Disseminating environmental information through electronic channels, such as websites, can bring a great degree of flexibility. It allows messages in mixed formats, such as text, data, graphics and audiovisual. Today, there is a great and fast growing variety of electronic formats that can be used for different purposes. This includes formats such as PDF, html pages, RSS (a of web feed format used to publish frequently updated digital content), blogs and other personalized web-based tools.
There are many things to consider when choosing an electronic format for communicating your message, and it is important to keep in mind that in many countries web access is still limited. That limitation will vary from country to country and from region to region.
On the web, contents can easily be added, removed or updated. That flexibility offers an opportunity for publishing information as it becomes available. At the same time, readers will expect that an Internet site is regularly updated so, if resources for updates are lacking, you may lose readers.
It is important to keep in mind that we read differently on the web than we do with printed publications. Printed materials have a linear structure, and the reader follows a predefined path; reading a web report allows the reader to freely navigate from section to section. This has implications for how a web report should be organized and written. The most important advice when producing for the web is to limit text lengths and sharpen the messages. Be clear on what you want to communicate, and focus on the essential parts of your message.
Since people tend to read more slowly on the web, they will probably not follow your messages in a linear manner all the way to a conclusion, but will jump between pages as their interest shifts. The main messages you try to communicate should therefore not be saved to the end, but brought to the beginning of the text. Hence, you start with conclusions and move on from there.
Images and graphics may take a lot of time to download on the Internet for readers with a slow connection. This makes it important to understand the ability of your audiences to see images, depending on their computers and Internet connections, and to adjust your images accordingly. This may mean minimizing their use or at least keep the images sizes small. You can choose images and graphics without too many details, and to save the images as “jpg” files (for lower resolution graphics) and the graphics as “gif” files (common file compression format for photographs). If available, you may provide access to both low and high resolution versions of the same image and let the readers decide if they want to spend the time accessing the higher resolution one. An image or graphic should always have explanatory text and the source.
The possibility to make links is a strength of web-based publications. This allows combining different parts of an assessment in contrast to having to follow a linear path in a printed publication.
If you choose to produce a web report but an important portion of your audience has poor web access, you can chose to also distribute on a CD-ROM. The navigation of a CD-ROM should resemble that of your web page, so people will find it easy to use. Before you start production of a CD-ROM, consider if your target audience will find this to be a useful format. For example, a CD-ROM might be of greater use for schools, than for the general public.
Box 6: Formats for electronic documents.
PDF. PDF stands for Portable Document Format, and has become a widely-used way of publishing electronic documents. PDF is probably the best way to transfer and view documents on the web or through e-mail. Once you have Adobe Acrobat Reader installed (which is already in most recent computers) all you need to do is click on the PDF file and it automatically opens. If Acrobat Reader is not already installed, it can be downloaded free from the web (http://www.freesoftwarepack.com/Adobe_Reader.html). However, creating a PDF file requires Acrobat Professional, which must be purchased.
HTML. Hypertext Markup Language is the coding language used to create hypertext documents for the web. In HTML, a block of text can be surrounded with electronic “tags” that indicate how it will appear on a computer screen (e.g., bold face or italics). Also, in HTML a word, a block of text, or an image can be linked to another file on the Web. HTML files are viewed with a web browser.
RSS. Rich Site Summary and RDF (Resource Description Framework) are web technologies that make it easy to automatically share content, such as news items, among different web sites. A web site can allow other sites to publish some of its content by creating an RSS document, and registering the document with an RSS publisher. A web publisher can post a link to the RSS feed so users can read the distributed content on his/her site.
WEBLOG (BLOG). This is a publicly accessible personal journal created by an individual, and shared over the web. The activity of updating a blog is “blogging,” and someone who keeps a blog is a “blogger.” Blogs are typically updated daily using software that allows people with little or no technical background to update and maintain the blog. Postings on a blog almost always are arranged in chronological order, with the most recent additions featured most prominently.
There are a number of ways to develop a web report. You can choose to develop a design and structure from scratch. Alternatively, you can use existing web reports for inspiration.
There is also the possibility to use a template intended for more than one reporting institution.
UNEP/GRID-Arendal has applied the last strategy in a few projects. Web publishing software and web templates were developed for publishing the reports on the Internet. Here are two examples:
See Exercise 7.3.2
Nielsen Norman Group’s guidelines to website usability (http://www.useit.com)