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Lab and individual information management.

Information management is a challenging task thatoften makes the difference between a consistently effective manager and one with a spotty record of accomplishment.

Some individuals keep a neat office by filing everything, but can't recall where much of it is. Others store things in piles (on desks, bookshelves, the floor) but remember only the recent, topmost items, They all fail to realize that storage is not the key-retrieval is. To merely file information and not find it again is equivalent to throwing it away.

When I worked for the Federal Government, I quickly learned that storage was considered a menial task reserved for the lowestlevel employees. Secretaries and clerks filed away results of million-dollar studies according to the name of the company or individual who performed the studies or under some subject heading.

The system frequently defied attempts to retrieve an old study because the searcher looked for a subject heading that was different from the one used to file the folder, and the secretary who did the filing had changed jobs.

This article will review better approaches to institutional and personal infon-nation management. It will describe typical software for each approach and quote list prices (note that discounts of 30 to 70 per cent are quite common).

* Fixed form database management. There are two general types of software in this category-flat file database management and relational database management. They both have preset formats and preset lengths for data entry.

1. Flat or file management systems store records in a single file consisting of a set of "forms" or records. Relating two different sets of files is difficult. These systems are appropriate for uniform records containing relatively lit e redundant information.

An excellent application is a file of references containing the author's name, the article title, the journal, key words, and an abstract. A flat database is similar to a set of index cards. The advantage is that you can retrieve information as if you had stored copies of each index card (or record) in separate cabinets alphabetized by different fields (or data items) within a record (like the title and author catalogs in a library).

Among the top-rated flat database programs in computer magazine reviews:

PC-File Plus (Button Ware, P.O. Box 5786, Bellevue, Wash. 98006; $69.95). This program and a number of others can be legally obtained from user groups at the cost of reproduction. The manufacturer requires users to pay for the manual and upgrades.

Q&A (Symantec, 10201 Torre Ave., Cupertino, Calif. 95014; $349). Q&A is friendly and has a range of features, including powerful search and sort capability and macros (user-defined sequences of instructions entered with simple commands).

2. Relational database management systems relate files through a common field or point of information. In general, these systems are more difficult to learn than flat database systems, but they store data more efficiently. Most include a powerful programming language. They are most useful for the design of large data systems.

Let's look at an example involving a blood bank that keeps records of donors. With a flat database, you might make every donation a separate record. In that case, you would have to include, with each record, complete information about the donor (name, address, phone number, physician, etc.). All of the records would duplicate donor information.

Alternatively with a flat database, each donor can become the subject of a record. In that case, you must preserve enough space on the record for all possible donations. But if you allow for 10 donations per donor over a certain period of time, you would be wasting space on donors who give blood only once or twice.

With a relational database, each donation date becomes a record. There's no need to predetermine how many donations a person will make. The donation record must contain only one item about the donor, such as an identifying number.

Similarly, each physician is the subject of a separate record listing1D numbers for donors under the physician's care. Also handied as a separate record is the unchanged information about a donor (name, address, blood type, etc.).

You use one common fieldthe donor 1D number-to relate each donor to physician and donation dates. The only redundant information is one field per record.

If there are many donors with very different donation pattems and a few physicians, a relational database system is more efficient than a flat one. With few donors, more physicians, and about the same number of donations per donor, the flat database system is simpler to design and use.

In general, if you have a small set of donors (a few hundred), both systems will perform equally well, but a relational file is more complicated to use. With a large set of donors, a flat file will contain a lot of redundant information.

The most popular relational database systems are:

dBase IV (Ashton-Tate, 20101 Hamilton Ave., Torrance, Calif. 90502; $795). This is the update of dBase 111, which is perhaps the most widely used system. You can do almost anything with it, but it takes time and skill. The new version is easier for novices.

R:base V and R:base for DOS (Microrim, 3925 159th Ave. NE, Redmond, Wash. 98052; $725). These are as versatile as dbase IV and perhaps easier to use.

DataEase (DataEase International, 7 Cambridge Dr., Trumbull, Conn. 06611; $600). Sophisticated and very easy to use, this software offers user-defined menus for data entry.

* Variable form database management. The most important features here are that the length of a given field need not be defined in advance, and multiple responses are allowed per field. This is obviously advantageous when information varies in length.

A fixed form database management program may either allocate blank space for potential characters in a field or limit the amount of information to be stored in each field. Moreover, most fixed form database management programs allow only one entry per field.

Variable form programs are most suitable for managing the information needs of individuals. I use one to keep track of my documents, abstracts of papers, folders, and professional contacts.

These programs are less efficient than a fixed form, relational database system. They do not always carry information in the same place in every record, so the computer takes longer to search for, find, and combine data. For that reason, a variable form program may not be appropriate with very large databases.

Here are two excellent variable form programs:

Dayflo Tracker (Dayflo Software, 17701 Mitchell Ave., North Irvine, Calif. 92714; $99.95). This is similar to a flat database management system with several major exceptions : 1) it has variable lengths for all fields, 2) you can make multiple entries in a field, such as more than one telephone number for a patient; and 3) forms may be created with more or fewer fields, in the same database or group of forms bearing related infon-nation. Dayflo Tracker is one of the best allaround programs to store and retrieve text. Some features are a little awkward to use, and text retrieval is limited.

