GIS files elude efforts to meet 508 standards

Amy Berger, a blind USGS 508 coordinator, says screen readers can help users read simple maps, but complex GIS images still pose technical problems.

Henrik G. DeGyor

EPA's Debra Villari says her agency's sites are compliant for everything but GIS files.

David Spence

Systems might seem accessible, but on closer inspection they aren't, USGS' Amy Berger says.

Henrik G. DeGyor

Feds seek ways to make complex graphical files accessible to all online

The will is there, but the way hasn't been found yet to make digital maps accessible to visually impaired federal workers.

'Specifically for maps, the technology just isn't there,' said Amy Berger, the Geological Survey's Section 508 coordinator.

Agencies and software vendors are finding it difficult to bring geographic information systems into compliance with Section 508 of the 1998 Rehabilitation Act Amendments, which requires agencies to make their systems and Web sites accessible to disabled users.

'Let's face it, I'm blind,' Berger said. 'If I go to a Web site, there is not much there that is going to let me see a map.'

But many federal agencies are looking for a fix.

One approach is to make the data tables behind a map accessible via a screen reader, Berger said. The data is tapped when a user moves a mouse over a tag on a Web site; the tagged image is described aloud by the screen reader.

'Section 508 doesn't mean don't include graphics, it means label them,' Berger said.

A thousand words

But data tables with large amounts of information take a long time to read, making them less accessible to visually impaired users. 'I don't want to spend all day looking through the information,' Berger said.

In those cases, agencies find that they must provide access via e-mail or telephone to a help desk staffed by workers who can describe the information on a map, said Doug Wakefield, an accessibility specialist with the independent federal Access Board.

Wakefield said in cases when a system generates a map to satisfy search criteria, the underlying descriptive data might not be available via tags.

'What an agency would have to do if somebody needed that information is to provide a telephone service. A person could call and ask for a description. It's the data you need, not the map,' Wakefield said.

The Environmental Protection Agency plans to start such a telephone support system for its Window to My Environment site, at

The site provides environmental information in graphical form to users, letting them overlay dozens of GIS layers.

'We are considered compliant with Section 508 except for the mapping database,' said Debra Villari, associate director for information access in EPA's Environmental Information Office. 'Navigating through the data panels [of the site] is Section-508-compliant.'

EPA will offer a service to let users send e-mail messages and receive telephone responses to their questions, Villari said.

'That will be active by the end of the year,' she said. 'Our approach is very similar to that of other organizations, of which the Geological Survey is a good example. No one seems to have a good solution yet.'

Villari said that if the demand for the telephone support becomes overwhelming, EPA would consider replacing the site's dynamic maps with static maps that would be 508-compliant.

Graphical nature

Ken Nakata, a Justice Department lawyer, said, 'Things that are inherently graphical, such as mapping software and computer automated design, pose some obvious difficulties because it is difficult to render the information displayed as text. Sometimes you can't get around that.'

Justice uses maps for purposes such as determining the racial composition of voting districts. 'We are confronting this problem also,' Nakata said.

To make systems comply with Section 508, programmers must understand the need for compliance at all levels of a system, from the operating system to applications and accessibility tools, Berger said.

Assuring end-to-end access is a peeling-the-onion process. Some systems at first view might seem accessible, 'but when you get underneath, they are not compliant,' Berger said. 'Some of the larger, more complex databases are not compliant. The tools are not there.'

But the Section 508 mandate has motivated vendors to produce increasingly more user-friendly software, Berger said.

Nakata agreed. 'Section 508 creates a marketplace for innovative technologies,' he said. 'If somebody could come up with a mapping product that is accessible, the agencies would have to buy their product instead of someone else's.'

Both Berger and Nakata said the PopChart software line from Corda Technologies Inc. of Linden, Utah, is a step in this direction. PopChart can translate graphical data into a comparison form accessible by screen readers. The software can interpret lines on graphs, but it has not been applied to maps.

'We have looked at the possibility of applying it to maps,' said Richard Lambert, marketing director for Corda. 'With great effort, we will be able to do that. The maps present some problems.'

One hurdle, he said, is the large amount of information in a GIS file.

'A chart or a graph has a limited amount of data,' Lambert said. 'But you can pack much more into a map.'

Todd Rogers, federal manager for GIS vendor ESRI of Redlands, Calif., added, 'There are issues with Section 508 and maps obviously because there are visual impairments and manual impairments. In many cases, when somebody who is blind is using a GIS, the federal agency will have a help desk so they can receive the information.'

Colorblindness also poses a challenge to users reading GIS maps, Rogers said. In the case of colorblind individuals, ESRI systems rely on the individual user's ability to see shades of gray.

'We are continuing research in this field,' Rogers said.


  • senior center (vuqarali/

    Bmore Responsive: Home-grown emergency response coordination

    Working with the local Code for America brigade, Baltimore’s Health Department built a new contact management system that saves hundreds of hours when checking in on senior care centers during emergencies.

  • man checking phone in the dark (Maridav/

    AI-based ‘listening’ helps VA monitor vets’ mental health

    To better monitor veterans’ mental health, especially during the pandemic, the Department of Veterans Affairs is relying on data and artificial intelligence-based analytics.

Stay Connected