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The Technology Prototyping Service Year One Report (2013-2014)

The Technology Prototyping Service
Year One Report (2013 – 2014)


Submitted by Jim Hahn

1. Introduction


The University of Illinois Library’s Budget Group founded the Technology Prototyping Service (TPS) in 2013, in order to recruit students from diverse background and perspectives into LIS careers. Students from technology-focused majors and minors were sought out to work specifically on lightweight mobile and web projects.


The TPS has two overarching goals: 1) recruit diverse students and perspectives to library and information science careers by way of paid internships and 2) produce efficiencies in Library operations through the creation of lightweight technology products that advance services to end users and Library employees.


The works described in the TPS portfolio leverage and re-use code and middleware architecture where possible. While the TPS is one time money allocated for three years from Budget Group, the products below extended code, server configurations, and computing outputs from four additional sources of funding that included:


a)     A small yearly continuing fund from Library IT,


b)     A Sparks IMLS Grant, “Rapid Prototyping Mobile Augmented Reality Apps,” ending September 2014,


c)      An IMLS National Leadership Grant, “The Student Library Collaborative” ending Fall 2014, and


d)     A University of Illinois Campus Research Board Grant, “Applied Research in First-Year Undergraduate Student Support with Optical Character Recognition in Mobile Software Applications,” that ended in 2013.


This report progresses with a review of year one goals and accomplishments, communication strategies, educational and mentoring focus, and concludes with a section on the TPS research mission, attending to the interlocking set of technical and user focused UX methods students learn by joining the Prototyping service.





2. Goals and Accomplishments


A variety of projects were investigated and explored in the first year. Several of the most visible and successful of these are reviewed -- see appendix for all beta and experimental projects. Notable prototype investigations that are now used as production services include the IWonder chat system (Ask a Librarian), the Minrva Web app, and Android and IOS unit Library wayfinding apps for guiding students to the location of items in the bookstacks.


The technical goals of the TPS are to create efficiency in Library operations and supporting unit Libraries with front line services that optimize the experience of employees and users of the Library.



The production virtual chat service for the Library was developed (spring 2013 – summer 2014) in conjunction with the NLG grant, “The Student/Library Collaborative,” and with support from the TPS fund. The summer 2013 semester saw TPS students assist with gathering user feedback from an initial round of user testing. This taught student developers how to match feature requests with new code, and the importance of user verification and requirements gathering early in the design phase. Very few technical courses on campus offer students this type of practical hands-on experience. TPS students gained insightful server side knowledge in creating a cross-domain widget that works when embedded in any website in the Library CMS.


With cross-domain server data processes are the corresponding security considerations. A very stringent Security Audit was undertaken for the IWonder codebase. This included two rounds of security testing by AITS. TPS students participated in debugging the security findings and helped implement changes so that IWonder could be rolled out early in the Spring 2014 semester.


Once the service was in production TPS students helped to stabilize the OpenFire chat server by investigating how the server manages caching of data. The production system was incrementally adjusted throughout the spring 2014 semester and TPS students had a hand in shaping and stabilizing this critical service for the Library.



To develop a Wayfinding module in a unit Library TPS students are required to complete the following: lightweight database construction of call numbers which match up to row locations in the book stacks, a RESTful webservice and a front end view. Before the TPS, only one unit in the Library system had a wayfinding app, the UGL. However, over the last year of work in the TPS, wayfinding support has been extended to the Music and Performing Arts Library, the Funk ACES Library, and the Main Stacks. The Main Stacks Library location encompasses over ninety miles of shelves. As a next step, the TPS is consulting on building a Wayfinder module for the International & Area Studies Library. This will support the IAS Summer institute as users not familiar with their collections navigate a complex reference layout and ordering system.



Responding to user requests for a desktop-based wayfinding tool, the RESTful wayfinding web service was exposed for desktop access using new web application tools. Students in TPS learned how to apply the MVC JavaScript library Backbone.js to creating a Wayfinding web app for each of the unit libraries. Backbone.js code is being finalized for production this summer and will include suggestions to other items based on an initial subject and title location in the Library. The recommendation component uses circulation history and subject area for recommendations to other items in the Library. Such a service is novel in the field of LIS wayfinding and extends work coming out of the web services developed in the IMLS Sparks Grant developing suggestions based on taking a picture of a call number in the Library book stacks.

