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Interactive public information centres for the Queensland Department of Primary Industries: Design and implementation needs and issues

June Lennie, Research Officer
Greg Hearn, Assistant Director
The Communication Centre, Queensland University of Technology
Dick Schoorl, Executive Officer, Special Projects
Queensland Department of Primary Industries

Tony Stevenson, Director
The Communication Centre, Queensland University of Technology
This paper reports on the results to date of an ongoing action research project to develop and design a new concept in public information centres, and networked information systems, for the Queensland Department of Primary Industries (QDPI). The project involves multi-disciplinary Project Groups from the Communication Centre at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and QDPI working in collaboration. Research has involved meetings with QDPI Project Groups, a preliminary international literature and resource search and a major workshop. It is anticipated that the new centres will use interactive communication technologies such as expert systems linked to Geographic Information Systems and CD-ROM databases, along with action learning strategies such as workshops using interactive multimedia. This research indicates that QDPI needs to develop user friendly self help systems, with simple delivery, which are accessible at low cost and easily implemented. There is an important need to capture and market QDPI's intellectual property and to format information products to match how clients seek and use information. The goal is to create a new community awareness and active involvement in sustainable development issues. A further goal is to create a new public image of QDPI which emphasises social development and improved quality of life, rather than mere production and the one way dissemination of scientific information. A preliminary literature search indicated that few other organisations, possibly in the world, have developed public information centres for agricultural and environmental information which use interactive technologies and action learning methods.


The Queensland Department of Primary Industries has recognised that the effective dissemination, sharing and access to information by all staff and clients is vital to effective decision making, improved management of resources and building a new relationship between QDPI and the community. Information centres are likely to play an increasingly important role in these processes.

The purpose of QDPI is

to oversee the productive and sustainable management of the State's agricultural lands, pastures, forests, water, wetlands and fisheries for the community's net benefit (QDPI, 1990a)
QDPI has recently undergone major restructuring and this has placed additional demands on internal information systems and created the need to develop an overall strategy for information management.

During the past four years self service information centres have been established at Brisbane City, Redlands, 25 km east of Brisbane, and at Nambour, 130 km north of Brisbane on the Sunshine Coast. While the Brisbane centre deals mainly with home gardeners and students, the Nambour and Redlands centres are mostly used by new or intending farmers and full time farmers in the horticulture industry. The centres are also a valuable resource for QDPI research and extension staff.

These centres were established because of the increasing demand for information services by farmers and other community members, along with the increase in new and intending full time and hobby farmers and the diversification of crops grown in the region. However this was not matched by an increase in extension staff. The centres operate on a self service basis. They were designed along the lines of special libraries with user friendly classification and arrangement of resources, video viewing areas, photocopiers and some access to online catalogues and other databases.

The Nambour information centre was the first to be opened in November 1987. A formal evaluation was conducted late in 1989 and users seen it as a vast improvement on the previous on demand advisory system (Vock, 1990). However a review of the Brisbane information centre found that it had not reached its full potential (Douglas et al, 1990).

Taken as a group, primary producers lack a formal educational background, do not possess developed library skills, and often have low literacy levels (QM 1990b). Consequently these centres did not adequately meet the needs of farmers, QDPI's major client group, and other strategies needed to be found. it was envisaged that newly designed centres using interactive technologies could provide a valuable means of fostering a new public image of QDPI and developing an interactive relationship with the community based on social development, rather than mere production and the one way dissemination of scientific and technical information. A major aim was to encourage farmers to become better information managers and to take an active role in information gathering and learning.

There are many other related factors which will be considered in designing the new information centres. These include social and cultural factors such as the increasing importance of the visual world; and the fact that the community now has a greater awareness and concern for environmental issues, is perhaps more critical of government organisations and is demanding more involvement in decision making.

Advances in technology are also an important factor. For example the development of digital video communication (DVC) technologies delivered via B-ISDN will open out creative opportunities for information delivery and interactive learning, and reduce the problem of distance. DVC combines the power of the current visual media with the power of the computer, creating an intelligent network. It promises to become a key information technology during this decade because its digital format, along with B-ISDN, enables a quantum lap in convergence possibilities between video, telecommunications and computers (Mandeville, 1991).

Theoretical considerations

Research conducted by the Communication Centre suggests that action learning methods may be useful for changing community attitudes and values towards sustainable development - a key goal for QDPI (Stevenson & Schmidt, 1991). Morgan and Ramirez (1983) describe action learning as a collaborative program involving decision makers from diverse fields which takes into account existing social and community structures. The aim is for people to learn how to learn through observation, experimentation, reflection and abstraction. The Project Groups therefore proposed that the new information centres use action learning methods to facilitate sustainable development practices.

