So the last one before the break and we are here with Steven Elsden, who is one half of a dynamic duo. Unfortunately the other half has been waylaid for a very happy reason and Steven will fill you in, in a second.
So Steven's from Leonard Cheshire Disability, Marketing Manager, has been involved in web development for the last ten years with various charities, and he's going to give us a nice presentation/demonstration of a social networking portal, website, for disabled users that they have got in development at the moment. Thanks very much.
Thank you Robin.
I should say at the start, as Robin says, I was due to be presenting with Andrew Travers from Precedent, and Precedent are the technology company we've been working with on this project for about three years. Unfortunately, or fortunately for Andrew, sorry his partner went into labour yesterday, so he's otherwise occupied today. In fact, we were joking as this project's taken about three years, we were thinking of doing the Pixar-type of thing of having production babies on the website because several of us have had babies during the course of the project.
Anyway what I want to do really is to share with you how we've been developing what we're calling disability information portal, which as the title of the presentation suggests, is a social network insight for disabled people. We started this project around the tail-end of 2004 and I would argue that maybe Web 2.0 actually hadn't been conceived in the end of 2004. I'm sure people here will disagree with me about that. Certainly things like Facebook were in their infancy in those days. So we didn't really realise that we were at the forefront, if you like, of what Web 2.0 was doing, but we were trying to develop sites which would bring disabled people together.
If I can just take you through why Leonard Cheshire Disability were doing this - and let me just say a little bit about who Leonard Cheshire Disability are, for those of you who don't know us - we're a disability charity, as the name perhaps suggests. We've been working with disabled people in the UK for about 60 years, primarily providing direct support services for disabled people. Now a few years ago, we went through a strategic review, as a lot of charities do, which we called Realising Potential, which was about realising the potential of the organisation and trying to re-clarify what we wanted to do as a charity. And what we wanted to do was to globally changing society's attitudes to disability. And part of that project was really to say well what can we do to meet the unmet needs of disabled people? We were delivering direct support services to, we still are today, to about 20,000 disabled people.
Now depending on who you talk to, there are 11 million disabled people in the UK, so you can see 20,000 / 11 million, there's a huge gap. So we wanted projects that we could fund, that we could deliver for disabled people in the round and the portal is certainly one of those. So our vision for the disability information portal was really to provide a one-stop shop for information on disability. We not looking to replicate information that's already out there. As speakers have said this morning, there's a lot of information on the web for disabled people but it's all over the place, and if you get any focus group of disabled people together, they'll tell you well I don't know where to start to find that information.
The portal aims to bring all that information together and through it, to bring disabled people together. It's a site for anyone with an interest in disability, so while its primary audience is going to be disabled people, it's also there for people who have an interest in disability whether their family or friends are disabled people, they may be health professionals, carers, journalists, anybody who wants to know something about disability. It will be free at the point of access so it won't cost anything, there'll be no membership fees or subscription fees for the service. And importantly to me, it's fully interactive so we're not looking about just pushing information out on disability, we're looking about bringing information in.
So the site will grow as users add their own experiences, their own information to the site, and I'll talk more about that as we go on. And obviously, maybe as I'm here today, the site has to be and will be fully accessible and I want to explore a little bit about what that accessibility means.
Approaching the brief, now this is one of Andrew's slides so I'll do my best to cover it. But basically, what Precedent and ourselves wanted to do was to provide an open source solution to this project. Now the reasons for doing that is we want this site to be scaleable. We don't want to be locked into a particular piece of technology and then be waiting for ten years for Microsoft to bring in a new release and we can actually scale up the site. So we're looking at open source technology.
Now it did provide us with various difficulties. One in particular, I'll just briefly share with you, is one of the parts of the site is a local search engine on disability, accessible services in a local area. And we looked at the Google local API, which people might know is in beta phase at the moment. But we were concerned about how quickly it was going to pass out of beta into a full release and we had various challenges like that about, you know, we have great APIs out there but we felt we couldn't really tie the wagon of the portal to them because again, in the same way of not wanting to get locked into Microsoft, we don't want to get locked into Google sending people to Mars and deciding they're not going to develop the Google local.
