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Back to the Plates: Ocotillo GPS Response System

(not my meal, but found in the flickr Creative Commons By Attribution collection)

Getting back to documenting what’s been sitting on my project plate, is a heaping pile of … well, not the cholesteral special in this Creative Commons flickr photo, but a heaping pile of mySQL, PHP, and some seatr of the pants programming… and the birth of a new thing we call the “Ocotillo Cortex”.

We have to start this back to May 2005 for our year end edtech fest, the Ocotillo Retreat. Our theme was related to “Lost in Technology” and sported a GPS metaphor sprinkled everywhere. This had even more database behind the web than previous events, and it was cooking well. We created an online demo session presenter form, so all those details went to a database that fueled the session list of 46 sessions This too was cross hooked to that all sessions were cross entered in the Maricopa Learning eXchange, so say Stan’s session on Earth Science Power Points had a corresponding MLX slip, where he could hang more links and power point files.

The key here is every session has a unique database ID.

Then we opened online registration for the event, recording something like 140 interested persons. This too went to a database table. The key here is that every person registered has a unique database ID. We can also use this database to generate scripted email messages to each individual, so Sally Jones gets an email from me that says, “Hi Sally! We’re glad you will join us for the Ocotillo Retreat! As a reminder….” Theyt hink I hand write all these messages ;-)


Now here is where we hooked some things together. The theme of the retreat meant that each person got their own “GPS Pad”, a sheet of paper that had a simple form to complete for each demo session they attended. There was a 1-5 rating for how interested they were in the demo; and opened ended questions of “What are your questions about this session?” and “What would you need to integrate this technology?”. The beauty was that since we had a database ID for each person (they were printed on their name tags) and each session had an ID, they simply entered two numbers on each sheet rather than hand writing their name and the session title.

The point was to collect a lot of these, and we seeded the process with an incentive, and end of the day drawing from the slips for our prizes of a Garmin GPS unit (thanks to a mystery donor) and a 20 Gb iPod (thanks to Apple).

At the end of the day we had more than 700 slips from 120 people. A lot of feedback.

In the next two weeks, our able student assistant entered the data into Excel, which I then took as tab delimited text and populated a new database table of GPS feedback items.

So now, our existing database was able to generate for each session, an average of the ratings and a listing of the open ended feedback (see GPS summaries). Not suprising, our keynote speaker Richard Baraniuk scored 75 individual responses and our lunch speaker Larry Johnson raked in 66 responses.

So we have feedback for each presenter.

But there was more we had in mind. The plan was to spend time over the summer reviewing the feedback, and having our Ocotillo co-chairs and the presenters do some research and use a web tool to enter feedback that could go to each individual. So if Jesse submitted 5 feedback forms with some specific questions, she should get back some individualized comments from an aggregate of people, in essence (staying in theme) a “map” of the technology terrain.

This is where a brand new tool needed to be set up, allowing presenters and our co-chairs to log in, query for participant questions to a particular session, and provide a form to enter a blob of text that could be associated with one or more individual GPS forms. Knowing I needed to create a suite of other tools for our Ocotillo folks, I designed the “cortex” site. This site has essentially two PHP templates- one a log-in page, and the other a shell for any “tool” we might create to query and add info to a database. This is done by each tool having an alpha identifier, corresponding to an external content file that contained all the PHP code to run a tool.

The people who needed to access it were entered into a new “admin:” database table, each with an email, name, password. I used a column with a SET type that contained all the possible alpha names for the tools, so I can grant access to one or more tools just by updating the string of values on that column. My tools now are things like gps_session (all gps responses to a session), gps_word (keyword search fort gps feedback), events (for our chairs to edit an events calendar) and a few more.

Since a number of the responses were… well, limited, I combed through the info and deactivated ones that lacked a a question or anything beyond “I need time and money”, and whittled it down to about 500 items that had questions or needs that could be answered

So let’s walk through how it works:

Here is where I log in by email and password.
The main screen lists the tools that are available as the grey tabs along the upper middle
I can select one demo session to see all the feedback items associated with it.
This session had 18 responses

The key here is to scroll down and check the responses that should get the reply I will write. Since there were repetitive questions, we wanted to make it so the person using the form could compose one blob of tgext to go to multiple persons.

Responses waiting feedback

One drawback to my design was that it created a lot of scrolling back and forth form the long list below, and the form field where i compose my answers. If I had more time…

Submitted feedback for one GPS form. My responses are in a yellow box, the ones in grey were written by someone else. Any URL entered in a box is auto converted to a link.

So at this point we are just waiting on a few more people to finish up some feedback, but we have enough so everyone can get a few specific recommendations or resource suggestions. Sometime next week, I will crank another script that will generate an individual email to each participant in the retreat who submitted a feedback form, and it will provide them a unique URL where they can see all the summaries prepared for them.

In the end we have (hopefully):

* some over all data on what technologies or issues are most important to the participants
* specific feedback for each presenter
* customized ideas written for each person who was a participant.

We hope to use a very similar concept for the May 2006 Retreat.

It was a fun project to build the “Cortex” and I have already hung a few more tools off of it.

If this kind of stuff has any value, please support me monthly on Patreon or a one time PayPal kibble toss
Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.