Advancing Water Resources Research and Management
|Symposium on Water Resources and the World Wide Web|
|Seattle, Washington, December 5-9, 1999|
Ongoing concerns over these inequities in access and distribution of the Internet's benefits are debated in many forums (for a discussion, see Anderson, 1999). Reports of the widening technological gap (the wired vs. the non-wired) are now commonly reported alongside those of the more traditionally measured income gaps (e.g. UNDP Human Development Report, 1999. The rapid co-evolution of ICTs and other globalization trends has reframed many existing societal conflicts in a new light, that of the Information Age. Issues such as the role of technology, telecommunications pricing and policies, telephone infrastructure investments, privatization trends, rural needs, literacy rates and educational levels, etc. are receiving renewed attention. For much of the world, the Internet is intimately bound together with much broader societal and economic development issues.
The Internet has exploded within this global development scenario, as email and the WWW are finding many practical applications. Environmental related information and activity are quite abundant on-line and water resources related websites and information have experienced a dynamic evolution in a relatively short timeframe. (for examples of individual website histories see Lanfear, 1995; Wendt and Lanfear, 1999; Abrahms, 1999; Eakin, 1999; Wade and Anderson, 1995; Ratza, 1995; and Manninen, 1999). Both the number of water resources related websites and the amount of water related information available are staggering. This is evidenced by the size and volume of ‘links' pages, user complaints that they cannot easily find the information they want, and the number of new water projects coming on-line. As a simplistic indicator, plugging the generic term "water" into the Yahoo search engine yields 357 categories and 11,730 sites for water. The similar exercise utilizing Infoseek produces 10 matching topics and 3,126,224 Web search results (searches conducted on August 31st, 1999).
While this sheer volume can be overwhelming and information overload is often reported, calls for "more" and "improved" water related content are increasingly heard (Water on the Web Recommendations Report, 1998; Saywell and Cotton, 1999). The demand for water related content is exploding in conjunction with the continuing worldwide diffusion of Internet access and WWW browser technologies. The demand is also increasing in response to intensifying and changing information needs of water decision-makers. These water information needs are intensifying and changing due to several factors including:
Thus, we can see that these Internet and communication technologies have emerged at a time when the challenges facing water professionals around the world are great. This paper addresses the role of the WWW in water related information delivery and provides a discussion of 1) the increasing internationalization of WWW users, 2) why water content providers and webmasters should pay attention to this trend, and 3) several basic principles that can improve your water website's usability for this diverse audience. The overall role that the WWW can play in the international water resources sustainability agenda is also examined.
Thus far, however, the World Wide Web has not been so world wide, either in content or users, but the trend is clearly toward a more global audience. The Internet's demographics are continually moving away from its historical U.S.-centric beginnings. For example, large U.S. based community websites are seeing their audiences shift as increasingly more members are coming from outside the U.S. For example, Xoom.com estimates approximately 45% of its members are now from outside the U.S. (Ledbetter, 1999). Table 1 lists the latest Internet demographics from NUA (June 1999).
TABLE 1: NUA's Internet Survey Demographics
|Middle East||.88 million|
|Canada & USA||102.03 million|
|Latin America||5.29 million|
|World Total||179 million|
The following can also help to highlight the striking internationalization of the Internet (adapted from Anderson, 1999):
TABLE 2: Global Web Connectivity Resources
|International Networking and Connectivity Providers||http://www.nsrc.org/networkstatus.html|
|Matrix Information and Directory Services||http://www.mids.org/index.html|
|TILAN: Latin American Connectivity||http://lanic.utexas.edu:80/project/tilan/|
Not only are relatively more users coming online from outside of the United States, more websites and information are following these international usage trends. Content and languages from diverse geographic areas will multiply online. Perusing the abundance of WWW pages in the English language, it is easy to forget the multitude of languages currently in use around the world. While English is the dominant language online, it is the mother tongue in only seven countries (with roughly half a billion people). The growth of the Internet is accelerating the need to communicate in other languages (Krochmal, 1999).
Computer Economics (June 1999) predicted that English will lose its dominance on the Web within three years. Their report states that "There will be a 60 percent increase in Internet use among English speakers during the next six years. At the same time, the non-English speaking market will grow by 150 percent. The language groups that will most significantly affect the dominance of English on the Internet those in Asia-Pacific and Latin America." While English may very well remain the dominant professional language of scientific communication, it is safe to say that as more and more of the world comes on-line, language and how it communicates the message will grow in importance as an issue.
Approximately 43.5% of Internet users is made up of non-English based users; 30% use the Latin character set for European languages and 13.5% use non-Latin character sets including Chinese, Hebrew, Arabic, and Japanese (Andrews, 1999). French, Spanish, German, Japanese, and Chinese are the leading languages to be targeted for translation from English, with Swedish, Portuguese, Russian, and Korean following. The demand for Internet translation services is growing and currently there are no simple "pushbutton" software packages to effectively translate a website from English to any of these languages or vice-versa (some predict that XML will help automate translation over the next 24 months, see Krochmal, 1999).
