Paper presented to
AUUG'95 & Asia-Pacific WWW'95 Conference, Sydney, Australia, 18-21 September 1995.
Ensuring High Quality
in Multifaceted Information Services
Coombs Computing Unit,
Research Schools of Social Sciences & Pacific and Asian Studies,
Australian National University,
Canberra ACT 0200, Australia
- A fast and efficient production cycle, network circulation, and
the archiving of the Australian National University's "What's
New in WWW Asian Studies" online newsletter all depend on skillful
application of several diverse technologies (WWW & form-based pages,
CGI scripts, email, mailing-list, gopher server, WAIS server &
database). The paper describes and evaluates a synthesis of these
technologies into an elegant, networked, scholarly information
- electronic newsletter, quality control measures, asian studies
The world continues to experience an ever-widening explosion of
networked documents. In January 1995, according to the Lycos crawler dbase  there
were over 2 mln WWW documents published online. Half a year later, in
early August 1995, Lycos had to keep track of 5.07 million web pages.
Assuming that an average WWW-based information system publishes some
200 Web documents (eg. 20 projects with 10 documents each), it can be
estimated that in August 1995 there were some 25,000 Web sites .
This is not a substantial yet not an insignificant fraction of
the 6.6 mln hosts counted all over the world by the end of July 1995 Internet Domain Survey
Clearly, not all of this mass of material is worth accessing, since not all of the existing
WWW sites are worth their electricity. Frankly, several tens
of thousands of the existing Web documents are so thin in their substance, and
so amateurish in structure that they are perfectly irrelevant and
forgettable. The reasons for this disappointing state of affairs are
Firstly, there is a startling lack of commonly accepted
standards for both the minimally acceptable content and the
minimally acceptable format of an online resource. The ease with
which anybody can publish a Web page leads to a situation where
documents which are not only whimsical and messy (=
"postmodernist") but also promiscuous in the way they establish
links to other sites. Many Web pages get encumbered with links
which have no regard for their target's factual accuracy,
stability of service or coherence of presentation.
Secondly, the WWW becomes an unbalanced place. Judging
by the developments in the field of Asia-Pacific studies
[Ciolek95a], roughly two thirds of the WWW resources are
catalogues, indices and directory pages to online material, while
the other third are the data themselves, that is online papers,
abstracts, software, databases and e-journals. In other words,
as far as the social sciences, humanities and Asia-Pacific
studies are concerned, legions of catalogues are established all
over the world to cover the same miniscule and still hesitant
set of networked data.
Thirdly, the growth of the Web seems to be driven by an
inexplicable need to ape, re-work and regurgitate topics already
succesfully handled elsewehere. Very few Web maintainers are
able to admit another site's superiority and expertise. Very few
of them are gutsy enough to spend time and resources on
delineating, advertising and cultivating their own unique area of
specialisation. Instead, people blindly and patiently replicate
general work already completed elsewhere. The net result is the
ever growing circularity of links.
It would be easy to be contemptous and dismissive of the whole
phenomenon of the today's online information services. Yet, the sheer
scale of the Web activities and the volume of Web-based information
systems forcibly presents the Internet community with several urgent
and nagging questions
These are vital questions. They address both the current situation and the
future of Internet-based services. They suggest that one should be able not
only to built trustworthy, attractive and ergonomic information facilities, but
also be able to spell out the many rules, codes of practice and
principles underpinning the design and management of such facilities [Liu94,
Ciolek94a]. By doing so it can be hoped that the construction and operation of
networked information services will gradually leave the realm of art, guess-work
and intuition and enter the realm of craft, routine decision-making and
This paper will provide an account of an information facility
explicitly designed to make such a quantum leap.
- How to combat the prevailing promiscuity, circularity and lack of balance
amongst the networked information facilities ?
- What is a "good quality" online information resource ? How one goes about
providing a good information service ?
- How can the notion of quality be translated into
everyday terms and management practices ?
- How to avoid having ones services lost in the ever
depening deluge of online documents and resources ?
