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COUNCIL 2002-2003 Year-end Committee Report

Report of the Communications Committee

Scheduled for Discussion at Council on February 25, 2004

This report summarizes the work of the Communications Committee for the period fall 2002 through fall 2003. The Committee was given five specific charges for this period. We will discuss them individually.

1. Continue to monitor the evolution of the Penn Web site, assessing its effectiveness as a communications tool for the various constituencies both inside and outside the University.

The Committee was briefed by Ms. Lori Doyle, VP, and others from University Communications, regarding the Penn Web site. It has been redesigned by a professional group, whose efforts were donated to Penn. Ms. Doyle was satisfied that the Web site is performing well. She noted the lack of complaints about it. The Committee raised the issue of the need to define goals and evaluation criteria explicitly, and to measure the success of the Penn Web site in terms of these. This is a matter that should be monitored in the future.

The representatives from University Communications emphasized the role of the Penn Web site in branding the University. A long-term effort by ICS was considered, and discussed by the Committee, to convert both the public presentation and the URLs from UPenn to Penn (e.g.,, instead of the present Related to this is the concern that the national image of Penn is confused with Penn State.  After due consideration, ICS has decided that the effort would be too costly. The status quo will remain in effect.

The Committee did not uncover any resevoir of complaints about the Penn Web site. Again, it did note the need to define measures of success explicitly. An online survey is being conducted regarding the Penn Web site and there will be continuing efforts to improve it.

2. Continue to monitor the quality of access to University electronic resources.

The Committee interpreted this charge as the need to monitor the consequences of the University effectively eliminating modem access to its network. Instead of providing dial-up modem access to off-campus members of the Penn community, the current policy is to rely on third party (normally commercial) Internet service providers (ISPs) and to require that individuals make their own arrangements for service.

The Committee discussed this matter and found the current policy unexceptionable. Student members of the Committee did note that it is "unclear who to contact" if an off-campus student has working Internet access but difficultly accessing a Penn-based service, e.g., e-mail. This is not a problem for students in dorms or for faculty and staff, since support is provided by their employment units. Students reported, in particular, support ambiguities regarding e-mail accounts of dual majors.

The Committee notes that the problem might be resolved successfully if the relevant information were made readily available on the Penn Web site.

3. Investigate means to ameliorate negative impacts of both printed and on-line University directories on personal privacy.

The Committee understood this problem to be one of more effectively communicating that individuals may opt out of the directory listings and of facilitating those who wish to do so. ISC indicated that it is looking into technical/administrative ways to make it easier for individuals to opt out. This investigation, however, is not complete, and the Committee agreed to defer it to next year. ISC has recently begun an on-line directory project, thus it is appropriate that the Committee consider this issue next year, when ISC can report substantial experience with the matter.

4. Investigate the effectiveness of the recent changes in the University's  signage.

The Committee heard a briefing by, and discussed this issue with, Mr. Daniel Garofalo of the Division of Facilities and Real Estate Services. The immediate impetus for replacing the existing signage (now 10 years old) was that it is not in compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Mr. Garofalo presented the new signage designs and noted that they had been created by an appropriate consulting firm (and that they comply with the Americans with Disabilties Act). Stylistically, the new signs differ from the previous versions, due mainly to changes of fashion during the last 10 years. The Committee had no comment on the designs.

The signage on the Penn campus was to have been replaced by fall 2003. That is, phase 1 (Spruce to Walnut, 34th-38th Streets) was to have been completed by fall 2003. The project is behind schedule, but on budget, and the planned first phase should be completed during spring 2004. Once done, the rest of the campus will be converted in subsequent phases but these have not been defined. Mr. Garofalo thought it possible to complete the conversion of Penn's campus during 2004, however.

The Committee noted that Penn signage conversion off of the Penn campus, e.g., the Arboretum, on Boathouse Row, and Wharton West, will need to be planned and implemented, and monitored. Mr. Garofalo's explanation for the current project's being behind schedule adverted to the time costs of relying so completely on a consulting firm from New York. He reported that future phases of the project should go quicker after management arrangements are adjusted.

5. Examine technical issues and privacy concerns that stand in the way of e-mail communication with various constituencies with the University community and recommend steps to deal with these constraints.

A number of recognized groups at Penn such as the WPSA (Weekly- paid Professional Staff Assembly) among others have concerns regarding communication with their constituents. The problem, as they see it, is in obtaining e-mail addresses for their constituents. The information is available to them, but for a price. ISC charges a fee, e.g., to compile a list of employees for WPSA. The fee is cost-based, since ISC does not have budget for this task. The groups needing this information, such as WPSA, do not have budget either, hence the problem.

The Committee notes the problem and suggests that ways might be explored to fund this legitimate activity, even perhaps with University resources.

Related to the above issues, the Committe spent considerable  time discussing matters pertaining to unwanted e-mail. Here is a summary of the Committee's discussions.

Unwanted E-mail

Everyone recognizes that e-mail is a source of invaluable messages and a source of annoying, unwanted spam and, indeed, much in between. To the extent that unwanted e-mail messages can be eliminated, or quickly discarded, there will be individual and social benefit to the Penn community. The problem is complicated by the fact that huge variation exists in what various individuals—quite legitimately—wish to count as spam.

