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.