- How to assure that the maintainers of a given information system
continue to stay "au courant" with the new developments within their
An Information System and its Organisational Context
Coombs Computing Unit (CCU) is a 9 person team responsible for the
provision of computing, networking and statistical services to over
800 researchers and staff of the Research Schools of Social Sciences &
Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University (ANU),
Canberra. One of the CCU's responsibilities is the development and maintainance
five large-scale information systems, evolved around FTP,
email, WAIS, gopher and WWW technology . One of these
systems, the Coombsweb is a WWW
server which was established in January 1994 to provide
convenient access to the online publications by the Research Schools,
- lodged mainly with their
Coombspapers - ANU Social Sciences Research Data Bank, comprising
over 1900 research documents (71.5Mb of text files)  -
and to keep track of relevant and dependable social sciences and
humanities resources elsewhere .
To this end the Coombsweb server hosts eight
WWW Virtual Libraries (which are a part of a large-scale
project initially established and managed by CERN, Switzerland,
and later taken over by the MIT, USA)  covering Aboriginal-,
Asian-, Buddhist-, Demography & Population-, Pacific- and
Tibetan-Studies as well as the Social Sciences and the History of
Science, Technology & Medicine.
The most important of these incipient and steadily developing
"knowledge systems" is the Asian Studies
WWW Virtual Library . It was established in March 1994 to
develop online social sciences resources about the countries and
sub-regions of the Middle East & Caucasus, Central Asia, South Asia,
South-East Asia, Australasia, and, finally East Asia. By the end
of July 1995, the Asian Studies WWW VL comprised 56 closely
interlinked Web pages with annotated links to specialist
WWW documents, FTP archives, electronic mailing lists, online
databases, electronic journals as well as registers of telnet connections to
Asian libraries and catalogues. These documents offered a cumulative total
of over 1320 links to networked resources all over the
world and were accessed a total of 1682 times/day (= over 610,000 a
The "What's New in WWW Asian Studies" Newsletter
An essential component of the the Asian Studies WWW VL operations
is an online Newsletter entitled "What's
New in WWW Asian Studies" (ISSN 1323-9368) . The
Newsletter started is operations in April 1994 and is formally
registered with the National Library of Australia. Its aim is
to provide a dependable, timely, and high-grade
current-awareness service by reporting URLs and brief summaries
for new or recently upgraded WWW, Gopher and FTP sites dealing
with Asia and Asian studies . It is, so far, the world's only
 electronic periodical specialising in these matters and is closely
integrated with pages of the Coombsweb's Virtual Libraries.
The Newsletter is available free of charge, on a 24
hour and 7 days a week basis, and, despite its narrowly defined focus,
it continues to gain on popularity.
A summary of the Newsletter's activities is given in Table 1.
The WWW edition of "What's New in WWW Asian
Studies" newsletter (Apr94-Aug95)
News Size Average no.of
Issue items in Kb accesses/week
Apr-Jun 94 7 7.2 127
Jul-Sep 94 7 8.9 148
Oct-Dec 94 11 15.6 223
Jan 95 6 5.3 397
Feb 95 11 10.2 448
Mar 95 13 8.3 497
Apr 95 33 18.7 393
May 95 55 26.4 484
Jun 95 75 30.4 759
Jul 95 57 24.8 606
Aug 95 51 30.0 678
During the 14 months since its launch the Newsletter underwent a
number of changes. They were aimed at increasing the speed of its
production, streamlining its maintainance and widening the circle of
its audience. The Newsletter continually strives to enhance the
quality of the information conveyed to its readers and thus is bound
to change details of its appearance as well as of its
production and dissemination.
The Newsletter - Format of the Data
Each issue of the Newsletter consists of a series of news-items prefaced by a headmast, and
concluded by a footer with links to the Coombsweb system.
All items contain six mandatory fields (marked here in bold) and three
(a) DATE of the information (in dd Mmm yyyy
(b) TITLE of the resource in question;
(c) its main
URL (address of the top page);
where resource is published;
(e) COUNTRY where resource is
(f) Short DESCRIPTION of the resource, and,
possible, details of the contact person or person supplying the
announcement about the resource
(g) NAME, SURNAME, EMAIL .
Such template, once fleshed out with real-life information, yields the
14 Jul 1995
Kim Software, Inc., USA
News digests, editorials, Internet resources and other info on North
and South Koreas.
Information supplied by: Young S. Kim (firstname.lastname@example.org)
13 Jul 1995
Stone Bridge Press
Publisher of Japan-related books in English: language learning,
literature in translation, culture, business, etc.
