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The Issues

Who are the users?

The workshop very quickly came to the conclusion that the "users" were not of one type and that we had to consider different requirements. These include courseware authors, archivists (with indexing requirements), courseware readers, support staff concerned with reading and converting a range of formats - and no doubt many more. Theses different needs have to recognised by any activities following the workshop.

What is the Lifetime of the Data?

If the data is to be stored and used within a shoret timescale then format issues are matters of convenience for the user. If, however, the information is to be archived for any length of time and widely used - or has the potential for this - then the selection of the right format is a real issue. It is essentail that we can be confident that the format will be readable in the future, thus an "open" standard - and probably a de jure standard - is appropriate. It is also important that the information is stored at the highest possible level of quality and that the information is not diminished by the storage method. Arhciving images at high resolution, for example, is clearly preferable to storing them using a lossy compression method which will reduce information. The information delivery may be in compressed form, but the archive should maintain data quality.

Cross Platform Compatiblity

This is important in Higher Education where we seem to have at least one of any machine that can be named. This should not be ignored when developing courseware, for example, for wide use.

Indexing Needs

Archived information needs to be searchable and accessed in a rnage of ways - some of these we may not even have thought about. Some of the simple solutions of scanning text and images and keeping them in raster from do not allow access to as much information as we might like. This is particularly true of "legacy" data which may be available on paper now and which we wish to convert to online form - the scanned "virtual paper" is often high in storage requirements and low on information.

Framework vs Content

This came up many times at the workshop. We need to get people to distinguish between the components of the application -- for example courseware - and the "glue" that sticks them together. Sometimes the packages we are using do not encourage this way of thinking. Yet, if the end products are to have a long life and to be updateable it is important that this is considered.

Proprietary vs Standard Formats

This distinction is not always obvious in that some proprietary formats do have publicly available definitions. It is clear that proprietary formats are not necessarily "bad" and formal standards "good". It is important that formats are suitable for the task. "Open" formats are however ones which people should be looking to use for long term storage. The danger of storing information in a way which depends on the supplier continuing to support a particular format can be fraught. Just as a format which is only supported on one platform can cause problems with the demise of that machine. The workshop agreed that we would keep in touch with the Interactive Mulitmedia Association (IMA) which is a consortium of major suppliers who look to develop and promote common interchange formats. This link might help us to get the balance right between proprietary and formal standards use.

Conversion Tools

This is an important area, particularly for support staff who have users with a wide range of formats which need to be converted for use in software and for output. There are good tools around (Utah Raster Toolkit, PBMPLUS, San Diego Supercomputer Center Tools) which can be accessed. We need to inform people about these.

Delivery Methods

There is a need to consider different delivery methods. There need to be different considerations for CD-ROM and for delivery across networks - this may not always be the case in the future but probably is so at the moment.

Multimedia and People with Disabilities

This has come up before at the last AGOCG workshop on mulitmedia. The new technologies can offer a great deal for people with sight and hearing difficulties and we heard of the use of SGML in structuring information so that it can be presented for people with print disablities. Yet, the overuse of visual infomation with no concern to store information in a way it can be represented in a variety of ways, can disadvatage those with sight and hearing difficulties.

Education and Training

It was agreed at the workshop that there was a need to educate users about the issues surrounding the selection of a file format. Associated with that is the need to develop skills for the use of multimedia. Mulitmedia will become as widespread in its use as desk top publishing and will not necessarily be used by those with the appropriate skills already. These need to be learned as the investment in the development of, for example multimedia materials for learning, is high.
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