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Adobe Opens up Washington

The Obama administration has made transparency and public access to government information a high priority. Adobe is attempting to capitalize on initiatives to make government information more accessible while promoting its technologies, such as Flash and PDF, as cornerstones for implementing open access. However, these technologies are actually an impediment to making information truly accessible.

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Adobe has set up its “Adobe Opens Up” website to promote the use of Adobe technologies to achieve the goal of “opening up Washington,” as well as highlighting ways in which federal, state, and local governments have implemented these technologies. While we agree that making information available in common formats, like PDF, is one helpful piece of this puzzle, we can’t help but notice how the entire site—designed in Flash—is practically inaccessible.

After just a cursory browsing, here are some of the usability and data accessibility issues we observed. You can’t select, copy, or paste any text. Your browser’s font override features won’t work, so you can’t adjust the font or its size to be more readable. Your browser’s built-in in-page search won’t work, and you can’t use the keyboard to scroll through the text. You can’t parse or scrape the data in any way; the design is fixed-width, so it’s not going to work well on different screen sizes; and browser plugins, like Greasemonkey, can’t adjust anything. Basically when it comes to text at all, if you don’t like the style or are visually impaired, you’re screwed.

Wrapping all publicly accessible information in proprietary formats is neither a good nor complete solution. Providing documents in PDF form, or augmenting a website with additional Flash content is certainly useful. However, the goal of open government would be better served using open standards, like HTML, XML, JSON, ODF, and other formats that are both accessible and machine-readable. Doing so ensures that public information truly remains usable by the public.