Economics Network CHEER Virtual Edition

Volume 9, Issue 2, 1995

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Canterbury Tales>

A Report on the Computing Sessions at the RES Conference at the University of Kent at Canterbury, March 1995

Prologue

There were four computing sessions at this year's Royal Economic Society conference, organised again by Chris Birchenhall. They were placed either side of the champagne launch of the WinEcon modules hosted by Blackwell publishers at lunchtime on the second day of the conference. In the morning we had two parallel sessions. Mike Emslie and Debra Hiom gave an illustrated presentation on the World-Wide Web and associated software. This was followed by a hands-on session. Elsewhere at the same time a session devoted to GAUSS was chaired by Ray O'Brien of Southampton University (I am grateful to Ray for providing the report on the GAUSS session which follows my description of the other three sessions). The first afternoon session gave an opportunity for a hands-on experience of some WinEcon modules. We then finished off the afternoon with a session covering National Data Services and illustrated talks from representatives from MIDAS (Manchester Information, Data and Associated Services) and the ESRC Data Archive at Essex.

Session 1 The World-Wide Web

This session was designed not only to introduce the World-Wide Web and the Netscape browser software to those economists who hadn't seen it before, but also to provide information, encouragement and help to anyone who who wants to go on and create their own Home Page.

Mike and Debra began with an illustrated talk called "Exploring the Networks" in which they gave a brief outline of the Web and Web jargon. A special introductory page for novices had been set up on the SOSIG machine at Bristol. You can still find it with the following URL:

http://sosig.esrc.bris.ac.uk/training/resnet.html

Debra talked about the SOSIG project which she has been working on with Nicky Ferguson. The idea is to provide a convenient one-stop gateway to the resources on the Internet for economists (and other social scientists) to ensure that they can reap the full benefits of what is to be found there. Nicky has characterised the typical stages of Internet use as (1) scepticism (machine phobia) (2) excitement (network philia) and (3) frustration (getting lost). The aim of the project is to enable academics to integrate Internet use into their everyday work. It was felt that this could be achieved by providing a customised tool which is intuitively easy to use and has already filtered out most of the material which will be useful to users from the great mass of information which is on the Internet.

Because WWW documents can be attached to one another with hypertext hotlinks, and can also access other Internet facilities such as gopher servers, ftp sites etc., it was quickly realised that the SOSIG project should use a Web Home Page as its electronic front end. Academics with access to a graphical Web browser such as Netscape or Mosaic could get the full benefit of the convenient and friendly front end, but those without a PC which can run Windows but with a JANET connection can at least telnet to Bristol and use the text only Web browser, Lynx.

Part of Debra's job is to sift through Internet resources looking for suitable material which she can then organise within the SOSIG system. To do this she scans newgroups and mail lists, scrutinises printed material, utilises network searching tools and consults with a panel of "listeners" - subject specialist Web users who alert her to anything interesting that they come across. Information on the SOSIG Home Page can be organised alphabetically or by a library classification scheme called UDC (Universal Decimal Classification).

Debra talked in some detail about the Uniform Resource Locator (or URL), the way of addressing documents on the Web. Using a number of examples she explained the meaning of each component of a URL and illustrated several points: (i) each URL consists of a protocol, the address of the server computer, ending with the (optional) document or directory name (ii) by beginning with an appropriate protocol you can access gopher, ftp and telnet as well as Web documents (iii) where the URL ends with a forward slash (/) you are taken to a directory rather than a particular document.

Debra then showed us SOSIG on-line using Netscape. There are now over 500 links to Internet resources of various kinds which you can get to from the SOSIG Home Page. The economics section of SOSIG has the URL

http://sosig.esrc.bris.ac.uk/Subjects/econ.html
[Now at http://www.sosig.ac.uk/roads/subject-listing/World-cat/econ.html]

We were also shown the CTICCE Home Page and some of the information available there, such as CHEER on-line, information about WinEcon, extracts from the Economic Journal software Review section, the CTI Economics software catalogue, Blackwell's index of economics journal articles and much more. Use the following URL to get to the CTICCE Home Page

http://savage.ecn.bris.ac.uk/cticce/Welcome.htm [Now Here]

Other points touched on in the talk included the HENSA caches at Lancaster and Kent which mirror some of the popular material from the US and elsewhere, and the need for special viewer software to work with Netscape or Mosaic to enable users to obtain the full multimedia benefits of the Web. (Such things as LView for looking at JPeg graphics files, MPEGPLAY for decoding mpeg video clips and Ghostview for reading Postscripts files).

