Live Blogging the I School Masters Presentations

14 May 2009
4:05 PM

3:58. As a culmination of two years of study at the School of Information, masters students present final projects that represent a significant work based on learning in the classroom. Next year I’ll be giving one of these presentations, but this year I’m just along for the ride.

The first step is a lightning round where each group of students get two minutes to present an overview of their projects. The projects are separated into three tracks.

Love to chat, but it’s time to get started…

4:06. Shawna, Hazel, Aylin start off with a dramatic sktch about their “Doesn’t food just come from a package?” “I feel like every day there’s another food out there I can’t eat because of salmonella and e. coli. … all I want to do is buy healthy food that represents my values.” Squash and Vine, a new online social network that helps people connect with their local food community.

4:07. Anuradha Roy on website metadata. Research project demonstrating the effects of sites publishing site metadata in an open format.

4:09. Srikanth Narayan is looking at how to manage large-scale conversations and discussions online.

4:10. Jon Hicks and Xiaomeng Zhong developed Hyoumanity to “flip the incentives of the medical diagnostic process.”

4:12. Courseland from Mike Lee and Seung-Hyun Rhee. “Registering for courses for should be easy, right?” Laughter from audience. Actually, it takes about seven websites to get all the information to make it happen. It’s a difficult process, and past attempts to fix the process have failed. Instead of a top-down approach, Courseland proposes centralizing the data in one place allowing developers to create applications.

4:13. Ashwin Matthew, a riveting tale called “Pass the Packet, Please?” about the social organization of network administration. “The network is just a cloud, right?” Ashwin is looking at the network administrators who make the system tick—how do they coordinate with one another?

4:14. Knowledge Compass from Kathleen Lu and Ruchi Kumar. A project for the School of Information itself. How do schools reach out to alumni, offer career guidance, etc.?

4:15. Nick Rabinowitz did work on OCHA SITREP, the documents used by the Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Efforts. For the last year, Nick and other students the School of Information have been looking at the situation reports created and used by this global community.

4:17. Ashkan, Josh, and Travis’s project is KnowPrivacy, looking at the differences between people’s expectations of privacy online and actual practices. In their research, they examined privacy complaints to the FTC, data on third-party tracking, and information about affiliates.

4:18. Devin Blong and Jon Breitbart worked on The Virtual Shelf, a project to create a digital library interface that capitalized on the affordance of the physical world.

4:19. Anirban Sen and Pierre Tchetgen a project focused on ICTD, information and communication technology for developing regions. Past model is based on the view of the developing world as lacking something. The new approach of this project is to look at the richness of these regions.

4:21. Shanna Epstein worked on “Building Collective Memories Online.” It’s like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Well, not quite, but still an important topic for organizations that collect memories online. Questions the democracy of the web.

4:23. Deepti Chittamuru did a qualitative assessment of children in India and use of mobile phones. “Public education falls far short of providing education, especially in rural parts of India.” MILLEE focuses on educational games for children’s learning. Chock full of qualitative methods like participant observation.

4:25. Isaac Salier-Hellendag did “Mapping San Francisco’s Photographic History,” aka “the San Francisco Wayback Machine.” Problems he examined: searching across lots of collections means using lots of interfaces, searches are limited, and there’s no community input. “I know that intersection!” So Isaac tried to solve these problems.

4:27. And that’s the lightning round. We thank the advisors, and now it’s time for a reception and schmoozing before we break out for the full project descriptions at 5:15.

5:07. My classmate Nick informed me that I was doing it wrong. Apparently the latest entries go at the top. My bad. I’m rearranging the entries (Note: now that it’s over, I re-rearranged them in chronological order).

5:11. All the projects are presented in three tracks: Social Networks and Collaboration, Organizational Issues, and Communication and Memory. Unfortunately all the tracks are presented simultaneously so there are some tough decisions to make about which presentations to attend. People are filling out the dance cards in the main foyer and we’re about to get started.

5:13. I’m started in track 3, Communication and Memory, being moderated by Eric Kansa. Apparently we’ll be on a rigid schedule here to keep all the tracks synched up.5:14. The judges are in the room and introducing themselves, all alumni from the School of Informaton, one from 2005 and two from 2004.

5:15. The first presentation is Virtual Shelf by Devin Blong and Jonathan Breitbart. Based on the information search process in the physical library, which plays an important part in information organization and retrieval.

Devin and Jon have been working with the Open Library, a site with the goal of having one page per library. It’s a wiki: anybody can add a new book.

5:17. Looking at physical books on a shelf lets you see all kinds of metadata: title, author, size, color, etc.

5:18. Data is from observing professionals at Berkeley Public Library and UC library system.

5:20. Findings. The role of serendipity is important in physical libraries: “Finding what you don’t expect to find.” Users don’t know how to search. Google has spoiled field-based search, users just look for keywords.

5:22. When people are looking for books about a topic, librarians suggest that they search a card catalog for titles of interest, write down the call numbers, and go look at that area of the shelves. They’ll probably find something interesting there.

