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Community at a Distance: Project K

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Video Communication for Distributed Workplaces
We want to connect three different locales of a distributed workplace by means of a high-quality, video communication environment. The aims of the project are, firstly, to determine what the main uses are for such a communication technology, secondly, to evaluate the effects on work efficiency, social well-being, and work satisfaction, and lastly, to study by what methods it should be introduced into an existing work situation.

Services in Rural Areas

We also have the ambition to study other scenarios of use, such as providing contact with government institutions and access to community services for people living in rural areas. In a broader sense, we address issues arising from the emergent trend in society to distribute and locate workplaces to rural settings. This is a strategy to counteract the effects of structural changes, such as close down of traditional industries in these areas. New communication technology promises to make such localisation of enterprises and agencies to rural areas efficient, and to increase the quality of life in such areas. Is this the case? How should we proceed in order to ensure this?

One Workplace – Three Islands

The workplace in the current project is the Stockholm County Police Call Centre, which handles crime-reports and questions from the general public, except reports on ongoing crimes. The Call Centre is a common resource, organized and managed as a single unit. It is located on three islands in the Stockholm archipelago: Arholma, Ornö and Sandön. Although the workplace is distributed (the distance from Arholma in the north to Ornö in the south is approx. 150 km.) the staff needs to co-operate extensively. E.g., they create a common work schedule and share and follow up on the same tasks. Currently, co-ordination is accomplished mainly by telephone calls and e-mail, a mode of communication that is not well suited for the task. There is a strong need for face-to-face meetings. However, such meetings are too time-consuming, because of the distance and problems with transportation, and therefore they seldom take place.

Support for Informal Communication

In a pre-study [2] a preliminary examination of the situation was carried out. Results indicated that video- and audio connections between the three locales of the workplace could provide a solution to the communication and co-ordination needs. However, what seems to be needed is not a traditional videoconference system but video connections that stay continuously open, in order to allow for informal everyday contacts. Such informal communication, based on dynamic, situational needs, is common in co-located workplaces. It is fundamental for a smooth co-ordination of work activities, as well as for social well-being, but is largely lacking in most distributed workplaces. Is it possible to create connections to distant places so they are experienced as immediate and natural extensions of the local environment? This question, and the approach in the current project is in line with the research tradition of Media Spaces [1]. As Mackay points out in [3], “Media Space” refers to a special way of embedding the technology in the social environment, not to technology as such.

Design and Installation
The main project started in September 2002 and will run until the end of September 2003. A first phase of grounding has been carried out: extensive user-oriented work, including participatory, ethnographic-type observation in the workplace, diaries, interviews, and a series of workshops. Informed by the findings from this work, three identical communication units with two cameras and two screens respectively are currently being designed. They will simultaneously connect the workroom of each place to the two other places. A fibre network with high capacity is used for the connections, providing for broadcast-quality, natural-sized images, with no delays in image or sound. An innovative mirror system permits direct eye contact. To address a main worry expressed by the staff, the one of surveillance, a principle of reciprocity has been adopted: it is not possible to see or hear people at a remote place without oneself being seen and heard. There is a minimal user interface: the system is always on.

The system will be in operation by mid-March. Its use and the effects on the work situation will then be studied, mainly through participatory observation in the workplace. Also, adjustments will be made to the design during this period.

Other Uses of the Technology
In parallel, a series of seminars will be carried out, where the case is used as a point of departure for an analysis of broader uses and benefits of such technology for enterprises and society. Examples are contacts with authorities and society service, the cultural sector, and, in general, to make it possible for people to live and work in remote areas.

The project is collaboration between the Royal Institute of Technology, Arbetstagarkonsult. AB, and the Stockholm County Police. Funding is provided by Stockholm County Council, VINNOVA, and the Development Council – Government Sector.

[1] Bly, S. A, Harrison, S. R, & Irwin, S. (1993) “Media Spaces: Bringing People Together in a Video, Audio and Computing Environment”, Communications of the ACM, vol 36, No.1, pp. 28-47
[2] Lenman, S., Räsänen, M. & Thuresson, B. (2002) A User-Oriented Approach to Building a Video Community in a Distributed Workplace. Proceedings of the Participatory Design Conference, Malmö, Sweden, pp. 323-327.
[3] Mackay, W. E. (1999) “Media Spaces: Environments for Informal Multimedia Interaction”, in Beaudouin-Lafon (Ed.) Computer Supported Co-operative Work, pp. 55-82, Chichester: John Wiley & Son Ltd


Uppdaterade 2003-03-05

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En vy från DiME - en digital 3D-mötesmiljö.
Staff from the Call Centre using VideoSpace.