Advancing Water Resources Research and Management
|Symposium on Water Resources and the World Wide Web|
|Seattle, Washington, December 5-9, 1999|
|The GLIN Model|
|Who is Benefiting from GLIN?|
|Trials, Triumphs and Challenges Ahead|
|Content Enhancement: Adding a Spatial Component to GLIN|
|Partnership Building: Applying the GLIN Model to Other Shared Watersheds|
|Multi-server Search Capability|
|Integrating Audience and Content|
|Lessons Learned from GLIN|
|1) Web users demand content|
|2) Training builds trust|
|3) Organizing links (the clearinghouse approach) is a much needed and appreciated service|
|4) Smart navigation pays dividends|
|5) Usability has more to do with content than design, layout or navigation|
|Larger Lessons Learned from the Web|
|Shorter and simpler is better|
|Sustainability of any system has to be a priority|
Traditionally, government agencies and other organizations have compartmentalized segments of the ecosystem into discrete units and managed them independently. Consequently, the public as a whole has often missed out on valuable opportunities to understand and appropriately react to the multiple weblike interactions that occur within the natural world around us.
Effectively moving beyond a compartmentalized and narrow view of problems, processes and political boundaries to a systemic and interrelated view, relies on our collective commitment to draw many points of view into an ongoing and evolving communication process.
The Great Lakes Information Network (GLIN: http://www.great-lakes.net) has been employing these principles of web design since its beginnings in 1993. GLIN uses an "ecosystem approach" in its navigational design, recognizing the integrated nature of the water, land, human and economic resources of the binational Great Lakes basin. By cross-linking with hundreds of groups involved in management of the Great Lakes ecosystem, GLIN represents a united web presence for the entire region and a model for other shared watersheds around the globe.KEYWORDS: Great Lakes, integrated network, regional partnership, web design, navigation
In 1991, the Great Lakes region began to look at the possibility of using Internet-based communications to cultivate an ecosystem-based approach to management of its natural, cultural and economic resources.
The resulting effort, known as the Great Lakes Information Network (GLIN), has gained high praise as a "one-stop shopping" resource for information on Great Lakes-related organizations and activities.
|Take a tour of GLIN|
|Static snapshot of the GLIN home page (if your browser is not enabled)|
More than a web site, GLIN is an umbrella information service that helps Great Lakes agencies and organizations achieve two fundamental goals:
GLIN has successfully employed an "ecosystem approach" in its navigational design, recognizing the integrated nature of the water, land, human and economic resources of the Great Lakes basin. By actively pursuing cross-linking with Great Lakes data providers, GLIN acts as a portal to information for and about the Great Lakes and the ecosystem as a whole (Ratza/McIntyre, 1997).
The GLIN model accommodates three different pathways to its information: geographic, subject and administrative. Analysis of GLIN usage statistics and feedback from users indicates that these pathways are the most likely routes to information that people follow. Examples of these pathways include:
Statistics also indicate that links buried several levels into a web site don’t get as much attention. The most frequently hit pages are those linked directly from the home page. As a result, GLIN was carefully designed to provide more link options for people to pursue right off the top pages (McIntyre, 1996).
GLIN development enlisted the participation of dozens of U.S. and Canadian federal and state/provincial agencies, and other public and private organizations with an interest in the ecology and economy of the Great Lakes. From the beginning, the GLIN project has been managed by the Great Lakes Commission, a nonpartisan, eight-state compact agency based in Ann Arbor, Mich. As the only Great Lakes organization with a statutory mandate to represent the collective views of the eight Great Lakes states, the Commission was uniquely suited to spearhead the GLIN initiative.
By mid-1993, a critical mass of agencies and organizations in the Great Lakes region agreed to develop GLIN to facilitate the linking of data, information and professionals in many disciplines, agencies and jurisdictions. The GLIN pilot identified a keen interest in the project, as well as a larger-than-predicted potential user community that included researchers, policymakers, industry leaders, and citizens from across the region and around the world.