Given these cited usage trends, the Internet will become an increasingly diverse place and will reflect a growing international influence. As governments respond to the societal conflicts outlined in the Introduction by placing information policy and investments higher on their agendas (e.g., African Information Society Initiative) and as international agencies expand their ICT efforts (e.g., Bellanet , SDNP , World Bank, Leland Initiative, etc), worldwide usage trends rates will be even more accelerated. As increasingly more people use the WWW from outside of the United States, their information needs and user experiences will grow in importance to those who create and manage many websites. Regardless of where they are located, website owners will increasingly need to incorporate the international audience of users into their website philosophy and design.
These international users exist and will pose an increasing presence on-line; as a subset, water professionals and others concerned with water issues will mirror these overall trends. More and more visits to water related websites will come from outside the United States. Up to 10 percent of traffic of any new U.S. based website comes from abroad within the first month of operation (Forrester Research, 1999). An awareness of these international trends will compel content providers and webmasters to consider the relations of this user group to their mission. Does the website's mission, and correspondingly the owning organization's, involve these international users and in what ways? Or are these international users excluded from the mission?
Depending on the answers to these questions, information content and delivery strategies may need to be revisited. If international usage was an overlooked component of information needs addressed by the website, adjustments may be necessary to better fill those needs. Content may need to be modified or expanded and design strategies may need to be revised to accommodate these users (outlined in the next section). Overlooking foreign visitors can deprive some websites from fulfilling their stated missions, especially if that mission is related to the sustainable management of water resources. Given their relationship to the international agenda, water websites addressing sustainable water management issues especially need to consider these international users.
Over the past several decades, we have learned much about the global interconnectedness of water resources and the critical transboundary nature of water problems. Water resources issues are projected as the biggest environmental concern in a recent poll of world leaders (Serageldin, 1998). The global reality is that one billion people lack basic water supply access and 1.7 billion do not have adequate sanitation facilities (World Bank, 1993) and growing populations will work to exacerbate these figures. The environmental needs of water based ecosystems and implementing sustainability criteria further complicate our management tasks. For sites geared toward sustainable water management, the time to think globally is now. The water resources research community is an international one and the potential users of this research are international as well.
In light of the desired relationship with international users, check website logs for foreign visitors to get a rough estimate of the traffic volume and where its coming from. Analyzing web logs will yield useful information about users and their origin of access. However, they cannot tell a complete nor accurate story as it is more difficult to identify Web visitors. The domain a user appears to come from does not always provide a clue as to their nationality. While it is often true that visitors from domains with the country extension are indeed from that same country, this is far from accurate for visitors from .com or .net domains. Global and local ISPs use these domains internationally and this makes it virtually impossible to identify where the visitor is actually located. However if upon investigation usage statistics reveal any significant geographically based user groups, and these are important to your stated mission, it may be practical to consider how best to market to them. Targeting email messages in the native language, registering with foreign language search engines, forging reciprocal links with related websites in that region, developing partnerships with local organizations, etc. may prove fruitful strategies.
Overall, learning to act globally in regards to your website can be prudent on a WWW that is growing wider with each passing month. Evaluating your water website's relationship with these users and internationalizing to some degree will increasingly required. The web is an international space and by becoming internationally friendly, you are in a sense are standardizing your site for the WWW and improve your preparedness for international visitors. Considering international users in light of the sustainable water management agenda can also help us maximize the benefits of the WWW in our discipline. Considering this growing international usage brings up several questions concerning the usability of a website. Usability issues concerning international users may not take a relatively high priority within some water websites, particularly if these users are not tied directly to the water organization's mission and funding sources, yet we shall see that their usability concerns can yield benefits to domestic users as well. Designing your website for international usage actually broadens the life of it (Andrews, 1999).
There are two main categories of users to a website, browsers and searchers, and therefore both these experiences be incorporated into any website's design. For water content sites, we must also remember that many users have particular information needs and they are using the WWW to problem solve, not necessarily just to surf or search. Overall, any good website design needs to be intuitive (Norman, 1990) so that even first-time visitors can have a successful experience from their visit. Developers must consider that the website must "sell" or "speak for" itself, i.e., a website needs to be able to prove itself to each user and typically on their first visit. A website needs to be instantly usable (Rajani and Rosenberg, 1999A) and yet remain meaningful to its repeat and loyal users. At a fundamental level, usability refers to the ability of users to navigate to find what they want. The costs of poor usability are ever increasing given users value of time and the size of the WWW. Users place high values on time allocated to WWW surfing and a website does not want to waste users time nor provide an unworthwhile experience. Good design and quality content are two key aspects to usability.
