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Using online databases in a cost-effective way.

Trade promotion organizations and business firms in developing countries are increasingly using online computerized databases for their market research work, as more of these countries become equipped with telecommunication facilities. The type and volume of trade information available through online databases has expanded dramatically over the last several years, with new databases of interest to business and trade organizations continuously being introduced on the market.

Despite the growing attractiveness of online sources of market information and the progress of telecommunication technologies in developing countries, the cost of using databases is still relatively high. The charges for "searching" such databases often come to between $100 and $300 an hour, which is expensive for many organizations in developing countries.

The costs should not, however, be seen in absolute terms only. The type and quality of information obtained should also be considered. Some trade periodicals, directories and reports offer the same market information as online databases, at a lower cost but after a certain delay, which may extend from a few weeks in the case of periodicals to several months for less frequent publications. In a number of situations an online search can therefore be regarded as a complementary research tool rather than a substitute for traditional library work. But printed sources do not meet all of the needs of an exporter or importer in today's fast-moving international trade environment. Online databases should therefore be looked upon as one of the principal sources of trade information in the years ahead. The question then becomes one of selecting and using them effectively to save on costs. Major savings can be made and costly errors avoided if the online search is performed efficiently through a sound knowledge of costs, online sources and search techniques.

Understanding the costs

If a trade promotion organization or a business firm already has a microcomputer that is linked through a modem to a telecommunications network, the initial investment for starting online search operations is usually quite low. Most database "hosts" (i.e. firms or organizations that offer database services) (for instance "Data-star," "Dialog," "Eurobases," "GBI," "Profile") do not charge any "entry fee" or fixed subscriptions. Instead they bill the client only for usage. A minimum budget (for example $50 per host) should be foreseen however for acquiring the necessary technical manuals to conduct a search. In addition, in most countries the telecommunication agencies charge a small monthly or yearly subscription fee that is necessary for obtaining the transmission access codes and support services.

Usage costs for overseas data communications are invoiced separately by the telecommunication agency (in local currency) and the host (in the currency of the host country, except if the contract is made through a local agent).

Telecommunication costs:

When a database is accessed through a long-distance telephone call, the cost is very high, and transmission is often unsatisfactory because of noise on the line and interruptions in the telephone connection. A far better solution is to use a "packet-switching network" (PSN) (i.e. a system transferring groups of data ("packets" of data) by telephone lines through modems, making it possible to achieve reliable, high-speed data communications between computers) available in the home country or a neighbouring country (for example "Bahrnet" in Bahrain and West Asia, "Racsapac" in Costa Rica and other Central American countries, "Telepac" in Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries, "Sytranpac" in Cote d'Ivoire). The invoice for such a service is based on the time spent online and the volume of data transmitted. In any case the total cost will be much lower than normal telephone bills. A PSN invoice usually resembles the example in the box on page 6. [Tabular Data Omitted]

The example in the box is based on a search session of 10 minutes in which 7 minutes were occupied by the transmission of 48,000 characters (1,000 characters of questions sent to the host and 47,000 characters received in reply from the host) at the speed of 1,200 bits per second (bps) (i.e. about 120 characters per second); 3 minutes were added for "inactivity" (response time, interruptions and reflection between search operations). The rates given are indicative only and may, of course, differ from one country to another. In the example, the use of a higher speed modem (2,400 bits per second) would considerably reduce the time spent on data transmission (3.5 minutes instead of 7 minutes) but would have only a small effect on the total cost ($13.20 instead of $14.00). Few services still use modems of only 300 bps; at that speed the session would last 31 minutes and cost $82.

With the improvement in telecommunication services, the time and cost of data communications are decreasing and becoming relatively low compared with charges billed by the host organization.

