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October 27, 2005

SIS lobby goes paperless

Welcome to the lobby of the future.

Come in, access your personal messages via radio-frequency identification (RFID)-activated displays, move on to one of several touch screens to access information relevant to your authorized group (such as “students,” “faculty” or “administrators”) then mosey down the hall to read constantly updated news from the University, city, region and world.

These three kinds of information retrieval in the Information Sciences Building lobby — dubbed RAPAI (Role Assured Publicly Accessible Information) — are part of a school-wide information environment embedded in the lobby walls. Information can be posted remotely from workstations throughout the building, thus providing the most important and latest information to authorized people in the centrally located lobby.

“About two years ago I went into the dean’s office, and said, ‘Have you seen the halls and elevators lately? They’re filled with flyers, announcements and Post-it notes. I thought we were supposed to be the School of Information Sciences,’” said Michael B. Spring, associate professor of information science and telecommunications, who oversees the RAPAI project. “The dean said, ‘I’ll find the money if you develop a system to replace the paper notices.’”

In the short term, the RAPAI project used that opportunity to develop some new systems for the school, and in the long-term it has allowed Spring and his students to experiment with advanced web-based systems.

“So this really became an experiment in education, in systems design and in technology,” Spring said. “It allowed me to offer an advanced undergraduate course to get students involved in this project, and to develop a living laboratory in which students could explore new possibilities.”

In simple terms, the goals of the project were, first, to provide information in a public environment accessed by a set of displays, including passive (live news and video image feeds), active (RFID-activated) and interactive (touch screen) displays. Second, the project needed to develop a variety of security mechanisms to control the information’s flow, Spring said.

“The existence of the Internet and the World Wide Web make it possible to bring to the displays various resources or documents that exist remotely,” Spring said. “This makes it possible for [information on the web] to be tapped, filtered and modified, and fed to the various displays.

“The bank of four scrolling windows, for example, shows current technology news, weather news, Pitt news and SIS news available to anyone,” Spring said. “The computer that controls the four-panel display checks every hour for changes to the news feeds. In the case of the weather and technology news, these are RSS (really simple syndication) news feeds that exist on the web and are updated on a regular basis by external parties. We’ve just tapped into them.”

On the other hand, the flow of school and University news is controlled by an internal administrator, Spring said.

Underlying RAPAI are a variety of automated authentication systems, based on a user’s authorization, to provide for privacy, access controls, audits and security.

System-wide, ensuring users’ authentication required the school to create personal profiles that dictate what information should be shown to users and, ultimately, to allow users to tailor communications that are provided to them.

“When a student walks up to an RFID display, he or she simply waves the RFID tag at the display and tailored information is shown,” Spring said. “That process consists of a staff member, or anyone who has responsibility for a page that is to be shown to a given student or group of students, sitting at his or her desktop and typing the page in.”

The page could contain information for students who are graduating, for example, he said. “The opening page of the RFID display informs a graduating student that a series of pages has been collected for them.”

The touch screens in the lobby are accessed via a query to a database, which then produces a document and transforms that document to the appropriate format for the display, Spring said.

“Thus any record put into the database will immediately be available to the display,” he said. “If a course has moved to a new room, the staff member can update the database and that data is automatically and immediately transferred to the screens.”

The access database on the staff member’s desktop is linked to the database that controls the touch screens. The touch screens are set to automatically provide access to information about SIS classes.

“Only the classes that occur on that day or after the current time are initially displayed to students,” Spring said. “The room number and building in which the class meets are automatically plotted on maps which the system keeps track of. Thus, the student will know what floor to go to and which way to walk to get most efficiently to a given classroom. For classes meeting outside the building, a map of the campus will show the location of that building.”

So staff members can post an announcement instantaneously without leaving their desk. A staff member also can specify the date on which the display will post, or remove and archive, an announcement, Spring noted.

Establishing a “living laboratory” of this type means a number of technical issues have to be addressed, Spring acknowledged.

“But far greater than the technical issues are a series of cultural issues,” he said. First, for the project’s developers, acclimation included developing new programming skills. “Second, it was difficult for the developers to get used to the fact that there would be no keyboards or mice for the end users. With the limited input capability of the touch screens and the RFID, programmers had to rethink how their applications would work,” he said.

The end users, which include both those who provide and those who consume information, also required some cultural adjustments, he added, such as “understanding that just-in-time and embedded information is different from a web site or web browser. It was very clear that the providers of information are very paper-oriented. They very much want to produce their messages on paper and tape them onto walls. They were less [comfortable] with filling in a form on their desktop and having that magically appear on screens in the lobby.”

The future for RAPAI is divided into two parts, Spring said. “First, now that we’ve put in the prototype system, we can use what we have learned to determine what the most important information is for consumers and how to best present it. We can also work on ways to convince the providers of information to keep it up to date.”

Beyond refining the current system, the next steps for RAPAI include adding remote location tools, such as Bluetooth, a cable-replacement technology, Spring said. A Bluetooth chip can take information normally carried by a cable and transmit it to a computer or a mobile phone at a special frequency to a receiver Bluetooth chip.

“That is to say we can use Bluetooth access points and wireless access points to track electronic devices that have an ID, and thus we can personalize information for users more easily and without any explicit action on the user’s part,” Spring said.

The system needs more ubiquitous access, as well, he said. “This means we should be able to use things like short messaging from cell phones and e-mail to input data into the system.”

The RAPAI project continues to be a work in progress. “We envision the extension of the system to multiple floors of the building and via mobile devices outside the building,” Spring said.

“The vision of RAPAI will only be realized when it is everywhere,” he added. “Then users will have an expectation for this kind of information provision.”

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 38 Issue 5

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