Making cloud computing accessible

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Thursday, 31 July 2014 11:04am

With cloud computing becoming increasingly central to daily life, cloud providers have been urged to consider the access requirements of consumers with disabilities.

According to Media Access Australia’s resident web accessibility expert, Dr Scott Hollier, cloud—the process of delivering computing resources, data, services and media over an internet connection rather than directly from a personal computer or a mobile device—now enables everything from internet banking and shopping, to purchasing insurance and superannuation, to paying bills, taxes and registering cars.

However, while businesses still had a choice of whether to adopt cloud services or not, consumers often had little choice, he said.

“Consumers often don’t have a choice when using cloud because the mobile devices they use don’t have a lot of storage on them, and are often already synchronised with services in the cloud—that’s particularly the case for people using smartphones.

“Consumers, basically, have to use the cloud on their respective devices so the questions of how accessible these services are, and whether there are any benefits for people with disabilities, become important ones.”

Dr. Hollier said the findings of a forthcoming research paper on the issue of cloud accessibility, produced by Media Access Australia and sponsor, the Australian Web Industry Association (AWIA), identified issues around cloud service accessibility. The paper will be the topic of a presentation at this year’s Perth Web Accessibility Camp on cloud accessibility.

“When you look at the major device operating systems —Windows, iOS and Android — they are reasonably accessible and have some good features. That’s also the case for a lot of the apps running on these devices,” he said.

“But when you look at some of the online portals for storing and editing files—services like Microsoft’s OneDrive, Google’s Drive, and Dropbox—there start to be some problems. In the case of Microsoft and Google, these issues could be fixed relatively easily, but Dropbox’s interface is very inaccessible.

“In fairness to those three, Apple doesn’t have a web portal to get your data, so you are limited to the Apple ecosystem or the downloadable software to get access to it.”

At the same time, there were also benefits for consumers with disabilities through cloud services, Dr Hollier said.

“The advantages are that if you can access your files through a web browser, then that gives you much more flexibility and accessibility,” he said. “If you run into a problem with an app, for example, then there is probably a browser-based version that is cross-platform and can help you.”

One possible solution to cloud accessibility issues was the widespread adoption of an initiative called the Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure (GPII), Dr Hollier said. The initiative seeks to allow every user to create and use a set of accessibility features for any device, anywhere and anytime the internet, cloud applications or other online services are accessed.

“In an ideal world, we could end up with a situation where anyone with a disability could use a device and their cloud preferences are loaded in real time,” he said.

“But in order for that to happen, government and industry in particular need to focus on global web accessibility standards, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) 2.0 and WCAG2 ICT. Using those in the development of cloud services will create a really solid platform for helping people with disabilities get access to the cloud.

“In addition, it’s also really important that Australia increase its access to high-speed broadband. We’re 56th in the world for broadband speeds, so we’re quite slow by international standards. It’s very hard to have your accessibility requirements downloaded and set up in real time if you have slow broadband.”

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