Jeffrey A. Smith, Ed.D. firstname.lastname@example.org
The Internet and new information technologies make it possible to procure much of the knowledge, and conduct many of the exchanges that are needed, across boundaries and time zones at high speed and low cost. However, physical connection to the networks, by itself, is not enough to bring these benefits.
The spread of the Internet to China, Vietnam and other countries has increased the demand for applications and services , including person-mediated support, that make access to the networks and their information contents fully available. Without such services, many users will remain information-isolated in the future as they have been in the past, and research and development efforts may suffer.
2 Needs for information
3 Limitations of networks and databases
4 Barriers to access
5 Elements of an ITS
6 Functions of an ITS
7 Participants in the project
8 Status and future of the project
There will be eight ITS's, one each in a field critical to development: law, medicine, science and technology, management, economics, environmental science, education, and agriculture; and they will be linked via the Internet to companion stations in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Manila, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Bangkok, and Jakarta.
The eventual system will serve high-level users: individuals, institutions, agencies and others with significant responsibility for research and development. The purpose of the project is to increase and strengthen relationships among individuals and institutions in East and West, especially those engaged in mutual efforts to solve complex problems, and to place control of the knowledge-transfer process in the hands of users.
China is modernizing its infrastructures and institutions on a scale and at speeds that are unprecedented in world history. China needs information in so many sectors and so many forms that it has invested substantial human and material resources to acquire it. China has sent more than 100,000 students and scholars overseas in the past 20 years, invited thousands of experts from abroad, and imported millions of informational materials. Still, its knowledge resources are inadequate.
International exchanges that once supplemented in-country training have been reduced. They remain important, vital in some cases, but are costly and time-consuming and have not yielded the expected returns (most students who were sent to the West from developing countries have failed to return). With fewer people being sent overseas, and few of those returning, the needs for imported information are greater than ever.
There is a need for consultation with experts in most fields and projects, particularly those that entail imported technology. For example, institutions and individuals who are adapting Western medicine to the Chinese environment have questions that cannot readily be answered by use of available resources. There are several well-provisioned medical libraries, some with access to MEDLARS (the on-line biomedical database and research service linked to the U.S. National Library of Medicine). However, most of these are static databases that cannot be searched for answers to dynamic questions (questions whose answers do not exist on a printed page or in an electronic databank). As more 'foreign' technology is introduced, more widely and in more forms, there will be many more questions that are not anticipated in print or electronic publications, and thus an increasing demand for dynamic information services.
While these and other needs continue to grow, the costs of information continue to rise. Costs of books, journals, and reference works have in many cases climbed so high that consumers in the West, including major research universities, cannot afford all the information that is wanted. In developing countries, the costs of creating or updating the knowledge base by using traditional methods (such as building paper library collections) are beyond the reach of nearly all institutions.
There are needs for more open and effective information-sharing. Some governments restrict in-country publishing; they allow conferences to take place, but not permit conference proceedings to be published. Individuals struggle to maintain contact with colleagues in their own countries and overseas. The sum of these restrictions can frustrate the best efforts to implement projects and to sustain relationships.
The new technologies can transport information to wherever it is needed in efficient and responsive forms, and help maintain links among colleagues, including those who may be the most informed thinkers and decision-makers working on a problem but who are literally worlds apart. However, if they lack equal access to the Internet and its knowledge resources, then users in developing countries will continue to be by-passed by developments, and their information-isolation will increase.
Capacities of many lines and links are low, and some local networks are saturated. (In China, a little bit of connectivity equals a lot of people, and more users are coming on line every day.) When local lines or links go down, thousands can be affected. In-country traffic is slow, and messages transiting the Pacific can be delayed.
The information contents of the Internet are so vast and variable that they can barely be fathomed. Search tools let users browse global databases and find answers to factual questions, but searches for general information can consume hours and dollars and produce a volume of data that needs to be filtered and evaluated further (even then, the searches may fail).
It can be difficult and is often impossible to retrieve the full-text versions of many materials. Abstracts of articles may be available on-line, but not their full text. In most cases, the full text needs to be retrieved the old fashioned way, manually from paper libraries (difficult to do when the user is in China and the journal is in Hong Kong), or it needs to be purchased from a commercial service (difficult to afford when the user is poor). (Nearly half of the documents requested during our test of the prototype ITS were not available in digital form at any site we could discover, and so could not be retrieved on-line.) This is a significant limitation, since journals are the primary vehicle for sharing information in most fields and professions.
