Evaluation of Internet Reference Resources for Geographic Information Materials

-Tsering Wangyal Shawa

Introduction

The Internet is a product of the United States Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) which was developed in the 1960's by the United States Department of Defense for their own networking. The primary use of the ARPANET was to develop a "top-secret" military network which could be used for military activities. However, it was later discovered that this network also offered a cost-effective mechanism for scientists and researchers to exchange their ideas electronically. In the mid-1970's, the development of wide area networks and Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) made it possible to connect networks in different geographical areas. These new networks also made it possible to allow more and more academic institutions to use the Internet system. In the late 1980's the Internet was opened to the public.

The opening of the Internet to the public led to the development of various Internet search tools for accessing and retrieving Internet information. In late 1991 the CERN High-Energy Physics Lab in Switzerland saw the potential of the Internet and developed a multimedia hypertext document system called the World Wide Web. This hyperlink system has helped in locating and retrieving worldwide information on the Internet in various forms including audio, video, images, and texts.

The development of powerful World Wide Web browser software, faster modems, and increased processing power of computers have made the Internet one of the most important media for sharing information. The Web has become an extremely useful tool for fast-changing information, ready reference, and information sharing. Business data, population figures, location of ATM machines, trip planning in the United States, and government information are some examples of information which is quite reliable, easy to access, and very useful for the user. More and more information is put on the Web every day for every imaginable topic. Because of this, the Web is becoming a widely used research tool. The information that the user finds in the Internet may or may not be "good" information. This paper will attempt to evaluate some of the geographic information materials available on the Internet.

The Method of Evaluation

The Internet is an unfiltered medium where anyone can put anything on a Web site. Most users expect that the information they find on the Internet will be reliable, however, that is not necessarily the case. Hence, it is important for librarians and information specialists to evaluate various Internet resources and grade them so that their patrons can use the information after it has been evaluated by professionals, rather than each user spending many hours evaluating the Web sites themselves.

There are few articles written on the evaluation of Web sites: one of these is the Marsha Tate and Jan Alexander article. They are of the opinion that many of the criteria used to evaluate print resources can still be successfully adapted to the evaluation of Web resources. They evaluated Web sites on the basis of accuracy, authority, objectivity, currency, and coverage. D. Scott Brandt evaluates Web sites from a different angle. He says, " there are basically two ways to look at evaluating [the Web site]". The first is the objective basis, in which the Web site is evaluated by assessing the validity, reliability, and authenticity of information. The second is the subjective method, in which the Web site is evaluated by judging whether the information given is pertinent for particular users. The National Endowment for the Humanities proposed the evaluation of Web sites slightly differently. They would like contributors to a new Web site that will serve as a gateway to the best humanities-related educational content on the Internet to evaluate the Web sites on the basis of the following criteria: first, the intellectual quality, with such questions as: Does the site provide rich, deep, and multilayered humanities content? Do the author or authors have appropriate scholarly qualification? Is the information accurate, balanced, and updated frequently? Second, the Web site design, including: Is the site user-friendly and attractive graphically? Is it easy to access information at different parts of the site? Are links to other related sites easy and accessible? Does the site have any special features to attract or engage users? Third, the Web site impact: Can this site serve multiple audiences or is it highly specialized? Does the site engage students and encourage them to develop active interest and mastery of the subject area? Is this the best or one of the best sites that you know of in this subject area? In this paper, criteria such as accuracy, authority, objectivity, currency, hyperlinks, graphic designs, and user-friendliness are taken into consideration to evaluate Web sites.

1. Accuracy:The Internet is a medium in which anybody can publish their materials on the Web, and the information stated in these Web sites is not verified either by an editor or by fact checkers. This reality of the Internet environment has made it important for librarians or information specialists to check the accuracy of the information appearing on Web sites.

2. Authority: In order to find out the authority of the Web site, it is important to check the author's credential and affiliations. In many cases it is difficult to determine the author's qualifications, however, the materials put forward by the federal government and by respected institutions can generally be recognized and used with authority. The users should also note who has sponsored the page and the purpose of the sponsoring organization.

3. Objectivity: It is important to judge the objectivity of the Web page. In order to find out the objectivity of the Web site, a person should check out whether the information provided in the Web site is done purely on basis of disseminating information a public service, or whether it is put out by an amateur Web designer. It is also important to check whether the Web site is designed for the general public, for specific groups of people or by an advertiser for products.

4. Currency:Currency is another important point for evaluating the Web sites. In order to find out if the information is current the user needs to find out how often the information is updated. Some Web sites are not frequently updated. In such cases, it is also important to check the date of the data and information on the site.

