Thursday, January 24, 2008

Top Ten Questions - 2008 edition

Here are the new “Top Ten Questions” for 2008. These represent the current (as of this post) thinking about Whisper as a Ph.D. project.

1) What is the main goal of the work?

We will examine the tools and features of collaborative environments, specifically as they relate to academic research and collaboration. We want to understand how collapsing disparate tools into a common system, and harnessing the relationships between users can improve the usability and usefulness of these tools.

2) What are the tangible benefits to society of achieving the goal? (i.e. Why should anyone pay for this?)

Our results can be used to create new environments and tools, as well as improve existing groupware.

3) What are the technical problems that make the goal difficult to achieve? (i.e. Why hasn't this been done already?)

Technical problems include integration issues for authentication, information synchronization, scalability, and usability. Some systems do exist, but many people still prefer to simply use e-mail; this is perhaps the most difficult user behavior we will have to overcome. However the biggest issue faced in the development of this software is its scope and the fact that there will be limited resources available to develop it.

4) What are the main elements of the approach?

We will create a testbed that allows users to conduct their collaborative work. The system will use open standards (REST, WebDAV and Subversion, RSS) to be extensible and compatible with a range of systems. The system will provide users with the tools we initially identify as being useful for collaborative work (community message boards, project file and message spaces, personal digital library spaces, relationship management, etc.). We will select a set of users who will be offered access to the system and compare their experiences collaborating within their lab group with those of a group without access to the system.

5) How does the approach handle the technical problems that have prevented progress in the past? (i.e. Why will this be successful when nobody was able to be in the past?)

Still doing background work to validate what follows...

Previous approaches consisted of expensive proprietary systems, and few (if any) have offered the full range of features we are attempting to include. In addition, a lack of awareness of the tools or a lack of focus on academic research, has prevented them from achieving a large user base.

6) What are the unique/novel/critical technologies developed in the approach?

We are applying the concept of a social network to simplify access control specification and make related work easier to find (assuming people have strong ties to those working on similar topics). We are also providing version controlled file spaces for individual files and project files, personal digital library management.

7) What are the potential spin-offs or other applications of this work?

Native desktop clients and new back-end modules to support common tasks (scheduling and calendars), or different types of users (lawyers, politicians, doctors, etc.).

8) How can progress be measured? (i.e. How can anyone tell if/when the project is successful?)

Progress can be measured by system use, where more active users means a more successful project. We will also conduct user surveys to determine which areas of the system need to be improved, which features are superfluous, and which additional features are needed.

9) What has been accomplished thus far?

For up to date information, visit the web site As of this writing, two prototypes of the system have been created and put aside; in both cases, the implementation technologies proved too unwieldy for a single person to make significant progress. A third prototype is being developed using Ruby on Rails, incorporating a new user interface developed after user testing with the second prototype; it is nearly ready for an initial deployment with the personal digital library feature ready for use.

10) What is the schedule for the work remaining?

January 2008
Focus on shared access to personal digital libraries.

April 2008
Focus on shared access to research work (projects).

September 2008
Focus on writing thesis.

December 2008
Thesis Complete


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