Knowing how users use your existing website is a key to making it easier
to use and forms the core of user-centered design. Input from actual users
is critical to this process. No content provider or webmaster desires for
the design of their website to be a barrier to any visitor's use of its
information. Nielson's Top
Ten Mistakes in Web Design and Top
Ten Mistakes Revisited Three Years Later are classics in web usability
tips and guidelines. The bottom line of usability is user satisfaction
and to achieve this goal, websites must be learnable, efficient, and even
enjoyable to use. Nielson (1994) and Rajani and Rosenberg (1999A) both
found that less complex interfaces are preferred by users and the trend
is toward the design of sites with faster download times. See Table 3 for
links to usability principles that serve to empower users. Rajini and Rosenberg
(1999B) review a variety of usability principles from Nielson, IBM, Vertelney,
Shneiderman, Heckel, and Norman. Based upon their experimental research,
they also discuss seven main issues affecting the design of websites.
TABLE 3: Usability Resources
|Jacob Nielson's Website||http://www.useit.com|
|Web Marketing Info Center||http://www.wilsonweb.com/webmarket/design.htm|
b) Many websites current offerings of informational formats do not consider the acquisition needs of international users in terms of printing and downloading options. Typically, this will reveal a need to offer documents in a wider variety of formats (html, PDF, etc.) and the need to offer the document in parts or pieces. Faced with high access costs, it is often frustrating to international users wanting Chapter 3 (a relevant case study) of a lengthy report to only be offered the option to download/print the entire document from the main menu. Offering several options incraeses the flexibility of choice to fit their informational needs.
c) Navigational tools and guides for the "new user" are even more important for some international visitors to your website. Be sure to make clear the website's offerings and benefits. The goal is always a website that can be used effectively to meet users needs/goals. Clear and intuitive site organization is a key as wasted time is expensive. A lack of navigational support compounds the difficulty international users face in finding information.
d) While frames perform better than in the past, the use of frames can be even more frustrating for international users. If the use of frames make the webpage more clumsy to interact with, this can be especially confusing for international users. Additionally, many browsers being used will not bookmark that page for future use.
Similarly, time is typically referenced by the 24 hour time system internationally, so that 8:52 p.m. becomes a standardized 20:52. Time references, such as the hours of office operations, should be accompanied by the appropriate time zone or reference to Greenwich Mean Time. For example, the typical 9 - 5 schedule in the Eastern Time zone would becomes 9 - 17 EST (GMT -6).
While the Internet can have the effect of obliterating space, place is still an important characteristic in today's world. Stating who you are by indicating your physical location and listing your complete postal address on homepage can be very useful to many visitors to your site.
Local phone numbers can be up to 12 digits long in some areas of the world and often includes an area code and a country/region code. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has recommendations for phone numbers; Windows 95 and other applications have incorporated this standard.
Thus far, English is the lingua franca of the World Wide Web and may very well reach the majority of professionals in your targeted audience. Many ‘early adopters' of the Internet in foreign countries have at least some knowledge of English (Ledbetter, 1999). We can take the fact that the majority of major international water journals are published in English as some indicator. Research into websites in targeted countries illustrates that many foreign based websites often have English corners or versions (e.g. Taiwan, The Netherlands, Israel, etc.). Many water professionals may be reached via English; however, various stakeholders, practitioners and policy- makers may not.
While the authoring tools have improved, building truly multi-lingual websites is still a substantial undertaking (Luh, 1999). Several water websites are maintained at least to some extent in languages other than English. The GWP Forum is maintained in Spanish and French and IWRN and AWWA in Spanish; often with multilingual sites, the content is more limited in the non-English languages. Other internationally focused websites tend towards English, such as the World Water Council and IWRA. Translating the front or splash page into a few languages is a common technique to attract international visitors.
b) With international users may come a greater email volume and requests for information. Are you equipped prepared to these requests and to answer foreign email in foreign languages?
c) We have not dealt with e-commerce considerations where commercial, regulatory, and cultural environments are vitally important (currencies, credit cards, customs, taxes, etc.). Academic oriented sites can often avoid the tougher e-commerce issues that international users pose more commercial sites. However, if you are selling reports, books, etc., consider if you have the capability to bill and ship to many overseas addresses (currency, customs, taxes, and local laws can all come into play).
d) We will see a growing national diversity of web content and form over the next several years (Kline, 1996) that will make interlinkages increasingly more important. The increasing specialization of search engines, web rings, and links directories will serve as important guides for all users to content around the world.
e) The increasing international nature of usage will have an influence on online content. What content will international users need? Information niches will shift in response to growing numbers of international users. Content is increasingly becoming the name of the WWW game.
A relatively cost effective way to get some idea about your website's international usability and friendliness is to have water professionals in other countries evaluate your site. Have a collaborator or their colleagues look over the site and offer their personal observations. Alternatively, you can post an announcement about your site on a listserv dealing with your region of interest and solicit the feedback of its participants from that geographical area. Ultimately, implementing international friendliness and usability considerations improves your website for all users. International users can reveal problems that exist for local users as well. While no website can be all things to all users, these efforts at improving site organization and clarity improve the overall website effectiveness and grounds its development solidly in serving all users needs.
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