5:23. Devin and Jon built their first prototype in Flash and got feedback from the Open Library community. Demo time! You can see a demo at You’ll need Firefox 3 to make this demo work.

5:28. You can search for books, create a custom bookshelf, and organize the books on the shelf in any way. Sort by author, title, even physical characteristics like thickness of the book (find quick reads!). “Can we sort by subject relevance?” a voice from the audience calls out. Librarians in the audience must be a tough crowd.

5:31. The current interface that Jon and Devin have been working on has ditched Flash. Now they’re riding the Javascript train. It’s totally buzzword compliant: Ajax, RESTful URIs, Atom feeds of shelves, etc.

5:33. And we’re done. Question time. “Develop something like CoverFlow?” Currently something like that doesn’t display the physical characteristics of the book. “What do the colors of spines represent?” Subjects, from LOC call numbers or subject fields matched against Amazon’s top level categories.

5:43. Jumping over to the social networks track to Hazel, Shawna, and Aylin’s presentation on Squash and Vine. The final product is a social network designed to connect people creating a “safe and sustainable food system.”

5:46. Problems: Diabetes and heart disease are leading causes of death in the U.S., monoculture in food growing, industrialized agriculture. People are working to combat these trends—independent producers and retailers—but it is difficult to get information to the people who need it: consumers.

5:48. Aylin is telling us about the existing solutions that they looked at, sites like Foodoro, Hyperlocavore, Organic Nation, and Local Harvest. On some sites, information is very static. Other sites are interactive communities, but they’re focused on consumers. The missing gap that Squash and Vine fills is reaching producers and consumers and promoting dynamic information.

5:50. Conducted dozens of hour-long interviews with producers, distributors, and consumers. Producers said that they wanted to focus on farming, but also develop an online presence at the same time. For new producers, sharing information about how to farm was particularly important. Retailers wanted to be able to source food from many producers efficiently—they see themselves as the middlemen between producers and consumers. Consumers wanted to know about their food. What’s the story, what grows when? Not knowing the seasons that certain food grows was an issue.

5:53. The solution: an online community that lets these groups develop relationships over time, low cost and high efficiency.

5:55. Tons of prototype sketches. Dozens.

5:57. Features for producers. Farmers wanted people to know information about them and their location. Farm profile pages, and simple, Twitter-style updates that let farmers give quick status updates about what’s going on. Oh, cool idea: most farmers have cell phones and the idea of providing audio updates from the field emerged. This would let farmers communicate with one another and get advice.

6:00. Retailers don’t have space on their menus to tell interested consumers where food comes from, but Squash and Vine lets them do that. A screenshot shows “Poulet Henry, with carrots at such-and-such farm, etc.”

6:02. For consumers, they can examine the local “food web” and see what’s being grown at farms in the area. They can also follow favorite foods—I’d do peaches, best fruit ever—and learn when they become available.

6:04. They’ve been demoing the web interface, but there are APIs for more open access. Other students have been working on other interfaces, like an iPhone app.

6:06. Question time! By the way, the site is “Is the end result just the website?” Well, there’s also a 95 (!) page report.

“What surprised you most about your findings?” Great question—there are always surprises when you actually talk to people. The passion and time producers put into growing food, also the number of logistic steps involved into getting food to market. For example, to sell organic pork, a rancher had to take a pig to an organic slaughter house, then to an organic processing plant.

06:12. Where did the name come from? Well, squash is an American vegetables, one of the three sister crops that Native Americans would grow: maize, beans, and squash. Maize would provide the stalk that beans would grow up, the beans would infuse the soil with nitrogen, and squash would provide the ground cover preventing weed growth. They liked the synergistic connotation of the whole process. Plus, farmers didn’t want to be associated with vegetables that anybody can produce like salad greens.6:15. Jumping tracks again to room 202 where Ruchi and Kathleen are talking up Knowledge Compass. Orient students towards their professional or academic goals. You know, like a compass. I need to sign up with this program.

They’re reading some key quotes from discussions with stakeholders, nice touch.

“I don’t know what courses to take—it’s like a scattershot.”

“I don’t subscribe to any mailing lists and I don’t care.”

“Nobody responds to mailings.”

6:20. Currently people are using a bunch of methods to (try to) keep in touch. Some are top-down, like our internal mailing and grassroots efforts like LinkedIn and some past iSchool projects.

06:22. Two features: course recommender, like Amazon’s book recommendations. You tell it what your career goals are and the system recommends some courses you might be interested in. A mentor matcher, like minus the dating, that would help students connect with alumni with similar interests to tap their knowledge.

6:25. Competitive analysis across five institutions that offer masters programs. The UC Berkeley School of Information, I Schools at peer institutions, and the Haas School of Business. In almost all areas, the business school blew other programs out of the water in terms of alumni outreach, course guidance, and so forth. What was surprising was that our I School did comparatively poorly against similar programs.

