OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

New tools make world wide web more useful

06/29/1998

CORVALLIS - In the delightfully bizarre novel, "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," travelers faced with the problem of communicating with intergalactic beings dropped a "Babel Fish" in one ear. The fish enabled them to understand and speak languages they'd never heard.

Computing experts at Oregon State University have developed two Babel Fish for databases.

One is a computer scripting language called HyperSQL (SQL stands for Structured Query Language); the other, a search tool called QueryDesigner. They have the potential to add incredible depth to the quality and usefulness of information available on the World Wide Web, experts say.

More and more databases with research information are being connected to the web. But finding information in them can be brutally tedious, said Cherri Pancake, a professor of computer science at OSU and director of the OSU-based Northwest Alliance for Computational Science and Engineering, which is supplying HyperSQL for free.

Databases are compiled in a variety of different software, often customized. Each has its own organizational structure and uses its own jargon. That makes searching a nightmare, Pancake pointed out. For example, terms such as "salmon," "coho" and "endangered fish" could be completely unrelated terms in three different databases, Pancake said. Getting comparative information would mean modifying at least two of them - something database owners are loath to do. Pulling related information from even two without that modification could take years.

And searching has often required getting permission from the database owner to put a search engine on the server on which the database exists, a tricky bit of diplomacy at best.

Enter HyperSQL and QueryDesigner. Both tools work primarily from the searching person's machine, so the owner of the database doesn't have to do a thing.

Like Babel fish-enhanced travelers, Web users don't have to know anything about the computer languages in which a database was compiled to search for, and find, information about endangered coho salmon - from one or 100 databases.

That makes what once was a doctoral degree project in computer science actual child's play.

Two staff researchers from the OSU Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, Sherry Pittam and Joe Hanus, developed very different HyperSQL interfaces for a lichen database, including "LichenLand" for middle school children, and "Lichen Synoptic Key" for professional biologists.

But the benefit that Pancake thinks will pay off the most in the future is that this tool puts control back in the hands of the curious.

Many people lamented the loss of library card catalogs because they felt they had lost the opportunity to browse and make unexpected "finds." HyperSQL and QueryDesigner allow a person to explore fairly blindly - returning to users the ability to explore unfamiliar information, to seek without a particular question in mind, and to use the information available for unanticipated uses.

HyperSQL was developed by Mark Newsome, now a postdoctoral research associate on campus, under a grant from the National Science Foundation. It consists of "building blocks" of pre-written code, which can be used to build a web search page. The building blocks help generate a search of a database and send the results to the user as a web page.

Newsome, Pancake and Hanus developed QueryDesigner, a "point and click" software that allows any web user to create search pages for databases.