CD-ROM TECHNOLOGY MAKES POPULATION DATA AVAILABLE WORLDWIDE By Mike Field A health clinic worker in Bangladesh needs to learn what family planning efforts have been most successful in rural areas. In Gabon, a government minister wonders if the pan-African AIDS epidemic will affect his country's population growth by the year 2000. At the headquarters of a far-flung network of family planning clinics in the Philippines, a newsletter editor searches for the latest information on deaths caused by unsafe abortions. Now, thanks to a School of Public Health project employing the latest CD-ROM technology, population specialists in 58 countries on five continents can call up-to-the-minute information from a wealth of international journals, articles and papers simply by spinning it up on the CD player of their personal computer. In the past, obtaining such information was nearly impossible for health professionals and population forecasters in the field. Developing-world researchers were forced to rely on sympathetic librarians and the often inefficient international mail system to obtain articles, abstracts and the latest journals to keep abreast of trends and new technologies. A lucky few with the proper computer equipment--and the financial resources to call to America--could electronically access a unique population data base with a modem. For most, however, staying current was a spotty affair. "Our mandate is to provide a comprehensive database of documentation on population, family planning and related health issues," said Anne Compton, associate director of the Center for Communication Programs at the School of Public Health. "With CD-ROM we can make an entire library of population information available to anyone with a personal computer." For the past 20 years, the Center for Communication Programs has operated POPLINE, the world's largest bibliographic population database. Containing more than 200,000 records representing published and unpublished literature in the field, POPLINE consists of citations and abstracts about family planning, fertility, population law and policy, demography, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, maternal and child health, primary health care communication, and population and the environment. POPLINE, an abbreviation of population information online, was developed as an online database in 1974. "In those days the data we kept was really only accessible to researchers in the U.S. because it required what was then fairly sophisticated computer equipment to link up and download information," Compton said. "In the early 70s, it was even difficult for researchers in Europe to access the information we gathered." That was before the computer and telecommunications revolution of the 1980s. By the middle of the decade personal computers were commonplace--even in many developing countries-- and the communication interfaces necessary to download information from a remote source were readily available. Use of the POPLINE database soared, a phenomena that continues to this day. Last year, individual use of the system increased by 60 percent, according to the center's annual report, while government use rose by nearly a third. Still, not everyone has the access to reliable long distance phone lines--or the money--necessary to communicate easily and often with a database in Baltimore. By the end of the 1980s the Center for Communication Programs was looking for additional ways to make its extensive resources widely available. "We started looking at CD-ROM technology early," Compton said. "Part of the challenge was finding a software developer that could develop an interface for novice, infrequent users"the majority of our developing-country users." The center eventually contracted with National Information Service Corporation, a Baltimore-based data services company that created the software necessary to easily read and access the database's huge volume of information from a compact disc. "Our first CD-ROM was produced in 1989, and it filled the disc." Compton said. "Since then, the technology has improved to allow more storage per disc, but our database has grown along with it. We're just on the limits of what can be fit on a single disc." POPLINE on CD-ROM, like the electronic database, is an English-language resource containing citations and abstracts of books, articles, documents and reports from around the world. People access information on the disc by typing in the author or subject of the search in a box that appears on their computer's screen. The center assists its database users by offering free delivery of copies of the original documents to its subscribers. "We try to cover every language," said Compton, who oversees a staff of 13. "We acquire and process about 10,000 documents each year, written in Tagalog and Serbo-Croatian and every other language imaginable." The electronic database is updated monthly; every six months, a new CD-ROM is sent out to subscribing researchers in the field. Currently, more than 200 sites around the world receive the discs. For many projects, money is no longer an impediment to acquiring the discs. "When our first disc came out, a CD-ROM drive cost about $1,200," Compton said. "By the next disc it was down to $700. Today you can have your own population library for under $500, and that's a one-time expense." CDs, Compton said, have created an information revolution in developing nations. "This is a huge difference to health workers, researchers and others in the field. It makes them information independent, which is a tremendous advantage." As CD-ROM drives move from expensive accessories to commonplace components in many personal computers, the demand for POPLINE on CD-ROM--and other databases like it--will probably increase. "Information has absolutely no value unless it is used," Compton said. "Access was once a problem, but CDs are quickly changing that. In the future, the challenge will not be getting information to people who need it, but in getting them more efficient at using it. That's the next thing we'll have to turn our attention to."
Go to Gazette Homepage