Information supplied by: Peter Goodman (email@example.com)
The Newsletter - Sources of Information
The news-items are compiled from a variety of sources. These are:
The first two sources of information are established by the CCU to
generate and direct the flow of the Internet's "news" towards the
Newsletter's mailbox. Their function is two-fold. Firstly, they
attempt to impose a standard format on the arriving data.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, they
ensure that instead of the Newsletter chasing new information, it is
the news-items which chase the Newsletter.
The "external" sources are inspected on regular, almost daily
basis. They supply information which is presented according to a
variety of formats, and which is endowed with varying degrees of
detail. Such material, except for that coming from the NSCA's
site "What's New ", require pruning, sub-editing and
re-organisation before they can match the Newsletter's
An analysis of 275 news items published by the Newsletter in
Jan-Jul 1995 period reveals the following pattern:
- Announcements supplied to the Newsletter via
forms-based data input page . The page, together with
an accompanying CGI script, performs several tasks. It
In addition, the data input page carries an explanatory note which reserves the
Newsletter's right to edit or reject all entries in accordance with
the CCU standards. The note also asks that (however, not always
succesfully) readers abstain from using this specialised communication
channel for posting messages containing inquiries, comments,
requests for help etc.
- collects information about the resources (see variables above)
- provides a DATE stamp ;
- arranges these variables in the correct sequence;
- adds necessary html code; and,
- finally mails the submission to the Newsletter's address.
- Email messages dispatched to the
"firstname.lastname@example.org" address by those readers of
the Newsletter, as well as of the Asian Studies WWW VL, whose Web
browsers do not support forms-pages. Authors of these postings
are encouraged to structure their messages in terms of the mentioned 6
mandatory and 3 optional variables.
- Various email messages sent to this author in his capacity as the administrator
of the six (6) out of eight (8) Coombwebs' WWW Virtual Libraries.
- Registers of WWW new sites such as :
NCSA What's New Page (NCSA & GNN,USA). At that site fresh news is
released 3 times a week (Mon, Wed, Fri) as a WWW document up to 110 Kb
large, in form of an itemised and annotated listing [see again
- What's New on Yahoo? [Index
of WWW sites worldwide] (www.yahoo.com,USA). This is a massive
(between 30-150 Kb strong) site, with regular daily additions, mainly covering
links to new commercial systems .
- Internet Scout
Report Index (scout.cs.wisc.edu,USA). This is a WWW site archiving materials
distributed via email by the net-happenings mailing list (see below) 
- Finally, use is made of the three specialist electronic
- email@example.com [Electronic forum administered by Gleason Sackman (firstname.lastname@example.org)]
- email@example.com [ANU Library electronic forum]
- firstname.lastname@example.org [H-Net list for Asian History and Culture]
Source of 275 news-items published in the "What's New
in WWW Asian Studies" newsletter (Jan95-Jul95)
Announcements & mail to the Newsletter - 45 %
Browsing the WWW News sites - 40 %
Mail to WWW VLs at coombs.anu.edu.au - 10 %
Mailing lists - 5 %
These percentages are, of course, averaged values and they do not tell
the whole story. For instance, over the last 7 months it is possible
to detect a slowly decreasing reliance on the browsing the WWW
News sites and a corresponding growth in the percentage of information
submitted as announcements & mail to the Newsletter. At the
same time the WWWVL mail and the mailing lists continue to play their
The Production Cycle of the Newsletter
As noted before, information received via the forms-page, is
pre-processed by a locally written CGI script in Perl, and thus
arrives to the editor's desk in the shape of an email message
which is already formatted and html'ed. Nevertheless, before
it is accepted for publication , it still has to undergo
mandatory data selection, validation and editing. Information
obtained from other sources goes, step by step, through the full
sequence of quality-assurance procedures involving (a) data
selection; (b) data validation; (c) data editing; (d) data
standardisation, and (e) HTML-markup.
(a) Data Selection
All candidate material for publication is subjected to detailed
evaluation. Several test-questions are used in a sequence of
cascading check-points and filters. Their function
is to separate the proverbial chaff from the
wheat as well as to gradually enhance the overall quality of the
processed material. Naturally, this stage of operation greatly
benefits from earlier methodological works and discussions of
what constitutes "good practice codes" for networked publishing
[Ciolek94b, Brown95, Ciolek95b, Wilson95].
