Sunday, January 20, 2008

What Came Before: Thesis On A Slide

Here is the original “Thesis On A Slide”. It were developed in mid-2004 as I was beginning work on my Advancement to Candidacy. After working on Whisper for a year and a half, I took a break from school, for the most part, between the summer of 2006 and the beginning of 2008. The revised version of this will be coming soon.

Quadrant 1: Background and Problem

Managing collaboration among groups of people, especially when geographically distributed, is a difficult task. Existing tools fall short of user's needs and are not widely used. Outside of technical disciplines, the use of computers to facilitate collaboration is rare. The problems faced include identity verification, version control, and access control. Supporting larger scale collaboration for a community gives rise to problems with membership tracking, information publication and project artifact sharing, and information archival. Within technical disciplines, version control and document control systems are frequently used to address some of these issues; other disciplines generally resort to e-mail, or disk exchange to share information, and print journals to publish information and some types of project artifacts. Even setting up a web site that limits access to specific users requires more technical knowledge than most people are willing to acquire. While most people can easily use e-mail to distribute files and information to collaborators, it is a cumbersome solution at best.

Quadrant 2: Hypothesis and Insights

Just as academic communication was significantly improved by the advent of e-mail, academic collaboration can be similarly improved through the use of computer-based tools. We believe a collection of integrated services is necessary to foster academic collaboration: digital library support, community spaces, project spaces, personal spaces, publication support (including peer reviews), and comment boards integrated into most of the tools. Another important aspects of collaboration are identity verification and access control. Many projects make use of sensitive personal or commercial data; without adequate data protection, none of these projects would be able to use the collaboration tools. These tools must be integrated in a seamless manner, and provide integration support for future tools. In addition, we propose the use of comment boards throughout as a means of communication between users.

Quadrant 3: Approach and Validation

We propose Whisper (for Web Information Sharing Project) as a proof of concept service that will provide information management and collaboration management tools to academic networks. Whisper will provide versioned data stores to each user, and will allow access to be controlled at a high level (based on academic relationships) and a low level (specifying individual users for inclusion or exclusion). Public comments on posted information will also be allowed.

Social networks such as Friendster and Orkut provide access to a circle of friends in a unique way. Whisper seeks to capture this social networking and apply it to the academic community. We have identified four types of personal relationships and two types of groups that we believe are appropriate for academic networks. The Mentor relationship captures teachers and others who have at one time or another been in a knowledge transfer position. The Student relationship is the other side of a Mentor relationship; specifying a one relationship implies the other exists. Collaborators are people who are actively working, or have recently worked, on a project together, or work on closely related projects, possibly in the same lab. Colleagues are people who's work may be related, but there is a very low level of communication on that work, or people who work in the same department or institution but with different areas of research. Project groups consist of people involved in an ongoing research effort. Communities consist of researchers working on similar or related topics. We want to explore how communities and institutions networked through such a system can share their work while it is in process, being prepared for publication, and then after it has been published.

Academic projects are generally limited in their life span, but the artifacts they produce should be available after the work ceases on the project. Whisper's project spaces provide a versioned work space, comment board, and access controls to assist project work and artifact dissemination. Projects live within a larger community, where artifacts and results are published. Whisper also provides community spaces, with peer-reviewed journals, with access controls for both membership and resources.

With most current research available in an electronic format, many personal libraries are moving from the bookshelf to the computer. This saves office space, and makes searching the articles faster (most operating systems are able to search inside text, HTML, and PDF files). Digital libraries can also be accessed from any computer on the internet, or taken into the field on a laptop. Whisper provides each user with their own digital library space and allows comments for each resource. The libraries and comments each have their own individual access controls, allowing users to share resources but keep some (or all) of their commentary private.

The popularity of web logs demonstrates the basic human need to comment on anything and everything in the world. While not traditionally thought of as an academic tool, we believe an integrated web log space can provide a valuable outlet for users. It could be used for anything from mundane announcements, to the personal musings, or thoughts about future research directions or interesting problems.

As the system grows, we will invite others to begin using it for their own work. At the end of the project, users will be asked to share their experiences.

Quadrant 4: Contributions and Schedule

The practical contributions include a standard collaboration environment that captures the working relationships of the users. This system will allow us to explore access control methods (automatic and explicit) for research products. It will also allow exploration of the network relationships themselves.

August 2004
The first working prototype is available to a small group of users via a web browser.

June 2005
A minimal feature complete system is available to an extended group of users.

September 2005
A non-web browser interface is available.

June 2006
A feature complete system is available to everyone.

December 2006
Thesis Complete

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