The following information details the most common formats or mediums that can be used to deliver online information and services. It is not an exhaustive list and you should focus on what is required by the actions, rather than on technology when considering the suitability of options.
Portable Document Format (PDF)
What is it?
PDF is a way of viewing files online. Documents appear exactly like the original version but the sophisticated viewing features offered by PDF mean that it is more than a simple photographic replica. A number of programmes can be used to convert documents into PDF, including Adobe PageMaker and Adobe Acrobat.
PDFs retain their appearance across all platforms, and can be viewed independently of the software, hardware and operating system used to create the file. This provides it with a major advantage over Word or HTML documents. All that is required to read a PDF file is Adobe Acrobat Reader (AAR), a free and readily available programme that is already installed on most computers or can be downloaded from the Adobe website.
PDF does not format documents - it simply converts, without alteration, the format of the original document. In setting up a PDF document security controls can be used to permit or limit printing, copying and modifications.
Other features of PDF include:
- PDF documents print to a high quality and, because they are an exact copy of the original, allow those familiar with the hard copy to navigate around the online version. This feature also has advantages for other online planning uses (e.g. submission forms).
- The toolbar available when viewing a PDF document provides a variety of navigation and function options, including searches, text copying, diagram and image copying, saving, enlarging, and printing. Further capabilities include thumbnails of each page, internal and external links, bookmarks, article threads, form fields, notes to annotate information, and views to allow a user to magnify or reduce a page to fit their computer screen.
- For documents that are only in hard copy PDF is a useful way of transforming the information into a format that can be put on the internet.
- PDFs can be saved for offline browsing in personal directories. Any indexing (referred to as bookmarks) and other document-specific features associated with the PDF can also be retained.
- PDFs can be used in a variety of mediums (e.g. intranet, CD-ROM and email attachments).
- While PDFs can be converted to simple word files for editing purposes (provided the security options have not been set to prevent this), the original text format will not be retained and some reformatting will be necessary.
- PDF files can be security protected with printing and copying prevented. However, for a public document like a RMA plan this security measure is largely unnecessary and should be avoided.
- Thumbnail and bookmarks provide an overview of the document content and act as an onscreen index that can take the user to specific parts of the PDF document.
- PDF files allow the user to magnify documents up to 800 per cent with no significant loss of clarity in text or graphics.
- PDF maps will shrink according to the page size under page set-up, with no loss of clarity.
- PDF files can be optimised to reduce their file size so they do not take up much memory: this feature is particularly helpful for maps, which can require a lot of memory.
- Original formatting is preserved in this format.
- Security settings can restrict printing and/or editing so the original file cannot be easily copied, thus reducing the chance of changes being made.
- Digital signatures can be added.
- Easy to convert Microsoft Word documents with the proper programme and requires minimal technical knowledge.
- What is on the screen is what is printed out.
- Text zooming is easy and useful to those with impaired sight.
- Recent versions of the software include read-aloud capacity for the blind.
- Information can usually be accessed with only one click.
- Images or graphs inserted into PDF documents are preserved.
- Hyperlinks, multi-media, forms and buttons can all be added.
- Collaboration tools mean that a group working on a PDF can add annotations.
- PDF is a cross platform standard meaning PC and Mac users can both use it.
- PDF online forms can be interactive (where the form can be filled in online) or non-interactive (where it has to be printed out). Interactive forms can also be submitted either through email or a web-based application.
- PDF documents can be password protected.
- Information can be easily updated by creating a new PDF version that overwrites the previous material.
- Unreasonably sized files can sometimes be produced, particularly when the file contains images or graphs. As users with dial-up may have difficulty downloading large files, delivery options may need to be carefully considered (e.g. individual chapters vs an entire document).
- Advanced settings are sometimes not used to their full advantage, reducing the benefits of security and print settings. Some technical knowledge is required to get the best out of PDF.
- Compatibility issues, with files produced by older versions not always being able to be read by newer versions (i.e. backwards compatibility).
- Requires the user to have Adobe PDF loaded on their computer.
- Creating documents in PDF requires an Adobe PDF writer.
- PDF is designed primarily for printing. Reading long documents online can be more difficult because of set page size.
- PDF pages are not indexed by spiders of web pages all the way through (i.e. the contents of PDFs are not always searchable through the web).
Hypertext mark-up language (HTML)
HTML (hypertext markup language) is the name of the code used to create web pages and is probably the most successful document markup language in the world. Hypertext refers to the use of cross-references or links between bodies of text or images in electronic medium. HTML provides the ability to insert electronic links within the same document or externally to other documents. For example, planning maps can contain direct links to relevant provisions within a district plan, such as the relevant item on a district plan 's schedule of heritage features.
HTML uses hidden instructions (i.e. 'marking up' or 'tags') to provide structure to information. The most common use of HTML is to create web pages with the format or design of web pages increasingly being achieved through the use of style sheets (e.g. such as Cascading Style Sheets).
Formatting an HTML document is not simple, and amending the code to update an HTML-based web page (other than very simple pages) is often not an easy process, particularly when compared with a PDF document. However, a number of proprietary programmes exist which require minimal knowledge of HTML language. These include Macromedia 's Dreamweaver or Microsoft 's SharePoint Designer and Expression Web. In addition to these programs there are a number of free HTML editors that are available on the internet, but these may lack much of the functionality and site management of the proprietary products.
Documents created in HTML can have the following features:
- Links within a document that allow easy and accessible internal cross-referencing (e.g. between the index, text and maps). This is a significant advantage for most RMA plans, which typically contain a large amount of internal cross-referencing.