3. Communication


The TPS communication plan includes lightning talks at Library faculty meetings, presentations within the Systems Design Research Group (2013), and regular, reoccurring Open Houses that have taken place at the start and end of each Semester.



During the first year of operation multiple presentations on Prototyping Group Outputs were made to the Library Faculty. These included short talks on statistical visualization software, wayfinding modules, and bento views for discovery. During these sessions feedback from faculty on further shaping the projects were solicited and incorporated into experimental designs. Additional presentations of the technology prototyping middleware design process were made through the Systems Design Research Group.



At the start and end of each semester the TPS hosts an open house. These have typically taken place in the UGL basement where Library staff observe and learn about prototypes in development, provide input into services that should be developed in the next cycle, and get hands on experience with upcoming releases of software. As an example of project ideas sourced from these open house events, the TPS began wok for the Library Trending Dashboard (beta), as well as ideas for shaping the IWonder virtual chat service after gathering input in these sessions.



We have reached out to, and worked with, the following campus groups as a part of outreach and recruiting efforts: the Department of Computer Science, Illinois Informatics Initiative, and Women in Engineering. We have worked with campus AITS, as well as the Office of Technology Management in publishing work of the group to app stores. Students from TPS have attending lectures at GSLIS featuring research talks in Information Retrieval as well as Data Science, and Data Literacy. Departmental contacts outside the Library, like workshop attendance in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science have supplemented the educational and mentoring activities that take place in the practice-oriented design process of the TPS.


4. Educational and Mentoring


The TPS has had successes in funneling students to Library and Information Science graduate degree programs. A formal survey that evaluates student perspectives has not to date been undertaken, since much of the focus of the past year has been technical in nature. Additionally, we have had only one graduating senior this year. For a time our graduating senior (a CS major) considered applying to the Internet Application Support Specialist position, though he ultimately decided to pursue work in the Internet start up community. A practicum student from GSLIS participated in web app development last spring within the TPS and further supported the TPS students in understanding and appreciating LIS careers.


The TPS has advanced the technical skills of students. As an example of their skills, a few TPS students were able to secure technical internships in industry during the summer at Oracle and eBay. Thus, while anecdotally, we can observe that while not all TPS interns go on to apply to graduate degree programs, they are in fact better able to compete for competitive technical internships. The TPS is providing an edge to technical majors from the University of Illinois.

5. Research Mission


Students learn technical skills of middleware development, front-end design for mobile and desktop access, and crucially, the value of user feedback when developing services. Since the academic technology environment is dynamic and changing, TPS processes have operationalized an iterative rapid design process that is sourced from a services perspective and based on consultation with users and staff. Production code is serving the research needs of staff, students and faculty. In the case of the chat service, the IWonder system successfully serves the teaching, learning, and research needs for the campus wherever they are and whenever they choose to seek the expertise of the Library. The wayfinding modules are supporting new students, visiting scholars, and those who require support in making the “last mile” journey to the item on the shelf in the Library.


Turning now to the next year of work for the TPS group. Their focus in part, we be on collaborations with R & D in the Engineering Library that include discovery access and support. Additional sustained focus in the next year will be on supporting the Library Gateway Redesign.

Appendix: Beta projects and exploratory work


Not all prototyping projects have yet made it to production. This section is a list of beta prototypes and exploratory APIs not reviewed in the goals and accomplishments section.



Modularizing the DIBs room reservation data would allow building and room data to be served from a single data source into multiple platforms and views. It is likely this API would be incorporated into a module of the new Library Gateway.



The TPS group is involved in the Gateway / CMS project and has contributed a new structure to the page that is currently (mid-June 2014) being vetted by the Content Sub Team. The TPS goal is to have a new intermediary gateway for the start of the Fall 2014 semester – in conjunction with the CMS project work.




Relying on aggregate circulation data from the CARLI reports server and visualization libraries we were able to prototype a Trending at the Library page that shows users circulation trends like monthly and yearly circulations, popular titles, and collection distribution by item. Since it is exploratory code is not yet production level.



Near Semantic Search allows deeper subject exploration beyond traditional catalog search. Developed and tested in conjunction with Data Mining researchers in the CS department. Near-semantic search interface is in public beta implementation.