- Is the material relevant ? -
The site's nominal title and description may bear little relevance to
its factual content. Also, spurious messages, usually of commercial
nature, are often sent to the Newsletter in hope of catching the
editor by surprise and getting accepted for publication.
- Is it a WWW, Gopher or FTP site ?
- The Newsletter covers only these three types of resources. It ignores
facilities based on other technologies such as wais, telnet, mailing-lists, IRC.
- Does the site provide factual, objective, and ample information ?
- The Newsletter's emphatically ignores resources which do not meet these criteria.
- Is it a new site ?
- The Newsletter focuses its attention solely on recent (= no more than 1 month old)
or substantially improved or enlarged facilities.
- Is it a new advertisement ?
- Frequently the same commercial site repeatedly advertises itself for several weeks
in a stretch. The Newsletter publishes only one announcement per resource.
- Is the site really unique ?
- The Newsletter firmly ignores resources which merely plagiarise or
regurgitate materials found at other sites. The Newsletter continues
its bias in favour of the value-adding sites. Experience gained from administration of the
Coombsweb's Virtual Libraries is very useful in making the necessary decisions.
- Is the site easily accessible and stable ?
- Some resources are set up only as an experiment, or run on a temporary host etc.
Preference is given by the Newsletter to the stable and non-experimental systems.
(b) Data Validation
This is an important step, as the obtained URLs may contain minor but
frustrating errors. Whenever feasible, the Newsletter attempts to
correct any faulty addresses. Unresolved cases, however, are excluded from
futher consideration. Furthermore, all URLs are tested to ascertain that they
do, in fact, lead to the most central, or the most useful part of a new resource.
(c & d) Data Editing and Standardisation
All Newsletter entries are sub-edited so that they conform with the
Newsletter style. The aim is to produce an
announcement which is uniform, brief, detailed, and has a
pleasing and crisp appearance:
Original TITLES of the resource, taken from the page's headings or the
title-field, are used whenever possible. On occasions when these are
not informative enough or are too wordy, a substitute title is
devised. Whenever possible the INSTITUTION and the COUNTRY of
publication are stated. If the publisher cannot be ascertained,
details of the host and domain are provided instead. For DESCRIPTIONS,
original wording of an announcement is used. If it is not acceptable,
a new description is drafted. All notes are sub-edited to make them
uniform, succint and informative. Technical terms and definitions are
retained where possible. Computer jargon is avoided. Grammatical and
typing errors are corrected where necessary.
(e) HTML markup
Next, the cleaned information is marked up so that it may be added to
the Newsletter. An analysis of news-items published between Jan-Jul
1995 indicates that, on average, the HTML code represents about 25%
of the final size of the a typical Newsletter's entry. All entries
follow the same schedule:
After this stage news items are ready for inclusion into the current issue of the
- < P> < /P>
- < I> DATE< /I>
- < BR>
- < A HREF="URL-details"> TITLE< /A>
- < BR>
- ORGANISATION, COUNTRY
- < BR>
- resource DESCRIPTION
- < BR>
- URL url-details
- < BR>
- Information supplied by: NAME SURNAME (EMAIL)
Three Modes of Publication of the Newsletter
To promote the Newsletter's circulation and usefulness it is
released in three parallel formats: (a) as a WWW document; (b) as
series of email announcements and (c) as regularly updated WAIS
(a)The WWW edition of the Newsletter is published as a
rolling electronic journal. This means that once a month a new page
is established and that it continues to grow through the addition of
fresh information. The current isssue is always bears the same URL
while the past issues receive their respective URLs and get archived
as a part of the Coombsweb system .
The current issue is arranged in form of a single column of text on a
single, continuous page :
HEADER - containing the name and mission
statement of the Newsletter, its ISSN number,
reverse links to the central WWW Virtual Library
site, to the Asian Studies WWW VL, as well as to
the archive of the past issues of the Newsletter.
The header also provides a link to the forms-page
for acquisition of fresh data and to the WAIS dbase
(see below) edition of the Newsletter.
