Ideas on the Web: Michael Douma '93

by Xinyi Zhou '10

Michael Douma
Michael Douma ‘93 is the Executive Director of the Institute for Dynamic Educational Advancement (IDEA) www.idea.org, a non-profit that works to “enhance the public’s knowledge of science and culture”. He has worked on projects you’ve probably used, such as time.gov and WebExhibits. We chat with Mr. Douma about his time in the Magnet and his work with IDEA.

What was your first experience with the World Wide Web? When'd you start building things on the web?

I was exposed to the web at Blair on the early Unix machines and text-based email. I first saw the web as we know it in the NCSA Mosaic browser around 1994. In 1996, I worked on interactive CD-ROMs, which were about to become obsolete. I first built web pages in 1997. My work with multimedia on CD-ROMs was partly why I was aggressive in wanting to bring more interactivity to the early web.

Why did you decide to attend the Magnet?

I had attended a great gifted and talented elementary school program at Burning Tree ES, followed by a mainstream middle school that was hugely boring by comparison. I was a year ahead in math, so in 8th grade I went to the local high school for geometry classes. Meanwhile, boredom drove me to get into trouble for various infractions, like hitting tennis balls onto the school's roof, and then climbing up on the roof to fetch them!  It was clear that if a more advanced program was available for high school, I should grab the opportunity. I had applied to both the IB and the Magnet, and was accepted to both, but the Magnet was a better fit since I was much more interested in science than literature.

How'd you decide to work on the intersection of technology and education?

Coming from the Magnet, technology was in my veins, so the real question is how I started to get involved with education. 

During my freshman year at Brandeis, I took Introduction to Chemistry with Michael Henchman, a brilliant and charismatic scientist and professor. At the time, I was an amateur photographer, and was interested in using colored lens filters for black-and-white photography. I wanted to know exactly what the filters were doing, so I asked Dr. Henchman if I could put my filters in the lab's spectrophotometer. He agreed, and later invited me to be a teaching assistant for his "Chemistry and Art" course. Dr. Henchman was keen to bridge the gap between the sciences and the humanities, and in the following years, we worked together on several multidisciplinary projects -- both involving his expertise (chemistry and art), and my interests (neuroscience and art). These collaborations expanded, and were later funded by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation, which were part of the IDEA's early revenues.

You've worked on some projects that I imagine were highly significant when they came out, such as time.gov and WebExhibits. What was it like to work on these projects and see that impact?

Time.gov was my first real taste of web-scale traffic... and bureaucratic intrigue. At the time, simple, online government services were rare. It was 1998, and I worked on the web sites for several divisions of the NIST Physics department. The department had a rudimentary web clock buried deep on their web site. I pitched the idea of a simple, focused site to my administrative contact (John Wessels at NIST Physics, Boulder). John is bright and creative, and authorized the new project. But we knew that for the new project to be useful, it needed a short, memorable URL. 

The best URL we could think of was "time.gov", but there was a moratorium on new ".gov" domains. Only presidential requests and inter-agency collaborations were allowed new domain names. We didn't know the president, so we needed an inter-agency collaboration -- but there was a rivalry between the civilian metrology departments at NIST and the military department at the U.S. Naval Observatory. The actual scientists collaborated, but the management at each institution made competing claims that they were the sole official time for the United States. After some lobbying, "They'll do it if you do it!" common sense prevailed, and both department leads, Dennis McCarthy at USNO and Don Sullivan at NIST, agreed to launch a collaborative, official time site. (It was actually hosted at NIST, but their atomic clocks only differ by 10 nanoseconds.) With approval from the department heads, I ghostwrote a letter from NIST's head of public affairs, Mat Heymann, to the manager of .gov domains, touting this new, joint interactive service. It was approved.  

Launching was another challenge. The internet was young, and NIST's IT department couldn't fathom heavy web traffic. They refused to provide appropriate bandwidth or server capacity. So when the site launched in the summer of 1999 with good press coverage, it immediately crashed NIST's network. NIST got wise to the problem and started their network upgrade. In the coming years, the
time.gov site was successful, exceeding 3 million hits a month by 2001. 

But the so-called collaboration was short-lived. NIST bureaucrats wanted to cut USNO out. To this day, if you access the site as
www.time.gov, both NIST and USNO are credited, but the exact same site at nist.time.gov doesn't mention USNO at all.

Nevertheless, it was a thrill to create and launch a useful service used by tens of millions.

WebExhibits germinated around the same time. It was an experiment in new ways to bring an interactive museum experience online, though interactive diagrams, virtual reality, and images. At the time, there were experiments in putting museums online in overly-literal ways. Web pages would correspond to "rooms" of a museum. We took a more conceptual approach, and created dozens of interactive features, like this recoloring of the sun in Monet's Impression Sunrise: http://www.webexhibits.org/colorart/monet.html. At its peak, WebExhibits drew 12 million visits annually. (It's down to 8-9 million now.)

Despite their earlier significance, there are a lot of similar resources available now -- how has IDEA evolved? Has the intended audience for IDEA's products changed?

Absolutely. I'm glad both time.gov and WebExhibits are unremarkable now. Single-function web sites are common (the concept has evolved into apps), and our government continues to communicate with and serve the public online. Interactive online learning is also common, though now the best innovation is taking place in massive-enrollment online courses (MOOCs) and mobile apps. 


What's next for IDEA?

We are working on two related projects for tablet devices. We are making a reference/game app, called WordFlare, for discovering and matching related terms. The app includes over 2 million topics from Wiktionary and Wikipedia. Also, we are working on a tool for people to make and share concept maps on their iPads (called SpicyNodes).