John C. Butler
Department of Geosciences
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204
From the Associate Editor
As a student interested in computer algorithms, I purchased many of the the Kansas Geological Survey Computer Contributions so as to be able to expand my collection of software. I remain impressed with the care taken in the write up that accompanied each of these publications. I am not at all surprised that the Kansas Geological Survey home page reflects a great deal of care in presentation; truly user friendly as opposed to user surley. This month I have asked Rex Buchanan and Timothy Carr to share with the readers how attention to user needs should influence the content distributed via the Internet.
In only a few years, with the advent of e-mail and the World Wide Web, we've gone through a revolution in the way that scientific information is disseminated. Maybe because of the speed of those changes, the geologic community seems to know relatively little about the views of the people who actually use our information. For too long, wežve provided information in ways that are most convenient for us, and let our users figure out how to deal with our information.
That approach no longer works. We now have a broad range of methods to disseminate information, from traditional hard copy books to data made available only on the World Wide Web. We need to work harder to discern the most appropriate means of providing information, and the only way to do that is to find out the preferences of our customers--the ultimate users of our information.
At the Kansas Geological Survey, the way that we disseminate information has changed drastically over the past 30 years. For example, we have not printed a map, by traditional printing methods, since 1983. Since 1988, we have produced and sold on-demand versions of thematic maps, produced on electrostatic or inkjet printers. We did this because we thought it was in our best interest in terms of turnaround time (we can produce the computer-plotted maps much more quickly), the quality of the information (we can correct mistakes immediately), the variety of information (we can make available maps that would have been uneconomic to print), and the cost of storing inventory.
We assumed that our customers agreed with that decision, but we didnžt really know until we did a survey that showed that they are generally happy with our maps; they primarily want accurate information, made available quickly. Their main concern about our maps was related to access to the digital data--that they be able to get it, and that they get it in formats that are most useful. With their capabilities, they can now use our data to create their own customized maps.
We assumed that our World Wide Web home page is particularly effective in providing access to fundamental geologic and geographic data, to data compilations, and to the latest research and technical studies. Electronic publishing can make products available on-line as they are completed or updated; when people search our data bases via the Web, they are using the same products that we use, products that are absolutely current. For example, the Surveyžs Digital Petroleum Atlas (DPA) is an online publication that gives users access to underlying data that is typically unpublished.
We are still learning about the client base that uses our Web site. Our site averages about 40,000 hits a month, much of it noise. Many of those visits are by people who did key-word searches that directed them to our page, even though they appear to have no interest in it, and do not explore it once they arrive. But even with those numbers removed, the site provides information to several thousand people a month, and that number continues to increase. The Digital Petroleum Atlas may be visited as many as 3,000 times a month by people who visit 10 to 50 different pages.
While electronic communication is good for some segments of our population, it does not work for others. One important segment of our audience is decision-makers: legislators, state agency heads, business leaders, teachers, and others. These people need to know about the information we have, and use it as they make decisions. They are, in an important way, our tie to society, to the ultimate utility of the information that we produce.
For the past three years we have brought those people together in a three-day field conference to look at issues in the field, including presentations at various sites and during travel from location to location. From conference evaluations, and from discussions with participants, it is clear that this program has struck a chord. We know that reaching this group requires something beyond the usual methods of information dissemination. Because this audience is so busy, this kind of personal, hands-on delivery of information seems to work.
In short, the audience for our information is segmented--into decision-makers, academics, businesses and consultants, interested organizations, the interested general public. Based on feedback from each audience, we vary the format for our information according to each group and its needs. Some groups require little human interaction and allow us to reach huge numbers of people in very little time; other audiences require methods that are extremely personal and time-consuming. We have become far more concerned about getting to know our clients and getting information into an appropriate format. We believe that our role in society, and our institutional survival, depends upon it.
Since September 23, 1998
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