GLIN began as a Gopher server, the Internet technology of choice at the time. In mid-1994, as the World Wide Web gained prominence on the Internet, GLIN began creating a few web pages, but didn't make the Web its primary mode of information sharing until late 1994.
In the years since, GLIN usage has grown steadily. Hits in February 1995 totaled 68,000; hits in September 1999 totaled 672,000 (refer to Figure I). The biggest upward trends in GLIN usage have resulted from 1) redesigns of the GLIN web interface (March and October 1995 and July 1997), 2) marketing "What's New on GLIN" via email listservs and other promotions, and 3) group training sessions and conferences with GLIN users (both current and potential).
In the areas of overall usage and name recognition, GLIN has grown far faster than expected, which could be attributed to GLIN filling a niche or the active partnership-building that GLIN sought to promote. In other areas, such as development of new user applications and interfaces, GLIN development has sometimes lagged behind technological capability.
GLIN was developed to provide centralized access to a wide variety of Great Lakes information via the Internet, but it was intended that the actual development and maintenance of the data sets would stay with the partner agencies. In that respect, GLIN is an example of both a centralized and decentralized information system (Manninen, 1998).
GLIN partners were encouraged to become self-sufficient by providing and maintaining their own information on their own servers. The goal was a self-supporting infrastructure that would not depend on any one "hub" server.
Accordingly, many of GLIN's early efforts focused on training less-experienced agencies to set up their own servers. Decentralization was to increase as partners put their own servers online and moved their files onto their own machines. When GLIN partner agencies did have a server online, GLIN maintained hypertext links to it and encouraged its development. This initial capital investment in getting the region's agencies online reaped initial rewards for GLIN in building support for the network. This did have repercussions, however, as it tended to produce a large group of Internet novices in the region who made minimal data contributions to GLIN, yet continued to require a lot of technical support.
Included here are some comments from actual GLIN users about how the network has worked for them:
|I have found GLIN to be an essential component of my daily worklife. Moreover, GLIN has also become an effective partner of ours in encouraging wider use of the internet and electronic technologies by non-for-profit and community-based conservation/environmental organizations.|
|--Mark Van Putten, President and CEO, National Wildlife Federation|
Founding director of NWF's Great Lakes Natural Resource Center
|I am in 8th grade and am doing a project on how Lake Superior relates to the seven social sciences. I live in Wisconsin, so I visit Lake Superior often, but I was really provided with a lot of information I didn't know about the lake by the GLIN site.|
|For us in the Baltic Sea region, our regional information network (BALLERINA: http://www.baltic-region.net/) is modeled after GLIN. We are proud to be GLIN's first 'sister' and to join in the cooperative effort to provide comprehensive information about shared watersheds online.|
|--On behalf of BALLERINA:
Britt Hägerhäll Aniansson, Sweden
Andrus Meiner, Estonia
Nathaniel S. Trumbull, Russian Federation
Annika Tidlund, Sweden
|Simply said, I think the GLIN efforts are among the highest value activities found on the Internet. The P2tech listserve (see http://www.great-lakes.net/lists/p2tech/index.html) is the single best exchange network that I have seen operating, and I have been a part of a number of them, environmental and otherwise. I think that it provides a classic case study of the extent of information transfer/sharing that can be directly productive to day to day work requirements. In a broader sense, I think that the GLIN core system has been a highly useful central resource for environmental and related information about the Great Lakes watershed.|
|--Tom Borton, Director of Engineering and Environmental Services|
Michigan Energy Research and Resource Association
|I have used GLIN on numerous occasions to help direct my students to environmental information about the Great Lakes. While my students are studying physical geography and environmental impacts, my classroom focus is on the Great Lakes. Without GLIN, my students surely would not have stumbled upon the plethora of resources available about the lakes and surrounding region.|
|--Craig Hattam, Minnesota Alliance for Geographic Education|
Lincoln Junior High; Hibbing, Minnesota
|I used the GLIN web site extensively as part of a project for quantifying the flows of organochlorines in the Great Lakes basin. I used the results of the Southwest Lake Michigan Pilot Project (downloaded from the web) and got contact information for the agricultural profile project as well, which led to values for pesticide use in the basin. I was also able to find general information on the region, which has proven immensely helpful.|