Anyway we basically evaluated various available open source softwares, to look at how we could make the site interactive. And we looked at various things like MediaWiki, b2evolution, Serendipity, doing an audit of all of these available technologies to see which ones would be best for the site and for the people who are using the sites. And we looked at it in various different ways and we looked at it in terms of its advocacy, how well those different technologies would allow disabled people to add their own comments to information. How usable they were. Findability, how easy it was to search information if information had been fed in through these technologies. How it could be personalised to the site and obviously how accessible they were. And having gone through that process, the site that we are in development on at the moment in pilot phase is actually built in WordPress, so that's the underlying technology behind this Web 2.0 site.
So if I just look at a few of the accessibility things that we've been considering. And again, this is going to.... I suppose it's inevitable halfway through the afternoon just to be quite often reinforced in what people have said before me. But for us, it's really thinking beyond just visual impairment. Clearly, people with visual impairment are an important group to consider when you're developing any website but it's thinking far beyond that. We wanted to think about people with cognitive difficulties, learning difficulties, and think about how they would understand the information they're seeing on the site. And again, it's perhaps inevitable when you're working.... certainly when you're working with a technology company, lots of jargon is going to get thrown around and Web 2.0 obviously comes with its own set of jargon.
So we had lots of heated discussions about did we keep the word 'blog' on the site, did we keep better tags, what sort of phrases did we use. We tried to really strip it down as far as possible to use language that anybody could understand and I have to say 'blogs' has stayed in because we felt that blogs had passed into the main everyday parlance of people, so we felt it would be counterproductive to find our own phrase for blogs really. And that communication, that simplicity of expression, if you like, has to convey across the whole of the site.
Now a lot of the communications through the site are email communications, so all of the four email templates that we're developing all have that same simplicity of language. So it's not just thinking about the main site, it's thinking about all the other communication channels that come out of the site and go into the site as well. Balancing the creativity with control. Now I don't want to particularly do a huge plug for Leonard Cheshire Disability. We're a hothouse in this project, if you like. It's not a Leonard Cheshire Disability website, it's a website for disabled people that's powered by us and an initiative of us.
So the site design, we wanted it to reflect some of our branding but obviously users can change branding, change the colours, they can change the fonts. And I hear what other speakers have been saying about whether these sorts of controls are worth having these days. I think they're worth having for people who want to use them. People who don't want to use them don't need to use them, but I think it's about covering all those bases.
So there are various different options you've got in terms of how the information will display on the screen. In the same way that we thought about the language of the site, we also wanted to look at the iconography and this touches on the speaker earlier about people with learning difficulties. But not just for that, we wanted a clear iconography that could help people get round the site because there's a lot of different functionality on this portal, a lot of different bits of information. We didn't want people to get lost as they went through. So we developed simple iconography that could work without the use of colour and it's consistent across the site, so the iconography for information, which is this little book/magazine, whatever you want to say, appears at every place that we're talking about information, regardless of where you are in the site. So people can easily find their way round those different sections. And we also wanted to think about how do we use the best of the Web 2.0 to make it meaningful and accessible. And I just want to share with you a little bit about tag clouds because that was a particularly interesting challenge that we had.
Now tag clouds are, I think, one of the most interesting elements of Web 2.0 because clearly what you can deliver through these are dynamic navigation. So wtih user generated content, tag clouds are a way of breaking out of the old fixed navigation menu and helping users to actually drive the navigation themselves and drive the menus themselves. And this is very important for the portal because, as with a lot of social media sites, the user content is driving the development of the site.
So we have set an initial navigation, if you like, an initial menu structure for the site, but as users come on board and they want to talk about other things, they want information on other subjects that we may not have thought about initially, that would become just as valid menu structure as that that we've set at the beginning. And the tag clouds enable us to deliver those. But we did have some difficulties making tag clouds accessible because obviously normally with tag clouds, the most popular topic, the font size is bigger and clearly for people looking at that with a screen reader, they're not going to find that out. So we've actually now introduced having a number of topics or comments on that topic next to the size of the font. So if somebody's reading that on the screen reader can get the number so you can see it on the screen they're access 52, you can see there's 52 people talking about access at the moment on that section of the site.
So that was one way of trying to take what's a popular Web 2.0 concept but making it more usable for disabled people and indeed for anybody else who maybe isn't familiar with cloud tags and.... sorry tag clouds, and will just come to the site and think well what's that actually telling me? Okay that makes it a bit more obvious that 52 means that's a popular topic. We don't call it a tag cloud, we call it 'popular topics' because again, we want to keep the language simple through the site.
