Australian Census – online option needed for accessibility

It’s a story we’re all too familiar with. On Tuesday 9 August, millions of Australians logged onto the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Census website to embark on what was a truly ground-breaking event – the ability to fill out the Census form online for the very first time. Log-in codes were posted to households ahead of the big day, and the anticipation began to rise. Most Australians chose to complete the Census online and a naturally convenient time for many who opted to go online was in the evening.

Here’s what the spin doctors wanted. Logging onto the website was simple and completing it was a breeze. After it was submitted, the entire country praised the remarkably smooth process that would be seen as a pivotal example of how privacy and security concerns were well managed, with every Aussie so well briefed by an excellent flow of communication that we all knew exactly what to do.

Except that it didn’t turn out like that at all. Instead, the ABS was thrust into the middle of a nightmare that has become infamously known on Twitter as #CensusFail – arguably the single biggest government online debacle in Australian history.

My own story was fairly similar to that told by millions of Australians post-Census-disaster. To start with, there was very little information leading up to the Census, a point well made on the 17 August broadcast of the hit ABC TV show Gruen. As such, when we received a letter in our post box marked ‘To the Householder’, my wife went to throw it in the bin thinking it was yet another piece of junkmail, until we noticed that it looked a little more important than most of the printed material addressed that same way.

Fast forward to Census night itself. Like many people we waited until the end of a busy day to fire up the web browser and complete the form after dinner. Yet due to the two-hour time difference in Western Australia, the website had already collapsed by the time my wife and I tried and we spent a frustrating evening trying to get on to the Census home page. We gave up at around 10pm.

I’m not going to get into the debate on whether it was an actual Denial of Service attack or just a massive overload caused by millions of people trying to do their Census survey at the same time. But I think what everyone can agree on, from the Prime Minister down, is that the Census was a complete shambles and the ABS was woefully unprepared. With the media storm that followed, there have been quite a few calls for the online version of the Census to be scrapped. And some are even calling for the entire Census process to disappear completely given that most of the data is already collected by other government agencies.

From my perspective as a person with a disability, and looking at it from the point of this column, I’d strongly argue against the removal of the online version of the Census in the strongest possible terms – as the online option is big on accessibility.

Yes, I understand that the ABS is deeply embarrassed by the events of Tuesday 9 August. Yes, I get that it was very unfortunate timing that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull tweeted about how awesome it all was, 15 minutes before the Census website collapsed. And yes, the whole ‘was it an attack or not’ debate continues to damage the credibility of the ABS and cast shadows over the data that was collected before the website was pulled down.

However, from an accessibity perspective, there’s one really important point that moves far beyond the controversy and needs some attention – by moving the Census online, it was the first time that many people with disabilities could complete the Census survey without assistance. Furthermore… and this is the absolute shining light in the entire process… it was actually pretty accessible.

When I finally got to do the Census with my family it was surprisingly effective in terms of accessibility. I also asked the students currently completing the Professional Certificate in Web Accessibility (PCWA) course that I teach what they thought of it. All the students who responded indicated that it was largely accessible, aside from a few buttons located in odd places and other issues that didn’t specifically prevent the Census from being completed.

With options clearly presented, good alternative text, well-labelled form elements, and a largely intuitive interface, it seemed that (from an accessibility point of view at least) the ABS had ticked many of the important accessibility boxes.

Could it be that amongst all the dramas, there’s actually an ABS story to be celebrated here? In my view, the answer is yes, and it’s for this reason that I’m terrified that the online form will be scrapped in favour of reverting back to an inaccessible paper one again.

Remarkably, the biggest issue for people with disabilities in this year’s Census was not accessibility, but awareness. Given it’s clear that the ABS invested a fair bit of effort into ensuring that the Census could be completed using assistive technologies (AT) such as a screen reader, they would have been on to an absolute winner if they had decided to promote this information.

For the one in five Australians with some form of disability, knowing that there’s an online version that supports AT and can be completed without assistance, really is a milestone worth celebrating. Yet the clear ‘fail’ was that hardly anyone knew about it. And therefore many people with disabilities may have still resorted to finding someone who could help them complete it.

With this in mind, I’d like to put out a call to the ABS as they continue to investigate what went wrong. Please keep the online option. Furthermore, please let people with disabilities know about your good work in creating a reasonably WCAG 2.0-compliant process that, if they could get online, would have worked well for most people with disabilities on that fateful night.

As all the reasons for returning to paper are presented, it’s my hope that people remember that it was the preparation, not the use of technology, that ultimately failed us. If we return to paper copies without an online option, we’ll end up ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ as the saying goes. The fact is that paper copies may not crash, but millions of people may not be able to effectively contribute their information to our nation’s future.

So if you are an ABS staff member still waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat after reeling from the events of Tuesday 9 August, please know that at least someone out there thinks you did a good job. The key now is to make sure that in 2021 when the next Census rolls around, people with disabilities get the chance to appreciate it.

You can listen to a podcast discussion about the Census where Dr Scott Hollier talks to Media Access Australia’s Philip Jenkinson about the level of accessibility of the online Census option.

Note: The ABS states that paper census forms must be returned by 18 September 2016. Those filling in the survey online have until 23 September to do so. Fines apply if you don’t return it in time.