|--Kirsten Sinclair Rossellot, P.E.|
Process Profiles; Calabasas, CA
|Speaking for the entire Office of Pollution Prevention at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, we have benefited tremendously from the P2TECH, P2REG and NPPR listservers operated by GLIN. These services have been critical in supporting the networking of environmental policy and technical specialists both nationally and internationally. Not only has the improved ability to network and communicate helped the Great Lakes in ameliorating its pollution issues, but this technical information has been transferred easily now across the country and beyond. In addition, programs outside of the Great Lakes have been given the opportunity through these listservers to provide free technical assistance to those in the Great Lakes region in return.|
|--Greg Gresko, Office of Pollution Prevention|
Virginia Department of Environmental Quality
In the early years of GLIN (1993-1995) there were security concerns with the Internet, an unknown territory to many data managers in the region. Many believed there was a great risk of misinterpretation or misuse of data on the Internet. Others said there was no perceived need for an online network like GLIN. Still other would-be data providers were concerned about giving up control of their data.
Another impediment to putting data online was the perception that no one was interested. In 1993, few agencies in the Great Lakes region saw any reason to compile actual scientific data and put them online. This narrow view, of course, has changed dramatically during the latter half of the 1990s.
As a pioneer in networked information sharing among both public and private groups in the Great Lakes region, GLIN made impressive strides in a short time. It was committed to modern networking technology and to linking loosely coupled organizations. Its regional focus on the Great Lakes watershed provided a powerful shared concern among a wide array of participants spanning all levels of government in two separate countries.
Yet GLIN had more trouble than expected drawing on the information resources of data providers in the region, and it unexpectedly faced the challenge of other, competing views of information sharing (Evans, 1997). Only after several years of existence did it begin tackling the question of networked geographic data. Design of a regional spatial data (GIS) library; TEACH Great Lakes, resources for both students and teachers; and adding to the immediacy of GLIN by highlighting current events in a media corner, are all key goals for the year 2000.
By far the biggest challenge for the next phase of GLIN, however, is the big-picture management of the network and its thousands of nested links. Networked databases are being tested to alleviate the huge maintenance demands and hands-on upkeep that GLIN currently requires. Keeping a fresh face on the network, while still keeping up with technological hurdles and day-to-day link updates, has become an overwhelming task for the small GLIN project team.
The Great Lakes GIS Online project (see http://great-lakes.net/gis/glgis.html) was conceived as a way to use the World Wide Web to facilitate data sharing among GIS users in the region. Launched in October 1997, the project is using online mapping tools to render GIS coverages and related data from a broad spectrum of agencies. The hope is that this will open more channels of communication among GIS users in the region, increasing awareness of existing data and decreasing the number of redundant data production efforts.
The Great Lakes GIS Online project partners, a variety of U.S. and Canadian federal and state agencies, have begun populating an online library with numerous data sets. Thus far, the list of data offered includes Great Lakes shoreline, soils, land use and land cover, hazardous waste sites, demographics, watersheds and transportation (Great Lakes Commission, 1998).
Sample the Minnesota GIS Pilot Area
Static snapshot of the Minnesota GIS Pilot Area
(if your browser is not enabled)
The project's spatial data library will serve as a collection, organization and distribution point for spatial data related to the Great Lakes region. Where the data themselves cannot be served, users will find descriptive information (metadata) and agency contact information. In addition to being viewable on the Web, the assembled data layers will be available for download from the Internet and select data layers will be published on CD-ROMs. Providing public access to spatial data via GLIN will go hand in hand with a redesign of the GLIN architecture, geared more toward an atlas-style of navigation.
Also in the proposal stages is a Lake Michigan Monitoring Inventory Database, which would provide the public easy access to real-time information about monitoring efforts throughout the Lake Michigan basin. This database and Internet delivery model could be used as a pilot project for similar designs in other lake basins, ultimately building up to a national inventory of monitoring efforts. The database could eventually be developed further to serve actual monitoring data at stream-level specificity.
