What's Happening?
Opportunistic Interfaces for Promoting Community Awareness and Communication

Team Members: John Stasko Q. Alex Zhao

    [AVI 2002] What's Happening?: Promoting Community Awareness through Opportunistic, Peripheral Interfaces
    [GVU 2002 TR] What's Happening?: Promoting Community Awareness through Opportunistic, Peripheral Interfaces
    [CHI 2000] What's Happening? The Community Awareness Application

Project Description

Enhancing the sense of community in a geographically separated organization via software applications.


There are a number of reasons why we would want to promote community awareness. One of the most interesting is to build, maintain, and expand bridging social capital, which is of particular importance in an academic research community such as the College of Computing at Georgia Tech.

However, it has become increasingly difficult to keep up with the current affairs in the community and to know community members beyond their names. As the community grows large, it inevitably spreads into distant locations. Without physical proximity, the frequency and quality of chance encounters decrease, subsequently decreasing the level of informal communication, hindering collaboration among community members.

Another contributing factor is that people are simply getting busier and suffering from information overload. Since communications about the community often do not contain information that requires immediate response or relate to the tasks at hand, they are often "filed" for later review, and "I'll read this later" gradually becomes "never".

Awareness technologies in previous groupware and CSCW research are often too heavyweight to effectively enhance community awareness: they often involve too much effort from the user, are too obtrusive to the user, and are only used in closely coupled groups where people already know each other well.

Opportunistic interfaces, on the other hand, complement traditional methods such as email and news in carrying community communication, but start from the periphery of attention, presenting information in a calm manner without distracting the user. The user can get a rough understanding of what the information is about in a short glance (hence the name "glance-ables" by Rachel Bellamy). And it is the user who decides whether to move the information into the center of attention or not.

The "What's Happening?" Communication-bar

The "What's Happening" communication-bar is designed to deliver news information of interest to the local community unobtrusively. Its main interface is small. You can put it at a corner of the screen, and it'll cycle through blurbs of news and chat items using gradual, smooth animation so that it will not detract your attention away from what you are doing.

Click to see an animation

The communication-bar gathers information from the following sources:

  • User contributed content (snapshot). Use the Post button to post something and share it with everybody. You'll get happy hour and grad-tea announcements as well. You can also comment on / chat about anything you like in this tool (snapshot).
  • CoC Calendar of Events (snapshot). CoC in the News coming soon...
  • The CoC birthday-file (snapshot). Unfortunately/fortunately we only have birthday month and day information about a small number of people. Contact me if you want your birthday month+day info included in this tool but it's not already there, or if you absolutely do not want anybody to know about this info.
Optional contents customizable in the Preferences dialog:

The "What's Happening?" Screen-saver

The "What's Happening" screen-saver involves a collage server that crawls the CoC web server, picks out the pages with images, and put them in a randomly ordered list. Then the collage server cycles through this list of pages -- for each page, it uses the images on that page and builds a collage. The collage server just keeps doing this and generates a new collage every 30 seconds to 1 minute. At the same time, the active screen-saver clients, which are simple lightweight programs, fetch those collages and display them on screen.

Users get to know other people's faces, their research interests, their hobbies, and generally what's going on in their lives. Here are some examples of the generated collages:

The corresponding web page has a lot of images. When the corresponding web page has only a few images, the collage server inserts the first one or two sentences of the web page into the collage as text.

The collage server also builds collages based on the blurbs in the communication-bar. In addition, there are weather and traffic collages as value-added services to our users.

System Components

The implementation of the systems is based on: Tcl/Tk, TclX, TclXML, freeWrap, wget, XScreenSaver, ht://dig, Lynx, ImageMagick, NetPBM, Img, libjpeg, Info-Zip Tools, and rsync. In addition, the servers and daemons in this project run on Solaris machines. A donation from Mircrosoft Research also helped the development of the Windows clients.

Research Agenda

The design of our opportunistic interfaces has evolved a lot since the beginning. We are still interested in building other instances of this idea and evaluating the usefulness of these applications. One possibility is to extend the screen-saver and like applications that require larger display areas, and installing electronic signs at strategic locations in the building(s) as physical realizations of the "What's Happening" system (anyone wants to sponsor me a plasma flat panel display or an electronic sign?).

We're definitely looking for more students interested in these ideas. So please let us know if you'd like to get involved.

Copyright © 1999-2001 Q. Alex Zhao, All Rights Reserved.