Media Monday Edmonton: Headlines matter

I was up relatively early Friday morning for meetings, so I was working from my home office. I had a few minutes in between calls at around 8am, so I clicked over to Google News. I was shocked to see the top news section filled with stories about a shooting at the University of Alberta. I poked my head out the door and said to Sharon, who was in the kitchen eating breakfast, "There’s been a shooting at the U of A!"

I later realized that while the shooting took place on the University of Alberta campus, it was not a school shooting as I had assumed after reading the headlines.

Five employees of G4S Cash Solutions Canada were making a delivery to ATMs at Hub Mall just after midnight when one of them, 21-year-old Travis Brandon Baumgartner, allegedly opened fire on his colleagues as part of a robbery. Michelle Shegelski, 26, Brian Ilesic, 35, and Eddie Rejano, 39 all died on scene, and Matthew Schuman is in critical condition in U of A hospital. Baumgartner was caught attempting to cross the border just south of Abbotsford, BC on Saturday with more than $300,000 in cash. He remains in RCMP custody and has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder, and four counts of robbery with a firearm.

There’s a page at Wikipedia for school shootings. A school shooting is defined there as "an incident in which gun violence occurs at an educational institution" though the page further explains that the term "is most commonly used to describe acts committed by either a student or intruders from outside the school campus." When I hear the term "school shooting" I most often think about Columbine, Virginia Tech, or Ecole Polytechnique (and those three are just the tip of the iceberg). Those incidents were all very different than the shooting that took place on Friday at the University of Alberta. They all involved students, for one thing. They involved the school in more than just location. So why did the headlines from Friday all make it seem like this was another school shooting?

Thanks in large part to search engines and the proliferation of bite-sized information distribution systems like Twitter, the nature of the headline is changing. Crafting brief, punchy headlines with a touch a humor and word play is rapidly being replaced by crafting headlines that rank highest in searches and work well on social media. It is not uncommon for the same article to have different headlines online and in print, because what plays well in the paper may not result in the best SEO for the online version.

Headlines are important because they punch above their weight. As this academic paper notes, "headlines reach an audience considerably wider than those who read the articles, since all those who buy the paper will glance, if only fleetingly, at the headlines." More importantly than the reach they have is the fact that a headline is more than just a collection of words. "Headlines encapsulate not only the content but the orientation, the perspective that the readers should bring to their understanding of the article."

As is often the case with crime stories, people craved information about the incident and the media gave us what we asked for, producing countless articles, videos, and other story elements. Let’s take a look at some of the headlines used by the media this weekend to describe the shooting.


Notice how prominently the University of Alberta factors into those headlines. “U of A shooting” and “Hub Mall shooter” were both commonly used. The Edmonton Sun called their section “U of A slayings”. There’s no easily discoverable section at the Journal, but in the “More on this story” box for this article on the Edmonton Journal, every single one of the twelve articles listed includes “U of A shooting”. What perspective does that suggest you bring to your reading of the news? Remember that the incident simply took place on campus property, but was not what we would typically describe as a "school shooting". As Paula Simons noted in her column: "This has all the hallmarks of a calculated, cold-blooded heist, an inside job — about as far from a random campus spree killing as you could get."

The emotional connections our community has to the University of Alberta should not be overlooked. Some of us are alumni, others have children who are studying there. The U of A’s significance as our province’s and our city’s university creates a less direct but still important connection. When the U of A is recognized by others, we feel pride. When a horrific event takes place on campus, we feel sadness and maybe anger. Our emotional connection to the University has an impact on how we perceive news about it.

I don’t mean to suggest that the University of Alberta should have been removed from the story. The incident took place on campus, and questions about whether or not students were appropriately notified are important and should be explored. But I am troubled by the confluence of the U of A and the shooting because I think it makes news consumers think of school shootings, when that is not the correct perspective to bring to the story. The facts do not support the "school shooting" perspective.

I guess I’d be one of the alumni that Paula wrote about:

Some U of A staff and alumni are trying to distance the university from the shooting – arguing this was just a kind of bank robbery that accidentally happened to take on university property. Yet even if this tragedy is only tangentially connected to the University of Alberta, we’d be wilfully naive to assume people in the wider world won’t connect the shootings and the university.

Maybe that’s true, but the headlines that media organizations chose to use certainly didn’t help. You need not look any further than Paula’s column itself: "Simons on U of A shooting: The danger of turning killings into online entertainment". That’s the online headline, the one that people in the wider world would see.