Both regional and global partnership building will be necessary to maintain GLIN's standing as a premier information service and model for other regions of the world (Manninen, 1998). A network modeled after GLIN currently exists in the Baltic Sea region and similar initiatives are under development in the Upper Paraguay watershed in South America and the Gulf of Maine in New England, among others.
The Baltic Sea system, affectionately referred to as GLIN's first sister, went online in 1997. The BALtic Sea Region On-Line Environmental Information Resources for INternet Access (BALLERINA: http://www.baltic-region.net/) is an environmental gateway to the Baltic Sea region and its drainage area. The project is led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP/GRID-Arendal) and the Stockholm Marine Research Centre, with funding from the European Environment Agency, the ministries of environment in Norway and Sweden, and the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency.
In the southern hemisphere, the Organization of American States is partnering with the United Nations Environment Program and the World Bank on a Global Environment Facility (GEF) proposal for development of a hydrological information system for the Upper Paraguay River Basin. Emulating GLIN, the goal of the project is to develop and test a prototype river basin information system that can be widely applied to support decisionmaking related to water resources management. The transboundary basin of the Upper Paraguay River, shared by Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, is part of the Plata Basin that drains nearly one-fifth of the South American continent to the Atlantic Ocean. The Upper Paraguay River Basin incorporates the headwaters of the Plata Basin and one of the world's great wetlands, the Pantanal.
The Gulf of Maine Environmental Information Exchange (see http://www.gulfofmaine.org/gominfoex/terms_of_reference.htm) is building incrementally on the broad base of activities presently underway for information management in the Gulf, which forms a somewhat closed coastal ecosystem with many internal linkages and social and economic benefits to residents in the surrounding coastal lands. By establishing an electronic environmental information exchange system, the Gulf of Maine seeks to promote the shared usage of environmental information among the various agencies, communities and individuals with an interest in ensuring long-term sustainable benefits from its coastal resources.
Includes creating comprehensive, issue-specific sections on GLIN, focusing on hydrology, aquatic nuisance species, beach monitoring, Areas of Concern, Lakewide Management Plans and more.
Focuses on customizing a search engine to search only servers in the Great Lakes region, which will enable a GLIN visitor to search GLIN holdings as well as the holdings of other Great Lakes partner agencies. This comprehensive search capability will greatly enhance GLIN's power as a decision-support tool and the visibility of data holdings from GLIN partners.
Involves maintaining and enhancing GLIN's core resources, and being on the forefront of new technology through technical training and publicity, all of which will increase GLIN's overall potential. With faster Internet access becoming a reality for more and more users, it's expected that many web sites will respond by offering different visitor experiences based on bandwidth (Walsh/Fitzloff, 1998). Still, GLIN developers believe the goal of the site, not the end-user's connection speed, should determine the content.
GLIN continues to be supported by a number of public and private funders and by a broad regional interest and commitment.
While funding for project-specific applications shows promise for GLIN, there remains a need for support for basic operations and maintenance of the network. Marketing and promotion, coupled with creative financing opportunities, remain a critical component of GLIN program development.
From its outset, GLIN was always described as a network of data providers, rather than a data center. As a distributed network of this sort, GLIN provides an interesting example of the challenges involved with developing a highly networked, mostly unplanned information infrastructure within a complex institutional context. GLIN illustrates that the quality of an information infrastructure depends on how well the shared information matches the needs of its users, in particular its accuracy, timeliness and encapsulation (Evans, 1997).
Thinking like a publisher, we have to continually ask ourselves, "Is there a real demand for this information?" Ideally, the topics covered on a web site should interest, aid, educate or entertain your target audience (Gahran, 1998). Identifying the target audience, therefore, is a key component of web site development. GLIN has carefully limited its content to Great Lakes-related information only. For example, rather than linking to The Nature Conservancy, GLIN links instead to The Nature Conservancy's Great Lakes Program. Keeping the resources specific to the target audience has helped keep GLIN manageable and focused.
