Posted by: Rowan | February 20, 2008

Under the table, again

I had to write something about ‘the accessibility of HTML tables’ in plain English today, real life example sort of thing. So I’ll plonk it in here under GPL for anyone who ever gets asked to do the same. Ever.

Here’s a table on the Treasury web site showing New Zealand’s Statement of Borrowings at 30 June 2007. True to the spirit of armchair economists I’m not quite sure what any of it means, but Treasury do quite a good job on HTML tables so it was a good place to start.

Table from Treasury’s web site.

That cell that says ‘122’ is the US dollar component, in millions, of our total currency debt from some forecast, I think. It’s in a category called ‘Estimated actual’ which is the bit I don’t understand. What the hell IS that? I’m not 100% sure I understand the previous bit either, but I’m sort of getting the picture. Let’s carry on.

Looking across that line, it seems to me (massive disclaimer goes here) that we originally budgeted to have quite a lot of USD debt, then estimated that we were going to have sod-all (122), then as it turned out we actually ended up with a big number in brackets (did someone owe us?).

If I couldn’t have the visual layout I wouldn’t be getting any of that picture. I think I’d end up stuck inside a table cell that says ‘122’, trying to remember what the structure of this table was and what ‘122’ is about.

But the Treasury dudes must have ridden this trail before. Here’s what happens when you stick their table under this toolbar from Vision Australia. It shows you (if it’s well coded) the headers that have been associated with ‘122’ for people using tools like screen readers.

The same table, showing which header cells relate to a data cell.

And, in order of appearance, thank you Treasury – they are:

  1. Forecast
  2. Estimated actual (I still don’t get this bit)
  3. $m
  4. Foreign currency debt
  5. United States dollars

and I can make sense of that. If I read it backwards it says ‘the United States dollar component of our total foreign currency debt, in millions, from that bloody estimated actual thing, in some forecast’. Right! Now I’m getting the same picture.

I reckon I could argue that the ‘$m’ header could have been treated as a label and combined into a ‘Estimated actual ($m)’, but that’s getting pretty picky. And the Treasury dudes could plausibly argue the opposite; “Different columns may need different labels … haha!”. And they’d be right.

I vote the table-coding team at Treasury gets a budget increase :-)

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