Athena gets ombudsman
By Chris Schechter
Project Athena has implemented an electronic ombudsman, "lucy," to provide students with information on virtually any topic of life at MIT.
Lucy was initially set up by the Athena Harassment Action Task Force to provide counseling and help to harassment victims. It has grown significantly in scope, and most of the questions to lucy have broadened to address other issues about the MIT community. The service has been available since February.
"[The range of questions] is not a disappointment for us. Questions range from `Is the water at MIT drinkable?' to `Where can I volunteer to help the homeless?' " according to Catherine R. Avril, Athena's manager of external relations.
To gain access to lucy, students do not need an Athena account. The "other option" window on Athena workstations can be used to access lucy without actually logging in. Users can then either pose a question to lucy or browse through some of the ombudsman's responses.
Two methods of feedback to student questions are possible. If requested, the identity of the stu-
dent is erased from the e-mail message and the answer is then written in a file that others can consult. Responses from lucy are only made public if students request it.
If lucy is not able to answer a question, the service will most likely recommend other sources of information or help. The questions addressed to the electronic ombudsman are answered by a diverse group of people from different offices at MIT, who remain anonymous.
"The anonymity goes both ways, for the student as well as for the person answering," Avril said. "[Respondents] are qualified and understanding, but do hold other jobs," she added. Lucy's format was modeled after that of Nightline.
"It is not a substitute to other resources on campus," Avril explained, "but it does offer the benefit of anonymity as opposed to many other ways of seeking help." Since its creation, lucy has processed several hundred messages.
Answers typically take approximately a few days to be returned to the student. "The project is still in its infancy, [and] we are
working to make the turnaround faster," Avril said. "Lucy is still growing."
Except for a short article in Tech Talk, lucy has not been advertised or otherwise publicized. Avril noted that most of the students who have used lucy so far heard about it through word of mouth. The number of students using lucy is increasing, Avril said.
A group of Athena managers and staff created the Athena Harassment Action Task Force when they realized that people were being harassed through e-mail.
"We tried to turn the whole situation around, offering help via Athena," Avril explained. Avril said that despite the existence of other, similar support systems on campus, the distributed nature of Athena makes it perfectly suited for a counseling role, since many people are available to answer questions.
The ombudsman was named for Lucy van Pelt, the cartoon character who often gives advice in the comic strip Peanuts. "We had many different ideas, but this [name] seemed the best for the service we were providing," Avril said.