Computers & Geosciences, Volume 23, Number 2 February, 1997

Bob Abrahart
School of Geography
University of Leeds
Leeds LS2 9JT
United Kingdom

John C. Butler
Department of Geosciences
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204

Comments From the Associate Editor

When Graeme Bonham-Carter became editor of Computers and Geosciences he expressed an interest in sponsoring a number of special issues. Later on this year there will be a special issue created from papers submitted to the 1st International Conference on GeoComputation held at the University of Leeds, Leeds, UK 17-19 September 1996 . Bob Abrahart is the guest editor for that special issue and he has given a great deal of thought to how an organization can benefit from a presence on the Internet.

Internet Benefits - An Organizations Perspective

The World Wide Web (WWW) provides a simple means of accessing data, text, pictures, moving images and sound. It now boasts over 18 Million users and is constantly expanding; not just in terms of servers, pages and users - but also in terms of incorporated technologies. So how can an organisation best take advantage of this fledgling "golden goose"?

The Internet is about information; and, today, efficient access to our information highways is an essential requirement for most organizations. The WWW offers excellent opportunities for providing, gathering, and collating information - facilitating transparent access to a vast amount of material that is stored on different computers around the world. Nevertheless, the WWW is also about people, those who construct, browse and utilize what's on offer in the global electronic marketplace; and in who's hands its future development lies.

To be of maximum use information must not just be available - it must also be immediate, relevant and valuable. The first thing for an organisation to consider is the flow of information from existing suppliers. Are there alternative sources with faster access that would provide an instant competitive edge? Several news associations, local and national newspapers, and topical magazines can be found on- line. These provide up-to-date information about important events and most have searchable pages e.g. New York Times (current issue) and CNN (latest reports plus some older stories). However, this is still second-hand news, and as new sites come on line it is possible to obtain information in a more direct manner e.g. Houston Traffic Flow Map (updated every minute) and World Wide Earthquake Locator (updated within hours of an occurrence). So why not read about tomorrow's news today? Or check out the latest financial situation e.g. Wall Street Journal (interactive edition); or weather report and satellite image e.g. Weather Visualizer ? And act accordingly.

The WWW contains a host of other standard products and services - for you to take advantage of. Numerous organizations have in the last year or two grown WWW extensions; with global advertising and order taking being done 24 hours a day, seven days a week, each and every day of the year - at little or no extra cost. Moreover, these firms don't just deal in computer related information, software, and services. All manner of products are being traded! So following the maxim "to be noticed, if the competition is on-line then you must be too" - the number of participants is set to increase. Indeed, if an organisation is not on the WWW, then it should now take a serious look at the pros and cons of joining! Visitors to a site can browse through brochures, examine technical specifications, download demonstration software, fill- in product order forms, leave messages in a guestbook, and be counted/ logged. Much time and effort can also be saved by providing dedicated pages for "frequently asked questions". Moreover, there is no real limit to the amount of material that can be accommodated within each set of pages, with each visitor being free to read as much or as little as they wish - following the thread of hypertext links from page to page and from site to site - backtracking as and when required. A selection of pages that illustrate what can be offered include: the provision of on-line shopping malls e.g. Barclay Square; the provision of route planning information services e.g. Subway Navigator; and the provision of journal details plus a subscription form e.g. Computers and Geosciences.

Most government bodies and academic institutions are also on the WWW - promoting their wares, publishing their documents, and disseminating various other bits of useful information. These organizations seek to foster a high professional standing; address a global scientific and/ or technical audience; and at the same time make best use of their limited available funds e.g. NASA Center for Mars Exploration and University of Hawaii Satlab Server. Syllabi, assignments, lecture notes, exams, class calendars, multimedia textbooks and other educational resources are likewise available at appropriate sites; facilitating distributed education both within and beyond the home organisation e.g. World Lecture Hall; supporting accelerated learning for young scientists e.g. NASA Online Education Resources; and providing worthwhile resources for teachers e.g. USGS Learning Web. Various manuals and on-line tutorials are also starting to appear e.g. SNNS User Manual and IDRISI Tutorial.

Nevertheless, for all users, the real strength of the WWW lies in six main areas - where it has sufficient power to go beyond anything that the competition has to offer:

  1. Instant updates are possible for broadcasting important material, thus facilitating rapid dissemination to distributed sites, and to those who work at home. This could be in the form of simple amendments to existing documents, but it could also include the release of time sensitive material, or the provision of regular news-bulletin type transmissions. Instant feedback can also be solicited and transmitted to an appropriate person via embedded Email commands or associated CGI scripts - sending and/ or recording messages at all times of the day and night.

  2. Hypertext links have enabled the construction of "resource location pages". Although most such pages are often simple lists or catalogues, some will contain hundreds and sometimes thousands of links to related material e.g. Japan GIS/Mapping Sciences Resource Guide, whilst others will contain indexed and searchable databases - such as global conference calendars e.g. TechExpo.

  3. Powerful search engines are available on the WWW e.g. AltaVista. Each of these simple-to-use tools, which contain one or more key-word search algorithms, can be employed to find required pages, individuals, or organizations. It is also possible to browse though categorised and searchable Internet Directories such as Yahoo!. So if you needed information on a particular topic - but had no idea where to look - then these facilities can save a lot of time and effort. And, of course, if an organisation is not on the WWW - then it won't be found!

  4. The WWW supports all forms of multimedia. Real-time Internet conversations are now possible through Web Browsers; using either typed messages, or voice transmissions. You can also download audio files - comprising speech and music; and miscellaneous items such as "shuttle launches". Simple graphics, with or without associated text, have become a standard computer product inclusion e.g. IPFW GeoGarden rock collection. But on the WWW - with linked databases, query engines, overlay plotting facilities, and map zoom capabilities - the transmitted images can be made a lot more interesting and informative e.g. SEDEC Model Visualization and Analysis Service; CAST Interactive Mapper; and CYM-GIS web based geographical information system. It is also possible to show animated sequences of stored events, via MPEG movies, or Java scripts e.g. Weather-Climate-Earth Movie Hotlist. Using a a simple camera - images can also be updated on a regular basis e.g. current weather conditions and panoramic views of Tampa Bay Area/ St. Petersburg ; with rapid/ near-continuous updates making real-time video conferencing a practical proposition e.g. Ask-the-Scientist.

  5. Real-time functional interactive tele-robotic sessions are possible on the WWW - as demonstrated by the latest batch of experimental applications which include scheduling an Automated Telescope; running an Interactive Model Railroad ; manipulating Interactive Geometric Structures; running or observing a Web Accessible Diffractometer; and planting, watering or monitoring the progress of seedlings with a Tele-Gardener.

  6. Finally, the WWW now supports the construction and exploration of virtual environments, enabling the provision of ever more imaginative products e.g. 3D Interactive Origami; detailed 3D model spacecraft; and walk-through 3D landscapes.

    The potential use of constantly changing data streams, coupled with the power to generate virtual worlds on-the-fly, also offers tremendous promise for radical advances in interface design. Indeed, all such interactive phenomena are but simple pointers to what the future holds in store for us!

So what about your organisation? Can it afford to take a back seat? Do you want global advertising? Do you want to acquire or disseminate enormous volumes of information, improve the flow of information within your organisation, or just make contact with other firms and people? If so - then the WWW is an ideal medium. It is also an exciting place to be. It is alive and changing. But don't just take my word for it. Go try it for yourself. And discover what's on offer!

Since April 5, 1997

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