University of Earth
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Encyclopedia Project (Explanations)

Assessment: Processing system

Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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Although the obvious purpose has been to produce a physical product, the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, any evaluation should also cover the computer software developed to that end and the working method it has made possible amongst a team of people whose activities are interwoven in relation to the data elements and their relationships. This is currently being extended to work via the World Wide Web.

(a) Product: The Encyclopedia is the visible result of a programme initiated in 1972. In its third edition, every advantage has been taken of computer techniques to present the information in a comprehensible form, despite the inherent complexity of that information. It is however increasingly obvious, as discussed below, that there are limits to the ability to present such information in the traditional linear text mode, no matter how sophisticated the pattern of cross-references. To the average user, such reference books are decreasingly useful -- or rather they only respond to some of the user's needs.

(b) Software: The framework software used is Advanced Revelation (running on MS-DOS within a Novell Netware environment). The specially developed application programmes in this context are as much a product of this initiative as the Encyclopedia itself. At every stage in the evolution of this project, ways have been sought to increase the ability of the software to enable new styles of editorial and research work. In its current form, the software is an unusual hybrid between conventional text processing of entry descriptions and database processing of relationships between those entries.

It also permits a form of hypertext navigation through the network of entries. In principle the software could be used for any similar project requiring continuing review and modification of the network of relationships between entities, including possible redefinition and regrouping of those entities.

(c) Working method: Much has been written about the change in writing methods with the advent of word processors. The relation between author and text is dramatically transformed, whether in the details of corrections and formatting, or in the creative implications of (re)structuring the pattern of headings within a document. Building on such working techniques, and others, has transformed the editorial approach to any given Encyclopedia entry.

Editors are decreasingly concerned with the task of editing the displayed text, and increasingly concerned with how that text can be meaningfully related to other texts. Editors make use of a range of software techniques to call up groups of entry titles, sort them, refine the list, and check details on particular entries, before editing the full description and linking it to other entries. It is the fluidity of this editorial technique that is in fundamental contrast to editorial approaches in more conventional databases.

(d) Process: The Encyclopedia project has always been seen as a long-term exercise, like its larger (but less complex) sister publication: the Yearbook of International Organizations. Work on these publications, and the related International Congress Calendar database, is a continuing process in which information for any part may have value for the whole. Any given publication elicits further source material from interested parties, especially international organizations. This leads to the continual improvement of the database as a whole, as well as ensuring appropriate updates. Through this process, defects and inadequacies in any one edition are gradually eliminated and a foundation is created for more challenging reorderings of the data.

(e) Groupware: It is obvious that sophisticated tools and complex databases are of little value without developing the skills of research and editorial personnel. As has been noted in other contexts, the whole approach to team work is transformed when people are linked together by a computer network such that what one person updates at 11.20 affects what others are doing at 11.21. The ways in which people think about what they are doing and how they relate their tasks to each other is totally changed, with many unexpected benefits.

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