POWER USER

Cool tools keep a Web site humming and minimize user stress

John McCormick

It's great that the government encourages informative, fast-growing agency Web sites. The flip side is that it takes employees much more time to support them, refresh material, fix broken links and so on. Some software tools available online can be a big help.

For a quick check of your site's code validity and an in-depth verification that the links lead somewhere, start with Dr. Watson at watson.addy.com, an online test facility sponsored by Web hosting service Addy & Associates Inc. of Callahan, Fla.

Dr. Watson can verify regular links and image links, generate word counts, spell-check non-Hypertext Markup Language text, compute estimated download times, check search engine compatibility and discover site link popularity.

To use it, type in the uniform resource locator and select the options you want tested. For example, a test of www.gcn.com showed that about 2,200 Web pages link to it.

One extremely useful test gauges the download times for HTML code and for images. The results appear on a grid showing download times over a T1 connection or a poor dial-up link.

Skip the spell-check for non-HTML code, but the word count and average word length are useful information.

The fast details

Another test facility, Doctor HTML at www2.imagiware.com/RxHTML, produces an amazingly detailed report with a quick summary.

Turning documents into HTML pages is a webmaster's main job, but sometimes it's necessary to convert HTML into other formats. You'll find a number of conversion software links at www.w3.org/Tools/Filters.html sponsored by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. The site has screens full of converters for word processing files and old versions of Microsoft PowerPoint, as well as old formats such as TeX. Other tools will convert HTML code to Rich Text Format, Microsoft Word .doc, Adobe PostScript, plain text, .dbf database format and TeX.

These tools can save a vast amount of time and work whether you're turning documents into Web pages or gathering data from the Web.

Back when the Internet was text-based, it was a wonderful tool for disabled users. When it won general popularity, it also became primarily a Web resource. But few Web pages are truly accessible to those with multiple impairments who need universal information access the most.

Efforts are under way to make Web pages more accessible, but people without disabilities have a difficult time understanding the problems a Web page might pose to disabled users. How many people who aren't in wheelchairs understand the importance of curb cuts?

Several sites offer online help. The Employment Equity Positive Measures Program Directorate of the Canadian Public Service Commission, at www.psc-cfp.gc.ca/eepmp-pmpee/access/welcome1.htm, has devised several tests for evaluating a Web site's general accessibility.

Detailed sets of questions on the site show you how to score accessibility for users with visual, cognitive, motor skill, learning and other disabilities.

Site design flaws will pop out once you see the questions. For example, you score a zero if your various site pages have different layouts. To get a top score, they must exhibit consistent design.

A choice, please

Use of frames rates a zero, but offering an optional nonframe version gets a high score.

For other useful downloadable tools, check out the National Institute of Standards and Technology site, at zing.ncsl.nist.gov/webmet.

The World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative tool list at www.w3.org/WAI/ER/existingtools.html#Evaluation is extensive. You'll find links to repair, evaluate and filter tools for Web sites.

Section 508 of the the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments is driving the current scramble to make government Web sites accessible, but courts may take a dim view of agency claims that they don't have time to comply with 508 when they should have been working on better access ever since the act passed in 1990.

In 1993 I wrote a book about making offices accessible to the disabled, and GCN cosponsored it. Although Computers and the Americans with Disabilities Act: A Manager's Guide is nearly a decade old, much of the information is still current, mostly because there has been little progress in educating employers and placing the disabled in jobs.

For example, telecommuting would be perfect for many disabled users, but not even the employers with large Web presences seem to offer telecommuting jobs.

The least the government can do for disabled citizens is to make certain that, as more information moves from the file cabinet to the Web, they are not denied an opportunity to participate.

John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at poweruser@mail.usa.com.

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