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The Epidemiology of Web Accessibility: Improving internet health by identifying and tackling the root cause of web accessibility issues (Advert Reference: RDF22/EE/CIS/MONTAGUE)

   Faculty of Engineering and Environment

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  Assoc Prof Kyle Montague, Prof Shaun Lawson, Prof Tiago Guerreiro  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

The epidemic of inaccessible websites presents a major challenge to equitable information access and continues to threaten our visions of an inclusive digital society1. Strategic and transformational investment across public and private sectors has seen exponential growth in the digital economy and the adoption rate of digital service delivery, which has been further accelerated by recent impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet, despite decades of research, education, legislation, and policy reform globally, little progress has been made to ensure accessibility of websites. Longitudinal analysis of web accessibility improvements revealed that many changes could be attributed to external factors of influence (e.g., Search engine page ranking criteria, and support mobile layouts) (Richards et al. 2012) and more recent studies demonstrating that modern websites a continually failing at the most basic level of web accessibility (Barricelli et al. 2017). Moreover, 23-50% of accessibility barriers could be found and addressed by developers using automated tools (Vigo et al. 2013) – suggesting that our current approaches to improving the state of web accessibility are not fit for purpose. Today’s web accessibility strategies and tools are predicated on the believe that web accessibility issues are introduced through code created by the website developer, and therefore focus on that website’s code in isolation. However, as demonstrated in modern web securities research, vulnerabilities can be introduced via dependencies to external libraries and frameworks outside of their development control. Through the formation of the National Vulnerability Database2 for reporting security vulnerabilities and automated tools like Github’s Dependabot3 code monitoring bot, it has been possible to investigate these issues at the collective or populations scale to traceback the ‘infective’ security vulnerabilities. It is possible then to identify the source of the ‘infection’ and resolve the root causes of these security vulnerabilities through the shared dependencies and reused code. Study of Dependabot demonstrated that 65% of security pull-requests (vulnerability fixes) were merged and applied to projects often within one day (Alfadel et al. 2021).

This PhD seeks to explore an epidemiology inspired approach to web accessibility to accurately model internet health, then identify and eradicate the infectious threats to creating an inclusive digital society. Specifically, the work will perform a large-scale accessibility analysis (Ross et al. 2020) of popular public and private sector websites (and their dependencies) to form the basis of an Accessibility Vulnerability Database. The research will leverage co-design methods to work with modern web developers to design and deploy novel technologies to support the adoption of these epidemiology inspired approaches and improve overall internet health.

To provide a fully supportive environment and maximising the research impact, the candidate would be embedded with the Northumbria Social Computing (NorSC) research group. NorSC research members will support and inform the work along with the international supervision team. The PhD aligns to the Human and Digital MDRT and existing UKRI funded Centre for Digital Citizens project.




The principal supervisor for this project is Associate Professor Kyle Montague.

 Eligibility and How to Apply:

Please note eligibility requirement:

·      Academic excellence of the proposed student i.e. 2:1 (or equivalent GPA from non-UK universities [preference for 1st class honours]); or a Masters (preference for Merit or above); or APEL evidence of substantial practitioner achievement.

·      Appropriate IELTS score, if required.

·      Applicants cannot apply for this funding if currently engaged in Doctoral study at Northumbria or elsewhere or if they have previously been awarded a PhD.

For further details of how to apply, entry requirements and the application form, see 

Please note: Applications that do not include a research proposal of approximately 1,000 words (not a copy of the advert), or that do not include the advert reference (e.g. RDF22/…) will not be considered.

Deadline for applications: 18 February 2022

Start Date: 1 October 2022

Northumbria University takes pride in, and values, the quality and diversity of our staff and students. We welcome applications from all members of the community.

Funding Notes

Each studentship supports a full stipend, paid for three years at RCUK rates (for 2021/22 full-time study this is £15,609 per year) and full tuition fees. UK and international (including EU) candidates may apply.
Studentships are available for applicants who wish to study on a part-time basis over 5 years (0.6 FTE, stipend £9,365 per year and full tuition fees) in combination with work or personal responsibilities.
Please also read the full funding notes ( which include advice for international and part-time applicants.


M. Alfadel, D. E. Costa, E. Shihab and M. Mkhallalati, "On the Use of Dependabot Security Pull Requests," 2021 IEEE/ACM 18th International Conference on Mining Software Repositories (MSR), 2021, pp. 254-265, doi: 10.1109/MSR52588.2021.00037.
Barbara Rita Barricelli, Pierlauro Sciarelli, Stefano Valtolina, and Alessandro Rizzi. Web accessibility legislation in Italy: a survey 10 years after the Stanca Act. Universal Access in the Information Society 2017 17:1, 17(1):211–222, 2 2017.
John T. Richards, Kyle Montague, and Vicki L. Hanson. 2012. Web accessibility as a side effect. In Proceedings of the 14th international ACM SIGACCESS conference on Computers and accessibility (ASSETS '12). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 79–86. DOI:
Anne Spencer Ross, Xiaoyi Zhang, James Fogarty, and Jacob O. Wobbrock. 2020. An Epidemiology-inspired Large-scale Analysis of Android App Accessibility. ACM Trans. Access. Comput.13, 1, Article 4 (April 2020), 36 pages. DOI:
Markel Vigo, Justin Brown, and Vivienne Conway. Benchmarking web accessibility evaluation tools: Measuring the harm of sole reliance on automated tests. W4A 2013 - International Cross-Disciplinary Conference on Web Accessibility, 2013.
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