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McGill Reporter
September 12, 2002 - Volume 35 Number 01
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Kaleidoscope

Eric Smith: Spins web of communications

Photo PHOTO: Owen Egan

For a guy who helped bring McGill to the forefront of web communications, Eric Smith is remarkably down-to-earth.

In 1995, Smith, a graphic artist and writer for the McGill Reporter, started to work with Karl Jarosiewicz, head of the Web Communications Group, on using the world wide web as a communications tool for McGill.

How do you give an enormous, decentralized institution like McGill a unified presence on the web? At the time McGill's web presence consisted of dissimilar sites that weren't linked together. Smith and Jarosiewicz wanted to harmonize them.

"We had to figure out a way to make McGill look like one institution, when it was such a huge institution and people had been doing their own thing," Smith says.

And there was another problem. Some McGill departments had graduate students set up and maintain their websites, but when the students left, departments lost both HTML expertise and the only people who knew the site maintenance passwords. "We had to design a content management system where they [departments] were able to determine the structure of their site and manage it themselves."

At first Smith considered using templates for various web pages, but nixed the idea because changing the templates would be a time-consuming headache. The answer Smith came up with was a database to manage navigation and content-a publishing system that manages the website's structure. The central database keeps track of where web pages are and how they connect to each other, and sophisticated computer programming ensures technical and visual harmony.

Smith came up with a way for different McGill departments to control the content of the pages they put on the McGill Gateway. Once they register, staff can receive programming tags to use to manage their own site using a web browser and a log-on password. The system is easy to use - training takes only 20 minutes. No one is pressured to be part of the system but Smith observes, "Most of our clients have found it's made things easier."

It took about six months to build the first version, a time Smith recalls involved plenty of weekends and late nights. Asked about a mug on his desk that holds a toothbrush, toothpaste and cutlery along with pens, he says these days he's breathing easier.

The system has evolved considerably over the last five years. Today it links together 8,368 pages from at least 200 users. The web publishing group consists of seven people handling editorial and technical duties-writing content, proofreading, translating and updating French text, programming and administering the database.

Last year, the group received a Quebec regional Quality and Productivity award from the Canadian Association of University Business Officers for the web publishing system. Other universities want to use the system as a model.

Smith comes up with ideas for the system but admits he's no techie. "I'm not a programmer," he says. "My title here is systems designer and information architect. I don't always know the real difficult programming stuff. I set up a system for how things are supposed to work."

"Eric's ability to see the larger picture impresses me," says Jarosiewicz. "[He's able] to imagine in his head complex structures and the ways they will be used. He didn't invent all the concepts but he was able to assimilate all these ideas and have them work for McGill."

Recently the system was changed so that if users click on a course title they get to read a course description. And two weeks ago the group launched an interface so people can post and access classified ads on McGill's website. "It's been incredibly useful," Smith says.

Smith, 34, grew up in France and came to McGill 15 years ago to do a bachelor's of philosophy degree. He's never looked back. "I came here to go to school and fell in love with Montreal."

He says he caught a graphic design and journalism bug while working on the McGill Daily newspaper. After he graduated he worked as a graphic designer, as a producer and researcher for CBC Radio and later joined the McGill Reporter.

Web publishing marries his love of information technology, design and communications. "These are things I'm interested in and there's nothing else that brings them together."

"It's rewarding and challenging to have an object that is evolving and changing. That does require a lot of imagining of what's going to be needed next," he says. "You have to make sure you're ready for new directions when new directions become available."

quote

"The potential magnitude of the blowback from a war in Iraq is much greater now than, say, the (U.S.) engagement in the liberation of Kuwait."

Political science professor Rex Brynen at roundtable discussion "Rethinking September 11 and Its aftermath" quoted in The Gazette. He said there's "no convincing evidence whatsoever" of an Iraqi connection to Al-Qa'ida terrorism or significant change in Iraqi weapons program.

Great balls of fire

Photo PHOTO: Robert Burch

Bouquets were not thrown, there's no kiss and cry area, only one gold medal was awarded, and there was nary a Russian mobster to be seen. That said, Garry Graham's stint judging an international competition was certainly explosive. The manager of graphic design for the Instructional Communications Centre spent his summer watching the SAQ Mondiale International Fireworks competition.

Unlike the other two million or so pyro-philiacs who "ooh-ed" and "ahhh-ed" their Saturday nights away this summer, Graham was one of 12 judges who decided which of the nine national teams competing in this year's event would walk off with the Golden Saturn.

No closet firebug, Graham only applied to be a judge at the urging of his girlfriend.

"I thought it would be interesting to apply my artistic skill to something three dimensional, in the air," he said.

Graham and his fellow jurists - who were selected from a pool of over 500 applicants - travelled to La Ronde nine times between June 15 and July 28. Rain or shine, they rated each country's performance on four main criteria: timing with the accompanying music, concept, quality and emotional impact.

"One thing that's tricky is the first one that you see, you have nothing to compare it to; if you give everything a ten out of ten right there you're kind of stuck. It's kind of like figure skating - you have to leave room at the top."

Photo

In the end France came out on top, followed by Portugal and Canada. La Ronde, where the fireworks are held, doesn't allow judges to participate two years in a row, but Graham said he'd be willing to offer his services again in 2004.

"It was a really interesting experience to see them all. When it's done well it's quite spectacular."

quote

"You're talking about people who are hard-working, highly educated and intelligent, and you're dictating to them where and what they can do.... If I'm a specialist and I'm working at McGill and they tell me to work in Val d'Or, I'd say 'Goodbye, I'm working in a different province.'"

Oren Tessler, second-year medical student, quoted in The Gazette on the Quebec government's restrictions on where and how doctors can practice.

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