Computer information system connects campus

By Ryan Robbins
Maine Campus Staff

One-stop shopping is how Steve Goldsmith of the computer science department likes to describe the University of Maine's campus-wide information system.

"We really want this to be the phone book about everything on campus," Goldsmith said.

UMaine's campus-wide information system has been in the development stage for a year now. Currently it's being run on a computer science department machine. The project is another step in the direction of making more information at UMaine accessible to the university community and outside organizations.

"There is so much information on campus and there's so much waste in delivering it, that we want people who need that information, who want that information, to be able to find it instantly," Goldsmith said.

Kim Amato, assistant to the dean of cultural affairs and libraries and a member of the Academic Computing Advisory Committee, which is overseeing the project, held up a blue brochure from Goldsmith's desk.

"We want to avoid these kinds of things," she said.

"There's a task force on paper reduction on campus that strongly endorses this," Goldsmith said.

The CWIS currently contains a faculty and staff telephone directory, weather forecasts and maps, a schedule of Maine Center for the Arts events and a myriad of other information from other departments.

The software the system is run on, Gopher, also allows users to access other information systems on the Internet, which UMaine is a part of. Internet is a world-wide computer network of networks.

Only recently has UMaine put the word out on the Internet it's running a CWIS. Goldsmith said users from Belgium, Italy, Hong Kong, Japan and Switzerland have accessed the system in the short period of time the system has been registered.

Because the CWIS is accessed frequently by students around the country and the world, Amato said Gopher will be a good tool for recruiting students.

Goldsmith said, "We're the first contact for off-campus access. We've gotten people who have asked about becoming students at the university based on what they see. It's free publicity for many departments."

Currently only the computer science, electrical engineering, math and music departments have academic information on the system.

David Tyler, chairman of the surveying and engineering department and a member of the ACAC, said his department is planning to have information on the system by fall semester.

Tyler said his department will provide information about courses and department events for graduate and undergraduate students.

"The kind of information that perhaps a prospective graduate student or undergraduate student might like to have," he said.

While statistics are kept on what Internet machines are accessing the system, Goldsmith said, there is no way to know what information is piquing outsiders' interests. For on-campus users, weather "seems to be where the most interest right now is," he said. He attributes weather's popularity to its changing every hour.

Most information users access from the CWIS, like weather, isn't actually maintained UMaine, but at other machines on the Internet.

The ability to be able to select an item from a menu to connect to another Internet machine played a big part in the ACAC's selection of Gopher to provide a CWIS, Amato said.

Goldsmith said the ACAC had many choices of software to choose from when it called for a CWIS in late winter of 1991-92. Amato said the committee was looking for a user-friendly system. Associate Professor of Management Virginia Gibson, then chairwoman of the ACAC, had her classes try out the different systems. Her students chose Gopher, Amato said, "largely because of the user interface."

The ACAC went ahead and committed itself to Gopher. The decision paid off, Goldsmith said, because soon after the decision was made, Gopher's competitors were beginning to fall by the wayside.

While enthusiasm is high for the CWIS, more needs to be done to make it successful, Goldsmith said. One of the biggest reasons for CWIS failures, he said, is the information is allowed to fall out of date.

"If the information's out of date, they'll never come back," he said.

To prevent outdated information, departments supplying information have a contact person whom users can call on for more information. The contact person is also responsible for keeping information up to date.

But if there is any obstacle in the way of the CWIS becoming the "phone book about everything on campus," it's money, Goldsmith said. Recently a computer that will be dedicated to running the system was purchased by Computing Instructional Technology with student technology fee money. Andy Moody, a Unix systems analyst for CIT, said the system cost about $16,300.

Other financial considerations are who's going to support the system and providing access to the system.

Because the university is strapped for money, Goldsmith said, funds aren't available to create a position dedicated to maintaining the information. Information already on computers needs to be converted for the system to be able to read, and in some cases information needs to be scanned or typed.

Access to the system may be one of the biggest obstacles, Goldsmith and Amato said. Currently the CWIS can be accessed through any of the computers at the CIT public clusters at the union and the library. Off-campus users need a CAPS account to use the mainframe. Goldsmith said in the future the CWIS will be available to dial-up access.

On-campus access is still a problem in the development of the system, Goldsmith said.

"A lot of faculty don't have access to computers. Nor do a lot of students," he said. He said many students aren't willing to head out on a winter night to go to the union to see what's going on.

"The student could sit in his room and through the magic of networking access this," he said. Then, he said, it will get used.

Items in the future for the CWIS, Goldsmith and Amato said, are providing a student telephone directory, ordering MCA and athletic tickets and reading up on university policies. Departments could provide grades and old tests.

"Some campus-wide information systems allow the students to register on-line and to look at their transcripts or their course records," Amato said. She said she doesn't know if this will ever become a reality at UMaine.

A student telephone directory will probably be available in the future, Goldsmith said, but after legal issues are resolved. Faculty and staff sign a disclaimer to have information for their directory, but someone needs to maintain the information for the much larger number of students.

"We have the ability to make them available now, but it's a support issue," Goldsmith said.

When asked when it's expected the system will be complete, Goldsmith leaned back in his chair.

"This will never be finished," he said. "This is an ongoing project that we hope to keep changing and re-inventing. It will evolve continually."

This story originally appeared in the April 26, 1993, edition of The Maine Campus. Copyright 1993, Ryan R. Robbins.