6:28. Kathleen and Ruchi evaluated institutions using Morten Hansen’s framework: hoarding, not-invented-here, knowledge transfer, and search. We even get a plug: Prof. Hansen’s book on this topic, Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results, was published this week.

6:29. “We shouldn’t assume that technical solutions will actually solve problems.” Nice table of recommendations with the associated barriers that each one reduces. By the way, the slides and final reports are available for most of these presentations, so you don’t have to take my word for it—grab the Knowledge Compass report.

6:34. We’re looking at mockups of solutions. One example is a course recommender that draws alumni job data from external databases like LinkedIn, joins it with internal data about what courses students took, to let you know what graduates in specific fields studied at the I School. Clever use of data from multiple sources.

6:40. It’s break time: more presentations on the 7 spot.

7:02. This session was another tough call, but I’m sitting in on Nick Rabinowitz’s presentation on OCHA Sitrep, in part because he produced fantastic icons for his presentation. I’d also love to see Srikanth’s talk on Large Scale Discussion Spaces.

7:04. This project is like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. Nick, past masters students, and two Ph.D. students conducted interviews in New York, Geneva, Nairobi…. They’ve been talking to UN agencies and other humanitarian organizations about writing situation reports (among other topics).

7:05. Great quote: many people in interviews said that it was “out of scope” to deal with political and organizational issues, so they just focused on the technical solution.

7:07. Humanitarian crises in 60 seconds: when you have a disaster too big for a country, you have a response that includes NGOs, UN agencies, the Red Cross, other governments, and donors. All of these groups are coordinated by OCHA, who tries to bring information from various groups to a central place for sharing. Agents in the field assemble a report—a sitrep or situation report—and share it with OHCA, which communicates the info to organization headquarters in Europe.

7:14. Sitreps are affected by The Numbers Game. It’s notoriously difficult to estimate the number of people affected by a disaster, but this number is the basis for determine the amount of aid and intervention. Local governments are often a source of distortion of numbers, although the effect can go both ways. Sometimes governments want to show that they have control of a situation, tending to minimize the number of people affected. This can lead to disparities of orders of magnitude (5,000 people affected vs. 500,000).

7:16. Have I mentioned Nick’s icons yet? These are great slides—they don’t duplicate anything that Nick is saying. The slides aren’t available yet, but you can download Nick’s report.

7:18. Last theme, since we’ve just got two minutes left. Clearance, having authorities review a document adds overhead at multiple parts of the process. “In some cases, getting clearance from all the involved organizations could take a week,” though situations may be changing day to day or hourly.

7:22. Potential solutions: 1. make sitreps a closed system, or 2. establish a neutral broker for information, or 3. created a shared space to build consensus in the field about the contents of sitreps.

7:24. Is this as interesting to you as reading a live blog of, say, an iPhone keynote? I’m guessing the answer is a resounding yes. Let’s keep going.

7:26. Oh, nice strategic move: whenever a judge asks a question, start your answer with “That’s a good question.” File that one away for next year.

7:30. Last presentation, this one is KnowPrivacy from Josh Gomez, Travis Pinnick, and Ashkan Soltani. We’re off to a quick start: The FTC is dropping the hammer. According to the FTC commissioner, “this could be the industry’s last clear chance to show that self regulation can work.”

7:33. These guys took a two-part approach, starting with researching user expectations. They studied the FTC database of consumer complaints. The biggest concern consumers had was a lack of user control, followed by issues with public display of information.

7:36. The big winner of the FTC complaints data—the company complained about more than any other—was Zabasearch. A San Francisco Chronicle columnist wrote, “It’s scary what Zabasearch can do.”

7:39. Many companies say they don’t share data with third-parties, but they do share data with affiliates. For example, MySpace is owned by News Corp, which also own Fox, Hulu…and 1500 other companies, where personal data can flow freely.

7:41. Company also track user browsing using beacons, code embedded in sites that reports a user’s IP and other information. Some domains like Blogspot have a hundred or more beacons. Beacons like Google Analytics are common on almost every site. In the top thousand domains, Google is responsible for around 80% of the tracking beacons.

7:46. Time for recommendations. Website owners should give users access to data like credit bureaus, listing all the companies data has been shared with regardless of affiliation. A new standardized term should be mandated for privacy policies. “Users see ‘privacy policy’ and they think, ‘Oh, my privacy’s protected.’” Maybe data collection policy?

7:49. Question time: “How do you plan to tell users what data is being collected if they don’t even know what a beacon or a cookie is?” Like users get a credit report, they could receive a behavioral report about their tracked behavior. And a curveball: “If you connect to a VPN using a wireless network, are you protected from a port scan?” Yowza.

7:55. And that just about wraps up the evening. Unfortunately, for every presentation I went to there were two I didn’t get to, and based on the lightning round, there was a lot of good stuff here tonight. Hope you enjoyed this look at some of the work students at the School of Information are doing.