CIA’s Factbook Covers the World

By: Charles Bowen

When you say “Central Intelligence Agency,” it certainly conjures up a variety of images in our minds, images that vary widely, depending on how old you are. Where some of us think of the Bay of Pigs and the Cold War, others drift back to Watergate and the shadowy crew that surrounded E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, while still others think simply of Tom Clancy novels or the new generation of post-Soviet Union spy flicks.

But do you realize that for a whole generation of Web surfers, the CIA is primarily known as the kindly folks who helped with the geography homework? Since even before the creation of the Web a decade ago, the CIA has made its World Factbook available on the Internet, and to an ever-growing number of students, it is the primary resource for sociological and geographic information about the countries of the world.

The latest edition — World Factbook 2002 — is now out and it is a number-cruncher’s delight, with fresh information about Iraq, Malaysia, and other potential hot spots on the planet. To check it out, visit where a busy opening screen is topped with a drop-down menu that invites you to select a country from an extensive alphabetized list that begins with Afghanistan and ends with Zimbabwe. Click any name on the list and the resulting screen provides reams of data about that nation, its geography, people, government, economy, communications, transportation, military, and transnational issues. Illustrations include the country’s flag and map.

And aware that most of the data is time-sensitive, each page also is led with information on when it was last updated. The pages on individual countries do not include search facilities, but remember you probably can use your browser’s built-in “Find” facilities to search the page. On most browsers, this option is available under the “Edit” menu.

If you write about the site in your news columns or Internet features, be sure to advise students about the service’s “Appendixes” option, reached from the top of the introductory screen. A subsequent screen hooks you up with pages devoted to abbreviations, international organizations and groups, selected international environmental agreements, a cross-reference list of country data codes, geographic names, and more. Other students will be interested in the selection of reference maps, reached from links throughout the site. Available as both JPEGs and as Acrobat-readable PDF files are maps of all the continents, as well as the physical and political world, the standard time zones, etc. And a “flags of the world” section gives the user what probably is the most extensive collection of national flag pictures and descriptions on the Net.

Other considerations for using the CIA World Factbook in your writing and editing:

1. The database online grew out of the CIA’s original National Intelligence Survey born soon after the agency was established in 1947. The factbook was created as an annual summary and update of the encyclopedic NIS studies. The first classified version of the factbook was published in 1962 and the first unclassified version was released in 1971. Four years later, the book was being made available to the public with sales through the U.S. Government Printing Office.

2. While the site is easy to browse through options on the main screen, you also can search the collection by keyword or phrase. Select the “Search the World Factbook” option on the introductory display and enter your search query on the resulting screen.

3. If you find the factbook especially useful to your work, you might want to simply download a copy for off-line use. Select the “Download This Publication” option from the main screen, and follow directions on the subsequent display for retrieve and “unZIPping” the file.

To read previous “Reporter’s Digital How-To” columns, click here. Subscribers may access previous columns in our archives.

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