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Ask Noah

By David Mendosa

Last Update: April 15, 1998

For basic reference material about diabetes, one Web site stands out for its simple and straightforward interface and for gathering together resources from all over. The home page of Ask NOAH About: Diabetes has no frames, no animation, nothing to distract the reader from its purpose.

Its strength is its superb organization.

"We try to make it as transparent as possible," says Kirsten Dehner, Ask NOAH's Creative Director and Producer. "We don't want users to have to wonder about moving through the information. They can get to an actual full-text document in four or at most five clicks. That speed and ease is what we try to do. That's the reason we don't have advertising banners on our site."

NOAH is an acronym for New York Online Access to Health. It began as a partnership among the library of the City University of New York, the New York Public Library, the New York Academy of Medicine, which has a library that is open to the public, and the Metropolitan New York Library Council, which is a consortium of libraries.

The site's library roots are one of Ask NOAH's unique aspects. "The notion was to reach out to people who didn't have computers, but could get health information off of the Web in libraries that had that technology," Kirsten says.

Its other unique aspect is that it is bilingual in Spanish as well as English. "We are trying to reach a population that is underserved in terms of health information," she explains. "So we have tried to take high quality health information from our providers and then make it accessible to our Spanish speakers."

Ask NOAH got off the ground in November 1994 when the U.S. Department of Commerce awarded an grant to NOAH's four partners. Since that time Kirsten has been responsible for hiring the Web team, acquiring and developing content, securing translation software, and designing all aspects of the Web site from the navigational method to graphics and content.

The site went on-line in June 1995, and initially covered just five diseases. Currently it covers about 40 different diseases. For all these diseases the site has about 1,400 to 1,500 original Web pages--and thousands more links to other sites.

The diabetes area was one of the first additions the Ask NOAH team put online. That was probably about the end of 1995, Kirsten recalls.

At last count Ask NOAH About: Diabetes had 233 links in English. Some 45 of them, or about one-fifth, are in Spanish at Preg´┐Żntale a NOAH sobre la diabetes. While the proportion of Spanish-language pages is small, a good half of the site's e-mail is in Spanish.

"We try to mirror what we can in Spanish," Kirsten says. "But not that much is out there on the Web."

In addition, Ask NOAH translates into Spanish the documents that it gets from its health providers. For diabetes, the site has only one health provider, an HMO. 

Okay, so Ask NOAH is not a repository of lots of original information about diabetes. That's not its strength.

Rather, its strength is its superb organization of what is already available on the Web and its easy of use. In fact, Kirsten's long-term goal is to make it even easier to use by more people.

"I would like to look into creating a simpler literacy level on NOAH so that people who are not as educated could get the information more easily," she says. Another goal is to translate the site into other languages.

All this depends on obtaining additional resources. Right now Ask NOAH costs perhaps $300,000 to $400,000 annually. The City University of New York underwrites the hardware, software, and the Internet connection. Salaries come from grants. With more money Ask NOAH promises to become even better. 

The American Diabetes Association originally published this article on its Web site as one of my “About the Internet” columns.

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