2006 Campus Technology Innovators: The Web

2006 Campus Technology Innovators

TECHNOLOGY AREA: THE WEB
Innovator: University of Michigan


2006 CT Innovators: Michigan

UM’s MAYBAUM: Providing truly
user-friendly website building tools.

Challenge Met

In 1998, the most common request from University of Michigan Medical School faculty was for a system to help them build unique websites and simple databases, flexible enough to let them express their creative scholarly work. “At just about any university that you can name, if a person needs to make a website or database for his own unique, creative purposes, he is given conventional web space, or access to a MySQL/PHP server, and that’s about it,” says Jonathan Maybaum, professor of pharmacology and former director of academic IT at the University of Michigan Medical School. Maybaum set out to provide something much better, and thus the UM.SiteMaker project was born.

With UM.SiteMaker, users can build their own unique database-driven websites and web applications—through a simple webpage, requiring no knowledge of SQL or traditional database administration. “People love the system’s flexibility,” says Maybaum. “It is used for all sorts of purposes, including not only the obvious ones like teaching and research, but also recruitment, support of academic programs, student organizations, and public relations.” There are now more than 5,000 websites published by faculty, students, and staff from all over the university, using UM.SiteMaker.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of UM.SiteMaker’s popularity in the UM community is that the last several rounds of development have been funded by contributions from university units (schools, colleges, departments). “Financial support is a very sincere form of recognition around here!” says Maybaum.

How They Did It

Maybaum and his team began by characterizing their target user’s level of technical knowledge. What type of person would realistically be able to utilize the UM.SiteMaker system? Their conclusion: Users should be tech-savvy enough to be comfortable with spreadsheets; further knowledge of web and database design should not be necessary.

UM then turned to Global Village Consulting to develop and host UM.SiteMaker. Programming was done in Apple’s WebObjects environment. “The cost-effectiveness of developing in WebObjects, and of deploying on the OS X Server platform, were critical in making this project possible within a very small budget,” says Maybaum.

Next Steps

UM open-sourced the application last year as GVC.SiteMaker, and a high priority now is to get the technology in use at other universities. With the latest version (4.1), it is possible to export user-defined solutions to an XML archive that can be imported into any SiteMaker site, at UM or elsewhere. “This will allow other institutions that adopt the technology to leverage what our users have already built,” says Maybaum.“My vision is for this to eventually create a community of ‘user-developers’ who are not programmers.”

Advice

“Supporting creative scholarship is the right thing to do,” says Maybaum, “but if you use technology designed for this purpose, it makes business sense, too!” Take, for example, this UM.SiteMaker success story:

A professor sent a grant application to the National Science Foundation, for a project on the history of substance abuse research. Part of the proposed project involved building a web database as the mechanism for organizing and disseminating interviews, artifacts, and other materials. Yet the projected cost of the database ($30,000, according to three vendor estimates) was keeping the grant from going through.

Using UM.SiteMaker, it took about a day to make what the professor needed. She revised her grant application, and it looks like the project will be funded, this time around. The NSF recognized the use of UM.SiteMaker as a significant improvement over the previous grant proposal. Technology to the budget rescue!

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