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Although the name of the UK Data Archive has changed over time, for simplification it will be referred to here as 'the Archive'.

Data discovery and dissemination

Talk about revolution

"The SSRC Data claimed to represent a revolution in information retrieval techniques" (Times Educational Supplement, 1 March 1968).

Being formed in 1967 - the year of revolution - the Archive obviously predates the world of the web, e-science and cyber-infrastructures, and even email for that matter, by decades. Consequently, in terms of the Archive's history, it is only fairly recently that the point has been reached whereby most researchers and users will interact with the service wholly through the internet. Web-based delivery has revolutionised the entire industry of data-based services and changed them beyond recognition, but, for a service born 40 years ago, access to resources and the dissemination of those resources has not always been so straightforward.

It was not until May 1984 that the UKDA launched a service for the exchange of material on floppy disks. Prior to that, data were supplied on tape as the 'hard' medium of choice and occasionally via telnet in what might be thought of as the e-medium of its day! Even then, supply via telnet (and later ftp) required a technical expertise on the part of the remote user. Indeed, it was not be unusual for users to require the assistance of colleagues in computing services to 'pull' data across the network using telnet protocols. But even with these technical obstacles in place, dissemination via telnet remained a faster and cheaper option than copying data to a hard medium and then distributing the material by image

In the early 1990s, in collaboration with the Archive, MIDAS (as it was then) at Manchester began to host remote access to a selected number of large-scale government surveys. Rather than requesting copies of the data to be sent from Essex, researchers could logon to the national computing service at Manchester and conduct their analyses using standard software such as Scientific Information Retrieval (SIR) or Statistical Package for Social Science (SPSS). The early 1990s was also when the Archive started to supply data on CD - which it described in a release to users in 1991 as something "which can be played on most desktop computers, ... providing an excellent (and inexpensive) vehicle for distributing large amounts of stable data".

Spinning a web

BIRON brochure image BIRON screen image

A significant turning point, of course, was the introduction of the web. The Archive developed a web-based presence fairly early, launching its first web site in 1994. Initially, like a lot of web services at the time, it was limited in scope, essentially allowing users to search the holdings using the Bibliographic Information Retrieval ONline (BIRON) catalogue and, for the first time, place orders online. At this time, all users were still required to print off and sign a user undertaking outlining their responsibilities as a user each time they placed an order.

The arrival of the new millennium saw further technological advances and in November 2000 a new suite of web pages were launched. Users were now able to register with the Archive online - paper registration forms, processed manually and subject to postal delay/misdirection, became a thing of the past - removing a significant barrier to use. Requests for data became instantaneous and users were (and still are) able to order data using a 'shopping-basket' facility.

image of The Data Archive web site January 2000

A year later users were not only able to request data instantaneously, but could browse and download selected data at the click of a mouse. Nesstar, the internet-based software, permitted users to browse, visualise and undertake exploratory analyses on survey data. Now the Nesstar Catalogue has been linked to the Council of European Social Science Data Archives (CESSDA) data portal allowing UK-based researchers to locate, access and browse data from across several European countries through a common interface.

2001 also saw the launch of UKDA Download - an online data download facility for registered users, offering data in SPSS, Stata, tab-delimited and Rich Text Format (RTF) format. This download facility remains a core part of the user experience today with all new studies, whether numeric, textual or multi-format, routinely prepared for instant download, and all back catalogue datasets prepared for download as and when they are ordered. Restricted datasets can also be disseminated with full security controls - a significant improvement over the previous situation where restricted datasets would have to be delivered via ftp or offline media.

In 2003, an online browsing system for qualitative data called ESDS Qualidata Online was developed in order to compliment the Nesstar system for survey-type data. This allows free-text interview transcripts to be searched in a structured manner and also allows related qualitative research materials (such as audio files and images) to be embedded for download.

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In the year 2005/06 the overall number of datasets delivered to users rose by nearly 20 per cent over the previous year, from 41,134 to 49,169.

ESDS Annual Report,

Together with the introduction of these web-based technologies which speed the process of delivering data to researchers significantly, perhaps one of the greatest achievements in making access to data quicker and easier has been the introduction of the one-stop registration service. First introduced in 2002 and subsequently modified to included Athens authentication, this allows researchers and users to register once and agree standard terms and conditions of use online and then access as many data collections as they wish. This is a huge advance from the days when researchers had to complete, sign and send a data request form for every dataset required.

It's there somewhere...

Providing information about the content of the data collection held by the Archive has always been a high priority. In the early days of the Archive it was thought that the main finding aid should be in the form of a comprehensive (paper-based, of course) cross-referenced list of questions derived from surveys. This was to include questions asked in all social surveys, including those not held by or accessible from the Archive. The KWIC (keyword-in-context) project, as it was known, was hugely ambitious for its time and proved to be almost too burdensome to create and cumbersome to use. As David Allen later commented: "Few who consulted KWIC discovered what they were hoping for, more were confused by it and even found it a source or merriment ('colour', for example, lead one not to questions on racial problems but to a survey on paint)".

KWIC was relatively short-lived and replaced by a more conventional catalogue or inventory of data holdings, updated on a regular basis. The first of these was produced in 1969 and is remembered with due reverence by Eric Roughley (Deputy Director of the Archive from 1967 until his retirement in 1992):

image of the SSRC Data Bank Inventory September 1970

"With due ceremony, the Computing Service's printer was cleaned and prepared, a new ribbon inserted and, in a most stately fashion, a wodge of print-out would be carried over to the Computing Centre where we gathered around to observe the new catalogue being printed off. The whole exercise was conducted in a manner more like a masonic ritual - the operator even wore white gloves! The pristine product was then distributed to our subscribers (six) who paid 3...for the privilege".

image of ESRC Data Archive Catalogue 1986 Bridget Winstanley, Phil Holden and Marcia Taylor with the ESRC Data Archive Catalogue Later editions of the catalogue were printed, bound and published - the last such publication of this kind being a weighty two-volume tome.

An important change was implemented in 1981 when the Archive formerly adopted a standard study description for survey data developed collectively by a group of European social science data archives. Common description has subsequently facilitated exchanges of information between archives and cross archive information retrieval. In January 1986 the UKDA launched its first computerised bibliographic retrieval system, known as Bibliographic Information Retrieval ONline (BIRON), developed under the leadership of Bridget Winstanley.

A thesaurus of terms used for the indexing of its humanities and social science datasets known as Humanities and Social Science Electronic Thesaurus (HASSET) had also been developed building on the 1971 UNESCO thesaurus. Still under continuous development and renewal, this has subsequently been implemented in a number of informational retrieval systems around the world, and in a condensed form (the European Language Social Science Thesaurus (ELSST)) has been translated into eight languages to date, with others planned. Alongside BIRON, in 1995 the Archive released its first web-enabled catalogue that allowed cross-searching of other European archives collection descriptions. This resource was one of the first web portals found in the social sciences. The UKDA eventually said goodbye, sadly, to BIRON in December 2002 as advances in technology enabled much faster, and more flexible, access to the catalogue via the Archive's web site.

Searching the Data Catalogue on the web May 2007    online study descriptions and access to data May 2007

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