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Online Databases-
Information available electronically

By Stephen W. Hartman, Anique Qureshi, and Joel G. Siegel

In Brief

Information Is King

Information is the basic ingredient for sound decisions and empowers decision makers to move forward with confidence. Today, there are abundant databases in various electronic forms. The difficulty now is deciding which database to use. Here is a comprehensive discussion of the various types, including detailed listings of those available from the U.S. government, business, the Internet, and on CD-ROM.

There has been a tremendous growth in the online database industry in terms of the number and types of databases, producers, and vendors. Never before has management had real-time access to such a vast amount of information resources. Online business databases improve decision making and analysis, allow management to add value by creating new products and services through information exchange and processing, and improve the bottom line. Online databases are a resource to be converted to useful information for decision making purposes. The real measure of the industry, however, is its actual use as measured by the number of online searches. Estimates produced by the major word-oriented database vendors show that the number of online searches increased from fewer than one million in 1974 to almost 60 million in 1993. These figures do not include financial transaction databases, such as databases for stocks, and electronic ordering. If they did, the total searches would be exponentially higher.

Presentation Methodology

One way to classify databases is by presentation methodology. The methodologies include text, number, image (video), audio, electronic services, and software. The earliest public databases were text based, and they still are the predominant type of database. As of 1994, text based databases represented over 70% of all databases and are continuing to grow in number. The user performs searches using text phrases to find specific information. Text based databases include bibliographic, directory, dictionary, full text, and other.

Numeric databases are used primarily for transactions and for obtaining statistical information. They actually represent a declining proportion of all database types and in 1994 were less than 20% of all online databases. Multimedia audio and graphical databases are developing and gaining popularity. As of 1994, they represented five percent of all databases, but their actual number increased more than fivefold. One application of a multimedia database is in the real estate industry where clients can be taken on a "virtual visit" of a particular property without leaving the office. Bulletin-board services (BBS) are another form of online database that have a wide variety of downloadable data.

Database Providers

Commercial online services, such as America Online and CompuServe have extensive access to various business database providers. However, their primary function is to be a conduit for delivering databases developed by these providers.

The World Wide Web (Web) portion of the Internet has a rapidly increasing series of online business databases. These databases use multimedia graphical and audio features with hypertext links to other data and resources. Users need a web browser to read a graphical Web database. Web online business databases are a valuable resource because they link to other Internet resources including text files, Telnet, Gophers, Usenet newsgroups, and other portions of the Internet as required.

Another form of a multimedia database is the development of a vast number of CD-ROM business databases that interrelate audio, video, and text and allow the user search and download capabilities.

Faxback services are becoming popular and are a major source of timely business information. They are easy to use and provide a wide variety of information through a fax machine or fax modem.

Finally, there are many U.S. government databases online. These high quality databases contain extremely useful information and are often free of charge.

STAT-USA Online Service

The U.S. government has moved aggressively to provide extensive online database access. The Economics and Statistics Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce has created STAT-USA for providing U.S. government online databases. It has several databases on the Internet at http://www.stat-usa.gov with an Internet mail address at: stat-usa@doc.gov. STAT-USA received the National Performance Review's Hammer Award, which recognizes those Federal agencies leading the way in "Creating a Government that Works Better, and Costs Less."

STAT-USA publishes the most timely business and economic information the Federal government has to offer. It eliminates the need to call from agency to agency to find the report that you need. STAT-USA gathers the most crucial, timely business and economic information from over 50 Federal agencies and distributes them from a central source, saving countless hours in research time.

STAT-USA/Internet provides over 300,000 reports and statistical series (the equivalent of seven sets of encyclopedias) online, including press releases, trade leads, and reports that are released on a daily or weekly basis. Searching is done using Inquery, an award winning natural-language search and retrieval software that greatly simplifies locating files.

Access to the Economic Bulletin Board/Lite Edition (EBB/LE) is included as part of a STAT-USA/Internet subscription. Quarterly, annual, and Class C subscription group rates are available. For more information on the EBB/LE or to place an order, call (202) 482-1986 or send e-mail to stat-usa@doc.gov. Companies interested in obtaining access for multiple users should call (202) 482-1986 for information on the available pricing options. STAT-USA/Internet data bases include the following:

* Budget of the United States. STAT-USA offers budget files free of charge in ASCII and in Adobe's™ Portable Document Format, and makes them searchable using Inquery.

* Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) Economic Information. An authoritative online news release source for Survey of Current Business issues, and for detailed data files from BEA's national, regional, and international economic accounts.

* Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. Department of Commerce. GDP press release (complete) with corporate profits; economic indicators summary text file; leading, coincident, and lagging indexes release (text and tables in text format); and personal income and outlays.

* Bureau of the Census, U.S. Department of Commerce. New construction, durable goods, shipments and orders; new home sales; housing starts; manufacturing and trade inventories and sales; advance retail sales, shipments, inventories, and orders; and U.S. international trade in goods and services formerly merchandise trade (complete release).

* Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. The employment situation complete release, consumer price index full release, producer price index (text/tables), productivity, and cost preliminary (complete release).

* Daily Economic Press Releases. State and local government bond rates, trade opportunities, 10:00 AM and 12:00 PM daily foreign exchange rates, the daily treasury statement, treasury rate quotations, and yield curve points.

* Economic Bulletin Board/Lite Edition. The Economic Bulletin Board/Lite Edition is a comprehensive Internet source for government-sponsored economic releases and business leads. The EBB/LE offers a small subset of the files available on STAT-USA's modem based Economic Bulletin Board (EBB) system, thus its title "Lite Edition."

* Federal Reserve Board (FRB). Summary of commentary on current economic conditions by Federal Reserve District, industrial production and capacity utilization, FRB bank credit, FRB consumer credit report, FRB foreign exchange rates, FRB selected interest rates, FRB money stock data, and FRB aggregate reserves.

* The Global Business Opportunities Service (GLOBUS). GLOBUS is an international marketplace for U.S. businesses, providing billions of dollars in procurement opportunities from all over the world. Currently, GLOBUS contains the Commerce Business Daily, and small purchase opportunities from the Defense Logistics Agency.

* The Census Bureau's Merchandise Trade Export and Import Statistics. These are available on a commodity level as well as a country level.

* The Economic Bulletin Board (EBB). This is the world's leading source of government-sponsored business data. Begun in 1985, it helped launch the era of electronic reporting and today is still the most-used bulletin board of its kind. The EBB collects, collates, and publishes data from more than 35 Federal agencies.

Online Business Databases

As of 1994, there were 2,769 online business databases that represented 32% of known online databases since 1988. There has been about a five percent annual increase in total business databases since 1988. They cover an enormous number of subjects including census, bibliographic, education, aerospace, and newspaper data to name just a few.

The online business databases listed in Exhibit 1 are a selection of the numerous databases available. For complete online business database listings, the reader is urged to consult the Gale Directory of Databases (Detroit: Gale Research, Inc.).

Internet Services and the
World Wide Web (WWW)

A rapidly growing number of databases are available through the Internet. These databases use four types of internet services. They are Telnet, Anonymous FTP, Gopher, and the World Wide Web.

Telnet is the Internet standard protocol for remote terminal connection service. It uses a series of commands to communicate with other computers. In the Internet, Telnet acts as the intermediary between your computer, the local computer, and the other computer, referred to as the remote computer. To reach a particular computer, a user would have to enter a Telnet address and
then "Telnet" to the remote computer.

Anonymous FTP allows a user to retrieve documents, files, programs, and other archived data from anywhere in the Internet. By using the special user identification (userid) of "anonymous," the network user will bypass local security checks and have access to publicly accessible files on the remote system without having to establish a userid and password. Anonymous FTP is an important and widely used Internet service.

Gophers use a series of menus to easily access any type of textual information available on the Internet. While there are some stand-alone Gopher services, the wide majority interconnect with other Gopher services allowing simple information access. The Gopher's ease of use results from a simple standard menu interface.

The Web. The fastest growing and most creative online business databases are appearing on the "Web." The Web accesses all portions of the Internet as well as allowing information to be presented in highly creative multimedia formats using video, color graphics, animation, sound (including voice and music), and hypertext links between other text and databases with data downloading capabilities.

