In order to realise these objectives a number of steps were taken including the design of a questionnaire, the construction of a series of project web pages, the use of e-mail discussion groups, letters to software manufacturers and the development of a dedicated project discussion list.
First, we wrote to the Heads of Department of all social science units in the United Kingdom enclosing multiple copies of a questionnaire to be forwarded to all interested staff. It was our belief that the full merits and limitations of particular software could only be fully established through the use of the software with real data, involving real questions and real problems. We, therefore, consulted the real experts in the use of computer graphics and visualisation software in the social sciences - the user, in third-level institutions. Each questionnaire (See Appendix 1 for a copy of the proforma) requested the following information for each software product used
In addition each person completing one or more questionnaires was asked to also complete one Cover Sheet including contact information and their subject area. They were also invited to make general observations on the use, or potential use, of visualisation techniques in their work
Any survey is only as good as the information upon which it is based. We therefore encouraged the widest cross-section of academics to complete our survey on the use of visualisation software. In mid-January a letter containing details of the project together with multiple copies of the questionnaire were sent to 780 Arts and Social Science departments in third-level teaching institutions throughout the United Kingdom. The list of departments was drawn from current prospectuses held by the Queen's University Main Library and supplemented through further searches over the World Wide Web. Mindful that it was quite possible, and indeed likely, that many academics might be using computer graphics but not be aware that they were using visualisation tools, in the covering letter we specifically invited responses from users of the software groups listed below.
2.2 World Wide Web Service
In addition a World Wide Web service (http://www.qub.ac.uk/ss/esh/visual/) was established to publicise the survey and encourage participation. The early service included the opportunity to complete a questionnaire online using a cgi form or download a form in WORD 2.0, ASCII or HTML format to be printed and sent through the post. An e-mail service was also devised to allow either a paper or electronic copy of the questionnaire to be sent.
This service has now grown and includes full details of the project, lists of related projects and other relevant sites including software vendors' home pages. Full project results based on the questionnaires received and replies sent by software manufacturers are now also available online. These pages will remain available on the Queen's University server for at least the next 12 months.
2.3 E-mail lists
In addition to the Institutions contacted through traditional means, extensive use was also made of existing e-mail discussion groups. Details of the project together with relevant URLs to the project's World Wide Web pages were sent to around 40 discussion groups. Subscribers to these lists were encouraged to visit the project home page and complete a questionnaire and, further, to forward the message to other lists to which they felt the survey might be relevant, and to individual colleagues.
We also established an e-mail discussion group, visualisation-tools, under the Mailbase system. Mailbase provides electronic discussion lists for the UK higher education community. They currently have 1,874 discussion lists, and 129,745 members worldwide.
This list provides a forum for social scientists to discuss the use of visualisation in their teaching and research. In the short-term the list was intended to augment our review of visualisation tools in the social sciences.
Traffic on the list so far has been limited although subscribers have been encouraged to visit the project home page and comment on the questionnaire responses posted. Nonetheless membership of the list has increased steadily and now stands at around 50. It is intended to continue to operate visualisation-tools and it may become an important forum for discussion in the future. Details of how to joint the group are available from the project's home page.
2.5 Manufacturers contacted
Following initial survey results, software manufacturers were advised of the existence of the survey and web site, containing comments on their software. They were invited, in turn, to comment on the comments of academics using their software.
In total we contacted suppliers of 27 different software packages. The list was largely self-selecting based on the number of questionnaire replies received for each product (if only one questionnaire was received with limited comments there was little point in asking the software producer for their views) and the ease of obtaining an address for the manufacturer/distributor. In many instances software reviewers supplied contact details. The distributors or authors of the following software packages were contacted.
1. Adobe Illustrator
2. Adobe Photoshop
4. Claris Works
5. ER Mapper
7. Microsoft Excel
12. Quattro Pro
15. Microsoft PowerPoint
16. Microsoft Word
17. Microsoft Publisher
18. Corel Draw
19. Corel Xara
20. Paintshop Pro
24. Auto Cad
26. 3D Studio Max
27. Harvard Graphics
The response from manufacturers has been very disappointing - possibly a mark of the limited commercial importance that they place on sales to the academic, and more specifically, social science market. By early August 1998 only two manufacturers had replied to our letter, ERDAS (UK) Limited and the Claris Corporation. Their comments are included under the relevant software headings in section 3.
Graphics Multimedia Virtual Environments Visualisation Contents