People Power and the Semantic Web: Building Quality Controlled Portals

Martin Belcher, Emma Place
Institute for Learning and Research Technology, University of Bristol, UK,
High quality Internet search services can be realistically and economically built by employing highly qualified professional people as editors, working as part of distributed teams, all using standard Web technologies and metadata formats. The end result is a dramatic improvement in the quality of search results.


The European Union's DESIRE [1] project has demonstrated that Internet gateways built by qualified subject experts using standard Web technologies can offer Internet users unparalleled levels of quality when searching the Internet. Distributed teams of academics, university librarians and professionals are now involved in the development of large-scale information gateways across Europe. These gateways offer catalogues of Internet sites and resources, which can be searched or browsed by subject. They guide people quickly and effectively to the kinds of sites that can support academic and professional work and the kinds of sites that people know they can trust. These are the highest quality portals on the Internet.

The gateways use standard metadata formats, formal classification schemes and have strict selection criteria. The editors are all subject or information experts who can make an informed judgement about the quality of an Internet site, based on its semantic content. The gateways use standardised formats and technologies, which means they are all compatible and can inter-operate.

European gateway initiatives include:

Gateway Initiative Country Run by
The Resource Discovery Network [2] United Kingdom Staff at universities across the country
DutchESS [3] The Netherlands The National Library of the Netherlands in collaboration with universities across the country
Special Subject Guides [4] Germany The German Research Councils in collaboration with universities
The Finnish Virtual Library [5] Finland Staff in university and research libraries across the country
EELS/Novagate [6, 7] Sweden University librarians and academics
DEF Danmarks Elektroniska Forskningbibliotek [8] Denmark Danish librarians

These gateways have proven that people-based solutions to building large-scale Internet search services are viable and have a number of distinct advantages over wholly automated approaches and over approaches involving volunteer or inexpert editors.

Standards and Best Practice: The DESIRE Information Gateways Handbook

The DESIRE project, funded by the European Union, has produced the definitive guide to setting up and maintaining a large-scale information gateway. The DESIRE Information Gateways Handbook [9] was launched in October 1999 and is freely available over the WWW. It promotes the development of national gateway initiatives among the academic and library communities. It also promotes the adoption of standard procedures in setting up gateways, to ensure compatibility and the potential for integrating services.

The Information Gateways Handbook has three main sections:

  1. Strategic issues: Sustaining services, distributing effort...
  2. Information issues: Metadata, Internet cataloguing and classification...
  3. Technical issues: Systems, interoperability, scalability...

The Handbook is an excellent example of collaborative working, that draws together the expertise and experience of the leading gateway practitioners in Europe (in fact, the world). The Handbook received very favourable reviews from all peer reviewers and since its launch has received a great deal of positive feedback.

Future Developments: An International Network of Gateways

DESIRE has run workshops for the international community on metadata and gateway development [10]. Other countries in Europe are now considering a national strategy for gateway development, which involves the academic and library communities.

A new project called Renardus [11] will take the DESIRE work on information gateways forward by developing a broker service offering improved subject-based routes to Internet-accessible collections of cultural and scientific information across Europe. Renardus will be working with - and building on - existing information gateway initiatives.

The DESIRE Approach to Building Portals

Information gateways help users discover high quality information on the Internet in a quick and effective way. They select, classify and catalogue information in ways similar to those that librarians have used for many years. DESIRE has been central to the European development of information gateways and has developed recommendations for gateway development.

People power and expert input:

The value of information gateways lies in the fact that they are selective and quality controlled. DESIRE suggests that the best way to restrict your gateway to include only high quality sites is to employ people who have the expertise to make value judgements about the information content (semantics) of the sites. Gateways employ qualified editors with subject knowledge. They also have formal selection and collection development policies.

Distributed effort:

Building a team of qualified editors can be expensive and problematic. The solution for many European gateways has been to mobilise the academic and library communities to join the international gateway effort. Distributed teams of experts can contribute to gateways as part of their professional work. Librarians, university academics and professional people can spend a few hours a week building the gateway collections. Gateways use Web technologies that enable distributed working. The databases can be accessed remotely and editing can be done from any networked computer with a Web browser.

International collaboration and co-operation:

The Internet offers great potential for co-operation between gateway services, since it allows geographically distributed databases and people to communicate with one other and to work together to build integrated services. Co-operation between gateways is increasingly being seen as a strategy for:

DESIRE has been promoting standard practices for gateway developments which will give different gateways the potential to inter-operate in the future to create an international, integrated gateway service.

Standards development:

A lot of research and development has been done on how gateways can be made to interoperate and this has highlighted the areas where standards are needed to make this possible. For gateways to co-operate they will need to work at:

The DESIRE information gateways handbook offers a state of the art review of research in this area.

Problems and Solutions

No matter what the user's information needs, skill level or educational background, they all face a number of similar problems in relation to using the Internet as an information searching and retrieval tool. These problems include:

Information gateways help address all of these problems:

About the DESIRE Project

The DESIRE II (Development of a European Service for Information on Research and Education phase II) project involves collaboration between project partners working at ten institutions from four European countries - the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the UK. The project is partially funded under the EU Telematics Application Programme as well as various national-level funding initiatives.

The project's focus is on enhancing existing European information networks for research users across Europe through research and development in three main areas of activity: Caching, Resource Discovery and Directory Services.

Information Gateways:

If you are interested in setting up an information gateway or just want to find out more about what information gateways are, then the DESIRE information gateways handbook is the place to start.


  2. RDN - Recource discovery Network
  3. DutchESS - Dutch Electronic Subject Service
  4. SSG FI - Special Subject Guides- SSG Fachinformation
  5. Finnish Virtual Library/ Virtuaalikirjasto
  6. EELS - Engineering Electronic Library, Sweden
  7. NOVAGate - Nordic Gateway to Information in Forestry, Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences
  8. DEF Danmarks Elektroniska Forskningbibliotek (Danish Electronic Research library)
  9. The DESIRE Information Gateways Handbook
  10. DESIRE Workshop: Building national and large-scale Internet Information Gateways
  11. Renardus

Contact details

Martin Belcher, Emma Place
Institute for Learning and Research Technology, University of Bristol, 8-10 Berkeley Square, Bristol, BS8 1HH, UK
Tel: 44 117 928 7192
Fax: 44 117 928 7112