Management is finding that the Web is an excellent "marketspace" not only for gathering information by using "search engines," but also as a simple and inexpensive marketing format where homepages can be established with links to a database catalog of products and online documentation. For example, a hypertext link on a customer's computer in New York City can point to a picture on a supplier's computer in Los Angeles to place an order. Each computer within the Web is called a Web site. A host computer provides access to the site.

Web browser software is necessary to use the Web. Browsers can even be downloaded. Public WWW browsers are available on certain Telnet hosts. However, browser software installed on the user's terminal will give the most effective utilization of the Web. They have full multimedia capabilities, and the ability to connect to any Web site. In addition, Web search tools are also necessary to do online word searches. A growing number of these "Web crawlers" are currently available and most are free. Their names include Yahoo, Lycos, and WebCrawler. The WWW is becoming the choice Internet location for online business databases.

Online databases are constantly being added, and for that matter, removed or re-listed at different addresses. Making a database available online requires a large financial and managerial investment. Site addresses are changed for financial as well as technical reasons. Databases must be continually updated and maintained. Therefore, the reader is cautioned that addresses do change, and the material in Exhibit 2 is only a selected list of online business databases on the Internet.

CD-ROM Business Databases

There are a wide variety of CD-ROM business databases. Their quality varies, but almost all have multimedia features. A partial listing follows:

* Research Institute of America (RIA) Tax Service. A comprehensive data base of tax information including IRS regulations and rules, and case law.

* 24HR Virtual Assistant by Microforum. An online helpline to popular software and provides shortcuts, advice, and instruction on how to utilize features of various software, including word processing, spreadsheets, and databases.

* Microsoft Quick Shelf. An excellent multimedia reference library containing the American Heritage Dictionary, The Original Roget's Thesaurus, the Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, the Concise Columbia Encyclopedia, Hammond Intermediate World Atlas, the People's Chronology, the World Almanac, and Book of Facts.

* The National Economic Social and Environmental Data Bank (NESE-DB) developed by STAT-USA of the U.S. Department of Commerce. The NESE-DB is the definitive source of information on socioeconomic programs and trends in the United States. It provides in-depth coverage of economic trends, education, health issues, criminal justice, and the environment.

* The National Trade Data Bank/CD-ROM (NTDB). A subscription service of the Department of Commerce's STAT-USA. It has a trade library of more than 190,000 documents (three encyclopedias' worth) of information.

* Select Phone by Prophone. A complete phonebook having listings from every white pages phonebook in the USA. It also provides reverse search capabilities to search by name, area code, zip code, phone number, city, state, business category, or SIC code.

* Standards (2 disc set) by InfoMagic. An inclusive collection of domestic and international communication standards with documentation.

* Statistical Abstract of the United States. Produced by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Economics and Statistics Administration, it provides the complete Statistical Abstract of the United States.

* Toolworks Reference Library by Software Toolworks: A winner of the "Best CD Program" award, the Toolworks Reference Library is an essential business reference source. It has the New York Public Library Desk Reference, Webster's New World Thesaurus, Webster's New World Guide to Concise Writing, Webster's New World Dictionary Third College Edition, J.K. Lasser's Legal and Corporation Forms for the Smaller Business, Webster's New World Dictionary of Quotable Definitions, and the National Directory of Addresses and Telephone Numbers.

* U.S. Global Trade Outlook: Produced by the U.S. Department of Commerce, this is the CD-ROM version of the 224-page U.S. Global Trade Outlook, 1995-2000 and features all 140 color graphics and tables of the print version.

* World Factbook by Quanta Press. This is the CIA World Factbook that contains data on 249 countries and territories worldwide. The major areas covered on the disc are: geography, disputes, environment, population and vital statistics, government, economy, industry, communications, and infrastructure. *

Stephen W. Hartman, PhD, is a professor at the New York Institute of Technology. Anique Qureshi, PhD, CPA, is an assistant professor of accounting and information systems and Joel G. Siegel, PhD, CPA, a professor of accounting, at Queens College.

The CPA Journal is broadly recognized as an outstanding, technical-refereed publication aimed at public practitioners, management, educators, and other accounting professionals. It is edited by CPAs for CPAs. Our goal is to provide CPAs and other accounting professionals with the information and news to enable them to be successful accountants, managers, and executives in today's practice environments.

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