Economics Network CHEER Virtual Edition

Volume 8, Issue 3, 1994

The Social Science Information Gateway

Nicky Ferguson and Debra Hiom
University of Bristol

1 Introduction

The Social Science Information Gateway (SOSIG) is an ESRC funded project to provide a centralised means of access to social science resources available over the Internet. A pilot World Wide Web server has been set up at the University of Bristol for this purpose. This paper looks at the background to the project, the status and intended developments of the gateway service.

2. Background to the Project

In 1992 the Economic and Social Research Council appointed a Networked Information Support Officer to examine the potential for the use of networked information amongst the UK social science research community and to encourage further development. There was a perception that the social science community were not benefiting from networked resources in the same way as their colleagues in the natural and physical sciences. The intention was that the person appointed should assess current network use amongst social scientists, advise, raise awareness and generate enthusiasm for the use and potential of networked information resources. Nicky Ferguson, who was appointed to the post, helped many disparate groups take the first step on to the networks. He set up mailing lists, sometimes families of discussion lists, wrote guides and documentation and held hands-on practical workshops at conferences and other events, reaching researchers, subject librarians and support staff. Although the workshops were successful there was often a gap between the experience of having fun for a few hours pottering around the Internet and incorporating these newly acquired skills in one's work. Once the mystique of using the networks had been dispelled, the path led from scepticism, through excitement to frustration.

Most academic researchers are unwilling or do not have the time to learn navigation from first principles with the equivalent of sextant and star charts. So it was decided to try to provide the social science research community with the equivalent of satellite navigation - an easy to sue way of finding your way around the world's networked resources. This raised many issues, some technical and some more universal; in particular the quality, currency, organisation and classification of the information. These are dealt with below.

On the technical side, it was decided to set up a "one-stop-shop" for UK social scientists - one computer which when called would then connect the user seamlessly to relavant resources regardless of their location. World Wide Web was chosen as the software tool to deliver this solution, for various reasons. It gives the kind of consistent, easy to use interface that was required. It is almost certainly the fastest growing NIR (Networked Information Retrieval) tool; it allows access to many other processes and protocols, such as gopher servers, ftp sites, telnet sessions and many more. It is developing very quickly and has a development base on both sides of the Atlantic, having been invented at CERN, the high energy physics site in Geneva and enthusiastically embraced at NCSA (the National Center for Supercomputer Applications) in Illinois. It also has the kind of graphics capabilities that excite social scientists - even if they haven't got round to using them yet! Users without access to a World Wide Web client such as MOSAIC can use SOSIG through a public Lynx client at the University of Bristol. This gives VT100 terminal access to the WWW, though without the graphics capabilities. Thus the Social Science Information Gateway (SOSIG) was born. An application for funding a two year pilot scheme was approved by the ESRC and Debra Hiom joined Nicky Ferguson to work on the project in January 1994.

3 Structure of SOSIG

There are over 400 links to social science resources on SOSIG at present. Before resources are added to the gateway they go through several processes.

(i) Collection
A variety of sources are scanned including:

The project also has a number of volunteer "LISTeners". These are generally subject specialists in the social sciences who advise and look out for useful resources to add to the gateway.

(ii) Recording
The resources are all catalogued using a standard template. This records meta-information such as the name of the resource, the URL (Uniform Resource Locator), resource type (e.g. electronic journal, mailing list, etc.), keywords and any pertinent login information. The template also contains a description that generally covers details such as the size, currency and scope of the resource. This description is provided on the gateway to help users make an evaluative judgement about a resource without having to connect to it. The templates are also provided as a searchable database on the gateway.

(iii) Classification
Each resource is assigned a classification number taken from the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC) scheme. The adoption of the classification scheme was undertaken in collaboration with BUBL and NISS, two national service providers who are also developing subject based access to resources. The classification scheme provides a controlled language for organising and indexing the resources on the gateway by subject category. Although the UDC underlies the organisation of the resources, a strict hierarchical scheme is not enforced; rather subject categories are treated pragmatically. Individual resources can also be cross-classified to allow for different interpretations of the subject base. The subject categories can be viewed alphabetically (the default) or according to the UDC.

(iv) Filtering
Whilst there are valuable resources to be found on the Internet, there is also a lot of low value material available. An important role for the project is to manage a qualitative selection policy by filtering out resources that are of little or no use to our users. There is an obvious element of subjectivity in this procedure; what one person finds valuable may be useless to another. However this does weed out material that is out of date, strictly local in context or refers to resources that are no longer available.

4 Future Developments

Some areas for the project to develop are: (i) Encouraging the provision of new resources of social science data and information over the networks. This would include the digitisation of existing data, helping to promote the creation of new resources and encouraging government and other copyright owners to make all or part of their data or texts freely available. (ii) Promote awareness and the use of SOSIG through training and support. (iii) Encourage the establishment of a closer relationship with information providers; for example by involving the information providers themselves in filling out templates for their own resources.

Figure 1 The initial screen display when you use Mosaic to connect to SOSIG

Access to SOSIG

SOSIG can be accessed through the URL:

Users without WWW clients (such as Mosaic) can access the server using the Lynx client at the University of Bristol. This will give you a text based interface to the server.

This will connect you to the University of Bristol's home page. From there use your arrow keys or tab down to departments (highlighted) and press . Move down to Social Sciences, press and then down to Social Science Information Gateway and again press .

We hope to provide a Lynx client on the SOSIG server in the future so that users can have direct VT100 access.

If you have any suggestions for resources to be covered by SOSIG, or any difficulties in gaining access to it, please contact us at the address shown below.

Endnote: (1) The Clearinghouse for Subject-Oriented Guides at the University of Michigan can be reached by gopher:// [Now at Web Editor]

Nicky Ferguson and Debra Hiom may be contacted at the following address: Centre for Computing in Economics, Department of Economics, University of Bristol, 8 Woodland Road, Bristol BS8 1TN. Tel 0272-288443; Fax 0272-288577. Internet or

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