Fixing the Web with the help of the open source community

This guest post was written by Dr Gail Bradbrook, who works for Citizens Online, a charity that promotes digital inclusion.

Fix the Web is, in the jargon of the day, a crowd-sourcing project with the aim of changing the face of web accessibility. It is led by Citizens Online, the national charity I work for. A couple of years ago, we did some work with the EC on their strategy for digital inclusion (the use of technology by disadvantaged people).

At a European level, the progress on ensuring that all disabled people have a good internet experience was shockingly bad. EU countries signed up to a Riga target in 2006, which said that by 2010 all public sector websites should be accessible. I don’t think they have (dared!) measure it this year. In 2007 it had improved by only 2%, so they are moving their target to 2015.

We are probably at about 40% in the UK, according to Socitm research, but of course that is just the public sector. The private sector is not as ‘good’ and there is clearly still a long way to go. Using the latest (2008) WCAG2.0 standards (the basis of the recently launched BS8878) would seriously diminish (to nearly zero!) the number of accessible sites. What struck me was that the attempts to rectify this situation were very top-down, useful, but nonetheless limited attempts to draw up standards and promote them, build business cases, etc.

I asked myself where the voice of the average disabled person was in this and what role social media and ‘good geekery’ could play? (I’m a self-confessed ‘Geek Groupie’ at Stroud’s Barcamp!). Fix the Web was born out of those considerations and discussions with stakeholders. We got some funding from the Nominet Trust to take it forwards. I was always certain that the open source community would be central to the success of the project (though I had to stop referring to you good folks as ‘hactivists’ because people thought I was proposing something illegal!).

The simple idea is that we want to make reporting inaccessible websites as easy as possible for disabled people. They can highlight any problems they are having in less than 60 seconds, then quickly move on, without the burden of finding the right person to contact, and then constructing a considered email or filling out a form (which may finish with an inaccessible CAPTCHA!).

People can choose from a few options when reporting a problem: using a form on the site (, via twitter (#fixtheweb #fail, url and the problem) or by emailing However, my ‘dream’ was a clickable toolbar that would capture the website details and provide the easiest option. Steve Lee from Full Measure brokered an introduction – as part of his OSS Watch support activities provided to ATBar – to the folks at Southampton University who are developing the ATbar (formerly funded by TechDis). The development team of Sebastian Skuse, Dr Mike Wald and E A Draffan from the Learning Societies Lab at Southampton, have collaborated with Fix the Web to create a special Fix the Web button on the toolbar, not only making the reporting process as fast as possible, but also opening up the project to the 2 million current users of the toolbar.

The idea of the toolbar has also been supported by JISC-funded OSS Watch, which provides advice on the use, development and licensing of open source software. The team aims to build a community around the project and take it forward through its recently awarded JISC REALISE project. Over the last five months, there have been over 1.8 million ‘toolbar hits’ on the ATBar.

The underlying ethos of Fix the Web is about raising awareness across the spectrum of understanding on this issue. So those who are clueless will get to hear about it, those who forget to consider it will find it further forwards in their thinking, those who know something will learn more, etc. And it is about empathising with people and the barriers they face, whether in knowledge or power or current budgets, and working with them, rather than naming and shaming.

It would be great to get more open source folks involved in the project. You don’t need to be an expert in web accessibility to join in, but you may improve your knowledge by doing so. Volunteering takes place online, in your own time. This is very much about a lot of people doing a little and over time collectively helping to Fix the Web we all love.