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partnerships:articles:saphhire [2017/06/12 10:20] (current)
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 +Prestel and its successors - notes from a Old Campaigner
 + Dr Steve Willoughby\
 +Consultant Dr Steve Willoughby remembers Prestel, the early teletext
 +system, and describes one of the successor systems he is now running for
 +Saffron Walden
 +For reasons I have never really understood myself, but may be to do with
 +nostalgia and irrational sentimentality,​ I keep a diary. My diary for
 +November 2nd 1986, exactly a decade ago, tells me that this was the day
 +I opened my first PRESTEL account.
 +Prestel - the viewdata service
 + For readers who have dim recollections of PRESTEL, it was a viewdata
 +service invented by Sam Fedida and originally developed by the British
 +Post Office in the early 1970s. Armed with a modem or a viewdata
 +terminal and a healthy budget, subscribers could connect to PRESTEL
 +machines with quaint names like BRONTE, DICKENS and DUKE and pick their
 +way through endless menus to find out anything from the latest heffer
 +prices in Norfolk to the cost of a flight to Zimbabwe.\
 + Some Local Authorities were quick to see the potential of PRESTEL as a
 +means of publishing community information:​ names like Kingtel and Herts
 +288 come flooding back to memory as examples of this Golden Age of
 +pioneers. According to Alan Mayne in his book "The Videotex
 +Revolution"​\*,​ "​Prestel now [1987] has over 75,000 terminals connected
 +to its British and international computers, with a net increase of about
 +1,000 sets per month. Several hundreds of these terminals are overseas,
 +in more than twenty countries. 60% of the British customers and almost
 +all those abroad (except in France) are businesses, as the home users'
 +market still has not fully 'taken off'"​.\
 + The subsequent demise of PRESTEL and the overwhelming success of its
 +French counterpart,​ Teletel, are matters of history.
 +Local authority alternatives to Prestel
 +It was the failure of the PRESTEL home market to leave the ground,
 +together with the high cost of hosting and providing access to
 +information on the service, that led the Local Authorities to seek
 +alternative means of hosting their community viewdata services. Hence
 +the development of software like ICL's Bulletin, Thorn-EMI'​s THEMIS and
 +other systems which were installed on Local Authority mainframe
 +computers up and down the country to provide their constituents with
 +access to community information normally via terminals installed in
 + The home user had access to these services in theory, but it was not
 +easy: they had to have a dial-in number and understand terms like
 +videotex, modem, emulation software, parity bits, viewdata terminal -
 +words which were not exactly in everyday use. Many of us responsible for
 +publishing on-line community information would have gladly given limbs
 +to have a national - let alone global - communications infrastructure
 +with standard protocols, the ability to deliver multimedia
 +presentations,​ and free search engines that we now have with the
 + Not only that, but every High Street newsagent is stacked with
 +magazines showing our target audience how to connect and contribute,
 +Internet Service Providers are falling over themselves to get people
 +connected cheaply, and not many days pass when there aren't at least
 +fifty passing references to http'​s,​ www's and email addresses on the
 +radio and TV.
 +The real challenges
 +Yet I have an uneasy sense of deja vu about it all because the REAL
 +challenges for community information systems are not much to do with
 +technology at all. They are to do some or all of the following:
 +-   ​identifying the target audience
 +-   ​identifying users' information needs
 +-   ​defining the scope and depth of the content
 +-   ​researching information sources
 +-   ​valuing existing human networks
 +-   ​fostering a sense of user participation
 +-   ​devising a sensible navigation structure
 +and, above all:
 +-   ​devising a mangement strategy for the service
 +My unease is based on my experience of the many community information
 +systems that have failed, not because the technology was unreliable or
 +outdated, but because insufficient thought had been given to the real
 +issues from the outset. The Internet allows enormous opportunities,​ but
 +there are, as yet, no HTML tags, CGI or Java scripts which will solve
 +these issues for us.
