Interview with Matthew Somerville

Thank goodness for people like Matthew Somerville. He's the guy who's been knocking up decent, accessible versions of well known web sites like the National Rail Live Departure Boards service (, Odeon cinemas (, and the Hutton Inquiry (

I contacted Matthew to have a chat to him about the whole business, and used the interview as the basis for one of my weekly column pieces.

But, as often happens, there wasn't enough space to include everything Matthew said - and it all deserves to be read. So, for your interest and information, here's a (very slightly edited) transcript of our conversation.


ME: Tell me a bit about yourself.

MATTHEW SOMERVILLE: I'm from Manchester, aged 22, and have just finished a Masters in Mathematics at Trinity College, Oxford, in which I gained a first. I've been interested in web design and computing from an early age (well, web design since the web was more popular, BBC B when I was younger :) ). My Dracos website gives some scattered information about my interests, but hasn't been updated in quite a while.

ME: What was the reason for making your accessible versions of other people's web sites?

MS: Until last summer, I used an Acorn running RISC OS - a very minority system, whose web browsers are not the most capable in the world, so it often proved frustrating trying to use various websites that did not work. This meant that I wanted any website I created to be accessible to all, no matter what browser they were using.

The Live Departure Boards site came about during a discussion about the uselessness of the official site on a newsgroup to which I subscribe (there's a link from I thought there must be a way to present the information more accessibly, and used my knowledge I'd acquired of HTML and PHP to create such a site.

Similarly with the Odeon - I've always been really annoyed at its complete uselessness (I used to get a plain black screen in Oregano on my RISC OS computer, as it couldn't handle the JavaScript). Every so often, I or a friend would send them a complaint and be fobbed off with "we wrote it for IE, we know it doesn't work in some browsers, we wish to make it work better and are working on an upgrade (they've been saying that for two years!), etc." Then to my friend's last email complaint, along with the usual stuff, they added something along the lines that no 3rd party website could be as up-to-date or accurate as the official site. My friend replied, pointing out they're breaking the law, they've been promising an upgrade for ages, and telling them about my Live Departure Board site, saying someone could do the same for the Odeon... Then I finished my Finals (exams) and I had nothing much to do, so I thought why not?

ME: Why do you think accessibility on the web matters?

MS: It matters for a number of reasons:

* There's no good reason not to do it: One would hope a business, organisation, or whatever would want their website to be available to as many people as possible. Excluding part of your audience for no good reason (and I can think of no good reason) seems pretty silly to me (especially if you're a company trying to sell things online - being inaccessible will lose you customers). *Requiring* JavaScript (and by that I mean the web site is less usable or unusable without JavaScript - I have nothing against JavaScript per se) cuts out approximately 10% of your audience, either from people using browsers that don't have JavaScript (might be an old or less capable browser, might be a text-only browser with a braille conversion for a blind person), or people who have JavaScript switched off (some corporate situations switch JS off on a site-wide basis for security reasons - they will probably still be using IE6, and so the usual fob-off of "Upgrade your browser" is pointless and wrong). 10% might not sound like much (as another example, I think Macromedia say it's 4% for browsers that don't have Flash), but there are a *lot* of people on the internet.

* It's not just for disabled people: older people (or myself when I'm tired!) may want to browse with larger fonts, or someone on a slow connection may browse with images turned off. The growing market of PDAs and phones with web browsers included would all benefit from an accessible site, as opposed to one "designed for 1024x768 in IE or Netscape" - the sort of person with a handheld will not be the typical person thought of as needing an 'accessible' site at first glance. And a properly designed accessible site, by virtue of being accessible to all, will almost certainly be more usable as well (witness my Odeon site :) ).

* It is the law: The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 forbids a business to give a lesser service to a disabled person (and the Code of Practice includes accessible websites); the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 extends this to education. contains some information on that.

* Search engines: One reason which may convince otherwise unconvinced people would be that Google (and other search engines) is 'blind' to your design and any flash JavaScript you've used, it will only see your content - creating an accessible website will increase your standing in its eyes.

Basically, I think accessibility matters because it is in the spirit of the web, providing information to *all*, and there's no good reason not to do it.

ME: Perhaps more importantly, why don't professional web developers think about accessibility the way you obviously do?

MS: A number of web developers have come over from the world of print, where they have complete control over what appears on the paper, and find it hard (and/or don't bother) to understand that HTML is designed as a *mark-up* language; you mark-up the content (this is a heading, this is a paragraph, and so on), and suggest layout, but cannot guarantee how it will appear, no matter how many nested tables or spacer GIFs you use. Another set of web developers think it's "cool" to use the 'latest' technology, such as Flash or drop-down menus, and don't care about a 'minority' of users not using the latest Internet Explorer with all plug-ins installed, ignoring the fact that many users with such browsers still find their site slow and unfriendly. Yet more are using programs such as Dreamweaver to create their sites, which cannot and does not produce accessible code on its own. Mostly, I think it may be a mixture of ignorance and a we-only-cater-for-IE-and-Netscape attitude. :-/

ME: Have you had any response from Network Rail or Odeon yet? What kind?

MS: When the railway site first went up (back in December 2001), I had an email from a Dr Robin Rees at National Rail, asking me what I was doing. I haven't kept that email (well, I might have it, but on another computer), but I do have my reply.

[Matthew included his reply at this point; I've removed it, because I contacted National Rail's press people and they said, in short, that they are perfectly happy for Matthew to be doing what he's doing and don't mind in the least. They also promised that they would be making their own site more accessible in future. -- GT]

I haven't heard anything from Odeon as yet, although I have heard from the person who runs; (a site listing accessible showings of films at cinemas in the UK - e.g. subtitled, audio described) saying he had mentioned my site to Odeon at a recent access meeting, so they do know about it. :)

ME : What's next on the list?

Well, I really have to do the websites I'm being paid to do at some point... ;-) I have an idea at the moment for a site for (ex-)members of my college, a quasi-Friends Reunited thing but free and better, so that we can keep in touch as we disperse all over the place. As for accessibility conversions, it depends if I come across a site I would like to use, isn't too hard to 'convert', lots of people would benefit, and I have the time! :)

(8th September 2003)