In addition, the project is using an action research approach so as to avoid the dominance of one particular group in the development of the new information centres and to find creative solutions to problems. Morgan (1983, 24) states that action research (attempts to link theory and practice, thinking and doing, in a mode of inquiry that is both practical and scientific'. Another important issue here is the need to adequately consider the needs of users when designing or introducing new technologies. We believe it is vital to actively involve users in the design and implementation of new technologies and to consider the human and cultural factors first and the use of technology second.

A key human issue concerns the concept 'interactivity'. Selnow (1988, 132) argues that 'there is a remarkable similarity between human-to-human interactions and human-computer interactions in structured learning environments'. However computers cannot replace human interaction, and while they can enhance learning experiences, we would argue that the notion of interactivity should be used to describe communication between people, which can of course be mediated by computers or telecommunications. Implicit in this distinction is a secondary meaning of interactivity - namely human action which can change the process of mediated communication. Interactive media enable people to control the content of information, in contrast with the current passive media.

Composer and philosopher David Dunn highlights the problem of passively receiving environmental information via the mass media. Dunn (1988, 380) suggests that

the necessity of shifting our modes of experience away from passive representation towards interactive experience has become not only one of the essential concerns of education but a central issue for our times.
He says that our challenge now is to find interactive methods to make the electronic environment creative and life enhancing. Dunn suggests that the work of experimental artists using telecommunications, audio and video can enhance society's understanding and interaction with the environment. Examples of these works are provided later in this paper and may provide some creative ideas for the new information centres.

The goal of this project was therefore to design information centres and related information systems which took users needs into consideration, enhanced the relationship between QDPI and the community, and encouraged people to take an active part in their information gathering and learning.


Research has involved meetings with QDPI Project Groups, an international literature and resource search and a major workshop. Future research, planned to be completed by June 1992, will involve market research of clients, reviews of existing client surveys, the development of pilot projects for information systems, an audit of internal information resources and an environment/political sensing study.

QDPI Project Groups based in Brisbane and Nambour were formed to develop concepts and proposals for information systems and strategies. Communication Centre researchers conducted the literature search, and facilitated the Project Groups and a major workshop, which was held on September 30 1991. The aim of the workshop was to present and discuss proposals from the various project groups, and to make recommendations for future research and development work. A total of 66 QDPI, QUT and invited experts attended the workshop.

The preliminary literature search aimed to identify useful models and sources of ideas for the design, implementation, marketing and evaluation of the new information centres. Along with online searches, letters were sent to government and private organisations and libraries involved in disseminating environmental information in the United States, Canada, England, the Netherlands, France and New Zealand.

Reports on both the workshop and literature search were compiled by the Communication Centre and widely distributed to QDPI staff.

Overview of literature search results

Few articles or responses to letters were obtained on the specific search topic, perhaps indicating that few other organisations, possibly in the world, have developed public information centres for environmental information using interactive strategies. The few public information centres listed in the World Guide to Environmental Issues and Organisations (Brackley, 1990) used mainly one way communication strategies such as teaching packs, information sheets, audio visuals, and displays. Some centres offered education and training courses.

However literature was obtained on electronic libraries, expert systems, the use of videotex by farmers, interactive videos and other interactive and experiential learning technologies and processes. Contact was also made with interested personnel in Canada, the United States and the Netherlands who are working in related areas.

Some of the key findings from the literature search, relevant to the design of information centres, are summarised below:

The preliminary review of the literature indicated that interactive and multimedia systems are starting to be used in many parts of the world to effectively disseminate environmental and agricultural information and to educate people. However few comprehensive evaluations of such systems appear to have been conducted.

Proposals from Project Groups

Specific proposals and suggestions for information delivery systems and design of information centres were presented by the Nambour, Brisbane and QUT Project Groups at the workshop on September 30. While the Nambour group proposed the establishment of Agrilink, an overall concept for a client information service, the Brisbane Infotek group focussed on the use of computer systems to capture the expert knowledge in the department. QUT researchers presented ideas for interactive and experiential systems for information centres, based on the findings from the literature search.

Infotek - capturing expert knowledge

The QDPI Infotek Project Group (1991) addressed the problem of increasing the efficiency of marketing QDPI's intellectual property as a service and as a saleable product. The aim is to reduce costs, increase the speed of information transfer, capture information otherwise lost, improve QDPI's image as a service provider and add value to QDPI information. Members of the Project Group are developing various decision support, expert and other information systems to add value to existing rural practices, streamline delivery systems and provide more user friendly packages to obtain and classify data.