What should the headlines have read instead? Perhaps less focus on the location, and more on the actual event – an armed robbery that turned deadly. Some of the headlines that appeared later did this, such as "Manhunt on for triple-murder suspect in shootings of Edmonton armoured-truck colleagues". While last year was a very unusual year, most homicide stories carried a headline about the count, as in "Edmonton’s 30th homicide". If a location was included, it was often in general terms such as "West Edmonton" or "Downtown". But I don’t think there’s a simple answer. Maybe this story is sufficiently unique that comparing it to other homicide stories is inappropriate. Certainly the level of violence combined with the robbery make it an unusual incident for Edmonton.

Covering a story like this is hard work and I have a lot of respect for the journalists that worked through the night to keep us informed. Events unfold rapidly, information is incomplete, and journalists and editors need to make decisions quickly about what is right and what is wrong and what should be shared. It’s much easier to look back and critique what happened, but I think that’s an important part of the process too. Reflection will ultimately help us improve for the future.

The University of Alberta will be feeling the impact of Friday’s terrible shooting for quite some time, and not just because of the headlines that the media used to tell the story. Still, I can’t help but think that the close association of the U of A with the incident in many of those headlines did more harm than good.

More than just email: Google Apps goes live at the University of Alberta

Today officials at the University of Alberta will flip the proverbial switch and 40,000 students will get access to the university’s deployment of Google Apps for Education, a significant milestone for a journey that began back in November 2008. The U of A’s move to Gmail has been talked about for quite some time, but the switch is about more than just email. This is an important step toward building the IT campus of the future – a mobile, connected community of staff, students, faculty, and alumni.

Our goal is to create the most mobile, connected academic community in Canada: anyone, anywhere, any time.

You can learn more about the broader vision here in PDF.

When Academic Information & Communication Technologies (AICT) was given the task of examining the University of Alberta’s email systems, they didn’t realize just how unwieldy email on campus had become over the years. With more than 80 mail servers spread across campus supporting nearly 150,000 accounts, it was definitely becoming difficult to audit, manage, and support. Six months after they began looking into the issue, AICT started exploring Gmail. In September 2009 the University of Alberta began legal discussions with Google, and over the next year negotiated the various contracts. There were lots of very valid concerns about privacy and security, and the university tackled those head on. There is no data mining, and there are no ads under the agreements that were finally signed in December 2010 (PDF).

Jason Cobb, Issues & Communication Manager to the VPs at the University of Alberta, explained some of the driving forces behind the migration to Google Apps. Improving the quality of the experience was really important, as was improving security. The shift will enable the university to reduce infrastructure costs, which should lead to some broader cost savings (he noted that no positions would be lost) and some productivity gains, as the mundane task of managing email can now be removed. “Most importantly, we’re trying to be transformational, not just transitional,” Jason told me. That means enabling collaboration in ways that just weren’t possible without a system like Google Apps. That’s why the U of A is adopting the full suite of apps, rather than just Gmail.

Other universities around the world have adopted Google Apps for Education of course, but the U of A is definitely one of the biggest to take on a project of this scope. Many other Canadian universities are now understandably interested in following the U of A’s lead (and Google is no doubt keen to see that happen as well). You can bet they’ll be paying close attention to the rollout.

The 80 mail servers that AICT identified are generally broken up by subdomain. Central Mail refers to the default account that all students receive, while many faculties and departments have managed their own email on separate servers, with addresses such as (for the Computing Sciences department). The switch today starts with Central Mail. Students will follow a simple three-step process to convert their email to Gmail.

The first step is to understand and agree to the terms and conditions. The second step is to activate the Google Apps account, which will cause all new email sent to the student’s email account to appear in Gmail rather than in Central Mail. And the third step is to migrate any old emails into the new system (a process which can take a few hours). Students retain the exact same email address, and automatically get access to the other pieces of Google Apps such as Calendar, Documents, Chat, Groups, and more. They have the choice of switching for now – in October, Central Mail is scheduled to become read-only and students will have to switch at that point.

After completing the switch and logging in, students will be presented with the “launch pad” that will serve as the entry-point to Gmail and the other apps. When Simon Collier, Network Administrator with AICT, demoed the system for me last week, he wasn’t quite sure what to show! It really is just Gmail. The only differences are the University of Alberta logo and the lack of ads (it looks like there are one-line ads above the inbox, but those are actually RSS feeds…AICT chose to leave them enabled so that students have the option of turning the feature on or off).

The U of A has done some interesting things to make this happen. They’ve implemented single sign on, which has been rolled out for BearTracks as well. This means that Google never actually gets the user’s password, they just get a one-way hash. Security remains entirely within the University of Alberta. AICT has also done some work to make the migration process possible. Initially, they tested a migration tool hosted by Google and calculated that it would take two and a half years to migrate everything! That was unacceptable obviously, so they found another way. Now the university hosts the migration tool, and they estimate it would take just two to three weeks to migrate everything. How much data are we talking? As of mid-February, Central Mail was home to more than 228 million messages, taking up approximately 30 terabytes of space!

