Susan B. Jones
Senior Technical Writer
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139 USA
v: (617) 253-0877
f: (617) 253-8665
Innovative or improved ways of doing things; More equitable access to technology or electronic information; Creation of new ideas, products, or services; Technology transfer; Volunteer contributions of time and energy
Supporting Documentation (contact author for more information):
Software; Documentation; Computer graphic images, such as GIF files
BUILDING SYSTEMS ACROSS THE `NET
The Internet has changed the ways we work in many ways. For researchers, amazing amounts of data are suddenly available from the desktop. Colleagues at great distances collaborate on projects in ways that even a few years ago would have been inconceivable. A case in point is the story of MIT’s TechInfo.
TechInfo is an MIT-developed on-line public information system — a CWIS. This client/server system was designed to serve the heeds of MIT’s multiplatform computing environment. When TechInfo 1.0, was released in June 1990, it came in two flavors: Macintosh and vanilla UNIX and was accessible ubiquitously, that is, via dialup, telnet, or across MITnet from the Macintosh client and Athena, the campus academic computing environment. Because it was available in all these ways to the MIT community and because the TechInfo server was on MITnet which connects to the Internet, anyone on the Internet also had browser access to TechInfo.
During TechInfo’s early development, the team of two programmers, a technical support consultant, and a writer, as well as a manager, met face-to-face perhaps once a month, but worked together electronically all the time, even though the support people were at opposite ends of the campus from the programmers. Programmers shared the latest versions of the program for testing and critique and the writer shared the latest drafts of documentation for technical reviews and critiques.
Almost as soon as the release went on-line the development team began to receive interested queries from other schools both here in the USA and in Europe. Before the first year was over, the MIT TechInfo development team found itself working cooperatively on-line with a group from the University of Pennsylvania who were interested in adopting TechInfo for their CWIS. As the decision to adopt TechInfo for PennInfo was made, working relations were formed between programmers at Penn and MIT and between documentation people in both schools. With only one face-to-face meeting, the two groups continued to work tog to prepare for UPenn’s first release and for the release of MIT’s version 3. Programmers on both campuses worked to debug and enhance both the TechInfo server and the clients. Documentors divided up the documentation tasks, sharing files via ftp from one of MIT’s public servers (net-dist.mit.edu).
As release time drew near, testers on both campus were drawn into the process and even users on other campuses, such as Baylor University, took part. Since that effort, other sites have contributed new’ features to later versions including display of GIF images by Baylor.
This ongoing on-line collaboration has enhanced TechInfo; it has also raised some unexpected questions. In particular, we have had to consider who is our audience. Is TechInfo primarily for community or the international Internet community? To whose needs should the MIT developers respond when the needs are different? The answers to these questions turn out to be not straightforward choices. Yes, TechInfo is primarily for the MIT community, but we deed to respond to the larger audience as well. Figuring out how to serve one’s home base and the greater Internet community will involve learning how to work even more efficiently and effectively across the networks with our colleagues all over the globe.