Class Project Yields Online Campus Map

January 31, 2006
Duke's new online campus map

Thanks to the senior capstone class of Duke's interdisciplinary program in technology and information science, the university now has a key piece of infrastructure that it long lacked: a user-friendly, online campus map.

For years, visitors to campus and students alike had depended on a variety of maps drawn up by different departments. But other than a detailed facilities-management map that took a specific browser and a special computer program to function optimally, all were little more than uploaded paper maps that gave, at most, the names of buildings. If you were looking for a department or facility, but didn't know the name of the building it was in, good luck.

Enter Information Science and Information Studies 200, a project-based seminar of seven seniors taught last spring by Casey Alt, ISIS's administrative director, and Jessica Mitchell, project manager in the Office of Information Technology.

Aware that there had been a discussion going at Duke for years about what the ideal campus map would look like, the two instructors latched onto the idea and presented it to the spring 2005 class as a possible project. "At first, we thought we'd just do our own map that would maybe appear on the ISIS website," Alt says. "As it evolved, it became clear that administrators really wanted to do this. It had the opportunity to be the Duke map."

The students surveyed fifty-seven online campus maps from around the world, ranging from static PDF files to three-dimensional flash displays, and listed good and bad features. They focused on a number of areas: usability, speed, scale, and information. With that as their starting point, the students created mock-ups of what the site might look like and put together a series of presentations for administrators. Throughout the project, they worked closely with campus services, the office of news and communication, and OIT.

"Jess and I stressed that the hardest part of this [wouldn't] be the programming. It [would] be the project management," Alt says. "You don't learn that anywhere, but you spend 90 percent of your time on it. That's what will make or break you." In the end, he says, the group declined to select a project manager but instead worked within a horizontal structure, with individuals stepping into temporary leadership roles, as needed. That approach, he says, was surprisingly successful.

One key to the group's success on the project was the diverse backgrounds of its members, according to Alt and Mitchell. The class consisted of students majoring in economics, political science, chemistry, and mathematics, as well as computer science. Some students chose to focus on programming the map; others on researching the campus buildings, communicating with administrators, and putting together project presentations.

The project bridged the gap between the students' academic and professional careers figuratively--by giving them a real taste of what their careers might be like--and literally: At the end of the semester, five members of the class were hired by OIT to remain in Durham over the summer and complete the map for an August 2005 launch.

The result is Duke's first dynamic, user-driven map. It's so successful that many departmental websites and campus events announcements have already linked to it. The map allows users to zoom in on different parts of campus. In addition, it offers a powerful search function that recognizes partial names as well as building descriptions, and provides parking information, building histories, facility and departmental information, and pictures of buildings from the perspective of a person approaching on foot. It also happens to be one of the few Duke maps that is geographically correct, not having been manipulated to fit onto a page.

And because the site was built dynamically--the map image is not saved anywhere, but instead recreates itself from programming code whenever loaded--it can be continually updated to reflect new construction or department moves as the campus continues to grow. The seven 2005 graduates involved in the project were Jane Bloomgarden, Eric Buescher, David Eisinger, Nikhil Jariwala, Alberto Laverde, Mary McKee, and Ann-Drea Small.

Alt says that after the success of the mapping project, administrators haven't left him short on ideas for future class undertakings. "Everyone who wants something done," he says, "it becomes the next ISIS 200 project."