Expert systems were seen as a useful way of making information more accessible. They enable users to get the maximum benefit from information and require only a basic level of computer literacy, according to Lindsay and Schoorl (1991). An expert system is defined as 'a computer program which, to one degree or another, attempts to mimic the type of successful problem solving behaviour exhibited by human experts - within certain narrowly prescribed domains' (Lindsay, 1991). Expert systems are useful for dealing with 'fuzzy' problems and where human expertise is expensive or scarce (Bagdon, 1991).

QDPI has developed an expert systems shell known as Consultant-C which can be used to encapsulate expertise to integrate text, data bases, simulation and predictive models. Consultant-C is being enhanced to have live links with Geographic Information Systems, scanned and video images, and CD ROM databases. Links with Computer Aided Drafting are also proposed (Lindsay and Schoorl, 1991). Figure 1 shows the basic structure of the QDPI information network, incorporating Consultant-C, proposed by Lindsay and Schoorl.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Structural diagram of the QDPI information network

The following are examples of expert systems being developed by the Infotek Project Group which may be used in the new information centres:

Following the workshop recommendations were made to provide funding to continue work on the development of expert systems in the department.

Agrilink - managed information sourcing and delivery system

The Nambour group sees the Agrilink concept as a simple system which can be easily implemented. The proposed system uses both printed and electronic delivery of information products and provides delivery to and input from all relevant stakeholders (Cull and Vock, 1991). The aim is to deliver better information products to clients by: The cornerstone of the Agrilink system is that information products are formatted and grouped according to how clients seek and use information. Figure 2 provides an overall view of the system.

Figure 2

Figure 2: An overall view of Agrilink

Five levels of information products are proposed:

  1. Answers to specific common questions.
  2. Prescriptive recipes for production/ marketing systems.
  3. Decision making packages.
  4. Background information.
  5. Databases of resources.
Initially, printed information kits with a number of sections corresponding to these five levels would be developed. Materials will be formatted to enable easy transfer into an expert system at a later stage.

Two hundred and thirty centres are potentially required around Queensland. information products would be widely distributed through information agencies in existing QDPI centres, other Government offices, agribusiness establishments. libraries, educational institutions and other organisations throughout Queensland and northern New South Wales.

Answers to common questions could be delivered via a dial-it information service , 'Aginfo', similar to systems already used in California. Decision making packages could be delivered via the internal network system, QDPINet and through extension and agribusiness consultants in targeted learning projects. Background information provided by Aginfo online could also be delivered via QDPINet and document delivery systems. This enables users to type in, for example, the names of plants and obtain a list of current information and references for more technical information. Technical databases can also be accessed via QDPINet.

The Information Management Unit would gather information and manage and deliver information products through QDPI officers, libraries, agribusiness and others. Trained information facilitators will be needed to assist clients. They would be non-technical staff who relate well to people and can guide them through the system.

Recommendations were also made to fund a trial of the Agrilink system following the workshop.

Strategies for interactive and experiential learning

As discussed, the QUT Project Group identified some examples of interactive and experiential strategies which could be included in the design of new QDPI information centres, or could simulate ideas for the new centres. These strategies fall into three main categories: hands on exhibits, experiential workshops, and other innovative concepts.

1. Hands on exhibits

Hands on exhibits similar to those used in Science Centres could enhance the learning experiences of both adult and student users of the centres and can provide an insight into the world of science and technology and how scientists think (Bhathal, 1985). The aim is to simulate as many senses as possible. Adult visitors to the Science Centre in Canberra have outnumbered children (White, 1989). Hands on exhibits could be effective for the new information centres since one of the problems faced by QDPI is the different mindsets and attitudes of the community, particularly farmers, and QDPI scientists (Schmidt, 1991).

2. Experiential workshops

Current thinking suggests that group processes may be effective for changing attitudes and increasing the adoption of conservation farming practices (Stevenson and Schmidt, 1991). in addition experiential workshops incorporating visual media require less literacy than reading printed material and may reduce information overload (Hearn, 1991).

An example of this approach is the World Game which was conceived by scientist, educator and philosopher Buckminster Fuller. Workshops involve multimedia presentation of films. slides, sound tracks and interactive activities that take place on the largest and most accurate map of the whole earth. Participants take charge of a small percentage of the world's population, area or money and are responsible for decisions about how these resources are managed. Sophisticated databases are used to enable participants to see how decisions made for their part of the world directly or indirectly affect other parts of the world. Feedback from organisations which have been involved in World Game presentations indicate that it is a powerful learning technique and can assist in providing a deeper understanding of environmental problems and ways of solving them (World Game Institute, 1991).