 +Saffire - a community information service on WWW
 +Saffire (Saffron Walden Information Resource) is a community information
 +service serving Saffron Walden and the larger part of the Uttlesford
 +District area on the World Wide Web.\
 + The original purpose of Saffire was not to provide a real information
 +service at all but rather to help me, as an electronic public
 +information consultant used to the world of viewdata, to explore the
 +potential of this new medium and to use it as a testbed for ideas.\
 + ​Uttlesford is essentially a rural area with three main centres at
 +Saffron Walden, Dunmow and Thaxted. Saffron Walden is by far the largest
 +of these centres but a large proportion of the population live in
 +outlying villages and hamlets poorly served by public transport. When
 +designing Saffire, therefore, I targetted the content at this rural
 +community and set up simple HTML documents giving information about
 +local travel, events, services and community news. I included a link to
 +a simple feedback form on the home page and the inevitable Web cliche -
 +an access counter. To my amazement, after about a month of Saffire going
 +live, the access counter was registering accesses which were not my own:
 +in my naivete in those early days, I was unaware of search engine
 +spiders which were indexing Saffire and making the URL available to the
 +global audience. Responses started coming in from the most unexpected
 +places: people planning holidays or wanting to start businesses in the
 +area, others trying to contact old friends, students planning to attend
 +the local Language College and so forth.\
 + The most graphic example of what was happening at this time was the
 +gentleman from Canada whose mother, living in a local village,
 +complained to him that she was not able to get out as much as she wanted
 +because she was having trouble getting reliable information about the
 +bus services. He found them on Saffire, printed them off and sent them
 +to her via Air Mail.\
 + This sort of development was a salutory experience for me, and Saffire
 +quickly moved from being an experimental site to providing a real
 + It occurred to me that one major limitation of a site consisting
 +entirely of HTML documents was that it lacked the viewdata equivalent of
 +the keyword whereby users can enter a search term e.g. ELDERLY and be
 +given a list of all related documents. Now computer programming is not a
 +skill that appears on my CV, but armed with a couple of books about CGI
 +scripting and some considerable help from the Internet community, I was
 +able to set up keyword searches and searchable databases relatively
 +painlessly. It would have been unthinkable even to attempt to do
 +something similar with a viewdata system where there are no standards
 +and "​gateways"​ are all proprietary.\
 + Being no longer quite so intimidated by CGI scripting, I decided to
 +experiment with a real-time threaded discussion forum which aimed to
 +allow discussion of topical local issues. The response to this has been
 +good and has been used by the District Council to gauge in some part
 +local feeling about some contentious topics.
 +The Saffire structure
 +Saffire'​s logical structure is currently:
 +#### Leisure & What's On
 +-   ​Places to visit
 +-   Diary of local events
 +-   ​Theatres and cinemas
 +-   Sport and Active Leisure
 +#### Councils and Government
 +-   ​Council services
 +-   ​Councillors (Town, District and County)
 +-   ​National Government
 +#### Social Services
 +-   ​Police
 +-   Help Agencies
 +#### Clubs and Societies
 +-   ​Searchable by name and type of activity
 +#### Community News
 +-   ​Archive searchable by date and topic word
 +#### Discussion forums
 +-   Real time debate about topical issues:
 +-   ​Saffron Walden town centre
 +-   ​Traffic and parking
 +-   ​Person to Person
 +-   Ideas for Saffire
 +#### Travel and Transport
 +-   Train timetables
 +-   Bus timetables
 +-   Roads information
 +-   ​Stansted Airport
 +#### History, Customs & Legends\
 + Area maps
 +-   All towns and villages
 +#### Business and Services
 +-   All traders, searchable by goods/​service and name
 +Saffire is now 2 years old, has taken about 1500 man hours to construct
 +and requires 10 hours a week to maintain. To date there have been 4000
 +logins since April 1996. Saffire receives no funding, although
 +negotiations with the District Council are well under way for the
 +service to be adopted as the official Uttlesford site.\
 + ​Saffire is at: <​http://​​clients/​saffire/>​
 +Dr Steve Willoughby is an independent Electronic Public Information
 +Consultant. The Internet aspects of his work are in collaboration with
 +Webserve Limited, PO Box 56, Saffron Walden, Essex CB11 4HT. Tel:
 +01799-520900 Fax: 01799-520082\
 + ​Email:​ [\
 + \* The Videotex Revolution, second edition\
 + Alan J Mayne\
 + ​Marathon Videotex 1987\
 + ISBN 0 948771 03 8
partnerships/articles/saphhire.txt ยท Last modified: 2017/06/12 10:20 (external edit)