5. Hyperlink:One of the main contribution to the popularity of the Web is the function of hyperlinks, which make it easy for people to keep track of trails. Evaluation of any Web site should check logic and smoothness of these hyperlinks.

6. Graphic design or design of the Web site: Graphic design of a Web site is an important part of the arrangement of information in a Web site. Poor design of Web site will loose information as well as an attention of a user. It is, therefore, important to review the design of the Web site while evaluating the homepage.

7. User friendliness: All Web sites are geared to the average Web user. It is, therefore, important to evaluate the intuitiveness of the Web site and find out how easy it is to browse the site and get information.

On the basis of the above criteria, the Web sites will be evaluated and then ranked loosely into categories of very good, good, and average. Since there are hundreds of geographic information Web sites, it is beyond the scope of this paper to evaluate each and every Web site which has geographic data. Therefore, this paper will selected and evaluate some of those Web sites which are hyperlinked their homepage by many of the well known map libraries in the States. The selected Web sites are grouped into three broad categories: the interactive map browser, geographic data, and ready reference geographic Web sites.

The Interactive Map Browsers

The interactive map browsers are those Web sites which allow the user to interactively create maps from the Web sites. The interactive map browsers evaluated in this group are usually targeted to an audience which has some knowledge of either GIS (Geographic Information System) or computers.

The Arkansas Interactive Mapper

[http://www.cast.uark.edu/local/mapper]. This mapper is a Web-based program which allows any user to generate maps of any area in Arkansas. The mapper programs consists of a Bourne Shell script which interacts with the GIS software called GRASS, and of PERL- based GUI script which controls the World Wide Web user interface. To make a map, the user goes through four steps. In the first step, the user is requested to select the type of area to be mapped. In this category there are ten options, such as statewide (generate a map for the entire state of Arkansas), county (generate a map of a county or counties in Arkansas, 7.5 minute (make a map corresponding to a USGS 30 X 60 minute quad), etc. In order to evaluate the Web site, the county option of creating the map was selected by putting the cursor on the county box and clicking. Once this was selected, it hyperlinked to the second step. In this step, the user is asked to define the area to be mapped using one or more county names. The county names are arranged in a box, and the user selects by clicking on one or more. After selecting a county or counties, the person has the option of either continuing or returning back to the homepage. The continue box is hyperlinked to the third step. In this stage, the user is requested to select information to be displayed as well as other options such as desired map name, E-mail map to, output format (GIF, Postcript or Acrobat PDF) and paper size (8.5X11 in. at 300 dpi, in. at 430 dpi etc.) After selecting the information and desired options, a person can click on the "Make Map" box. The "Make Map" box is hyperlinked to the fourth step. At the fourth stage, the user can either view the map or download the data. It usually takes between 30 and 90 seconds to generate the map, however, it may take even longer depending on the selection of information as well as the speed of a particular user's computer.

This Web site is maintained by the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The project is sponsored by NASA as a pilot project to demonstrate the usability and accessibility of spatial data by federal, state, and local agencies, and by the general public. The Center was established in 1991 in order to bring together expertise from the fields of GIS and computer science. Data are gathered from various federal and state agencies, and converted into a usable GIS format. The data are made available to the public for their use, as these data have no copyrights. The data are usually reliable since they were taken from federal and state agencies and other well known institutions. The Web sites hyperlinks are very smooth and logically arranged. The site gives the options of returning to the homepage, e-mailing to the Webmaster, or continuing with the hyperlinks to the next step. It is also graphically well-designed. However, the currency of the Web site is not displayed on the page, nor are there any metadata hyperlinks. Although the World Wide Web user interface to display GIS data works well, its quality to display maps is poor. Therefore, this Web site is not good for displaying maps, but it is a useful source for downloading various spatial data of the state of Arkansas. This Web site is designed mainly for people who have some knowledge of GIS. The Arkansas Interactive Mapper could be rated as a good interactive mapper homepage.

U.S. Census Bureau

[http://www.census.gov]. The U.S. Census Bureau is the federal agency which collects, processes, compiles, and disseminates statistical data to government agencies and the general public. This site offers various options for creating maps of any parts of the United States interactively, by using TIGER (Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing) with 1990 census data. In order to evaluate the Tiger Map Browser of the U.S. Census Bureau's data, the author used the U.S. Gazetteer of the Census Bureau to create a map. In the Gazetteer's page, a person can search for a place in the U.S. either by name, or by its 5-digit zip code. There is an option of searching by state name, however, the best way to search for a place is to use the zip code if you know it. If the user decides to put only the name of a place and leaves the state and zip code blank, the Gazetteer page will show all the place names from all the states which it can find to match with the name. If a person uses the name of the place and the state, then it can narrow the search, and will be quicker. Searching by zip code is the quickest way if you can do it.