Host charges:

The invoice sent by a computer host is also based on time spent online (the duration of the session with the host) and the volume of data transmitted (calculated in this case by the number of items or "citations" retrieved). An example of an invoice from a host firm is given in the box on page 25. [Tabular Data Omitted]

The box on page 25 refers to a short session of 10 minutes (0.16 hours) in which recent information was retrieved on the European Community (EC) market for basketwork, including 10 summaries of market reports and articles (from the "Promt" database of "Predicasts"), 2 EC Directives in full-text form (from the "Celex" database of the EC) and 20 trade opportunities (from the "Business" database of "Online GmbH"), including requests from importers and proposals of joint ventures. The total cost of this session, taking into account both the host charges ($38.30) and telecommunication costs ($14.00) (see previous example), is $52.30.

Savings on transmission:

Trade promotion organizations and business firms can take measures to save on costs in the transmission of data by telecommunications. These include:

1. Check with the local telecommunication agent to see if the speed of transmission can be increased (for instance from 300 bps to 1,200 bps or 2,400 bps), possibly through faster modems.

2. Review the computer programme to see if the modem and telecommunication software are properly set up and used optimally (for instance some advanced software includes facilities for repeating standard inquiries, thus saving time on inquiry formulation and thereby reducing online costs).

3. Determine if the computer connection to the database host is through the most economic route. Some databases can be accessed less expensively through telecommunication services in neighbouring countries or through local "nodes" (i.e. link-ups by a local call to an international network) (for instance "Data-star" is accessible through "Dunsnet" nodes).

4. Instead of online retrieval of the information, use offline (i.e. paper) prints whenever the output is not needed immediately and when airmail time delays are acceptable, especially in the case of full-text articles or long reports. Substantial savings can be made in this way. The cost per item of data in offline form is not very different from the cost of an online data item, but offline operations save connection time and telecommunication costs as shown in the table on page 26. [Tabular Data Omitted]

Selecting databases

Each database host is like a self-service shop in which users have the freedom to explore different "files" (databases) containing a multitude of information retrievable by keywords. Before performing any search, users need a minimum knowledge of the coverage of different databases. Over 5,000 online databases are available through public hosts (see the directories published by Cuadra/Elsevier and Gale Research Co., which are also accessible online, respectively, through "Data-star" and "Dialog." Also see ITC's "Directory of Online Databases and Telex Services for Trade Promotion Activities," which surveys 104 selected databases related to international trade.)

Some databases with a general coverage (such as "Promt," "Ebus," "ABI/Inform" and "Delphes") may contain very specific information, and it is difficult a priori to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses without actually searching on a case-by-case basis. Determining comparative advantages of these large databases requires extensive experience.

Making a preliminary selection is easier in the case of specialized databases, such as by:

* Geographical scope: for example the database "Arab Information Bank" on Arab countries, "Comext" and "Celex" on the European Community, and "OAS/SICE" on the United States.

* Product group: "Agris," "Chemical Industry Notes," "Chemical Abstracts" and "World Textile" are examples of databases on specific categories of goods.

* Subject: "TEB" on tenders, "Fair" on trade fairs, and "Perinorm" or "ILI" on technical standards are examples of databases on trade topics.

A general index can be consulted in "Data-star" ("Cros") and "Dialog" ("Dialindex") to find the number of "occurrences" (i.e. the number of times it appears) of a keyword in different databases.

Some of these databases are now available on CD-ROM (that is, "compact disk-read-only memory," which are compact disks on which large quantities of data are stored that can be easily retrieved), covering up to 600 megabytes (600 million characters), to be processed by a special device (that costs about $1,000) connected to a microcomputer. No telecommunication costs are involved, and updates can be obtained through a subscription. This new electronic media does not replace an online search for a market research task that requires up-do-date information from numerous sources of information. CD-ROMs may however complement online databases for basic information needed from regular sources, as shown in the box on page 27. [Tabular Data Omitted]

Preparing for the search

When a market researcher has carefully prepared the background material for the database search, the online connection time is shorter, and the expense is consequently lower. Some suggestions for preparing a search session are given below.

