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Computer science grad student has head in ‘cloud’

Computer science doctoral candidate Ryanne Dolan has developed a cloud platform that allows for mass, real-time communication. The project received funding from MU's Reynolds Journalism Institute because of the implications the technology could have on journalistic communication.

“I’ve built my own cloud platform that allows for real time massive communication,” said Ryanne Dolan, a University of Missouri College of Engineering doctoral candidate in computer science. “Some people call it pushbutton web. It allows you to have a conversation with a million people.”

In cloud computing, tasks are accomplished through a network of connections, software and services, which gives users an extreme level of control, even if their access point is a smart phone.

Dolan developed the technology as part of an electrical engineering research project and then began thinking about additional applications.

“It’s sort of like a large scale chat room, but in that case, you have a lot of people talking about different topics at the same time, called the cocktail party problem. It’s not one big conversation,” Dolan said, explaining the difference between his “real time massive scale commenting system” and what currently exists.

Last summer, he took his technology to the MU Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) hoping he might become a technology program fellow for them and further develop the concept. Instead, they offered to fund exploration of the project because the implications of his technological innovation were both evident and exciting from a journalistic point of view.

“I wasn’t sure how it was related, but they saw its potential and how it could be used,” Dolan said. “It’s a way for journalists to collaborate and receive info back from readers.”

In addition to his work as a teaching assistant in the CS/IT program for Dale Musser, program director, the graduate student has been working with three J-school students on a capstone project this past semester. He said he didn’t expect the students to have CS experience, but the talented trio surprised him. With his help, the theory and design project capstone students explored how the technology could be used without confounding people.

Dolan explained that currently, conversations in a chat environment are simply a long history of nested comments. “It doesn’t encourage a conversation,” he said.

The plug-in that he and his capstone group have developed features ways to enable fast-paced discussions, which focus on one article or event.

“The students have named it Pinn’r because you can “pin” a particular sentence and see what others have pinned and vice versa. It’s a visual way to add context to a conversation that is otherwise just spaghetti,” Dolan said.

“If we can build our own platform, we are enabling journalists to mine data they wouldn’t otherwise have access to,” he added.

Dolan said that he has been working with one of the RJI fellows to identify disparate networks of journalists throughout the world and using the technology to identify connections among them that aren’t apparent to the journalists.

According to Dolan, CNN has expressed interest in the technology, and he is in discussion with MU’s public access radio station, KBIA, about using it for election coverage.

Dolan’s other project is a robotics company, Rolla Engineered Solutions, started as a student entrepreneurial project when he was an undergraduate at Missouri University of Science and Technology. He and his three classmates-turned-partners developed what he called “an intense interest and love for robots” into an award-winning enterprise, earning the 2008 MU Student Entrepreneur of the Year Award. In addition to generating software for websites, business and resource management and customized applications, the group has developed LabRat™, a mobile robot kit. It is open source and can fit in a computer mouse with a variety of applications.

“It’s the same price as a textbook and can be used in a classroom setting,” Dolan said. “It’s about the size of a silver dollar.”

LabRat™ has been used to help teach students how to program. It can perform swarm robotic experiments and create new mapping algorithms with its infrared sensors, among other functions.

“We’d like to put together a textbook — an entire package with a lab manual for professors to teach swarm robotics or swarm intelligence,” said Dolan.

But in the meantime, there’s that pesky dissertation.

“It’s written,” Dolan said. “I just need to publish something from my recent results and strengthen my portfolio.”



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