The other part of the site we've been developing is a rating system and a comments system. And I just wanted to share a little story about one of the partners we've been working with on the site, which is the Department of Work and Pensions and DirectGov. Now the comment was said earlier about people sharing their content of what happens once the users get hold of people's content. Now I had an interesting discussion with DirectGov, where I said well we want to share some of your benefit information on the site and users can comment on it. And they said but you mean that we could put up information about disability benefits and users could actually tell us that those benefits aren't good or the process is crap? And I said well yeah that's the whole point of the site. And they accepted that and they're still on board with us and they're still happy to share their content with us. So I thin it's quite good that the government are seeing that user interaction with content is not going to go away, it's something that they need to embrace and they need to face up to.
So the site basically uses quite simple ways to gather user comments. Users can also rate any story as well. You can see on the left of the screen here that you can rate from one star to five stars. And the all text across this, the alt text would say how many stars there are altogether, so again a person with a visual impairment can still see how many.... what star rating that's received. So there's different ways that we've been looking at the accessibility issues. I wanted to talk a little bit about we've engaged users in this project because I think it's important to say that accessibility, testing and user engagement isn't something that you just do and you think oh I've ticked the box for that, now I can go on with the rest of the project development. It's something you have to continually re-visit because with any technology projects, as in our projects, as I say, this one's stemmed at least three years, they tend to be quite long-term, they tend to evolve as you go forward, so you can't think oh well that focus group I had six months ago is still valid, it's actually the shape of the project has changed, so we have to continually go back and re-visit that.
So just quickly, just going through a few of the steps that we followed on this. We did some market testing initially to look at the concept of the disability information portal, analysing existing sites that were out there, what were they doing well, what were they not doing so well? And basically we decided that there were various sites that were doing certain things very well. BBC Ouch has been mentioned, I know there's various people here from the BBC and it's a very, very good site. Very good as you'd expect from the BBC for news and comment but perhaps not the best place you'd go if you were newly disabled or come into disability for the first time. It's not where you'd go to get to simple information, it's somewhere where you'd go once you're familiar with disability and you want to really engage and discuss it. So there were some very good sites out there but we felt that there was a gap in the market.
But we also talked to disabled people at that very early stage, that's before we did any development, to say right well what do you actually do on the web, what are the things that you would like to do on the web? If we had a portal, what would you do with it? We think the functionality could look this way, how would you engage with that? And what really came back from those focus groups is people wanted to really find out about accessible goods and services, particularly on a local level. So they wanted to know what can I do locally? If I want to go to the shops or I want to go to the cinema, what's local, what's available, what's accessible? And where there weren't accessible facilities for them, they wanted to know what can I do to change that, how can I campaign to change that? And they became two very, very important parts of the project. And as I say, that was at the very, very early concept development stage.
And we also then, as I say, tested the functionality requirements. It was quite funny actually that we had focus groups and we'd say to people well how much do you use the web? And some of the respondents would say well not very much at all, I just book a ticket.... sorry and again, we particularly had a lot of feedback about the way the site was presented. And I think this is a challenge for Web 2.0 sites is that obviously they do have fluid content. As I said earlier, it's very difficult to lock everything down to a fixed order and a fixed structure on the screen because obviously it needs to flex depending on what people are posting up to the site. And that's been a challenge for us all the way through development of the project to make sure that how it's conveyed is accessible and usable and understandable for all its audiences.
We then.... well where we are at the moment actually is in the pilot phase of the project. So we're doing further accessibility testing in a live environment. So basically we've made a pilot version of the site live, we're inviting people to sign up to join the pilot. We're doing that in a controlled way so we don't have thousands of people on the site in the early days so we can stress test it, if you like. And then we'll scale the site up over time. And because obviously it's a social networking site, with content generation, we want to get early users on there to add content to the site. So as we open it out to more and more people, people will come and find that there's lots of disabled people on there, there's lots of information on there that's being discussed and commented on. So I just wanted to touch on a few of the key learnings.
As I've said, the testing really has got a continuous process. And I think it's fair to say that I think some developers sometimes look at accessibility testing and are a bit frightened of it and think oh what's that going to actually turn up? But it can create lots of opportunities for you and I know one or two speakers have said that already. So it's not something to be afraid of, it's something to embrace and to actually see it as a creative challenge. But it does take time, so don't think oh I can test the accessibility of this in a week. Various things have extended the timescale of this project but the accessibility testing is certainly one of those things and I'm glad that we've provided the time to do that properly.