FOOTER containing details of the Coombs Computing
Unit, ANU, copyright notice and links to other
Initially, in 1994, the Newsletter issues were created on
quarterly basis at the outset of each quarter (Apr-Jun, Jul-Sep,
Oct-Dec). However, after a period of experimentation with a
bi-monthly format, in 1995 the Newsletter started appearing on a
monthly basis. The change to the frequency of publication was
dictated by the growth in the amount of data carried by the
e-journal. The objective is to keep the size of the issues as
small as possible, in order to minimise time neded to access
them. An average monthly issue of the Newsletter
contains approx. 16.9 Kb of data in a form of approx 29-30
announcements, with each news-item being about 0.5Kb strong (see
again Table 1).
(b) There is also an email edition of the Newsletter. Each time
a new announcement is placed on the Web page it is also posted as
a message  to a custom-built "Asia-WWW-Gopher-News-L" [now "asia-www-monitor" - tmc, Apr 1999] mailing
Subject lines of each of these messages state the resource's TITLE
prefaced by one of the three codes : "WWW>", "GOPHER>" or "FTP>"
indentifyng thus its general type . The body of the message is
made of the html'ed text of the news-item placed between a pair of
< HTML>, < /HTML> tags so that the emails can be easily
handled by the WWW email browsing software.
These postings are dispatched 2-5 times a week, depending on the
availability of new materials. The Asia-WWW-Gopher-News-L list, which
was established in April 1994, utilises the majordomo software and it
runs on the coombs.anu.edu.au machine. In early August 1995 the list
had 165 subscribers. However, the circle of the readers of the
newsletter appears to be much wider. Messages distributed by the list
are known to be re-posted by their receipients. It can be assumed,
therefore, that the actual audience of the emailed Newslettter is
about the 1.5 times the number of the actual subscribers.
Each time a news item is sent to the list, the majordomo system
places an additional copy of it in a dedicated subdirectory on
coombs.anu.edu.au machine. These archived postings form records of the
"ANU-Asia-WWW-Gopher-News-L" WAIS database . This database is
one of the over 90 WAIS databases constructed and maintained by the
CCU. The CCU databases, utilise the WAIS public-domain
software augmented by extensive local modifications . The first of them were
developed in early 1992 and were made accessible world-wide through the
wais client software. In 1993 access to the Coombswais system was
enhanced with the establishement of additional links from the CCU
gopher system . In early 1994, when the Coombsweb system was
launched, the Coombs gopher was used again, this time as a simple yet
reliable WAIS < => WWW gateway. Naturally, all WAIS databases
have the full-text search capability. Therefore, any record in the
ANU-Asia-WWW-Gopher-News-L database can be located and retrieved on the
basis of any arbitrary keyword. The database is regularly updated
through an automatic chron-job carried out each day at 03:30 am. This
operation re-indexes the complete contents of the postings'
archive. This means that every 24 hours the database edition of the
Newsletter is made to match the WWW edition. In early August 1995 the
average usage rate of the Newsletter's database was 97 accesses/day
(=35,000 a year).
The use of three different publication formats confers a number of
advantages. The WWW edition provides a current awareness service with a
pleasing interface. Also, the news items are placed in the context of both
earlier and subsequent announcements. Thirdly, this publication mode means that
all Web issues of the Newsletter are made notice of by Web databases
such as Crawlers and Harvest brokers. The email version of the Newsletter
distributes new information directly to the interested subscribers.
The WAIS edition of the Newsletter enables its readers to pinpoint
and quickly retrieve any past news item. In sum, harnessing all three
publication techniques together makes the Newsletter a truly
dependable and online service - that is the one which never
fails to be available to its readers despite any possible
down-times of either of the servers involved - WWW, Majordomo or WAIS.
At the beginning of the paper, it was said that the bulk of
current ills troubling the WWW universe can be attributed to the
lack of clearly formulated standards for presentation and
substance, and to the proliferation of indiscriminate hypertext
linkages as well as to the unrestrained development of resources'
catalogues at the expense of development of the resources
It is hoped that this quasi-etnographic account of the "What's
New in WWW Asian Studies" Newsletter has illustrated that some of
the ravages of the post-modernist developments on the Network can
be effectively repaired by adoption of a disciplined and explicit
rules for online publications.
