Information Evolution

"Welcome to Coffee Craze. Lattes and fresh croissants are half off until midnight, closing time," pipes through your headset. No, you're not idling away, burning gas at the drive-through. Imagine standing outside any business in downtown Ann Arbor, listening to Talking Points, an urban orientation and contextual information system developed by University of Michigan School of Information (SI) graduate students.

Talking Points was born when Jim Knox, an adaptive technology coordinator at the university, demonstrated a rolling cart that could announce radio frequency identification (RFID)-tagged locations, like room numbers and coffee makers, for blind people. SI student Jason Stewart was inspired to evolve the project, modifying it for outdoor environments to help the blind navigate through Ann Arbor. At the end of 2007, he assembled a student team for the independent study project, funded with a $10,000 Opportunities in Collaborative Spaces grant.

The tool can aid not only the blind, but sighted people too. "Basically the idea is that the person's walking journey can be enhanced by providing contextual information along the route," project manager Stewart explains. "It could be deployed in any context – in a building, in a city, an arboretum, who knows?"

"We knew that a lot of people trust peer information more than they trust directory information," he continues, so "we decided to explore ways that a socially maintained online database could be the place where people get information about locations." Talking Points will be a Wikipedia for walkers; anyone can contribute information to the website about places or features – like businesses and alleyways – that passersby might not otherwise be aware of.

Currently, information is retrieved via a small handheld computer that reads RFID tags. Ultimately the goal is to port the program over to cell phones, Stewart says. The team is finishing the prototype and will tag locations around the city for user testing. A second version of Talking Points will be released this fall.

As major search engines like Google and Yahoo add local search capabilities, "it’s actually a fairly small leap to take that functionality, already being delivered by localized search engines, and actually map it directly onto the physical environment," says SI professor and faculty advisor on the project Mark Newman.

Books to keyboards

Talking Points is one of many ambitious student-led projects at the University's unique school, originally formed in 1925 as a library science program. In 1996, its name was changed to the School of Information, to address the burgeoning information age and Internet movement.

The school, which explores the role of information in society, is nearly peerless. Only about 35 such programs exist worldwide, as defined by membership in either the iConference  or the IT Deans Group. "Most of the iSchools either started off as library schools or as computer science or computer engineering schools and have sort of converged on the new notion that we need to have people, information, and technology together …" SI professor Michael McQuaid explains.

Since 2000, student enrollment has grown from 200 to roughly 350 for fall 2008, says Director of Admissions and Student Affairs Judith Lawson. Last year, in response to the new growth in job opportunities and the curriculum, the school expanded its offerings from three specialties to nine.

The human touch

One study program, Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), is an interdisciplinary field that mixes psychology, sociology, computer science, and design to create user-friendly technologies. Stewart's interest in behavioral analysis was piqued while majoring in anthropology and classical archaeology at the University of Michigan. The HCI major found that "the School of Information was also doing behavioral analysis, but instead of applying it to models of human evolution, they were using the data to make effective interfaces." He plans to manage projects in user experience research after graduating in 2009.

From 2006-2008, over 3000 jobs and internships were posted to the online recruitment system, almost triple the number posted from 2004-2006. The school has seen an 80% increase in employers, from top-tier consulting firms to start-ups, recruiting on-campus over the past few years, says Joanna Kroll, its associate director of career services.

"It’s certainly my view, and, I think, a common view, that the IT industry has become increasingly aware of the need to understand their users … In that sense, the industry and entrepreneurial and economic opportunities are increasingly slanted towards people that have a good understanding of users as well as the technological capability," says Newman.

This understanding is honed in McQuaid's Interface and Interaction Design class, a harbinger of new instructional style. No microphone-wielding professor at the helm of a cavernous auditorium packed with theater seats here – lectures are minimal. Everyone parks on the floor in a lab equipped with furniture on wheels and mobile whiteboards, where they sketch design exercises and work on semester-long projects.

"I know how to give an arresting lecture … but I can assure you that afterwards, people will remember it as a good lecture but they don't remember what they've learned as clearly than as if they had done it themselves," says McQuaid.

Students labor to design a control panel for an elevator going to any of 1,000 stories, or a directory for a 40,000-person company that must be viewed on a cell phone screen. "Design is all about constraints," McQuaid, also a professor in the school of art and design, offers. "I try to make them work with a bunch of opposing constraints in a very short time, critique what each other has done, and train them to solve design problems collectively in short periods of time."

Social good

Five of McQuaid's students are building doGooder, a social networking website for volunteers and coordinators. Although originally conceived to support organizations and volunteers serving the homeless population, any volunteer group can utilize it. The site offers experience-sharing through testimonials, photo, and video, and can interface with social networking sites like Facebook.

"At this point, doGooder has been taken to the hi-fi prototype stage. We've gotten an incredible response to the idea, and are entertaining a few possible avenues for deployment, including integration with existing systems and independent funding," says Jackie Cerretani, SI graduate student and member of the eMantis project team, which placed second in the 2008 CHI Student Design competition, attended by teams from 60 universities worldwide.

Cerretani, a Cornell University natural resources graduate who founded and ran a graphic and web design studio for five years, chose the program because, "First, working in the field, I felt that websites were becoming so complex it was becoming nearly impossible as a single individual to do all the components well. … HCI was a perfect fit, in that it allows me to bring together my interests in computing and design with my interests in human cognition, motivation and behavior." She is considering a career in research and may blend her interest in environmental issues with HCI work after graduating in 2009.

Doing good is chief in the minds of SI students; many have an altruistic bent. " … what a lot of our students do is things that are really focused on making the world a better place, addressing social issues, working in other countries, providing access to technology in a way that helps with economic development and that works well with marginalized communities in the U.S.," Lawson says. "We're as much a public service-oriented school as we are a business and industry-oriented school."

Tanya Muzumdar is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate. Be sure to read her previous article for Metromode, From Scratch: Rentlinx.
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