So don't think it's a quick fix. As I've said, design is very important and there's a fluidity of approach with the Web 2.0 site, so you can't actually think about a fixed design. And it's also thinking that design is much more about colours and photos. One of the decisions we made quite early on was to.... as I say, we've got icons on there. We originally had photos on the site. We decided to get rid of all those photos, we thought well what do they actually add? They look pretty but they don't actually add any content to that site. So thinking about design in a new way really. Simplicity, just about keeping things very, very straight, very, very simple. As I say, we did that in terms of the language that we used.
We also focused on the key needs for disabled people so we're not trying to do everything in one go, we're focusing on a few simple things, giving disabled people information, bringing them together, letting them share their own information, their own experiences with other users. One of the ideas we had at the early stage of the project was to enable people to actually have their own profiles on the site and then to chat in a live environment with each other. Facebook then really took off and we looked at it and thought we don't want to be a poor man's Facebook so we're not going to try and duplicate and replicate and keep up with what everybody else is doing in that sphere, we want to focus on what the people actually need from this site.
So keeping it simple is very important. And obviously accessibility. It's been essential throughout the process. It's really totally shaped the site as we've developed it and it does make a better site for everybody, it removes barriers for everybody. So the things like the language, keeping the language simple, that's going to work for people with a learning disability, it'll work for people who maybe - I'm going to be prejudiced here - are say over 60 and aren't that used to using Facebook or You Tube or Flickr or whatever it might be. So having a site that's usable for disabled people means having a site that's usable for everybody. What we're doing in the future, the next steps.
As I say, we're refining the pilot of the site at the moment, inviting more pilot users on board. And we have a public launch of the site planned for the autumn. At the risk of sounding a bit like a Luddite, I just wanted to say that one of the things that we're planning to do next year, once we've got the funding for it, is to add a help line service to the website. So basically for people who can't use the web or don't want to use the web or just find it confusing, there'll be a help line where they can ring and somebody will actually access the information on their behalf and put their information onto the site on their behalf. So it's accepting that the web isn't the be all and end all for everybody, there are other communication methods that you need to consider. That's it really.
If you'd like to have a look around the site, you can register for the pilot at that address, it's dip-online.org. And I'm happy to take any questions. If you've got very technical questions, I might need to take business cards and get Andrew from Precedent to give you any answers but I'll do my best. Thank you.
That was fantastic. That was really, really good. So we've got a few minutes for questions. The angel descends. Thanks.
Hi, Ashley Tucker from Herefordshire Council. Is the site aimed at individuals submitting the information or are you going to start targeting us councils and local councils and so on to submit our disability information automatically?
Both. What I've been doing at the moment is basically going to other content partners. So I mentioned Direct Gov earlier. Lots of disability charities have been giving me information and what I've been doing there is going to, for instance, the MS Society and saying if somebody comes to you for the first time, what are the frequently asked questions that you have? What are the top ten or top six frequently asked questions?
A summary of that information is then on the site but if people want to get more information on, for instance, MS, there'll be links through to the MS Society's website. So it's not like looking to duplicate it. So it starts with that as core information and then as users come on board, the information's coming from the individuals. It's an organic process. Is there another one?
Denis Costello from the Rare Diseases Organisation of Europe. Just a quick question about, I don't want to get too technical as you said, but what swung your choice in favour of using WordPress from amongst the other open source options that you had available to you?
Well as I mentioned earlier, it was having that.... if Andrew was here, he'd know exactly how to express it, but that maxtrix approach to evaluating the technology, so looking at how easily it was to make something accessible, I should have said earlier, obviously most of the technology we looked at weren't accessible out of the box. So one of the things was to look at how much development time needs to be taken to make those available technologies accessible. So that was one of the things, how well it could be personalised, that order of things. And WordPress has come out on top now.
I have to say that, as we've been building the site, WordPress doesn't necessarily have all the answers and developers at Precedent have had to do quite a lot of engineering around WordPress to make it work, and in a few areas part of me wishes that we hadn't gone the WordPress route. But overall for the project, it certainly seems to be the best approach.
Do you feed that back to the community, back to the WordPress community?
