forwarded message from David Green

Marc Andreessen (
Fri, 9 Jul 93 03:31:19 -0500

------- Start of forwarded message -------
From: (David Green)
Subject: Organizing gophers
Date: Fri, 9 Jul 93 17:27:31 EST

I wrote the following comments in response to a query on
another list. However I thought that subscribers to NIR
may also find this of some interest, as it reflects some
of my experiences in the "front lines" of network information.

It's unfortunate that discussions of network information
tend to focus almost exclusively on hardware and software.
The issues involved in actually organizing the information
are just as great, and are rapdily becoming more critical
as the user base of Gopher, WWW etc expands.

Cheers .. David Green

- --------------------------------------------

Dora writes ...

> I think it would be interesting to begin a discussion on how
> to organize this mass of information using a gopher network ...

A number of us who run gopher services have been thinking about
this problem for a long time now. While the number of servers, and
the amount of information, is relatively small the problem is not
too bad. Most managers have adopted much the same approach as I
have, namely create a list of "other sites", so that people can
explore for themselves.

However this approach soon bogs down because most sites provide
information on a variety of topics, so it can take users a long
time to sift the "wheat from the chaff". The following are the
steps that I have taken in order to help users:

1. I've tried to place the infromation that users really want as
close as possible to the top level menu. Hence I provide a
series of thematic menu options on subjects that I try to
support, e.g. biodiversity, landscape ecology, molecular
biology, ...

2. I've tried to build some redundancy into the system by
providing alternative paths to the same information.
e.g. the path ~/biodiversity/other_sites leads to the
same information as ~/other_sites/biodiversity.

3. Instead of just providing pointers to "other sites", I
also try to "pick the eyes" out of each site by providing
direct pointers to useful information at those sites.
An extreme case of this is my medical folder - I maintain
almost no relevant data locally at all (except virus taxa
database), but have collated a series of pointers to major

This may sound parasitic to some of you, but it serves some
very basic, but important functions:
(a) information is maintained at its source;
(b) collating live pointers to services, not just sites,
is an EXTREMELY helpful indexing service for users.
(c) it helps draw attention to sites that may be overlooked
otherwise - users tend to go back to the "big" sites again
and again.
(d) There's mountains of material out there. No single site
can hold everything, as many are now discovering.

In my view is that there is at present far too little of this
sort of sifting network information. Obviously the sifting
requires a lot of effort by the system manager. However users
should realize that an important contribution they can make is
to compile "live" lists of links around specialist themes. All
you have to do is compile a host of bookmarks. There are lots
of newsgroup FAQs about, but very few of us seem to be compiling
this sort of information into live links. Many would see that
this sort of activity is irrelevant, given the power of Veronica
searches, but as with "other sites", veronica searches take a
long time to sift through.

I would be very happy to hear from users who have compiled
live links information and would be happy to create some
specialist folders out of such material.

The main difficulties with this approach are that servers often
reorganize, or delete material without notice, so links sometimes
become dead without warning. Also, as network traffic increases
the need to "mirror" rather than merely provide pointers becomes
more important. For example, I pull down weather images for various
parts of the world each day, so that (Australian) users won't be
continually transferring satellite images across the Pacific.
Here automation is the key - a few cron scripts go a long way!

4. The next stage beyond (3) is to develop coordinating projects for
specialist themes. My idea is that sites willing to provide
support for a particular topic become "nodes" in a thematic
information network. Here "support" means (a) maintain on-line
information; (b) accept contributions from users; (c) coordinate
with other nodes. My first experiment with this approach is
"FireNet", which we hope will grow into a world-wide information
network for everyone interested in landscape fires. I am
currently developing material for other such themes, including
palynology, viruses, and complex systems.

The principle is that the information stored at all nodes in a
thematic network becomes a truly distributed information system.
Each node would provide pointers, or mirrors, for information
on other nodes. Moreover the directory/menu structure should be
consistent across all nodes in the system. Other sites can, of
course, provide access to the system simply by pointing at one
of the nodes.

5. The above issues become even more critical as we move beyond
gopher to hypermedia information stored under World Wide Web.
Here I have adopted the principle of providing "home pages"
for each topic that I support. Thus I have home pages for
biodiversity, FireNet, pollen, weather and global change,
Landscapes, etc to parallel the gopher menus. These include
gopher links, of course, but also pointers to other hypertext
documents. Again the key is to provide lots of thematic trails
through all the documents you provide.

Finally, I should say that I see myself very much in the role of
network publisher. Indeed I am now literally obtaining ISBN and ISSN
codes for some of the material that I place on the system. It's
important that the user community come to recognize this and act
accordingly. i.e. instead of being passive users, they should look
at what they can contribute. Those of us who are trying to maintain
systems cannot do the job on our own - it's intensely annoying to
receive complaints of the kind "your info. is out of date" or
"why aren't you providing ...". As the scale of the system becomes
some user's need to play a far bigger role than they have to date.

I hope that your readers will find the above comments of interest.
I attach below contact details for my Bioinformatics information
service for anyone interested.

Cheers ... David Green
name Dr David G. Green
address Research School of Biological Sciences &
Centre for Information Science Research
Australian National University
GPO Box 475 Canberra 2601 AUSTRALIA
phone 61-6-249-2490(or 5031)
fax 61-6-249-4437

Access to to ANU Bioinformatics ....


Gopher :

Name=ANU Bioinformatics

World Wide Web

------- End of forwarded message -------