Web Magazine for Information Professionals

OMNI Seminar

Debra Hiom reports from the second annual OMNI seminar.

Over 150 people gathered at the Wellcome Institute in London on the 23 January to attend the 2nd Annual OMNI [1] Seminar. This brought together a range of participants including medical academics, library and information professionals and practitioners; a good indication of the impact OMNI has had during its first two years.

The keynote address was given by Lynne Brindley, the chair of the new JISC Committee for Electronic Information (CEI). Entitled 'The future beyond the eLib Programme' Lynne looked at the prospects for eLib projects when initial funding comes to an end. Future strategy is to scale up successful projects into services which may be achieved in some cases through the merging and regrouping of existing projects. There was an acknowledgement that not all projects will be successful, but in every case lessons will have been learnt and there is an intention to disseminate those lessons. The Tavistock Institute has produced an evaluation of the Programme so far based on the annual reports of the projects, this should be available in the next few months.

Sue Welsh (OMNI Project Officer) and Betsy Anagnostelis (OMNI Assurance Officer) provided a progress report on the project since the first OMNI seminar in November 1995. This included some statistics on the number of records in the database and patterns of usage across sectors and domains. One of the areas highlighted by a user survey is the size of the OMNI database; as a selective gateway OMNI uses strict evaluation criteria to catalogue only quality resources. Whilst users appreciate the quality control that is undertaken, there are times when a search outside these selected resources is necessary. In order to complement the selected database OMNI have been experimenting with HARVEST (an automatic indexing tool). This will allow them to take advantage of the subject expertise of researchers and practitioners who compile listings of sites that would not normally be added to the database. Other plans for the project include integration with some external data sources such as DERWeb and a Continuing Medical Events Database.

OMNI's Project Manager Sally Hernando then went on to outline the project's future strategy regarding long term funding and goals. A phased plan to make OMNI financially independent by 2001 was put forward. Potential ways to achieve this are; subscription, commercial sponsors, non commercial sponsoring, joint ventures with other services, the NHS (a rather grey area at the moment with regard to co- operation and funding) and advertising. Sally followed this by inviting members of the OMNI team onto the platform and opening up the forum to the audience. Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus Officer based at UKOLN) suggested that OMNI may also want to consider investigating micropayments as a possible future method of funding the service. Other comments from the audience included the issue of quality - one participant suggested that a list of resources that were rejected by OMNI would be as valuable as a list of the resources that were included.

The final presentation of the morning was a double act by two members of UKOLN: John Kirriemuir, the web editor of Ariadne (acting in his capacity as information officer for ROADS), and Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus Officer). John presented an overview of the ROADS [2] software which is used to build the OMNI gateway as well as some of the other eLib funded gateways such as ADAM, IHR-Info and SOSIG. Brian followed with an introduction to the concept of metadata (data about data), why it is needed and some potential standards and solutions such as the Dublin Core and PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection).

One of the central features of subject gateways such as OMNI is the selection of high quality resources. The first speaker after lunch was Alison Cooke from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth who is researching quality on the Internet as a PhD topic. As part of the research she teamed up with OMNI to study user's perceptions of quality and presented the preliminary results of the study at the seminar. Alison interviewed 33 medical information users at 3 institutions about their use of the Internet and strategies they use for finding and evaluating networked resources. There were several interesting results from the study; most importantly it suggested that users are aware of quality issues and have their own criteria for evaluating resources. The content of information was generally found to be more important than the format that the resource was available in; although in the case of CAL materials format was sometimes a primary issue. This suggested that there may be scope for establishing different criteria for different types of resources.

Continuing the theme of quality information Ron Appel spoke about an international initiative, Health on the Net Foundation [3] The foundation is a non-profit organisation based in Geneva, 'dedicated to realising the benefits of the Internet and related technologies in the fields of medicine and healthcare'. The organisation is involved in a number of initiatives to promote Internet use in the medical professions including MARVIN a robot that searches sites and documents specifically related to health and medical fields. The resulting documents are stored in a database and are searchable through their search engine MedHunt. Of particular interest with regard to quality of information was their HONcode: Health On the Net Code of Conduct. This initiative is an attempt to improve the quality of medical information on the Internet. An official HONcode logo is displayed by sites who demonstrate specific quality standards outlined in 6 principles (these evolved from discussions with medical professionals and web maintainers). The code of conduct is largely self policing - although there is some random checking of sites that adhere to the code.

Mark Meade from BioMedNet[4] provided a commercial view of medical information. BioMedNet is a club for biological and medical scientists providing access to journals and full text articles, job listings, discussion groups and chat facilities and an electronic newsletter. Membership is free at the moment but once they have built up a critical mass of members subscription fees will be introduced. They are also offering a corporate and library membership; providing free access to the full text of 29 current opinion journals for a limited period. Generally, abstracts of journal articles are available free with a fee for each full text article requested. It seems to be fairly early days for commercial ventures such as BioMedNet with most of their revenue coming from advertising; but the infrastructure is in place once the market is ready.

The final speaker was David Smith from the Department of Health who introduced NHSnet, a national network developed exclusively for the NHS. NHSnet sits behind a secure Internet gateway for reasons of security and confidentiality of information to allow GPs and other NHS bodies to exchange data. The NHSweb Directory is an initiative to help their users locate information and services. As a system for non technical users it was designed with a lot of input from the user community. The directory can be viewed from different user perspectives for example as a GP, clinician or administrator; as well as different organisational and geographic perspectives.

The seminar was brought to a close by Frank Norman, the OMNI Project Co-ordinator. Frank focused on three themes, namely: quality (the cornerstone of the project), plans for further collaboration and integration with other projects particularly with institutions outside the HE sector and training users to use the network effectively.

This was an interesting and well run seminar and congratulations should go to all the OMNI team for a very successful day.



[1] OMNI Web Pages

[2] ROADS Web Pages

[3] Health on the Net Foundation Web pages

[4] BioMedNet Web site