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Building Web tools: paving the Cyber-Highway.

So how many 620-page user guidelines do you have on your desk? Or on your shelf? Propping up a file cabinet? Or the better question: how many have you thrown away?

As we hurtle down the cyber-highway, we increasingly use the Internet and its resources at work on a daily basis. We have integrated the computer into almost every aspect of our work day - from word processing to payroll to creating engineering databases.

At the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center (TFHRC), we have taken the initiative to use our web site as a virtual library of documentation and information. The effort is a go-forward, long-term project that will have myriad benefits for our researchers and our audience. One of the first participants in our initiative is Marcia Simon and the Special Projects and Engineering Division Chief Roy Trent. With Roy's encouragement, Marcia undertook one of the largest, yet least time-consuming document conversion projects done to date for the TFHRC web. The goal was to take a 620-page document, User Guidelines for Waste and By-Product Materials in Pavement Construction, and convert it to a viable web product under a very tight deadline.

Marcia and Roy, along with Lou Colucci, had the foresight to look at this document as a potential web project. They took the effort to have the consultant in charge of this project change the presentation to a web project. As the project progressed and final drafts were presented, a plan began to form to convert the printed guide to a web guide, which ended up to be what we now know as the "encyclopedia." As with every project on a deadline, things did not go as planned; we encountered problems ranging from budgetary impasses to difficulties developing the project's scope.

The team expanded to include a capable document conversion consultant, members of the FHWA staff, and members of the TFHRC Communications Services Group. With the deadline looming, the team worked tremendously long hours and exerted much effort to make the project happen. The project was finished on time. A document that was once seemingly huge and unwieldy was now made into a manageable product that could be used efficiently and effectively. The end-user can choose the section they need, and then request application descriptions, along with environmental and cost guidelines.

A benefit of making this product web-ready is that 620 pages of information, when compressed, fit onto a 3.5-inch floppy diskette. The production price of coding the document in HTML and making it web-friendly is negligible when compared to the cost of producing hard copies and mailing them. Making the product web-ready was a cost-effective solution.

The "encyclopedia" debuted on the TFHRC web site in January, in time for the Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board (TRB). It was included on the Best of '97 TFHRC CD-ROM (FHWA-RD-98-074). It was highlighted by the Secondary Materials group at the conference, and on the last day of the conference, the TFHRC site logged more than 3,000 hits. Since then, the "encyclopedia" has proven to be a very well-visited area of the TFHRC site, and requests for the CD-ROM have been coming from all over the country and the world.

What made this project such a huge success? One of the primary reasons was that it was redesigned specifically for web use, and the research effort was directed to supply written material that would fit that design. A second factor was the foresight of the Special Projects and Engineering Division to acknowledge that electronic products would be a viable solution and would reach a broad audience. Perhaps the largest contributing factor to the success of the project was the group's dedication and team effort. Without specialists who knew web work and design, the project could have become a disaster. Without the TFHRC staff's perseverance and expediency, the last-minute edits could have held up production, and we would have missed the TRB meeting dates. But because of all the effort put forth in this project, we have created a new benchmark in how to design a useful information tool and do it well!

Some advice for anyone thinking of going electronic with their work: Plan! Think of what you want to deliver, what kind of material you are delivering, what your deadlines are, and who your audience is. Identify your costs, your budget, and your goals. Weigh the cost of coding versus the cost of printing. Shop around for the best possible price and for a vendor that meets your needs. There are many firms and freelancers capable of producing top-notch work for a reasonable price. Think long-term. (What is the shelf life of this product and who is going to take care of it in two months, six months, or next year?) And think short-term. (Where is this going to live when it is finished?) Consider these questions in your planning from the very beginning of your project, and chances are you too will end up with a top-notch web tool!

Kristin Iden is the webmaster/electronic publishing specialist for the Federal Highway Administration's Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center in McLean, Va. She is employed by Avalon Integrated Services Corp. of Arlington, Va.
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Title Annotation:website of Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center
Author:Iden, Kristin
Publication:Public Roads
Date:Mar 1, 1998
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