This limitation is not due to a weakness of the technology, but to the control of information by the knowledge industry. That industry includes societies, universities, professions, publishers, and others who generate, process, or disseminate information. It also can be thought of as including corporations that produce and own storehouses of information, little of which is shared. Although "information wants to be free" (a catch phrase of Internet users, and rallying cry of evangelists), the knowledge industry continues to own much of the information that users in developing countries need, and continues to control access to it. The new technologies are applying pressures that may drive down the costs of academic and professional publications; however, the rule is that if paper versions are not affordable today, electronic versions will probably not be affordable tomorrow (certainly not, for poor users in poor countries).
There are technical barriers such as incompatible hardware and software and "noise" on phone lines that scrambles transmissions. And there are barriers created by local conditions: lack of air-conditioning and central heating in some computer facilities; and power brown-outs or outages.
There are barriers to physical access created by jealousies and competition between institutions that prevent users at one from gaining access to resources at another.
There also are language barriers. English is the common language of most contents on the global Internet, and users need at least some fluency to access most knowledge bases in the West. The Internet is the revenge of the written word, and users also need to write well in order to communicate clearly. Electronic mail can be raw communication, not nuanced, and it does not convey non-verbal cues of face-to-face interaction; in some cases, as across culture boundaries, it can cause misunderstanding.
An ITS consists of:
An ITS in the California or Hong Kong is linked to a companion station in China or Southeast Asia. The companion station consists of a research assistant, PC and modem, a link to an Internet port, and telephone lines for users. The companion station acts a service center where users in Shanghai or Hanoi, for example, can forward requests and receive responses from an ITS. Staff at the companion station provide research and technical support.
Each ITS will serve approximately 100 users who can be individuals, teams, or institutions, and will provide each user with ten responses per year. A response can be a package of books, documents or computer discs sent by express mail, or an electronic file sent by the Internet. The average cost of a response will be $250, including $75 in hard-copy materials. The eventual system of eight stations will serve eight hundred users, and produce 7,500 or more responses per year.
The information may be formal, that is, it may come in conventional hard-copy formats such as journals, or in standard electronic formats such as files. Or the information may be informal and reside in the experience of individuals rather than in books or in databanks. When requests are for informal information, the specialist can post them on a conference or refer them to project consultants.
When the request is simple, that is, when a factual question is asked or a particular document is wanted, the specialist can purchase it, or copy it, and then mail the material to the user. When the question is general or complex, for example, when the user is probing a problem and does not know what information is needed, the specialist begins a dialogue with the user to frame the problem and specify the request. S/he may create a research menu (a bibliography, abstracts of articles, list of documents) and send it to the user for consideration, and during this back-and-forth process may consult with the project advisors. The user refines or adds to the original request, and the specialist fulfills it.
During early years of the project, funds will be provided to purchase hard-copy materials, since most users will be unable to afford them (the average cost of a hardcover book in the U.S. is $50, equal to the monthly salary of a professor in Beijing). To control the costs of materials and limit them to essential information, users will be given annual accounts of $750, to be spent for whatever they wish: journal subscriptions, books, or copies of documents.
The ITS also can send redundant materials and sets of information: one set to the user, a second to her institution, and in cases when the information is of wider interest, a third set to a regional repository. The ITS can send information that has not been requested but that may be important to know: it can produce reports of findings and abstracts of key articles, as a current awareness service. The stations can maintain archives of frequently requested information and post these on mirror sites in Japan, Bangkok and Singapore, so that users can go directly to a 'local' source without contacting an ITS.
The ITS also can supply instructions for locating information, so that users can use the technology independently and learn to control the information-transfer process by themselves. In future years, support by the stations may become less direct. However, there will be continuing needs for the research services an ITS provides, for consultation with experts, for hard-copy materials from the West, and for training and guidance in use of the Internet.
Patterns of use of individual stations may vary. The ITS in medicine may provide more informal information. Users of the ITS in education may want information from the region and from colleagues in cultures and conditions similar to their own, rather than from the West. The station in environmental science may be linked to a computer network in China that connects national environmental centers, and thus serve more institutions than individuals. The station in management can be used to link managers with mentors.
Costs of the full system will be approximately US$2 million per year and will be supported with a mix of grants, endowments, and user fees. Several stations may be attached to universities and their costs may be incorporated into institutional budgets. Start-up funds have come from U.S. and Hong Kong foundations, individuals, and institutions. Additional funds and in-kind donations are being sought from corporations.
Bridge to Asia, 1214 Webster Street #F
Oakland, California 94612
phone: (510) 834-3082