The Communications Committee undertook a series of discussions, and heard a number of presentations, pertaining to the problem of unwanted e-mail at Penn. The Committee considered, at varying lengths, three sources of unwanted, or potentially unwanted, e-mail:

1.  Externally-generated

2.  Internally-generated and in violation of relevant rules

3.  Internally-generated and not in violation of relevant rules

Externally-generated unwanted e-mail is surely the largest part, indeed nearly all, of the problem. It is also the part of the problem least amenable to policy treatment. The Committee heard a report from the Vice President of Communications's office regarding ongoing efforts to reduce the spam problem at Penn.  This is a universal problem and Penn is surely best advised to follow broader technical developments as they occur, testing them for effectiveness in the Penn environment, and deploying accordingly. Both client-side (e.g., residing on individual PCs reading e-mails) and server-side (e.g., on the machines processing the e-mails themselves) solutions are available, are under development, and are being tested. Testing is occurring both at the Communications office level and by various schools at Penn. At present, there appears to be little difference of opinion and essentially no controversy regarding policy actions on this matter. It merits continuing review and attention, however.

Regarding internally-generated and improper unwanted e-mail, the Committee noted that this is covered by existing policies and does not seem to be a problem.

Finally, the Committee discussed at greatest length the matter of internally-generated fully proper bulk e-mail messages. The current system is centralized in the office of the VP for Communications (Lori Doyle), and in brief works as follows. There are two main parts.

First, an individual or group at Penn wishing to send a mass e-mail to the Penn community must apply to Lori Doyle's office for permission. Most requests are denied in the interests of minimizing unwanted e-mail in the Penn community. Many of the decisions are, by report of Lori Doyle, difficult, involving careful tradeoffs between competing interests and values. Even with optimal decisions by the VP for Communications, there is little doubt that some unwanted messages will be sent, and some wanted messages will not be sent. This appears to be recognized in the Penn community and there has been no discernable outcry about errors. The Committee did, however, hear claims from some individuals that unwanted mass e-mails had been sent. The number of such mailings, however, is generally agreed to be small.

Second, an individual or group at Penn wishing to send bulk e-mail to a portion of the Penn community is able to purchase a mailing list from the office of the VP of Communications. The price reflects the cost to the office of setting up and maintaining the mailing list. There was some suggestion from members of the Committee that the price was a significant barrier to some legitimate groups, who were thus not getting their messages out. But this was only a suggestion; we did not see detailed documentation.

In discussing the matter of internally-generated proper bulk e-mails, the Committee recognized that two types of error are possible: sending of unwanted e-mail and failure to send wanted e-mail. The Committee also generally recognized that no general policy, formed independently of individual choices and preferences, is likely to be optimal.

Consequently, the Committee addressed the following question: Are there ways of reducing the decision making burden on the office of the VP of Communications while at the same time increasing the efficiency of the internally-generated proper bulk e-mails at Penn? (By "increasing the efficiency" we mean reducing either or both of the two types of error: sending unwanted e-mail and failing to send wanted e-mail.)

The Committee did not come to any firm recommendation regarding a new policy. Instead, the Committee generally discussed three options and wishes to note them for future consideration. The three options are broadly as follows.

1.  Open System with Labelled Subjects

This option is simplest and cheapest, and was suggested by the staff of the VP of Communications. The idea is to open up bulk e-mails to legitimate groups at Penn and let them undertake mass e-mailings, on provision that a tag or code is added to the subject line of the e-mail messages. Groups would have to employ tags as directed and the tags would come from a small, approved set. This would allow a user's client-side spam filter to remove the message if the user judged its category to be unwanted. For example, the athletic department might be given a tag for announcing ticket sales. Individuals not wanting to hear further about this topic could instruct their spam filters to block messages with the tag in question.

2.  Distributed listservers

The idea here is that any University office can operate a listserver, with people joining the distribution list by a message with "Subscribe" in the subject line (and opting out by one with "Remove"). The office owns the list and can send messages to those on it. It can archive those messages and accessory material on its web site, and include links to it in the messages if it likes. There is an exact model of this already in e-Almanac and its Web archive and postings of news between issues. As an example Recreation & Intercollegiate Athletics could operate one for recreational users and another for information about athletic events and tickets.

Maintaining the list can be automated and requires minimal manual intervention. ISC's role would be reduced to providing the server space and occasional troubleshooting, for both of which they charge appropriately.  Although University Notification would not be involved it would be reasonable for them to send a University-wide message once a year, say in September, informing people what lists they can subscribe to. Otherwise University Notification messages could be strictly restricted to those of broad interest, such as the Lowery memorial, or importance, such as those containing substantive information on emergency procedures.

3.  Centralized Notification

Under this scheme there would be a centralized record kept of who wants in and who wants out of the available e-mail lists at Penn. These could be categorized, so that, for example, one could "opt in" for all mailings from the athletic department regarding ticket sales. The scheme could be implemented simply via a Web interface. Only truly essential e-mails would be sent to the entire Penn community and these could not be subject to "opt out". Once or twice a year, members of the Penn community could be reminded of the "opt-in/opt-out" web site for bulk e-mails.

The Committee noted that these three approaches are not necessary in opposition and could be combined. The Committee was not prepared to make a recommendation for action at this time, and recognized that while this is an important matter, there is no screaming urgency to resolve it. The Committee does recommend the matter remain "on the table" and be monitored in the future.

2002-2003 Committee on Communications

Chair: Steven Kimbrough (OPIM); Faculty: Al Filreis (English), Steven Kimbrough (OPIM);Martin Pring (physiol/med), David Reibstein (mrktg), David Smith (anesthesia/med),R. Polk Wagner (law), Karen Winey (materials sci); Graduate students: Amish Jhaveri (Wharton), Evelyn Kelly (SAS); Undergraduate students: James Kim (WH'06), Conor O'Callaghan (EAS'05) PPSA: Deirdre Gillin (Penn Fund), Debora Weber (Info Svcs/Med); WPSA: Mindy Ehrhart (Germanic & Slavic Languages); Ex officio: Robin Beck (vice president, info syst & comp), Lori Doyle (vp, communications), Lee Nunery (vp, business services).



  Almanac, Vol. 50, No. 23, February 24, 2004