Putting Working Document Collections Online

Lucy Suchman, Xerox PARC

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University January 15, 1999


The Carquinez Bridge Replacement Project is a civil engineering initiative within the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), charged with the design of a replacement bridge over the Carquinez Straits at the north end of the San Francisco Bay. For the past two years I and my colleagues in the Work Practice & Technology area at Xerox PARC have been engaged in a collaborative research effort with engineers in the Carquinez Project group, focussed on a collection of documents called the engineering project files. Together we're exploring what it would mean to create an electronic version of the files, currently maintained on paper in three ring binders.

The project files are an instance of what we've termed working document collections, occupying a niche between the active documents on one's desktop and those stored in an archive. Project files are maintained by every project team at Caltrans, and comprise a kind of cumulative documentary record of a given engineering project. The documents in the files are extremely heterogeneous, ranging from standard business correspondence to quite specialized charts, maps and other exhibits tied to the particular requirements of civil engineering. Documents are filed according to the Caltrans Uniform Filing System, a hierarchically arranged set of categories designed roughly to map the chronological course of a project. Our intervention is aimed at defining the work practice and technology requirements for migrating the project files from paper to digital media, integrated with Caltrans' developing intranet. Our approach is to require minimal overhead for putting documents into the collection, while providing opportunities for arbitrarily extensible, iterative, and modifiable document coding, and multiple strategies for document retrieval.

In this talk I'll describe the particular interests of the project files, of working document collections, and of our current project as part of an ongoing research agenda in work-oriented design.

Lucy Suchman received a Ph.D. in Social/Cultural Anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley in 1984. Since 1979 she has been a researcher at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, where she is currently a Principal Scientist and head the Work Practice and Technology area, a multidisciplinary research group. In addition to her position at Xerox PARC, she am an affiliate researcher at the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford University and at the Institute for Research on Learning in Palo Alto, as well as a Consulting Associate Professor in Stanford University's Symbolic Systems Program. She served as Program Chair for the Second Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work in 1988, and for the first Conference on Participatory Design of Computer Systems in 1990. She was a founding member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility and served on its Board of Directors from 1982-1990. Her dissertation Plans and Situated Actions: the problem of human-machine communication was published by Cambridge University Press in 1987. It provides a critical analysis of models of human action and communication that underlie the design of interactive machines, and proposes an alternative perspective drawn from recent developments in the social sciences. Her current research concerns the relation of ethnographies of everyday practice to new technology design.


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