Assembling documentation:

The person conducting the search should always keep the three following documents within reach when going online:

1. A short guide describing the steps to be taken in the search process. (See for example ITC's "Search Hints to Database Hosts," which covers eight major online systems.)

2. Descriptions of the database(s) being used, especially the corresponding "blue sheets" which are provided by hosts and describe each database. "Blue sheets" are available online (i.e. on the computer screen) for some database systems, but it is preferable to obtain a paper copy of this information for easy reference during the online connection.

3. The product, country and subject classification codes used with the database systems being consulted.

It may also be advisable to have at hand the printout of a previous session during which similar information was searched on the database. The steps in the printout can help an inexperienced researcher follow a logical sequence in the search operation, in addition to displaying the right search codes.

Advantages of online databases compared with printed publications

* More current information: Most computerized databases are updated every week. This timeliness is particularly important in the case of trade opportunities (for instance the database "Business"); announcements of calls for tender and supply opportunities under industrial projects (such as the "TED" and "IBOS" databases); daily exchange rates and price quotations (for example "Reuters," "UPI"; changes in trade regulations ("Celex," "Lexis"); and new developments in rapidly changing international economic situations (most economic journals in English and French are accessible online with summaries or full text).

* Wider coverage: Some computerized bibliographic databases cover more than 300,000 references (for instance "ABI/Inform," "Delphes" and "Promt"), including English or French summaries of articles selected from specialized publications in numerous languages. This broad coverage is particularly valuable for exploring new markets and products as well as other specific trade subjects for which relevant publications are unknown or difficult to obtain.

* More flexible and rapid retrieval of information and the possibility of further processing it: Through online databases trade regulations can be reconstituted with their related amendments and addenda; trade statistics can be extracted and computed; articles from new sources can be identified through a search process based on keywords covering different databases; and company profiles can be used for developing mailing lists.

Defining the topic:

The products, markets, subjects and time periods for which information is being sought should be clearly defined, with all possible terms related to them listed on a sheet of paper. For example, to search for information on recent imports of leather shoes into the United States, the following terms could be listed:

-- shoes, footwear

-- USA, United States, American

-- market, sales, imports, trends

-- documents published in 1990

or 1991

When possible, the person conducting the computer search should draw up this list jointly with the final user of the information. This will help ensure that all possible aspects of the subject are covered and will also eliminate irrelevant topics.

Using codes:

Codes relevant to the subject in question should be noted prior to establishing a connection to the database, particularly product codes, using appropriate product classifications (for instance the Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) or the Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System (HS)).

Product codes are needed primarily when searching statistical databases. Company files are usually searchable by product name as well as by product code.

Conducting a search according to codes is generally more reliable than searching by terms. In some cases, however, it is preferable to search by product name rather than SIC or HS code, for instance if the product names listed are far more detailed than the corresponding codes (as is the case, for example, with several "Dialog" company databases).

Subject codes are also useful when available, to avoid wasting time on searching large categories of irrelevant information. For example, codes can be selected for obtaining market information only, thereby eliminating technical information.

Setting a search strategy

When appropriate words and codes have been identified for the particular search topic, the subject concerned should be formulated in terms of the search "language" of the database system being used. The steps involved in the search process should be written on a sheet of paper before establishing the online connection.

The search technique may vary for different types of databases and online systems, but the ten principles that follow apply in most cases.

1. Progressively narrow the scope of the search. Display the search terms on the screen before the search exercise starts. Search according to broad concepts first and check the number of documents for each individual search term or expression. Depending on the size and nature of the database, the amount of information available for a given search term or expression may be too little or too much.

The main elements of information required for a search session on U.S. shoe imports in 1990 could be: 1. shoe, or shoes; 2. footwear; 3. usa; 4. sales; 5. year (1990 or 1991). In this example, it is preferable to formulate five individual steps (and thus get the number of "occurrences" for each search expression), than to combine terms and limit the number of search steps. Words or steps in the search process should be combined at a later stage only.

