Johns Hopkins Gazette: January 8, 1996

JHUniverse, INFONET Provide Gateways to Hopkins' World

Mike Field
Staff Writer

     Campus-wide information systems like JHUniverse and INFONET
have evolved tremendously in the past few years. Does knowing
where they've been give a hint of where they're going?

     It may not have seemed like much when it first premiered on
Feb. 1, 1994, but the Johns Hopkins campus-wide information 
system--with the imposing name of JHUniverse--had big plans for
the future. It began modestly, primarily offering texts of
policies and procedures and catalogs of information. Yet clearly,
the vision of something greater was at hand.

     "The initiation of this system is a good start toward the
creation of the basic electronic infrastructure that will one day
include a comprehensive interoperable network across the
university," said vice provost for research Ted Poehler in that
week's Gazette. In the same issue, Scott Bennett, then Milton S.
Eisenhower Library director, talked about how the new system
might one day serve as an introduction to the library's services,
and computing specialist Peter Batke assured new users the whole
system was designed "to make finding and retrieving information
as simple as possible."

     Based on the then-nascent Gopher software developed at the
University of Minnesota, the original JHUniverse required users
to sort through a series of text menus to find and retrieve the
desired information, which was also in text format. There were no
pictures, no sound or video clips, no hypertext linking words and
images, no push-button search engines or eye-catching graphics.
It was just text, reams and reams of it.

     What a difference two years can make.

     "The general trend we are seeing in campus-wide information
systems is toward increasing interactivity," said Lee Watkins,
JHUniverse project manager and assistant director of Homewood
Academic Computing. 

     To help achieve this goal, current systems use hypertext
mark-up language (or HTML) to incorporate a spectacular array of
graphic, video and sound links onto the World Wide Web, an
information system far more sophisticated than the text-only

     The new JHUniverse homepage, which officially premiered Dec.
6, makes abundant use of the opportunities afforded by World Wide
Web technology and navigation programs like Netscape, which has
quickly become the industry standard. Yet for all the new flash
and glitter, the system's essential function remains unchanged:
to provide a full array of accurate informational resources for
use both within and outside the university community.

     "JHUniverse is the Hopkins entry point to the Web, it is the
front door that people walk through," said David Kingsbury, the
university's chief information officer. Kings-bury was appointed
by former President William C. Richardson to coordinate and
promote a single, integrated university-wide electronic
information system.  

     It hasn't always been easy. "We fundamentally had two
systems developing at once: JHUniverse at the Homewood campus and
INFONET at East Baltimore," Kingsbury said. "When the president
appointed me, he was clear that we needed to have a single site
representing Johns Hopkins. What we now need to work on is
developing a clearer integration between all the various
components of the university."

     But developing a single, seamless, user-friendly electronic
information system is a tremendous challenge in a place as
diverse and decentralized as Hopkins, especially considering how
quickly existing technologies are evolving and the exponential
growth of demand for on-line services. 

     "As more and more information comes in, we constantly have
to rethink and renegotiate how to make that information
available," said Debra Gips, JHUniverse information manager and
computer specialist for the Division of Communications and Public
Affairs. "Coming up with the best way to organize and categorize
information is a challenging task. It's a lot like creating a
comprehensive and truly useful index, the success of which will
determine how many people succeed at finding the information they
are looking for." 

     Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Web has
created a new demand for library science specialists expert in
the categorization of information.

     Yet even as the technology and demand for new electronic
services grow, the purpose, function and use of campus-wide
information systems vary considerably. A quick run through other
schools' homepages on the Internet reveals a wide range of
approaches, from the simple, unadorned delivery of factual
information to the highly visual and ornate; from the sober to
the whimsical. 

     If Hopkins' own system is unique, it is no doubt in part
owing to its unusual genesis, having sprung from a joint
interdivisional  effort sponsored by Homewood Academic Computing,
the Eisenhower Library, Homewood Student Affairs and the Homewood
public affairs office.

     "JHUniverse is not unique in the sense that it does what all
the others do, which is to present information and provide the
services typically needed at a university," Watkins said. "Yet it
is a little different in that every other school's Web site I've
seen has been done purely from the perspective of the school's
computing center. I think the involvement of News and Information
is a good thing in that it helps integrate so many parts of the
university that are so widely divergent from one another. It
gives us perspective on what and how we present ourselves to the

     Should the university's homepage be a treasure house, jammed
full of information, or simply an index, a road map to other
sources? According to Watkins, the tendency is in the direction
of less information and better directions.

     "The trend seems to be away from trying to cram as much
information as possible on a page," he said. "Now we're trying to
be spare and elegant. The goal is to collapse categories and use
secondary pages. Less is more."

     The new paradigm of a campus-wide information system is no
longer simply a functional source of information. Increasingly,
the emphasis has moved from sheer volume of material to an
evolving cyberspace aesthetic that places an equal emphasis on
design and presentation. 

     "I think our new homepage does a better job of organizing
and presenting a complex whole," said Gips, who coordinated the
overall design. "The first iteration of JHUniverse offered a sort
of knee-jerk presentation of Web sites at Hopkins. This time we
stood back and asked, What is this university? How do we present
it at its best? And how do we keep people within our virtual

     The new JHUniverse features a stronger sense of integrated
design and unique graphic images--such as a standard return
element at the bottom of each page--that foster a sense of
identity and encourage users to stay within the university's own

     Yet despite the new emphasis on design elegance and
functionality, the spirit of JHUniverse, like most other
universities' campus-wide information systems, continues to be
shaped by the cyberspace pioneers who often created the first
systems without funding or even encouragement from above.

     "JHUniverse can be the Harvard Yard that Hopkins doesn't
have," Watkins said. "It's the commons, the one place where
things can be done together and across departmental and
divisional lines, where all members of the university can meet
and interact as equals."

     Not everyone shares the same sense of purpose for
JHUniverse, however. "If it's our front door then it needs
primarily to have a good road map rather than a bunch of
information," Kingsbury said. "Getting to find the right
information is what the Web is all about, which means that having
the right links is crucially important. It is going to require
another level of coordination to put this all in place."

     Road map or information center? The distinction may seem
trivial, but the ramifications for design and function are
significant. Ultimately, say project managers and program
directors alike, the future structure of the university's
campus-wide information system will, in all probability, be
driven by developments in technology, just as it has in the past. 

     "JHUniverse is a platform that should be constantly
evolving," Gips said. "Because the technology is forever
evolving. In other words, when you're working on the Web, you're
really never done working. The Internet is a place where the ink
is never dry."

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