The best way to gain the trust of your audience is to show them what the system can do for them. Showing a researcher, for example, how he can instantaneously communicate with or view the research of fellow researchers hundreds or even thousands of miles away, will reap much more support than merely explaining the same practice.
Great Lakes Commission staff invited the participation of known providers of high-quality information, helped them to put a server online, and put links to the new site on the main GLIN pages. Training was a primary burden during the early years of GLIN and the Web. The Great Lakes Commission had limited training resources, which it focused on promoting free and open data communication among its eight constituent states and related federal agencies. This policy tended to exclude small non-government groups and local communities, but it was in keeping with the Great Lakes Commission's role and mission to the states.
Although technologically, growing GLIN was quite easy, it was very important for GLIN developers to promote cooperation rather than competition with other service providers.
A key insight here is that things do not need to be physically on the same web site to be integrated (Nielsen, 1998). GLIN acts as a Web "mall" of sorts, organizing the offerings of hundreds of different Great Lakes agencies in one easy-to-navigate index. The audience likes this. They can come to GLIN looking for virtually any piece of Great Lakes information and they will find it, if not in GLIN's indices then via a link to a GLIN partner's web site.
GLIN was designed using a multiple-pathways approach to navigation: by geographic area, topic area or administrative unit (McIntyre, 1996). For example, if someone wants to find information about water levels on Lake Superior, they could enter GLIN through the geographic index (see Great Lakes/Lake Superior on http://www.great-lakes.net/places/places.html). Or they could enter GLIN through the topical index (see "Levels" or "Hydrology" on http://www.great-lakes.net/navigate/glinindex.html). Or, if they know which agency collects the water levels data they're looking for, they could enter GLIN through the administrative index (see U.S. and Canadian Federal Partners in the Great Lakes/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on http://www.great-lakes.net/links/links.html).
Also having a navigation bar on each and every page of your web site makes it very hard for people to get lost or trapped on orphan pages. You have to remember that frequently people will enter your site from a page other than your home page (Nielsen, 1996). This is where a clear navigation bar (and/or a site map) really becomes important.
Although a web site should strive to be "better than reality," don't get caught in the bells and whistles trap. For example, if you are interested in supplying audio/video clips over the Web, spend the available bandwidth on high-fidelity audio supplemented with slowly changing high-resolution photos of the speaker, the audience or the visuals used in the presentation.
Even better: deliver something that can't be done in the physical world by indexing the presentation and allowing the user to jump directly to segments of interest while reading short abstracts of the other parts. Then integrate the speaker's original content with hypertext links to background information and annotations and comments by other authorities in the field (Nielsen, 1998). This approach is much preferred over serving a jerky postage-stamp size video clip that serves little purpose and in many cases only distracts from the audio message, which may be very worthwhile.
The Web has forced many agencies to re-examine their mission, simplify it and make it more public. As a result, many people conclude that the public has become better informed as a result.
The new twist with the Web is that the audience is in control. The Web is a totally user-directed medium: the user must choose which site to view, and which path of links to follow (Gahran, 1998).
Writing for the Web is very different than writing for print media. Oftentimes less text is the best way to maximize your message online. Having a succinct message on a web site is preferred to avoid excessive scrolling for the viewer. The Web also allows for more "doing" rather than just "seeing," as is the case with print media (Nielsen, 1999).
Crisp, clean writing is a lesson that can be carried over into our hard copy publications, as well. Short-attention-span spots on TV, radio and the Web are further contributing to this point. The bottom line is if you have something to say, say it, but know the boundaries of your reader's attention span.
As a rule of thumb, the annual maintenance budget for a web site should be about the same as the initial cost of building the site, with 50 percent as an absolute minimum. In addition to staff devoted to an annual redesign of a site, maintenance is needed throughout the year to bring fresh content online, reorganize and revise old pages and repair broken links (Nielsen, 1997). Broken links (i.e., linkrot) was cited as one of the biggest problems in using the Web, according to an October 1998 survey by Georgia Tech's Graphics, Visualization and Usability Center. Other top problems mentioned were speed and slow-loading advertisements (Georgia Tech Research Corporation, 1998).