Mike Emslie then took over to discuss the process of creating Web documents using the HyperText Markup Language (HTML). He explained how tags are used within an HTML a document to affect the way that it looks on the screen, to call up graphics images and to build in links to documents elsewhere on the Web. Various authoring tools were discussed, including an add-in template for Word for Windows and the freeware HTML Assistant (available from http://www.cfn.cs.dal.ca/). You can see a Web document's tags in Netscape if you select View and then Source.

Mike's recommended strategy for constructing an HTML document is to create the text and any graphics first with appropriate software (just any text editor for the text and ideally saving graphics in .gif format) and then apply the tags using HTML assistant. In order to help other users (or even yourself if you may need to edit or revise your source documents) you should make the files as readable as possible with plenty of spacing and blank lines to enhance the readability. All the blank space and line feeds are ignored by the browsers when the file is interpreted.

Session 2 GAUSS.

See the seperate paper by R.J. O'Brien

Session 3 WinEcon

The session began with a briefing on the progress made since Easter 1994 from the project's Director, Phil Hobbs. The software development programme was described as being rather like a swan (there was a lot of paddling going on below the surface). WinEcon was also compared with the Channnel Tunnel and Windows 95. Because of certain unanticipated technical problems and other delays because of new value added characteristic which were being built into the system the final delivery would be late. However work on the basic modules was complete so the launch was effectively in two stages: the launch of the modules themselves which had happened that lunchtime and the full launch which would take place at the CALECO 95 Conference in September.

The work that still had to be done involves completion of additional components such as the databanks of self-assessment test and exam questions, the glossary and reference features, together with the special interfaces both for students (so that they can customise certain aspects of WinEcon, for example by selecting their preferred "Professor graphic") and for lecturers so that they can select which modules are to be included for their setup and for other file management and tracking purposes. The revised delivery timetable was now as follows: (i) early access release of WinEcon to registered users in UK HE in June (ii) final systems build of WinEcon and CD-ROM pressing in August (iii) formal launch of WinEcon at the CALECO 95 conference in September. From mid to late August licences for WinEcon will be available to all users and the WinEcon Training and Implementation programme would commence.

Phil announced that the Consortium has agreed to offer Blackwell Publishers exclusive agency rights to market WinEcon. As a result WinEcon will be available through Blackwell to universities and colleges around the world from September 1995. A workbook is also to be published in September to accompany the WinEcon software. Called Interactive Economics, this would be publshed by Blackwell. It had also been agreed that WinEcon would include references to the new Lipsey and Chrystal text published by Oxford University Press as well as to the books by Parkin and King (Addison-Wesley) and Sloman (Harvester- Wheatsheaf).

Phil reported that over 150 user sites have signed up as Beta Evaluators of WinEcon. Registered Beta Evaluators have access to all the released modules via ftp from a machine at Bristol. They are free to use the software as widely as they wish, all we ask is that they feed back any comments to the Consortium, especially where they identify features that need to be changed.

The presentation continued with a contribution from Simon Price, the Senior Programmer on the project, who looked at the Lecturer Interface and Course Management System. Because of the way the software has been organised a ring binder metaphor is appropriate. A course tutor can use the Lecturer Interface to select the topics to be available at his or her site, if he wants to prepare a reduced version of the course, or one with a particular angle to it (say, Business Economics). It will also be possible to customise it in other ways; for example glossary entries can be added or edited. The software would also be able to undertake certain course management tasks such as logging users, defining which questions are to be used for assessment etc.. Simon showed what this would look like on the screen by showing us the preliminary versions of these tools.

