally reviewing our platform for compliance, and hearing directly from people with disabilities to identify gaps and support them.

Mathias Burton, director of Socrata user experience at Tyler Technologies, heads up an effort to help public leaders publish datasets with accessibility at the forefront using Socrata. Burton said the challenges come with immense opportunities. For example, open data portals should cover a range of accessibility concerns — supporting people who may be blind, have mobility issues, or other needs. But, in working through these nuances, government leaders can meaningfully ensure their data is open to all.

“As representatives of technology in government, we go out of our way to make government’s information more transparent and clearer,” Burton said. “Part of what I try to do, besides just advocating for accessibility, is to teach people how to think about accessibility issues.

Websites should be coded to work with assistive technologies, such as screen readers. There are legal standards regarding alternative text, color contrast, and keyboard-only controls. While this can be a complex undertaking, platforms such as Socrata Connected Government Cloud are proactive in design to address accessibility throughout the product development process.

“We can invite a whole group of people to be involved in data who haven’t had a chance to,” Burton said. “It’s an opportunity for governments to spread their reach and their impact.”

Some specific steps outlined by WebAIM, a nonprofit focused on web accessibility solutions, include:

  • Providing text alternative for any non-text content, such as images, form image buttons, image map hot spots, etc.
  • Make it easier for users to see and hear content, including separating foreground from background. For example, color should not be used as the sole method of conveying content or distinguishing visual elements.
  • Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
  • Make text content readable and understandable. For example, include a definition list, glossary, or other suitable method.

“A big part of this is making complex things simpler,” Burton said. “By focusing on all types of users, we can make the whole process better so public leaders, data analysts, residents, and users with special needs can do complex things more easily, onboard more easily, and develop new visualizations or tools more easily.”

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