Johns Hopkins Gazette: July 25, 1994

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
     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records representing published and unpublished literature in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
     "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."

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