Those present at the session also had a chance for a hands-on experience of WinEcon. The three introductory modules had been loaded onto the network at Kent; What is Economics?, Introduction to Supply and Demand and Intermediate Demand. The Kent system was rather slow, and there were some problems with true fonts (indications that there were still some wrinkles to be ironed out?) but this brief session gave those present a chance to get an impression of the look and feel of the software.

Session 4 National Data Services for Economists

The final session consisted of presentations from Simon Musgrave from the ESRC Data Archive at Essex and Keith Cole from MIDAS (the Manchester Information, Data and Associated Services).

Simon began with a brief description of the archive and its history. Established in 1967 and jointly funded by the ESRC, JISC, the funding councils and the University of Essex, the Archive is the largest British repository of accessible computer- readable data relating to contemporary and historical social and economic affairs. The Archive now holds over 7000 datasets; most relate to post-war Britain, but an increasing number of historical material is now being made available through the Archive. For example, the 1881 Census raw records are shortly to be made available.

Simon talked first about the acquisition of data. Any data generated as the result of an ESRC funded project has to be placed in the archive. The Archive also aims to include all important economic, social sciences and humanities cross-section, time series and panel data sets from academic, government and commercial sources. Important data holdings for economists include the CSO Time Series Databank, the Family Expenditure Survey, the General Household Survey, the Labour Force Survey and the New Earnings Survey. Exchange arrangements exist with a number of other archives; the Archive tries to complement other UK and foreign data centres.

The Archive sees its work consisting of preservation, documentation, promotion and dissemination activities. They attempt to remove software dependencies in data files and to work with data providers to produce suitable documentation. Promotion activities are undertaken through workshops and roadshows, a newsletter and other publications, and BIRON (Bibliographic Information Retrieval Online), the Archive's on-line catalogue.

You can access BIRON via the World-Wide Web using the URL http://dawww.essex.ac.uk/biron.htmlhttp://155.245.254.46/cgi-bin/biron]

Data is disseminated in a number of ways; on-line, via ftp, on disk, magnetic tape or CD-ROM. It is necessary for users first to complete an Application Form which gives details of their exact requirements and then to sign an Undertaking Form in which they agree to abide by the conditions of use for the data requested. Unless the data required comes from a source where royalty payments are chargeable for the use of the data users will need to pay only a small charge which covers the cost of supplying the materials. Developments underway include the possibility of some data sets being made available directly over the Web using Mosaic/HTML software and the PADSTAR project which uses new database technology to improve the speed of delivery.

Keith Cole explained that MIDAS (Manchester Information datasets and Associated Services) is based in the Manchester Computing Centre at the University of Manchester and is funded jointly by JISC, ESRC, the funding councils and the University of Manchester. The aim is to give the widest possible access to data sets for teaching and research, on-line. MIDAS works in close collaboration with a number of other organisations such as the Data Archive at Essex, the ESRC Census Microdata Unit at Manchester and CHEST. The MIDAS service runs on a Cray Superserver CS6400 and is freely available to all UK academics. A number of packages such as SAS, SPSS, GAUSS and STATA can also be accessed from the Cray in order to manipulate large and complex datasets. Although MIDAS users can access their data on- line they too must first register to obtain authorization and a user id and password. You can obtain the forms from your local computing service or via the network (see below).

The MIDAS team is working on an improved and more friendly version of the software for searching and retrieving data from the CSO Time Series Databank which used to be available at Bath. This will take the form of a dialog box running with Netscape and permit users to view data before they download it.

On-line information about all aspects of the MIDAS service is available over the network (http://midas.ac.uk/ or gopher mida.ac.uk) [Now at http://www.mimas.ac.uk/]. You can download the registration form from this site. An electronic mailing list has been set up at Mailbase to provide a discussion forum about the services available and for rapid dissemination of news about the service. To subscribe to the list send an e-mail message containing the following command to mailbase@mailbase.ac.uk

join midas forename(s) surname

A MIDAS newsletter is available six times a year (in printed form and accessible via the WWW).

Guy Judge
Department of Economics, University of Portsmouth

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