Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

What is GO Transit hiding?

GO Transit is the commuter railroad in and around Toronto owned by the Government of Ontario (hence GO). GO Transit has a new set of candidate signage designs. They’ve been tested. But this government agency refuses to release any information on the signs, or the signs themselves. And the watchdog agency that looks out for the public’s right to government information has barely lifted a finger to investigate.


My response to the “representations” of GO Transit, CNIB, and HDI posted


I’ve already done paid work on signage legibility for GO Transit. With my business partner, we designed a set of candidate mockup signs and typeset them in five fonts plus the current Helvetica, all in positive and negative sharp and blurry versions. (The blur was meant to simulate some forms of visual impairment.) These 24 signs were tacked up on a wall and we were able to prove to skeptical engineers and managers that typefaces have performance characteristics and are not a question of making things look pretty or dainty.

In specific, we proved that some typefaces worked better (were more legible and readable) than Helvetica, and some worked worse. After GO refused to do anything with our research, we published it ourselves (PDF).

I have no contracts in place now with GO Transit and no conflicts of interest. In fact, that was the only business my partner and I could extract from GO, who were largely resistant to any factual discussion of signage, wayfinding, or typography.

The purpose of this page

This page above will document the process of unearthing the public documents involved in GO’s signage development. Not only is it in the public interest for the documents to be published, it is equally in the public interest for the process to be documented. I will publish any additions or corrections that anyone can demonstrate are substantiated or warranted. If my suppositions or facts here are incorrect, now is very much the time to prove it.

What I think is happening

GO hired an outside consultant to prove that Tiresias is the only possible typeface to be used on GO Transit signage. That assumption was held a priori by the consultant or by GO or both, and the stimuli, sign designs, and test results would be bent and reshaped to prove the hypothesis.

The consultant or its client is probably the shadowy HDI Joint Venture (Hatch Mott Macdonald, Delcan, IBI Group) that manages the parts of Union Station that GO Transit uses.

Instead of testing several candidate typefaces with different groups, one preordained typeface was tested with subjects recruited by the organization that seeks to completely dominate all forms of service provision to blind people in Canada. Such testing of a hand-picked minority group would be used as proof the system works for everybody.

The foregoing is merely my supposition. Release of these public documents could prove or disprove it.

GO called for test subjects

In February 2007, GO placed the following notice on its Web site (it’s gone now, of course):

Participants needed for CNIB/GO signage trial

CNIB Research in partnership with GO Transit needs your help! We invite you to take part in a trial that will help us to design accessible signage for people with vision loss. Participants must have some degree of vision loss and be able to identify directional signs and written information at a distance. The event takes place at the CNIB Centre in Toronto at 1929 Bayview Ave on Friday, March 2, Saturday, March 3 and Monday, March 5. You can choose which day you would like to attend.

At the session you will be asked to read different signs from a distance and choose which signs are the easiest to read. You will be here for about an hour and refreshments will be provided afterwards. There will also be an opportunity to learn more about CNIB’s vision support services [note the off-topic CNIB plug]. All participants will be provided with a $50 honorarium for their time. Funds for travel to CNIB may also be provided. You need not be a CNIB client to participate in the study.

I filed an information request

On 2007.03.12, I filed an information request with a GO Transit manager whose title, head of legal services, is rather ominous in the context of access to information.

I asked for:

  1. Drawings, illustrations, photographs, or mockups of candidate or final designs (whatever was current at the time of receipt of the request).
  2. Backgrounders, issue papers, and general research leading to the draft or final design of signage in question here.
  3. Documents concerning typeface choice, including research and testing, if any.
  4. Documents concerning test protocols, including testing of visually-impaired people and other people with disabilities. Results of those tests, if available.

In a letter dated 2007.04.02, the manager denied my request on specious grounds: “[T]he material/report(s) you are requesting are still in the developmental stage and not yet available for public release.” Of course they’re developmental – I want to see them before they’re released, i.e., before it’s too late.

The manager listed four reasons: Depriving the employee of priority of publication, plans for management of personnel that haven’t been made public, premature disclosure “of a pending policy decision or undue financial benefit or loss to a person,” and information about tests used for an educational purpose if disclosure would prejudice the results.

I filed an appeal

I filed an appeal with the Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) in which I demolished the manager’s reasons.

I made a concession: “One option I am willing to propose is visiting the appropriate GO office to view the sign samples directly if and only if I can photograph them at will.” I later found out a report had been written, and I later asked for that, too.

The watchdog stonewalled me

The investigator at IPC assigned to my case did nothing whatsoever about it for months until I E-mailed her, at which point she snail-mailed me a letter stating that she would only do business on the telephone – and, incidentally, she was going away on vacation for two weeks just the next day. I viewed this as a contemptuous and bureaucratic response that indicated the investigator had no intention of lifting a finger on my appeal.

I had warned IPC up front that I work via E-mail and letter only. The legislation does not require the use of the phone, and the investigator never bothered to contact me by any method. Nor did she suggest a face-to-face meeting.

I complained to the IPC, and have been told that the investigator will be instructed to work only in writing.

Timeline of the appeal process

I will keep this section updated with results of my appeal.

  1. On 2007.08.13, the investigator deigned to send me an E-mail with a pointless Microsoft Word attachment that revealed she had been discussing my case with GO Transit before she went on vacation, a fact she previously failed to reveal.

    This is to advise that before I went on vacation, I had discussed your appeal at length with... GO Transit’s [access-to-information] Coordinator [not the same person who denied my initial request]. I discussed the possible application of the mandatory exemption under section 17 of the Act which must be raised to address the interests of affected parties. As a result, GO Transit will issue a supplemental decision respecting access.

    And I’m sure I’ll have to wait another month for that one.

    I also discussed the exemptions cited to deny access to the record at issue. I asked if GO Transit would reconsider its reliance on the exemptions.

    The investigator should have informed GO Transit that their claimed exemptions were nonsense. Instead, she is siding with GO Transit by politely asking GO to “reconsider.” GO Transit can and likely will stick to its guns.

    [Y]ou advised this office that GO Transit has a final report and that you wish to obtain access to the final report. GO Transit has advised that the report is still in draft form and it may be some time before it becomes final.

    I specifically asked for draft documents. How else will the public know what was considered and rejected, or concealed, without access to draft and final documents?

All this over signage?

Yes, GO Transit are acting like rat bastards by keeping signage designs and test and final reports secret even though they are public records. IPC, the information watchdog, is barely doing anything.

This seems like a lot of effort to conceal the apparent fact that GO Transit and/or HDI and/or a consultant set out to prove an a priori assumption about which fonts work for transit signage. Maybe they’re secretly afraid of being totally wrong. Maybe they’re afraid of looking like fools for barging on ahead with an assumption that Tiresias works just fine. That’s the sort of assumption that led to wall-to-wall usage of Helvetica, which we proved does not work just fine. Surely history could not be repeating itself.

Updated 2007.12.15 16:02

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