Similarly, the dangers of promiscuity of links can be contained
by the quiet determination that "only the very best sites deserve
being cited and linked to". In this way the networked rubbish
may be, hopefully, denied the life-giving oxygen of attention and
Finally, it appears that some of the aforementioned
catalogue/data imbalances, especially apparent in the social
sciences' and asian studies' areas of the Web, may be eventually
rectified and corrected if the ideas of coordination,
specialisation and clear-cut division of work between the major
and most prestigeous Web sites gain wider acceptance and
- Lycos crawler dbase, URL http://lycos.cs.cmu.edu/
- Nearly 16,000 WWW servers are registered with the central
register at the WWW.NETGEN.COM site, URL
- Internet Domain Survey, URL http://www.nw.com/zone/WWW/top.html.
- CCU Information Services,
- Coombspapers - ANU Social Sciences Research Data Bank. It is
the world's oldest (est. Dec 1991) and most extensive Social
Sciences and Asian Studies FTP site.
- Coombsweb Server, URL http://coombs.anu.edu.au/CoombsHome.html
- Virtual Library Project, URL http://www.w3.org/hypertext/DataSources/bySubject/Overview.html
- Asian Studies WWW VL, URL http://coombs.anu.edu.au/WWWVL-AsianStudies.html
- Retrievals of gif and jpeg files are excluded from the count of accesses to the Coombsweb collection of
- What's New in WWW Asian Studies,
- It is a sister publication of another current awareness service "What's
New in WWW Social Sciences" (ISSN 1323-9376),
Most of the notes on organistion and management of the "Asian Studies" Newsletter
are directly applicable to the "Social Sciences" newsletter as well.
- The only other known online periodical of comparable duration and scale of
operations, the _INTERNET RESOURCES_
newsletter, is produced by Heriot-Watt Univ. Library, UK. It
has, however, a far less specialised charter. It serves the needs of
the higher education community and publishes short, unstructured
notes of varying length to cover new and recent Internet resources
ranging from physics to history to forestry to electronics.
FAQ: How To Announce Your New Web Site for a list of
online places, mailing lists, newsgroups, newsletters etc annoucing new WWW sites.
- Both the technique used the preferred format for the collected-data are
closely modelled on that used by the "The NCSA What's New Page", a joint
production of NCSA, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, and
GNN, the Global Network Navigator from O'Reilly & Associates.
- Submit an Entry to "What's New - Asian/Pacific Studies" form-page,
- What's New on Yahoo? announcements system by YAHOO.COM
- Internet Scout Report Index by U.Wisconsin-Madison
- Archives of the past issues of the Newsletter
- Use of the email list as a publication medium is modelled on the
premier email-based information system "email@example.com"
maintained by Gleason Sackman (firstname.lastname@example.org).
- Coombslists - ANU Social Sciences & Asian Studies E-mail Forums page provides an easy
online subscription to all mailing lists managed by the CCU.
- Convention borrowed from Gleason Sackman's "email@example.com".
For details of the adopted codes see his
Guidelines for Submissions to Net-Happenings
- ANU-SocSci-WWW-Gopher-News-L WAIS dbase
[Note, the database is no longer online - tmc, Apr 1999]
- Server software WAIS 8B5.1 with special tclp extensions written by
Sean Batt (firstname.lastname@example.org) of the CCU.
- Coombswais databases
[Note, the databases are no longer online - tmc, Apr 1999]
- Brown, Samuel R:
Selecting Good Information Links, 1995
- Ciolek, T.Matthew: Quality, Guidelines & Standards for Internet Inf. Resources, 1994.
- Ciolek, T.Matthew:
Quality Info.Systems - Catalogue of Potent Truisms
- Ciolek, T.Matthew and Warwick Cathro:
is the future for networking and the Internet in Australia and the
region ?, 1995. [An "Issue Paper" presented at the 3rd National
Round Table on Libraries and Asia,16 February 1995, National Library
of Australia, Canberra, Australia].
- Ciolek, T.Matthew: Top 10 Ways to Make Your WWW Service a Flop, 1995.
Also published as: Ciolek, T.M. 1995. Beyond the Cool Site. LAN Magazine, May 1995 : 128
- Liu Cricket, Jerry Peek, Russ Jones, Bryan Buus, Adrian Nye:
Managing Internet Information Services. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly & Associates, Inc. 1994.
- Wilson, Ralph F: 12 Web Page Design
Decisions for Business and Organisations, 1995
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