Information Dimensions User Group Meeting, Hotel Intercontinental (London), 18 May 1988

More than 50 happy BASIS users attended this first official meeting of the newly constituted UK User Group. After constitutional discussion, elections of officers etc., there was an hour and a half presentation concerning Release L of BASIS, due for beta test in January of 1989. Somewhat to my surprise, this new release promises to rectify lots of the more irritating fundamental shortcomings of the package. For a start, somewhere in Dublin (Ohio) a nettle had been grasped, and the internal format of BASIS files will never be the same again: this means that true proximity matching will be possible in release L (i.e. the index postings will give word position as well as context position within document); it also means that minor irritations such as the horrendous updating process are completely removed, and that the system changes necessary to facilitate real-time update in a future release are already in place.

Other encouraging trends are:- a committment to support more "document architecture" type facilities (sections within full text documents; extensions to the current 'hidden string' features to support non textual objects; support for SGML markup on input; increases on all current limits ) and a variety of improvements to the user interfaces to the package. Three levels of interface are identified: at the corporate level, specialist programming will continue to use high-level languages, for which COBOL and FORTRAN preprocessors will be provided in addition to the current "CALL" facilities; at the departmental level, the current facilities will be maintained, expanded somewhat so that for example the VT100 based screen handling available with Long Text is available with all data types; at the individual end-user level a new module called EXPRESS will offer a PC-style interface with somewhat reduced capabilities, using ring menus, full screen working (for VT100s) and integrated query and update of documents. And the really good news is that all of this comes free for existing customers as an incentive to migrate databases from K to L.

After an excellent lunch, (during which I met fellow academic users from Imperial and Aston) we were entertained by a man from Wapping describing how News International had eventually decided to build up their own in house story database, rather than relying on bureau services (too expensive and too slow) or old fashioned cuttings libraries (too heavily picketted). Two interesting things emerged from this: firstly that it had at first been thought cheaper to have the copy re-keyed in the West Indies than to use the stuff typed in by the journos themselves; secondly that even on The Times it was necessary to add keywords to identify story contents, since headlines were increasingly too jokey and elliptical for the purpose. Other fields added to each story during the hectic 12 hours between its appearance in print and its inclusion in the database include any corrections advised by the legal department; these will both presumably be of greater importance when the Sun is included in the database later next year. I also learned that, new technology or not, post-printout editing (a practice still carried out at Wapping) is known as "cutting on the stone". News International is also keenly aware of the commercial potential of their database and is already considering licensing such spin-offs as an online sports service, law reports on CD-ROM etc.

The remainder of the day was given over to very dull self- congratulatory salesmanspeak, listing all the new customers gained over the year (of which News International was probably the most significant, though Oxford University also featured, I regret to say). When John Townsend began droning on about the importance of addressing the marketplace in terms of the way he drove product, I slunk away. But the news about release L was worth hearing: if only half of it is true (and most of it is "committed") BASIS does have a real competitive edge.