In order to evaluate this Web page, the author used a place name and a state in the search box and pressed the enter button. The site linked to a new page where match data was retrieved. The retrieved data gave information about the population, location (latitude and longitude in degrees), and zip codes of the place. It is also gave the option to create a map of the area. Once the cursor is put on the map (it is hyperlinked) and clicked on, the site then links to the TIGER map server browser and creates a map of the area. The default map scale is 1:91302, but there are many other options. Options include zoom in and zoom out (either by numerical number or by graphical means), downloading GIF image, on and off of different layers (such as city labels, streets, census tracts, and congressional districts), panning the map in a different direction, and redrawing the map with on and off layer options. The largest scale the map can zoom into is the scale of 1:656. The map is labeled with various zonal names. It shows a legend, displays both linear and R.F. scale, and pinpoints the exact latitude and longitude of the center of the map.

This Web site is maintained by the federal agency of the U.S. Census Bureau, whose sole purpose of offering this Web site is to disseminate information to the public. Since the data and the maps created in this page are for the public use, no permissions are needed to copy or download them. This page is well-designed with logical hyperlinks, and easy to use. Every page includes the options of sending mail to the Webmaster or returning back to the homepage. The final map display is much, much better than Arkansas's map with various color codings. The TIGER's map can be used for showing various information such as congressional districts, county lines, census tracts, and parks. The page also has FAQ and metadata hyperlinks. It is certainly the best Web site for census data. I rank it as a very good Web site.

The Virginia County Interactive Mapper

[http://viva.lib.virginia.edu/gic/spatial/tiger.browse2.html]. The Virginia County Interactive Mapper is a Web based interface which generates maps of every Virginia county using Arc/Info GIS software. It is a part of the continuing Virginia Atlas Project Initiative. In order to create a map of a Virginia county a person must select a county from the pick list. After selecting the county, the user chooses features such as census tract boundaries, secondary roads, rivers, schools and military installations, then presses the "generate map" button. The map has the option of zooming in on any image by clicking on it. It takes roughly 90 seconds to display a map. There is also an option of downloading the selected TIGER features into an ARC/Info format.

This Web site is maintained by the GIS laboratory in Alderman Library at the University of Virginia. The data used for this Web site were taken from the 1994 version of TIGER. The hyperlinks from one selection to another are logically arranged; every page has the option to link to the homepage, to comments and suggestions, and to other pages maintained by the University which are associated with their GIS projects. The graphic design is not professionally done and there is a lot of room for improvement. The Web site is reasonably user-friendly, however, they have clearly mentioned that their site is designed for expert users familiar with TIGER data formats and GIS programming. The displayed map has neither scale nor legend to verify the map's content (I suppose, experts are expected to know the content of the map without any information of scale and legend). Although the displayed map is of low quality, the site is a good resource for people who like to have county information on the state of Virginia. I rank this Web site as an average quality.

Geographic Data Archive

These Web sites were designed mainly for downloading spatial data.

Mann Library's New York State TIGER/Line Data Archive

[http:www.mannlib.cornell.edu/reference/tiger]. This Web site allows a person to download all 62 counties of the New York 1992 TIGER/Line data with coverage of census block, place, tract, minor civil division, streets, and bodies of water. All coverage is in ARC/Info compressed export format. The data can be downloaded either by clicking on a county map or by choosing the county name from a list. The county maps of New York State are hyperlinked to the database. Once a person selects the county and clicks on the submit button it will hyperlink to the selected county database; then the user must select the coverage. The approximate size of coverage data is also given. All the downloaded data can be used in GIS software ARC/Info version 7.03 without any problem.

This Web site is maintained by Cornell University's Mann Library using the Census Bureau 1992 TIGER data which was converted into Arc/Info format. The hyperlinks are smooth and logically arranged. Every page has options of linking to homepage, help, metadata, and also has the option of contacting the person who designed the Web site. The Web site is only updated when new data or new coverages are added. It is fairly easy to use, however, data are limited to those coverages mentioned above. A further limitation is that this data is designed for ARC/Info users. This Web page can be ranked as good.

