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 Gopher. 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 world." 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 university?" 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 pages. 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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