Lindsay and Schoorl (1991) believe that expert systems can be used to provide an active learning environment in QDPI information centres, along similar lines to the World Game. They envisage a scenario where participants are given 200 hectares of land with a certain set of characteristics. The challenge is to manage this land so that it is capable of feeding, for example, 100 people. The consequences of the decisions made are simulated to give feedback to participants. Workshops would use a map showing all the existing cropping systems.

QDPI also envisages creating a three dimensional or holographic representation of Queensland with light sensors embedded in the map to aid in highlighting areas of population, disease, low or high rainfall, severe or moderate land degradation or other relevant characteristics, depending on the problems being explored by the participants (Schmidt, 199 1).

3. Other innovative concepts

As previously mentioned, Dunn (1988) suggests that the work of experimental artists using telecommunications, audio and video can enhance society's understanding and interaction with the environment. Also, by providing a substitute experience of nature, the use of such technologies may help preserve nature.

One example Dunn gives is 'Ecochannel Design', a proposal for a television station which could be dedicated to monitoring the ecology of the Hudson River Basin and developing consensus about how best to live there on a long term basis. Museum installations designed as a form of environmental theatre to connect the viewer with the natural world is another idea put forward by Dunn. Viewers could select different locations around the Earth's surface. Such installations could be placed in large urban centres as electronic parks for sensory enjoyment.

A recently developed example of the type of collaboration between art and science advocated by Dunn is the Geosphere, a 2.1 metre fibreglass globe produced from over 37 million satellite images of the Earth (Nadis, 1990; Reed, 1991). Its creator, artist Tom Van Sant, plans to build a video studio where people can run simulations of deforestation of the Amazon or oil spills alone international tanker routes. The sphere could be photographed and cameras could zoom down to areas of one kilometre. Landsat and aerial photographs could be used for greater resolution Van Sant plans to fix a transparent screen around the Geosphere to project weather satellite pictures.

These examples will need creative adaptation for QDPI information centres. While some of these ideas may be considered too 'way out' for QDPI's purposes, the aim was to stimulate workshop participants to come up with innovative ideas for information centres which can help QDPI reach its goal of creating a new relationship with the community based on sustainable development and improved quality of life.

Design and implementation issues

The preliminary review of the literature and discussion at the workshop highlighted the importance of the following development and design issues which will need to be considered.

User group research

Prior to the development of new information centres the following research is necessary:

Interactive methods and networked systems

User input and evaluation

Implementation and marketing issues


We believe that an action research approach to the design and implementation of information systems will be a useful method of finding solutions to the complex problems involved. Shared partnerships need to be developed to reduce costs, tackle the complex range of issues faced by QDPI and to develop appropriate technologies. Partnerships have already been developed with Telecom and QUT and links with Open Learning Centres and TAFE Colleges may be established in the future.

While multimedia and other interactive technologies will increase the effectiveness of information dissemination and learning, the challenge is firstly to consider the human, cultural and social issues involved before such technologies are introduced. The literature indicates that computer literacy is low in rural areas and that there may be a fear of new technologies. Careful implementation and marketing of the new information centres will therefore be essential to obtain user acceptance.

This research indicates that QDPI needs to develop user friendly self help systems, with simple delivery, which are accessible at low cost and easily implemented. There is an important need to capture and market QDPI's intellectual property and to format information products to match how clients seek and use information. Interactive technologies and strategies should be important features of the information centres.

The use of expert systems based on Consultant-C could handle requests more professionally for mutually beneficial results. An inventory of all QDPI skills is needed to provide relevant information faster and more easily. Applications need to reflect geographic diversity and the same service needs to be delivered to all areas. Distributed decision support systems were considered useful and both pictures and voice are needed. Scenario generation should be another important feature of the new information centres - strategies similar to the World Game can provide a vision for the future and provides feedback about the consequences of decisions.

Lindsay and Schoorl (1991) state that QDPI information systems will be required to handle a wide range of functions such as planning and management, decision support and catastrophe management. However the educational function of information centres could become increasingly important with the growing complexity of sustainable development issues and the need to foster a new community awareness of these issues.


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Please cite as: Lennie, J., Hearn, G., Schoorl, R. and Stevenson, A. (1992). Interactive public information centres for the Queensland Department of Primary Industries: Design and implementation needs and issues. In Promaco Conventions (Ed.), Proceedings of the International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 463-478. Perth, Western Australia, 27-31 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1992/lennie.html

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