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Case Studies Index

Review of graphical environments on the WWW as a means of widening public participation in social science research

Steve Carver, Richard Kingston & Ian Turton

School of Geography
University of Leeds
Leeds, LS2 9JT
United Kingdom

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The World Wide Web (WWW or 'web') is viewed as an increasingly important resource for social science researchers that has the potential to provide direct access to vast amounts of relevant data should they be prepared to embrace the technology and the opportunities it represents. The key to the web's attractiveness to the wider public audience is its highly graphical nature and its multi-media content. Social scientists should be tapping into this resource, not only as a means of presenting the results of their research in an exciting and user-friendly format, but also as a new way of gathering data from the information 'cyberspace' and directly from its growing population of users.

This Case Study address the various technical and theoretical issues surrounding the use of the WWW as a source of information and as a mechanism for public participation in social science research. Five detailed examples of selected participatory web sites together with a general overview of the state of web design in relation to public participation in social science research are used to generate discussion from which to draw conclusions and make recommendations.

The main findings are:

  • There is a great deal of discussion surrounding the potential use of the WWW as a vehicle for social science research. However, with the exception of a few on-line questionnaire surveys, very little of the discussion has yet materialised into action.
  • There is a great deal of social science relevant information on the web, but there are many difficult issues surrounding both its use and accessibility, including problems of sample bias and confidentiality.
  • The main advantages of adopting a web-based approach to social science research are increased sample size, targeted sample populations, interactivity, multi-media presentation of surveys and results, and active participation.
  • The key role of the WWW in the social sciences is principally in the dissemination of the results of social science research and in making data and tools available for public use. This is important in closing the awareness gap between academics and the public and in providing an end-user service.

The main recommendations are:

  • There is a basic need for education about the opportunities and pit-falls which web-based surveys and systems can offer. A resource of software tools and literature on best practice should be developed to give users the best possible advice on how to undertake web-based social science research and give assistance when and where required.
  • There is a need to create examples of well designed and innovative interfaces that encourage participation and use. These could be used as models of good practice to encourage other social science researchers to use similar approaches as appropriate.
  • There is a need to raise public awareness of the value of social science research through the dissemination of research results and tools via the WWW. One way of ensuring nation wide coverage may be through well advertised media events.
  • There needs to be a greater emphasis on the role that social science can play in providing a WWW-based public service, both in access to datasets and graphics tools. Good examples include the Friends of the Earth Chemical Release Inventory, the Institute of Fiscal Studies' Be Your Own Chancellor model and the East St. Louis Local Action Research Project and associated GIS-based East St. Louis Geographic Retrieval System.
Future developments are likely to see further experimental web-based social science research coming on-line in the next few years, while the wider development of the WWW as an accepted information medium will see improved public and political awareness of what is possible in this growing field. The social science community as a whole needs to be aware of these developments and exploit the new technology as appropriate.

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