Prestel and its successors - notes from a Old Campaigner

Dr Steve Willoughby

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Consultant Dr Steve Willoughby remembers Prestel, the early teletext system, and describes one of the successor systems he is now running for Saffron Walden
For reasons I have never really understood myself, but may be to do with nostalgia and irrational sentimentality, I keep a diary. My diary for November 2nd 1986, exactly a decade ago, tells me that this was the day I opened my first PRESTEL account.

Prestel - the viewdata service


For readers who have dim recollections of PRESTEL, it was a viewdata service invented by Sam Fedida and originally developed by the British Post Office in the early 1970s. Armed with a modem or a viewdata terminal and a healthy budget, subscribers could connect to PRESTEL machines with quaint names like BRONTE, DICKENS and DUKE and pick their way through endless menus to find out anything from the latest heffer prices in Norfolk to the cost of a flight to Zimbabwe.

Some Local Authorities were quick to see the potential of PRESTEL as a means of publishing community information: names like Kingtel and Herts 288 come flooding back to memory as examples of this Golden Age of pioneers. According to Alan Mayne in his book "The Videotex Revolution"*, "Prestel now [1987] has over 75,000 terminals connected to its British and international computers, with a net increase of about 1,000 sets per month. Several hundreds of these terminals are overseas, in more than twenty countries. 60% of the British customers and almost all those abroad (except in France) are businesses, as the home users' market still has not fully 'taken off'".

The subsequent demise of PRESTEL and the overwhelming success of its French counterpart, Teletel, are matters of history.

Local authority alternatives to Prestel

It was the failure of the PRESTEL home market to leave the ground, together with the high cost of hosting and providing access to information on the service, that led the Local Authorities to seek alternative means of hosting their community viewdata services. Hence the development of software like ICL's Bulletin, Thorn-EMI's THEMIS and other systems which were installed on Local Authority mainframe computers up and down the country to provide their constituents with access to community information normally via terminals installed in libraries.

The home user had access to these services in theory, but it was not easy: they had to have a dial-in number and understand terms like videotex, modem, emulation software, parity bits, viewdata terminal - words which were not exactly in everyday use. Many of us responsible for publishing on-line community information would have gladly given limbs to have a national - let alone global - communications infrastructure with standard protocols, the ability to deliver multimedia presentations, and free search engines that we now have with the Internet.

Not only that, but every High Street newsagent is stacked with magazines showing our target audience how to connect and contribute, Internet Service Providers are falling over themselves to get people connected cheaply, and not many days pass when there aren't at least fifty passing references to http's, www's and email addresses on the radio and TV.

The real challenges

Yet I have an uneasy sense of deja vu about it all because the REAL challenges for community information systems are not much to do with technology at all. They are to do some or all of the following: and, above all: My unease is based on my experience of the many community information systems that have failed, not because the technology was unreliable or outdated, but because insufficient thought had been given to the real issues from the outset. The Internet allows enormous opportunities, but there are, as yet, no HTML tags, CGI or Java scripts which will solve these issues for us.

Saffire - a community information service on WWW

Saffire (Saffron Walden Information Resource) is a community information service serving Saffron Walden and the larger part of the Uttlesford District area on the World Wide Web.

The original purpose of Saffire was not to provide a real information service at all but rather to help me, as an electronic public information consultant used to the world of viewdata, to explore the potential of this new medium and to use it as a testbed for ideas.

Uttlesford is essentially a rural area with three main centres at Saffron Walden, Dunmow and Thaxted. Saffron Walden is by far the largest of these centres but a large proportion of the population live in outlying villages and hamlets poorly served by public transport. When designing Saffire, therefore, I targetted the content at this rural community and set up simple HTML documents giving information about local travel, events, services and community news. I included a link to a simple feedback form on the home page and the inevitable Web cliche - an access counter. To my amazement, after about a month of Saffire going live, the access counter was registering accesses which were not my own: in my naivete in those early days, I was unaware of search engine spiders which were indexing Saffire and making the URL available to the global audience. Responses started coming in from the most unexpected places: people planning holidays or wanting to start businesses in the area, others trying to contact old friends, students planning to attend the local Language College and so forth.

The most graphic example of what was happening at this time was the gentleman from Canada whose mother, living in a local village, complained to him that she was not able to get out as much as she wanted because she was having trouble getting reliable information about the bus services. He found them on Saffire, printed them off and sent them to her via Air Mail.

This sort of development was a salutory experience for me, and Saffire quickly moved from being an experimental site to providing a real service.

It occurred to me that one major limitation of a site consisting entirely of HTML documents was that it lacked the viewdata equivalent of the keyword whereby users can enter a search term e.g. ELDERLY and be given a list of all related documents. Now computer programming is not a skill that appears on my CV, but armed with a couple of books about CGI scripting and some considerable help from the Internet community, I was able to set up keyword searches and searchable databases relatively painlessly. It would have been unthinkable even to attempt to do something similar with a viewdata system where there are no standards and "gateways" are all proprietary.

Being no longer quite so intimidated by CGI scripting, I decided to experiment with a real-time threaded discussion forum which aimed to allow discussion of topical local issues. The response to this has been good and has been used by the District Council to gauge in some part local feeling about some contentious topics.

The Saffire structure

Saffire's logical structure is currently:

Leisure & What's On

Councils and Government

Social Services

Clubs and Societies

Community News

Discussion forums

Travel and Transport

History, Customs & Legends
Area maps

Business and Services

Saffire is now 2 years old, has taken about 1500 man hours to construct and requires 10 hours a week to maintain. To date there have been 4000 logins since April 1996. Saffire receives no funding, although negotiations with the District Council are well under way for the service to be adopted as the official Uttlesford site.

Saffire is at: http://www.webserve.co.uk/clients/saffire/
Dr Steve Willoughby is an independent Electronic Public Information Consultant. The Internet aspects of his work are in collaboration with Webserve Limited, PO Box 56, Saffron Walden, Essex CB11 4HT. Tel: 01799-520900 Fax: 01799-520082
Email: steve@saffron.demon.co.uk

* The Videotex Revolution, second edition
Alan J Mayne
Marathon Videotex 1987
ISBN 0 948771 03 8