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SOSIG - The Social Science Information Gateway

by Debra Hiom & Nicky Ferguson

The Internet can provide an invaluable resource for supporting education and research in the social sciences; it offers access to people, data and resources on a hitherto unparalleled scale. However it is as yet a far from an ideal work environment. The sheer enormity of information available and the corresponding lack of organisation of this information can prove an effective barrier to potential users. The Social Science Information Gateway (SOSIG) allows social science researchers and practitioners to discover and easily access relevant high-quality networked resources and services world-wide. The paper will look at the background to the project and the current status of the service.

Introduction

The basic definition of the Internet is a global network of computers that can exchange information. What this actually provides you with is the ability to communicate and exchange information with over 30 million people across the world. It provides a method of communicating with people locally, nationally or internationally in a way that is both fast and economical. The culture of the Internet is still very much one of co-operation and a readiness to share knowledge and expertise with others. Whatever a persons interests or specialisms there will be groups of people who share those interests on the Internet.

Fig. 1: Part of SOSIG-Homepage

The Internet also provides access to information resources. The amount of information on the networks has grown exponentially over the last few years. Traditionally academics have shared resources such as working papers, articles, library catalogues, data archives, etc. and the number of these has grown as publishing information on the networks has become easier. However as more commercial institutions and businesses are becoming involved in the Internet a whole new range of information and services are also appearing. The result of this growth in material is that is becoming increasingly difficult for network users to successfully find their way around the network and locate information that is of interest to them.

Background to the Project

In 1992 the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) appointed a Networked Information Support Officer to examine the potential for the use of networked information amongst the UK social science community and to encourage further development. There was a perception that the social science community were not reaping the benefit from networked resources in the same way as their colleagues in the natural and physical sciences. Through holding training sessions and workshops it became clear that researchers found a gulf between being guided around the Internet with the use of documentation and an instructor and having to incorporate these newly acquired skills in their work. Once the mystique of using networks had been dispelled, the path led quickly from excitement to frustration as researchers found it difficult to navigate around the networks and locate material of interest to them. Most academic researchers are unwilling or do not have the time to spend time searching the Internet for information. It was decided to try to provide the social science research community with an easy way to find their way around the Internet in order to locate information and data they could use in their work. The project that grew from this idea was the Social Science Information Gateway (SOSIG). A pilot service of the gateway became operational in June 1994.

Use of World Wide Web

The basic objective of the project was to set up a "one-stop-shop" for UK social scientists, to connect the user seamlessly to relevant resources regardless of their location. World Wide Web was chosen as the software tool to deliver this solution for various reasons. It provides the consistent easy to use interface that was required. It is almost certainly the fastest growing NIR (Networked Information Retrieval) tool, with development work being carried out in Europe and the United States. It also allows access to many other processes and protocols such as gopher servers, ftp sites, telnet sessions and many more.

Structure of SOSIG

There are over 900 links to social science resources on SOSIG at present. Unlike many other gateways or subject listings, the project tries to maintain a level of quality control. A resource does not appear on SOSIG until it has undergone the following process.

Collection

A variety of resources are used including:

  • Mailing Lists and Newsgroups: various lists and newsgroups are scanned for announcements of interesting social science resources, some of these groups are subject related but others are general lists set up specifically to monitor and disseminate information about new network resources.
  • Printed guides and Catalogues: these often provide a good starting point for identifying resources within a particular subject area.
  • Networked search tools: there are a number of tools or robots that aim to build indexed catalogues of resources available over the Internet, such as Veronica, Archie and Lycos.
  • Other networked services: following links from other services on the Internet.

The project also has a number of volunteer LIST'eners. These are generally subject specialists in the social sciences who can advise on the quality of resources. In addition to recommendations from the LIST'eners the project also regularly receives recommendations from the users of the service. A form is available on the web for users to e-mail suggestions and additions to the gateway, these are subject to the same quality checks before they are added to SOSIG.

Filtering

An important role for SOSIG is to filter out "junk" - resources that are of little or no use to our users. Resources are chosen according to a selection criteria that includes areas such as relevance, reliability, stability and currency.

Recording

There is very little meta-data or descriptive information about resources available on the Internet, often no more than a file or directory name. This can result in users choosing a link or downloading a file, waiting while it transfers to their system (often from the US) only to find it wasn't what they wanted at all. All the resources that appear on SOSIG have been catalogued using a standard pro-forma or template. This template which includes a description of the resource, underlies the search mechanism which is available on SOSIG. A keyword search will provide you with a list of resources that match your criteria, each of which will dynamically link you to the resource described, wherever it is in the world.

Classification

Each resource is classified using the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC) scheme. Use of this scheme was agreed with two other national service providers NISS and BUBL to allow for collaboration amongst the projects. Although the UDC underlies the organisation of the resources, a strict hierarchical scheme is not enforced, so if a subject has recently become important enough it can find a place on the top menu. Individual resources can also be cross-classified so that they can be found under several different subject areas. The subject categories can be viewed alphabetically (the default) or according to the UDC.

Developments

SOSIG has recently received funding from the UK Electronic Libraries Programme for two projects. The first is an extension of the SOSIG project to employ a training and documentation officer. The training officer will provide hands-on training, documentation and self paced learning materials specifically tailored for social science librarians, other social science information support staff and users of networked resources in the social sciences. Evaluation of this training and the general effect and usefulness of subject based services will also be undertaken.

ROADS (Resource Organisation and Discovery in Subject based Services) is a two year collaborative project to design and implement a user-oriented resource discovery system. This will allow users to find and use networked resources (documents and interactive services) of interest to them without leaving their routine working environments. This will build and extend upon the work on resource descriptions already in process on SOSIG. Furthermore the project will implement a system that allows users to search across several different subject based services seamlessly. The system will initially be piloted on the SOSIG service, the OMNI (Organising Medical Networked Information) service and the Electronic Libraries Information service at the UK Office of Library Networking (UKOLN).

The ROADS partners are:

SOSIG Project, University of Bristol UKOLN, University of Bath Department of Computer Studies, Loughborough University of TechnologyBunyip Information Systems

For more information about the ROADS project contact the author or see the URL below.

Access to SOSIG

Users with World Wide Web (WWW) clients such as Mosaic or Netscape can access SOSIG by typing the URL (network address) below:

http://sosig.ac.uk/

Users without WWW clients can access the service using the Lynx client. This will give you a text only based interface to the service.

Make a telnet call to:

sosig.ac.uk

login as: sosig

Further Information

For more information about the ROADS project see:

http://ukoln.bath.ac.uk/roads/

For more information about SOSIG please contact:

Debra Hiom
Centre for Computing in Economics
University of Bristol
8 Woodland Road
Bristol BS8 1TN

Phone: +44-117-928 8443
Fax: +44-117-928 8577
E-mail: D.Hiom@bristol.ac.uk

EURODATA Newsletter No. 3 Article 7