Back to the WordPress community? I don't personally but I'm sure the developers do. Yeah they're obviously active in that area and looking at what new versions of WordPress are coming out. There's been a new version of WordPress come out fairly recently so we've had to make some amendments to the site around that. One of the things that has been problematic with WordPress is the automatic email systems that are set up. So I don't know if everybody's familiar with WordPress but if you're setting up registering for a new blog, then there's automated processes you go through in terms of email exchanges.
Now I think.... I find that quite off putting myself and I think for a lot of disabled and non-disabled people, that's quite off putting. So we've had to do a lot of work to actually change those communications so that they're actually more user friendly. Robin Thanks very much. Was there a question down there?
Yeah my name's Colin Fowler. I'm a disabled person that's done a bit.... used the team for AbilityNet.
Right. Colin Obviously as a disabled person's organisation, it's imperative that you're not seen to be hypocritical and obviously accessibility could play a major part of what we're doing here. Now you mentioned about other content being made available by Direct Gov and perhaps by local charities or local authorities, etc.
Just coming back to what Jonathan mentioned earlier, how are you as an organisation going to moderate and ensure the accessibility of that content?
Well the content that partners are sharing with us is being pulled through into our own sites and, as I say, at the moment, that's not even through an RSS feed, that's through them sending the information, the information being fed into the WordPress system. So that information, we know through our.... from the way the site itself is accessible, will be accessible. There is an issue where, I wouldn't cite MS Society necessarily as an example but you get some of the information on our site and then there's a link to go to another site to get more detailed information.
Yes there is an issue about how accessible those other sites are going to be. And we did have discussions initially about well is part of this project about us making those other sites fully accessible as well and we decided that if we went that route, we'd never get this site off the ground. So yes there is going to be potentially a slightly weak link at the point that people leave our site and go to other sites.
But in terms of the information we're getting from other people and we're posting up through the portal, that will be fully accessible.
But surely that won't be acceptable though for disabled people because the whole issue here is around accessibility. You're putting yourself out there so aren't you building in policies and procedures to ensure that that content coming onto your site is accessible?
Well yes, as I say, and in terms of the technical way in which that information can be accessed by users, yes we are. If you mean accessible in terms of the nature of that content in terms of, for instance, the language of that content, that's something that we're looking for user responses on as well. User moderation of the content is going to be very important for us I will jump over a little bit but the way that users can rate information and comment on information, basically the higher rated piece of information on the site, the higher up the site it will appear.
So information that's coming through that users are thinking well that's not accessible or it's not actually relevant to our needs, that will get a lower rate and it will sink further down into the site. So we're trying to go for more organic moderation.
Clearly, if somebody puts something on there that's profane, we would intercede to do something about that but we don't want to be too heavy-handed in the moderation of the site.
Thank you very much. Any other questions?
Thanks. It's not so much a question, it's just an add-on to what has just been said. Because Citizens Advice was a partner that was.... well not a partner yet but I know we were involved right at the beginning of the project. And we're also looking at doing a similar sort of thing in terms of RSS feeds and getting other content.
And just with the last question that was asked, the way we've decided to approach it or hope to approach it is to encourage the other websites to actually make their content more accessible because they're actually the legal owners and they have the legal responsibility for it. And so what we're hoping to do is, if you like, put peer pressure on them and, of course, we've got to do the same with our own content. But that way, actually build up, if you like, a network because you're all content providers and actually enhance each other's services in that way.
So as I said, not a question, just a comment.
Right. I'd certainly endorse that approach.
Any other questions? I've got one, if there's not - am I jumping the gun? Is there any? You mentioned about the accessibility being increased for every user and we would totally subscribe to that view. Have you had any feedback? Obviously it's a network that's predominantly for the disabled community but they have friends, they have family that will use the site undoubtedly. Have you had any feedback from those groups?
From non-disabled groups?
Well we have had some feedback so far. Most of the feedback we've had so far is to do with the registration process rather than the actual content that's on the site. And the registration process, as I alluded to earlier, I think is problematic even for somebody who's completely non-disabled and fairly au fait with the website, actually it's quite clunky.
Partly the problem with the site at the moment is because it is a closed pilot, so you do have to go through an invitation process before you can then get your WordPress generated user invitation, if you see what I mean. So there's actually two or three stages to register and we've certainly had feedback that needs to be simplified and we're doing that at the moment.
Fantastic. Thank you very much indeed. Huge round of applause please.
That's brilliant. Thank you so much. Great.