Computers make SU's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) work, but who makes sure the computers work? |
The SU research center has massive databases of federal government records available through its World Wide Web site (http://trac.syr.edu/). Someone has to manage all that information, check it for accuracy, put it in a usable form, design software and web pages allowing users to access it, and maintain the hardware that makes it all possible.
According to TRAC co-director Susan Long, eight work-study students and graduate assistants handle most of the work. Long, co-director David Burnham, and secretary Kelly Pierson are the only full-time TRAC staff members. Other SU faculty collaborate on various projects. "Our role is to make this information publicly accessible in as much breadth and depth as we can manage," Long says. "To achieve that, we rely on students. We provide opportunities for them to get their hands dirty doing real things, to apply their knowledge, and actually see it being used."
From first-year to graduate students, everyone at TRAC has something to contribute. Annette Saubon was a sophomore when she designed the navigational tour that guides users through the center's special TRACFED site for news organizations. "Even the directors had never been able to explain it to someone else," says Saubon, now a junior in the information management and technology program at the School of Information Studies (IST). "So it was my job to develop a tour. It took me about two months because I had to learn how to use TRACFED first."
TRAC workers sign on for the long haul. "Because of the specialized nature and complexity of what we do, short periods aren't really effective," Long says. "We often hire freshmen and keep them until they graduate, and keep upgrading their responsibilities." As students' skills and interests develop, Long tries to guide them into suitable projects. As a result, many undergraduates discover their majors while working for TRAC. Graduate students hone existing skills and acquire new ones.
Saubon, who came to TRAC as a freshman, found her major there. "During fall semester of my sophomore year, one of my co-workers said I should go into IST. I thought, 'information managementooh, that sounds exciting.' In my head I pictured a lot of file cabinets and stuff like that. But it deals with networking and computers in any area you can imagine."
To Kelly Blazey, a sophomore in broadcast journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, TRAC was just a work-study job when she became involved with the center as a freshman. "At first I did a lot of clerical work such as copying and sorting," she says. Then she began working with various computer programs and learned hypertext markup language (HTML), used to create web pages. Last spring she created a clickable map of federal districtsclick on a district and it brings up specific information. "I've learned many things at TRAC that I would never have learned otherwise," she says.
Graduate assistant Kathie Graham works with raw data from government computer records, converting them to a form usable for generating meaningful statistics. She is expanding TRAC's records to include 30 different federal agencies; four are currently available to the public. She also researches the center's Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests. "I try to determine which records government agencies have, so we know what to ask for," she says. "To be successful, you have to know what you want."
Formerly an economics instructor at the SUNY College at Oswego, Graham enrolled in the master of library science program at IST in August 1997. The TRAC assistantship seemed to fit well with her abilities. "I find FOIA work just fascinating," she says. The work strengthened Graham's programming and statistical skills, and gave her an inside look at FOIA and the federal government. "My search and retrieval skills are being honed," she says, wryly adding: "My cynicism about government processes has probably been sharpened as well."
Graham, who plans a career in competitive intelligence in business or industry, says her TRAC experiences will serve her well in the job market. "I'm doing something that makes a difference. I'm not standing in front of a photocopier all day, which would certainly be less work, but would be boring and not at all challenging. Horizons are broadened through challenges."
Galen Harris '95, G'98, who graduated from IST with a master's degree in information resource management, was with TRAC for two years as a graduate assistant. He started out working on limited system software, then moved on to help implement the TRACFED site. "TRACFED allows people to hit our databases over the Internet," Harris says. "It gives them more freedom, but is more resource-intensive for us." Unlike browsing static web pages, TRACFED users must be able to access the center's 80-plus gigabytes of federal data without interfering with other clients. Harris designed software to make the site run smoothly and manage client accounts.
As an undergraduate, Harris earned a dual degree in economics and international relations from The College of Arts and Sciences. "Computers have been my hobby since I was a little kid," he says. "When I finished my undergraduate degrees I reassessed where I was going. I decided to go to IST because of the bridge they forge between computers and people, which is unique in the market. No system's going to work if you don't take the users into account."
At TRAC, Harris says, he matured both personally and professionally. "TRAC allowed me to grow in many directions. If I wanted to take on more responsibility, they allowed me to. If I wanted to go in a certain direction, they listened to me; and if my reasoning was good, I could take on that initiative." Because the center's staff is small, there are always needs to be filledand anyone who feels he can do the job is welcome to try. "Right now I fit a lot of different shoes, from programming to limited strategy direction to system administration," Harris says. "At a larger research institute I don't think I'd be able to dabble in all these different things."
Harris says his social science background helped him appreciate TRAC's objectives. "You can't knock the direction they're trying to go in. Working to change the way media workit's a very lofty and idealistic goal."