- Links that provide direct connection with other websites and on-line documents. This is an advantage for RMA plans that cross-reference other documents.
- An HTML document is user-friendly as it provides links and greater compatibility with different computers and settings (i.e. with advances in mobile technology it allows people to search the net from a personal digital assistant or cellphone).
- Images (including graphics) and a variety of other media can be included in a HTML.
- Simple amendments can be made without having to alter or replace the entire document.
- Provided they do not contain a large amount of graphics and images, HTML files are faster than PDF files to download onto a computer, particularly if the capacity of the connection and/or computer is limited.
- Documents in HTML may be more difficult to maintain than those in PDF. Depending on how the original document is coded (i.e. what software was used), it can be quite a major job to keep it up to date, and may entail engaging a person with skills in HTML to maintain the online information.
- Files load quickly because of their small file size.
- HTML adjusts to different screen sizes if a fixed format is not used in their design.
- No propriety software is required, although the use of one such as Dreamweaver can save time in maintenance and upkeep.
- Many small free software authoring tools are in the public domain.
- Very easy to update by someone with technical knowledge of HTML.
- Printing can sometimes produce uncertain results as the main purpose of HTML is to encourage reading of information online. A 'printer friendly version' can be provided, but this requires two pages to be maintained.
- Formatting of a document is not preserved.
- Information is often split among many pages.
- Technical knowledge is required to produce HTML.
- Applying security protocols is difficult and requires a reasonably high level of technical knowledge.
- Graphs and images are not necessarily preserved with a document.
Extensible mark-up language (XML)
XML is a cross-platform, software- and hardware-independent tool for transmitting information. A good way to describe XML is that it is a recognised standard or protocol for the way to describe information. It does not format documents but is a behind the scenes form of defining the data displayed on-screen. Visually it is difficult to determine whether a document is in XML or not.
While the use of XML is likely to be widespread in future, XML is currently not a replacement for HTML as most web browsers cannot readily use XML-based information. XML will therefore be used to describe the data, while PDF or HTML will still need to be used to present the information on individual browsers.
XML and HTML were designed with different goals: XML was designed to describe data and to focus on what that data is, while HTML was designed to display and structure data. XML is used to describe and carry data, with the author of the document defining all XML tags for marking up the contents.
At present few browsers would be able to directly handle XML documents, and XML documents would still need to be made available through other mediums. For example, documents created using Word can be converted into XML documents and 'published' electronically using PDF or Rich Text mediums.
XML has been created to structure, store and send information. It is not a proprietary language - anyone can use it, and no special software is required to use it - it is simply information wrapped in tags (or labels). The author of a document in XML invents the tags to be used for that document, and they are not predefined by anyone else. The tags must, however, conform to a prescribed set of protocols (or schema). For example, different RMA plans should use compatible tags to provide consistent descriptions and allow for broader searching.
XML has the potential to make plans prepared in XML much more flexible, with the information described (i.e. marked-up) in such a way as to help people use the plan (e.g. in searching for information on a common topic such as all rules relating to forestry).
However, the use of XML in formal and widespread public documents such as RMA plans will be most effectively and efficiently achieved through the development and use of widely accepted schema (i.e. an agreed tag structure of an XML-encoded document) to provide, for example, common descriptions to assist document searching. Until this work is done the focus should be on extending the current use of HTML and PDF for putting plans online.
Other features of XML include:
- XML is a structured way of encoding text information that provides discipline and structure, enabling richer searching and increased flexibility. It is designed to increase the functionality of the web by providing a means for information more flexible and adaptable identification of information.
- XML allows documents to be indefinitely broken down into component parts and cross linked.
- XML is called extensible because it is not a fixed format like HTML (a single, predefined mark-up language). Instead, XML is actually a 'meta-language' - a language for describing other languages - that lets you design your own customised mark-up languages for limitless different types of documents.
- XML is not just for web pages: it can be used to store any kind of structured information, and to enclose or encapsulate information so it can be passed between different computing systems which would otherwise be unable to communicate.
- Information content can be richer and easier to use in XML because the descriptive and hypertext linking abilities of XML are much greater than HTML. Because RMA plans have their own language XML could be used to provide an online internal structure to the use of that language. This would allow plan information to be transferred independent of computer hardware and enable councils to provide plans in a more accessible way than is currently available.
In New Zealand two large projects are currently using XML-based technology:
The New Zealand Electronic Text Centre at Victoria University of Wellington is making New Zealand material available for study through the use of XML.
The 'Public Access to Legislation (PAL)' project of the Parliamentary Counsel Office is designed to improve the way New Zealand legislation, including Bills, is made publicly available. The aim of the PAL Project is to provide public access to up-to-date official legislation in both printed and electronic form. The PAL Project is part of the Government 's e-Government vision, which specifically refers to people being better informed because they can get up-to-date and comprehensive information about government statutes, regulations, policies and services. The result of the PAL project is the New Zealand Legislation Website.
Further reading on XML is available on the following link: Extensible Markup Language (XML)
- Content can be immediately updated as changes are made to the information in the database.
- Documents can be coded more precisely as XML tags are defined.
- A single document can be utilised in a number of different ways.
- XML is an open standard.
- A number of XML tools are freely available.
- Requires skilled staff to create the system and maintain it.
- Lack of current support by internet web browsers.
- Requires greater technical skill and precision to use than HTML.
- Data size and computer processing time may increase due to the extra tags required.