Combinations of search terms that are too long not only prevent the person conducting the search from being able to interpret the results (for example if no information is obtained in response to a lengthy search term or expression), but can lead to typing mistakes. Assigning step numbers to each individual search term instead of combining the steps at the outset makes it possible to combine the steps in different ways later, if necessary, without searching the entire database again.

2. Use paragraph searching to obtain more relevant material. In the example above, if the words "shoe" and "footwear" are part of the title of a document or are a given descriptor, the document is more likely to be relevant than if one of these words simply appears in the text of the document, for instance along with many other products. By restricting the search to cases in which the keyword is the descriptor or is in a title, more pertinent information can be retrieved, especially from large databases, where many documents may contain a given search term.

3. Limit the search by date to focus on recent information to save on time and costs. With all online systems it is possible to restrict the search to recent documents, although the way in which this is done may vary. Online searchers often forget to limit their search period. Most database systems do not warn the user of this danger, as they basically try to sell the information available, whether it is up to date or not.

Some databases have, however, introduced features to prevent this, for instance by automatically limiting the documents available to those published during the last 12 months.

4. Recapitulate previous search steps to simplify the search process. As it is not always possible to look back at pages already seen on the screen during an online session, a person conducting a search may forget the exact number of previous search steps and need to repeat them to continue the search process. To avoid such duplication of effort, most database systems have a special feature for recalling previous steps on the screen.

Even when it is possible to recall past steps in the search process, it is often advisable to note the step numbers and search results on a piece of paper for later reference.

5. Avoid displaying documents in full format at the beginning. When a reasonable number of relevant documents have been identified, their contents can be examined. Instead of displaying immediately the full contents of all documents, the following is recommended:

* Display only the first document in full, to ensure that all of the paragraphs of material stored in the database are available online and to check the nature of their content.

* Display the titles of the next ten documents, and continue by batches of ten documents.

* Note the numbers of the most relevant documents, which can be displayed later in full format.

6. Make use of "free" paragraphs, that is, paragraphs (or "fields") that can be consulted without charge. When a "free" display format of this type exists, it should be used before displaying the full format. The free format usually includes the title, descriptors and selected paragraphs (depending on the nature of the database).

The full format display should be used only for selected documents, once it is evident that they are relevant to the search topic. This can be determined by displaying their title or selected paragraphs.

Additional caution is required for full-text searching. Full-text documents may be many pages in length. Full-text databases usually offer the option of displaying only relevant parts of the document. In some databases, for instance, it is possible to get a list of "occurrences," or the paragraphs in which the search term appears, and display the table of contents.

7. Practice on training files. Training files are available free of charge on some databases, and can be used on others for a fee. Practicing on such files is an ideal way to become familiar with the operation of a database.

8. Avoid peak hours. Accidental disconnections and long waiting times are not only frustrating for someone doing an online search but also costly. Breaks in the telecommunication system are most likely to occur during peak hours, that is, when online users in North America and Europe are both active, between 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. G.M.T. Response is also slower during that part of the day.

9. Make maximum use of free connection time. Most online systems offer some connection time without charge to their customers, especially when new database files are launched on the market. The best way to be informed of such opportunities is to read the newsletters issued by the major computer "host" organizations.

10. Never remain inactive while connected to a database online. Several online database systems have introduced a special feature that allows the user to stop paying the connection time temporarily in the middle of a search session. When the user must stop for a few minutes, for instance to check a product code or answer a telephone call, he or she may type a given command and then resume the search in a few minutes. In this manner, unused time is not charged by the host organization.
COPYRIGHT 1991 International Trade Centre UNCTAD/GATT
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Ancel, Bernard; Monrozier, Bertrand Jocteur
Publication:International Trade Forum
Date:Oct 1, 1991
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