The next phase of the project is to migrate the other mail servers. It’s a more difficult task, because there is more business process involved. The migration will start right away with a staggered list based on failing hardware, age of hardware, business needs, and other factors. The goal is to have the vast majority of users migrated to Google Apps within a year, and to have everything completely migrated within 18 months.

The new system supports collaboration in a variety of ways. One of the simplest features is auto-complete on the “to” line when composing an email. Start typing a name and you’ll see matches from the entire campus directory! Likewise, you can now pull up anyone’s free/busy status in the calendar, which Jason emphasized will make scheduling meetings much simpler than in the past. The ability to share and edit documents using Google Docs is another big win for collaboration, especially given the new discussion features that Google recently introduced.

It’s not hard to see how this can be expanded in the future. Closer integration with BearTracks is something AICT is working on, so you can imagine registering for your courses and having your calendar get updated automatically. Perhaps students could be added to automatically created Groups for each of their courses. There’s a lot of opportunity to build atop the platform, and work is already underway to examine the possibilities.

The move to Gmail and Google Apps is a big deal, but it really is just the beginning. This is an initial step to better position the University of Alberta for the future:

We can’t be evolutionary in the changes that need to happen to our core IT infrastructure; we must be revolutionary. We must position ourselves to support the mobile, connected IT campus of the not-so-distant future, else we run the risk of being regarded as increasingly irrelevant to the needs of our students, staff and faculty.

It’s exciting to see the University of Alberta moving so boldly to make this vision a reality!

UPDATE: Here’s the official U of A post on the switch.

UPDATE2: Here’s the official Google Enterprise post on the adoption of Google Apps.

Some details on Enterprise Square

Post ImageI attended an information session put on by TEC Edmonton today, where I learned some more details about the recently named Enterprise Square. TEC Edmonton will be the largest tenant in the new building, and while the session today was geared more towards their Research Transition Facility (RTF) clients, I still learned a lot. First and foremost, the name RTF will cease to exist when TEC Edmonton moves downtown in August of 2007. The new name will simply be “TEC Centre”.

One of the more interesting aspects of the presentation was that they shared artist drawings and some preliminary floorplans for the building. I unfortunately don’t have any pictures of the floorplans, but I do have scans of the drawings – here’s the outside of the building, and here’s part of the inside. If you look really closely, you might notice the following:

  • They have added a lot of windows to the second and third floors to try and bring in some more daylight.
  • A completely new fourth floor is currently being added. It will be constructed of steel on top of the existing concrete structure, and the sides will be completely covered in glass.
  • Instead of a skylight on the roof, they are building 13-foot high glass structures to allow daylight to flow into the building.
  • New elevators will be completely enclosed in glass, and existing escalators are being refurbished.

You’ll note the number of times I mentioned daylight. The existing Bay building was meant to be a department store, and so the focus was entirely retail. As a result, very few windows were built. Actually, I learned some interesting things about the building itself too. It is entirely built of concrete, and was constructed in two parts. The southern half was built in 1939, and the northern half was added in 1952. The familiar “coat of arms” on the southeast corner of the building will be preserved, along with a number of other features in order to meet the City of Edmonton’s restrictions for historic buildings.

Enterprise Square will offer about 350,000 square feet of space when complete, which should free up at least 150,000 square feet of space on the main university campus (which is good considering more academic space is badly needed). Here is the tenant list:

  • TEC Centre tenants & TEC Edmonton
  • U of A Faculty of Extension (completely moving downtown)
  • U of A School of Business Executive Education Program and the Alberta Business Family Institute
  • U of A Design Gallery, Arts Faculty
  • U of A Advancement Services
  • Art Gallery of Alberta (temporary, until the new Art Gallery is complete)
  • CHUM (Citytv and The Bounce, which already occupy space in the building)

As you can guess from the list, there will be at least some classroom space in Enterprise Square, used by the Faculty of Extension and the School of Business. Whether it will be available for use like space on the main campus remains to be seen.

President Samarasekera fast-tracked the project a while ago, and has made a number of her own requests (such as open spaces for lots of “hustle and bustle” on the main floor). The construction schedule really is aggresive, with blueprints for the interior to be completed in November and construction to begin in January (Stantec is handling the project). Tenants will start moving in over the summer. Dr. Samarasekera sure knows how to crack the whip it seems!

At this stage of the game, nothing is perfectly set in stone, but it’s getting closer. I expect in January you’ll really start to notice a difference if you pass by the building. And hopefully by August we’ll be able to take a good look at one of the newest additions to the University of Alberta!