Ask Sam 4.0 (Seaside Software, P.O. Box 1428, Perry, Fla. 32347; $295). For organizing text material and retrieving it, this may be the best program. More sophisticated than Tracker, it has advanced text retrieval features, plus hypertext capability, which means that users can point to a certain word in the text and be directed to another record with further information on the word.

* Free form text organizers. Information management software for microcomputers mushroomed in 1988 with the appearance of several alternative approaches. New software products allow users to manage large numbers of documents by organizing the information and helping to find groups of words quickly.

Because text files under 500 kilobytes can be searched reasonably efficiently with a word processor, the primwy uses of text organizers are to search through and organize very large groups of text filesover I megabyte, or about 500 typed, double-spaced pages. They can create indexes of designated key words, and conduct searches through these indexes rather than through an entire text.

(Very large structured databases are better handled by fixed form, relational database programs, which efficiently store information and take less time to find it.)

Text organizers can set up searches for combinations of key words, such as 1) heart disease and hypertension in a certain proximity of each other-within 20 words or on the same line, paragraph, or page; 2) heart disease or hypertension; and 3) heart disease but not in connection with hypertension. The computer can also find words that might be overlooked in a search because of typographical errors.

Some programs can create an outline and/or a structure by linking common topics together (useful to organize projects and keep track of time spent and deadlines).

On a small scale (under 500 kilobytes), outliner software can be useful as part of a word processor or as a separate program. It helps atTange texts, as you create them, into outlines. You determine the headings and subheadings and what information to store under each section. The software lets you quickly see only major headings, subheadings, or portions of the outline, and it enables you to reorganize by shifting section titles.

Examples of outliner software:

GrandView (Symantec, 117 Easy St., Mountain View, Calif. 94043; $295). This is probably the most sophisticated outliner.

PC Outline (Brown Bag Software, 2155 South Bascom Ave., #114, Campbell, Calif. 95008). This is an excellent program that can be legally obtained, like PCFile Plus, from user groups.

Free form text organizers are not the best way to process large volumes of numerical information. Since the programs do allow you to reorganize. random notes into related types of material, they are helpful in preparation of manuals, lectures, and course materials.

Let's look at some extensive free form text organizers:

IZE (Persoft, 465 Science Dr., Madison, Wis. 537111; $445). Users enter material as in a word processor and mark key words they want to employ later to locate portions of the text.

IZE converts existing documents to its format or links data, text, and graphics created by other programs, without modifying these documents.

Agenda (Lotus Development, 55 Cambridge Parkway, Cambridge, Mass. 02142; $395). The principal feature of Agenda is that it allows you to enter data without defining a structure or fields. The data entered are called items. You may later assign the items to different categories and to more than one category. Organization can be accomplished through phrases associated with the categories, through items, or other formats. Programmable features make it possible to tailor Agenda to specific storage and retrieval tasks.

Info-XL (Valor Software, 1700 Don Ave., San Jose, Calif. 95124; $295). This software combines some features of IZE, Agenda, and Dayflo Tracker. *Text search programs. These work with almost any other software to search for text. They are good supplements to a word processor. Two such products are:

GOfer (Microlytics, I Tobey Village, Office Park, Pittsford, N.Y. 14534; $79.95). Gofer has "and/or" and proximity search capabilities. It conducts non-indexed searches without modifying documents, at a rate of about I megabyte or 500 double-spaced pages per minute. It is one of the best ways to search for words in existing data files and find correspondence that has been "lost" in the hard disk. Since each search of a database over 10 megabytes can take more than 10 minutes, the software is inadequate for a real-time system or a system with many users.

ZyIndex (ZyLab, 3105-T North Wilke Rd., Arlington Heights, 111. 60004; several versions costing up to $695). This is designed for very sophisticated index searches and suitable for large files, well over I megabyte. It can find data in seconds.

In summary, free form text organizers create structure for random notes and allow you to search through alternative structures, which is like having a book with multiple tables of contents. Text search programs, on the other hand, look for any word or combination of words but do not organize the material. They are especially useful when you are looking for a particular item and recall only a few words about its content.

Structured (fixed form) database management programs efficiently and rapidly store and retrieve structured information and can produce elaborate reports, including billing, test results, and balancing of multiple accounts.

Variable form database management systems are more useful when you don't know beforehand how many fields you want to use, the length of each, Or how many responses to expect per field (e.g., one, two, or three phone numbers). They can manage pure text without organization and also have limited mathematical capabilities.

Various programs are optimized to manage different data: information in need of a structure (e.g., random ideas); frequently changing text data or small text files (abstracts); and large, unchanging text files (a library).
COPYRIGHT 1989 Nelson Publishing
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Title Annotation:data base management programs, free form text organizers, text search programs
Author:Siguel, Edward N.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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