Hand in hand with sustainability of a network is another important requirement: keeping pace with technology. In order for an information system of any sort to maintain sustainable funding and sustained usage, it must continually seek out and apply technology to optimize its suite of services.
As the Web continues to evolve, GLIN strives to be a lasting example of the best the Web has to offer.
Evans, J., "Infrastructures for Sharing Geographic Information Among Environmental Agencies," Information Systems in Planning, Ph.D thesis, Chapter 4, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Boston, Massachusetts USA, 1997. Online at http://web.mit.edu/jdevans/thesis.html
Gahran, A., "How to Think Like a Publisher," Contentious, July 1998. Online at http://www.contentious.com/
Gahran, A., Interview With Jacob Nielsen, "Content is a Service," Contentious, August 1998. Online at http://www.contentious.com/
Georgia Tech Research Corporation, "WWW User Survey, No. 10," Georgia Tech Graphics, Visualization and Usability Center; Atlanta, Georgia USA; October 1998. Online at http://www.gvu.gatech.edu/user_surveys/survey-1998-10/
Great Lakes Commission, "Geographic Information Systems: Tools to Organize and Interpret Layers of Data," ADVISOR newsletter, Sept/Oct 1998. Online at http://www.glc.org/docs/advisor/98/gis-insert.pdf
Great Lakes Commission, Proceedings of the Great Lakes GIS Online Workshop, January 1999. Online at http://www.glc.org/projects/glin/gis/proceed2.pdf
Manninen, C., "The Great Lakes Information Network," Proceedings of Out of the Fog: Furthering the Establishment of an Electronic Environmental Information Exchange for the Gulf of Maine, New England Aquarium Aquatic Forum Series, Report 99-1, November 1998, pp. 80-90.
Manninen, C., "The Great Lakes Information Network: Lessons Learned from an Integrated Approach to Web Design" Water International, International Water Resources Association; Southern Illinois University; Carbondale, Illinois USA; Vol. 24, No. 2, June 1999, pp. 151-56. Online at http://www.iwra.siu.edu/win/pdf_file/manninen.pdf
McIntyre, P., "How to Design Your Agency’s Web Site to Maximize Use" ADVISOR newsletter, Great Lakes Commission; Ann Arbor, Michigan USA; Vol. 9, No. 3, May/June 1996, part of a special insert titled "GLIN: Mapping a partnership for the future." Online at http://www.glc.org/docs/advisor/96/v9n3glin.html#design
Nielsen, J., "Better Than Reality: A Fundamental Internet Principle," Alertbox, Usable Information Technology, March 1998. Online at http://www.useit.com/
Nielsen, J., "Differences Between Print Design and Web Design," Alertbox, Usable Information Technology, January 1999. Online at http://www.useit.com/
Nielsen, J., "Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design," Alertbox, Usable Information Technology, May 1996. Online at http://www.useit.com/
Nielsen, J., "Top Ten Mistakes of Web Management," Alertbox, Usable Information Technology, June 1997. Online at http://www.useit.com/
Ratza, C., "The Great Lakes Information Network," Water Resources Update, Universities Council on Water Resources, Carbondale, Illinois USA; Issue 99, Spring 1995, pp. 21-25.
Ratza, C. and P. McIntyre, "The Great Lakes Information Network: Your Bridge to the Great Lakes Region," Proceedings of With Rivers to the Sea, Stockholm Water Symposium/EMECS, Report 2, August 1997, pp. 399-406.
Walsh, J. and E. Fitzloff, "Web Sites Cater to Connections in 1999," InfoWorld Electric, December 1998.
Christine L. Manninen
Project Manager/GLIN Webmaster
Great Lakes Commission
400 Fourth St., Argus II Building
Ann Arbor, Michigan USA 48103
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