SEDAC's Demographic Data Cartogram Service

[http://plue.sedac.edu.ciesin.org/plue/ddcarto]. SEDAC provides U.S. census demographic data of any state in the United States to GIS users. All of the GIS data are stored in Atlas GIS export (.bna) format, which can be downloaded to your computer or floppy disk on the spot, within a few seconds. However, if a person wants the GIS data in formats other than the Atlas GIS, then they will need to wait overnight while SEDAC people convert the data and then notify the user by email about how to ftp the converted coverage. The SEDAC support GIS data in Atlas GIS, ARC/Info and MapInfo formats.

The GIS data can be accessed either by clicking on the state map or by picking the state from a list. Both the map and the list are hyperlinked to the data source. The coverages are grouped according to the census geography such as counties, tract, and block groups. After selecting the appropriate census geography, there are options of selecting data in either of the three GIS formats mentioned above. Atlas GIS files can be accessed immediately; the others take at least overnight to access. The user's email address must be submmitted if a person needs other then the Atlas GIS format data so that SEDAC can contact the user as soon as data is ready for ftp. It is fairly simple and takes only three steps to download the data.

This Web site is maintained by CIESIN, the Consortium for International Earth Science Information Network which was established in 1989 as a non-profit, non-governmental organization to provide information to scientists and decision-makers. SEDAC (Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center) is a part of CIESIN. The socioeconomic data of this Web site are from the U.S. Census TIGER files which were converted into various GIS formats. The Web pages are not properly designed: there are no homepage links on each page. This Web site also lacks information about metadata. Metadata is important information that users need to know about the data in order to download them. The graphic design of this page is of average quality. Base on these above criteria, the SEDAC as data gets a "good" rank.

The Ready Reference Materials

In this category those Web sites are discussed in which the patron can find ready reference geographic information. These Web sites are mostly simple, useful, and easy to access.

How Far Is It?

[http://www.indo.com/distance]. This Web site allows the user to find the distance between two cities anywhere in the . world. The distance is measured as the crow flies, and given in miles, kilometers, and nautical miles. The site also gives initial heading direction toward the other place in degrees. The places for measuring the distance will have additional information such as location in latitude and longitude, population figures, elevation, and county name. The user has the option of displaying maps of the two places, once the distance is shown. The displayed map has many other options, such as zoom in and zoom out, adding features, viewing legend, displaying the map in various projections, and displaying the map in monochrome. It takes two steps to measure the distance, and three steps to display the map.

This Web site is owned by the Bali tourism department. It uses the University of Michigan Geographic Name Server and a supplementary database of world cities to find the latitude and longitude of two places. into it also uses world map data which is from the CIA World Data Bank II, and higher resolution U.S. data from the USGS 1:2,000,000 Scale, DLG data. The Xerox PARC Map Server is used for displaying the maps. They do not employ scan maps, but rather use a graphic package called "pbmplus" to generate the map from vector map data. Every page has a homepage link option, and also gives the option of trying a new search for distance once the distance result is displayed. On the map viewer page, the optional hyperlinks of FAQ, information on the Map Viewer, and the Geographic Name Server were given. This Web site is simple, informative, and user-friendly. It is designed for the general public, and can be used by people with very little experience in surfing the Internet. It can be grouped as a "very good" Web site.

World Gazetteer

[http://164.214.2.53/gns/html/index.html]. This Web site allows the user to query the location, designation, UTM number, and JOG map number of any place, hydrographic features, area features, populated places, roads, hypsographic features, and spot features. This Web site covers the whole world except the United States. It take three steps to display the answer to any query. If the user decides to find the location of a place, the person must enter the place name (which can be searched for using wild card characters) and then select the country where the place is. After selecting the place and country, the user presses the query button. If the user fails to select the country, the query time will usually run out and the user may not get an answer. If the user needs to find out other information, different features need to be selected one by one to submit the query. After submitting the query, the first record match will be shown, and then if the user presses the submit query button, the query result is given.

The World Gazetteer's Web site is owned by the National Imagery and Mapping Agency which maintains a database of foreign geographic feature names. It also gets information from the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (US BGN). This database is updated regularly as new information is received. However, there are many countries with old information. The date of the latest data update is given against the country name. In order to check the accuracy of the data, the author checked information gathered from this Web site with printed material sources put out by the same agency. The Web site was found to be very accurate. This Web site is user-friendly except when the user tries the query about the various features options; that selection is a bit complex. The site has hyperlink user manual options after every selection, and also provides the option of sending feedback to the Webmaster. All the hyperlinks are well placed and logically arranged. Because of this, the site is easy to use. This Web site is graphically well-designed. There is no doubt that this Web site is the best source on the Internet for getting location information of any place in the world. It can be grouped as a "very good" Web site.

