High Stakes for Standards

Opinion: FEMA's IE-only form shows just how important Web standards can be.

I know Im a big nag when it comes to standards support. I often rail against vendors that dont adhere to standards or Web site developers who build sites that work on only one browser. As far as Im concerned, standards rule.

But a surprising number of people respond to my missives against noncompliance with a "Who cares?" attitude. If Web developers want to build sites that work only with Internet Explorer, so what? If people dont want to use Internet Explorer or are using a non-Windows operating system, they dont have to do business with that Web site. I mean, come on, its not like its some kind of life-or-death emergency.

But what if it is a life-or-death emergency?

What if some family has lost everything to a horrible disaster—say, Hurricane Katrina? And what if that family needs to ask for aid from a government entity—say, the Federal Emergency Management Agency? And what if that family doesnt have access to a phone to call FEMA or has phone access but cant get through on the lines that the FEMA Web site refers to as "quite congested"?

If the phone is not an option—and its not for many of these displaced people—maybe that family in need of aid would be able to find Internet access somewhere, either at the home of a friend or at one of the kiosk systems that volunteer agencies have been providing for those affected by Katrina. And maybe that family would then find out that the FEMA Web site offers a form to apply for aid, which is great because using an Internet-based application is much quicker than waiting on the phone.

But the family members would not be able to use the form if the machine they were using to access the Internet was a Macintosh or a Linux-based system, or one that, for whatever reason, didnt have Internet Explorer 6 installed.

At the time I am writing this column, about two weeks after the hurricane hit, the FEMA form requires IE 6 or better to work. This means that a family sitting at a Linux-based kiosk that was donated to help people get online, contact loved ones and access needed online services is on its own when it comes to getting help from FEMA.

Hows that for an example of the consequences of not writing to standards? While FEMA has certainly made much bigger and devastating mistakes when it comes to the response to Hurricane Katrina, this certainly ranks among the more avoidable. And it may result in one more heartache for people who have already endured too much.

I looked at the online application on the FEMA Web site, and it is a very simple form—applicants are presented with standard fields asking for basic identifying information. There is nothing radical, dynamic or groundbreaking about this application.

There is certainly no reason it couldnt have been written to work in any Web browser. In my estimation, a competent Web developer could write an identical form application using standards-based methods in less than an hour, possibly less than 30 minutes.

Didnt anyone at FEMA stop to say, "Hey, you know we have to serve all the people, not just those on Windows. Maybe we should rewrite this application to work on more browsers?"

Did anyone even realize that this form may very well be a violation of Section 508, the accessibility law that applies to federal agencies?

I can think of only one reason that this application was written the way it was, and its the same reason that pretty much all IE-only Web sites and applications exist—out-and-out laziness. But this time, some developers laziness isnt inconveniencing someone trying to use a banking application or an online store. Its causing those in great need to potentially go without aid.

This has to change. When it comes to accessing much-needed public Web sites, laziness can no longer be the standard.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at jim_rapoza@ziffdavis.com.


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