Sunday, January 20, 2008

What Came Before: Top Ten Questions

Here are the original “Top Ten Questions”. These 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 versions of these will be coming soon.

1) What is the main goal of the work?

We will determine what tools and features are needed to create a comprehensive and compelling academic collaborative environment. We want to understand how the relationships between users can be harnessed to improve the usability and usefulness.

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. The project itself will be developed as an open source tool, allowing others to freely install and improve upon it.

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.

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 (J2EE, LDAP, WebDAV, Delta/V, and SOAP) to be extensible and compatible with a wide 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.). As the system matures, we will invite larger groups of people to use it, and encourage other departments and institutions to install it so that we may investigate the role distance plays in the system's usability.

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 none offered the full range of features we are attempting to include. None of them attempted to model the relationships between users as a way of enhancing the functionality and usability of the system.

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). Also, by creating a pure web-services application, we are able to provide an open interface to the system. This will allow others to create client applications that run natively on a user's computer, as opposed to constraining users to a web interface. 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. The project will need to reach a critical mass, after which developers external to the project will begin to assist, and organizations external to ours will begin to utilize it. 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, a mockup of the web-based client was created to shows the major functional areas of the system. An architectural diagram showing the internal breakdown of components within the system is also available on the web site. We are building a technology demonstration that will show people and their relationships, with a novel graph visualization of the relationships between them (the same visualization that will be used in the final system).

10) What is the schedule for the work remaining?

December 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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