Mapquest

[http://www.mapquest.com]. This Web site is a very popular interactive mapping site. It allows the user to interactively select driving directions for the U.S. through TripQuest, find any place in the world using Interactive Atlas, and make Personalized Maps. This paper will evaluate the TripQuest interactive mapping. This hyperlink allows the user to plan city-to-city or door-to-door driving directions in the United States. It also allows the user to select the route display mode such as text only, overview map with text, and turn-by-turn maps with text. In order to plan a route the user must enter information such as street address, city, state, and zip code of origin and destination places. Once the information is entered and the route display mode is selected, the user presses the query submit button. The site will display whatever option the person has selected. In this evaluation, the author selected the route display mode as "Overview Map With Text". The site displayed a general map of the area and insert maps of the origin and the destination places. It also gave a list of the directions, route numbers, exit numbers, distance of each route, and the total mileage between the two places.

The TripQuest Web site is a part of Mapquest and is owned by a business unit of GeoSystems Global Corp. It is maintained by the Mapquest publishing group, located in Denver, CO and Lancaster, PA. This company is the leading supplier of geographic information products and services, and they provide services to the National Geographic Society, AAA, Reader's Digest, etc. The map data also comes from various international sources including the American Business Information, Inc., AND Mapping, U.S. Census TIGER files, Compusearch Micromarketing Data & Systems, and GeogSystems International City Vector Maps. Every page has hyperlink options including help, "about the data", feedback, FAQ, homepage, etc. In order to check the accuracy of the data, the author did a field trip as well as used other interactive mapping sources such as Delorme Map 'N' Go CD-ROM software. I found that the TripQuest information is slightly incorrect in some rural areas. This could be because some arcs (line segments) are not properly joined or are missing between two roads. Because of this, instead of routing the direction through a shorter route, the site sometimes gives a slightly longer distance to travel. However, it is generally very useful information. The hyperlink connections of the TripQuest are rationally arranged and are very smooth in linking between various hypertexts. The homepage is nicely designed and displays an excellent map. This Web site is designed for the general public and therefore, is very easy to use. The company claims that it receives over three million hits per day. It also lists numerous awards it has received, including PC Magazine's Top 100 Web Sites, PC Meter's One of Top 10 Value-Added Services On The Web, and the Presidential Inauguration Committee's One of 10 Best Sites On The Web. There are many other interactive trip planning maps on the Internet such as Yahoo Maps, and Lycos maps. The interactive mapping of these other sites is not as smooth and informative as TripQuest, and for some places they have no information. The TripQuest Web site is the best interactive trip planning map on the Internet so far, and can be grouped as a "very good" site.

The Internet, no doubt has added a new dimension to the sharing and processing of information. This new tool has provided many challenges to librarians and information specialists, including evaluating and standardizing the Internet. Since it was open to the public less than a decade ago, the Internet has not fully matured. Hence, now is the right time for people dealing with the information to shape its direction, either by introducing some sort of standards for Web pages so that they can be evaluated based on those standards (so that in future people will use these standards to put up the materials on the Web site), or by making a policy for libraries to evaluate the materials before a Web site is put on their homepage. These changes will help patrons to receive more accurate information, and it will help users to trust the Web sites put up by libraries without evaluating all the materials by themselves. If libraries fail to use the power of the Internet, and fail to set up some sort of standards for setting up a Web site or make a policy for evaluating individual Web sites before they are put up on the libraries' homepages, then librarians may loose the chance of retaining the position of trusted information providers.

REFERENCES

  1. 1.Brandt, Scott D. "Evaluating Information on the Internet." Computers in Libraries. Vol. 16, No.5, May 1996 P.44-46
  2. Lane, Elizabeth and Summerhill, Craig. Internet Primer For Information Professionals: A Basic Guide to Internet Networking Technology. Westport, CT: Meckler Publishing. 1993
  3. Liu, Lewis-Guodo. The Internet And Library And Information Services: Issue, Trends, and Annotated Bibliography, 1994-1995. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. 1996
  4. Woodworth, Patricia A. Internet And Ethics. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc. 1996
  5. Smith, Linda C. and Gluck, Myke. Geographic Information Systems And Libraries: Patrons, Maps, And Spatial Information.
  6. Tate, Marsha and Alexander, Jan. "Teaching Critical Evaluation Skills for World Wide Web Resources." Computers in Libraries. Vol.16, No.10, Nov/Dec. 1996 p. 49-55


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