Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Creating coordinated web, PDF and presentation content with ICE

ICE: The Integrated Content EnvironmentThe Integrated Content Environment (ICE) provides a way to create large complex document, particularly learning content for web based systems, print and for live presentations. It is free open source software which works with Microsoft Word and OpenOffice.org word processors (and others which use the OpenDocument format).

The courseware author writes one document using a template supplied with ICE and the ICE software then generates versions of the document for the Web (HTML), Learning Management Systems (IMS package), Printed documents (PDF), and slide presentations.

The ICE web site is generated using the software and shows the type of documents generated. As an example the "About ICE" page has buttons for the PDF and presentation versions.

The templates and ICE software run on the user's PC. The system can also save a copy of the document to a remote repository. This allows very large and complex documents to be created in pieces. Different people can work on parts, with the system keeping track of it all.

ICE is intended for heavy duty university research and education. However, there is no reason why it can't be used by one person preparing a short vocational course, an article or writing a book, provided they are prepared to spend time learning to work it.

The software can be downloaded for free. There are versions of the ICE software for Microsoft Windows and for Macintosh OS X, using Microsoft Word or Open Office.Org word processors.

In addition you need the Subversion version control system, which is also available free (but will not run on Microsoft Windows). This brings up the major problem with the ICE system: it is corporate software designed for an organisation with IT support staff to look after it. It is not intended for one lone author with a computer and a good idea. Installing the software is very complex and should be left to an expert, unless you have a lot of patience.

Assuming your IT expert managed to install the software (or you can follow the technical guide), there is a user guide to help you use the software. The author creates word processing documents using supplied templates. The templates help the ICE software then convert the documents to web pages, slides and PDF documents.

ICE has been written by University of Southern Queensland (USQ) for their educational content, but shows a lot of potential for other use. Preparing major reports for government agencies and private organisations would seem a prime application. What tends to happen is that an organisation will spend moths or years preparing a large report and then have problems in the last few hours in the mad scramble to get it ready for launch. I have had the experience of having to have a defense report online as soon as the Minister finished speaking in Parliament.

Usually the full report is provided as PDF, then there is a web summary, media release and slide show for the launch. All these have to have last minute changes incorporated. ICE's use of the Subversion version control system would allow each person to do their bit and then check it into the repository (with a record of who changed what and when). ICE could then generate the package of materials, with the full report in PDF, web version and presentation.

Rather than just a web summary, ICE could generate the full text of the report in accessible web format. This would overcome the problem that only a handful of people ever actually read the reports created. It is too hard to download hundreds of pages of PDF and then find the bit you want. Most people read what someone else wrote about the report, not the actual document. Automatically breaking the report into chapters, each with an index at the top, would make the report far more readable.

In several cases of I have taken reports in PDF and created an easy to use web version. My version tends to rate better with search engines than the original, because it uses accessible web design. Even people from the organisation which created the official report will refer people to my version, as it is easier to use.

ICE might make coordinated, well managed accessible web based reports easier to generate. But this assumes an organization has the discipline to accept the systematic process the software imposes. It also requires the organisation to accept easy to read, accessibly formatted documents. In many cases organizations seem to prefer to produce reports which look pretty, even if they are harder to read.


Peter Sefton said...

Thanks for the review Tom. I've written a follow-up.

Stephen said...

schollars work/toolbench? maybe?