Title: BBC Country Profiles
Tested: December 1-4, 2004
Country profiles are seemingly a dime a dozen, although most of them are slightly modified and restructured incarnations of the CIA World Factbook — the Web version of the classic and ever-improving ready-reference book. While many users may appreciate the depth and breadth of this reference, for many others the data may be overwhelming.
Then again, overwhelming and current data is better than a Web reference with 10-year-old data as the most current for a country's history and demographic data, as is the case with Atlapedia. Regretfully, it is linked to by too many directories and respected Web sites in spite of its serious deficiencies.
Some of the real encyclopedias are good sources for country profiles, but the free encyclopedia category in most directories is polluted by pathetic sites. Their names often rhyme with encyclopedia or conjure up the image of genuine encyclopedias, such as the Free Internet Encyclopedia or Encyberpedia. They want to be in the same league as the superb open-access Columbia Encyclopedia, but they are not even in the vicinity of the same ballpark.
Broadcast corporations' Web sites could obviously be qualified hosts to serve country profiles, but you can't take this for granted. As I wrote in my 2000 review, ABC News Internet Venture did not exactly succeed with its Country Profiles database. It touted its prowess by sample power searches like "How many Estonian speaking democracies are there anyway?" and "What countries speak Icelandic?" (sic), while sporting the rather cocky tag line "Ready When You Are." It was not ready for prime time.
BBC News, however, definitely is.
The BBC Country Profiles site provides a different angle and seemingly much shorter, but informative entries. Its emphasis is on current events, but for every country there is an excellently structured historical timeline that is not merely up-to-date, but up-to-the-hour. This was well-illustrated as I was writing this review by the closing sentence in the timeline of the Ukraine. Soon after the BBC broadcast, the Web site reported that the Supreme Court of Ukraine annulled the results of the second presidential poll.
Following an introductory paragraph, enhanced by a good regional map showing the location of the country and its neighbors, each profile is presented in four sections. The Overview section may be only a few sentences, or in the case with Ukraine two screenfuls, followed by a Facts section with essential information. Most of the demographic statistics are very current, from 2003 and 2004.
The section about leaders of the country obviously depends on the country and the political situation. In the current turmoil, which is well-highlighted at the start of the Leaders section, Ukraine needs a longer entry, while North Korea makes you wonder if using the word "leaders" in the section title is justified since beyond the "Dear Leader" of the country there is hardly anyone who qualifies except, of course, for his father the "Great Leader," who gets a passing mention.
Not surprisingly, the Media section is much longer at the BBC site than at the CIA World Factbook, and it is not merely enumerative but also analytical. In addition, there is a substantial press profile for most of the countries. Obviously, in countries where there is no such thing as free press and diverse media, like in the Sultanate of Brunei, the Media section is short, but appropriately critical, and there is no press profile.
In addition to countries, there are profiles for several regions that often appear in the news, like Western Sahara and the Golan Heights, and profiles for the most important international organizations, such as the entry for the Arab League. Often these are better and more informative than you would find in the best encyclopedias. Both the country and the international organization profiles are richly illustrated with portraits, graphics and charts. The country profiles even offer national anthems if you really pine for them.
The profiles are surrounded by links, "see also" references and tastefully placed teaser headlines leading to news stories and analyses about the country. These perfectly round out each country's profile. They are especially rich for countries that are in the news or are still relatively obscure (at least as of this writing), such as the Ivory Coast.
The software perfectly complements the intelligence of the content. The site is easy to navigate and has a self-explanatory signage system. It offers a low graphics alternative at the click of a button and the countries and territories can be selected through pop-up and pull-down menus. The same is true for international organizations. Although the countries and territories could use an alphabetic listing as the assumption that users will know which of the regions to choose as a first step may not apply in all cases.
The geographic literacy (or should I say illiteracy) level could well justify an A-Z list of countries and territories. Otherwise, there may be no second chance for a good first impression for many users who would otherwise be willing to become a tad more cosmopolite. Even the geographically literate users may hesitate on whether to choose Africa or the Middle East when looking up the profile for Lybia, Algeria or Tunisia. The care and competence of the designers, however, come through in this trivial example: these countries are listed under both categories.
There is a clean, printable version of the profiles, which saves paper and is appreciated by those who would rather read them offline, especially in countries (or Internet cafes worldwide) where Web usage is charged by the minute. Alternatively, you can e-mail the profile.
There is no search feature, which would be useful in order to find, for example, all of the countries that include the words "dictator" and "Africa."
Overall, BBC Country Profiles is an engaging ready-reference source that offers the chance of learning without really trying. Its well-balanced coverage, accurate, current and well-structured content makes it a top resource for getting information about countries with several useful options. BBC could use the tagline of the now defunct ABC News Reference Country Profiles — "Ready When You Are" — but then it would not be called British Broadcasting Corporation and in turn couldn't be endearingly referred to by fans as the Beeb.