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Halaas honored for ushering a hodgepodge of sites into the Web 2.0 generation

L.A. Cicero Michael Halaas

Michael Halaas says the basic template for School of Medicine websites follows a news-magazine format.

BY MICHAEL PEÑA

In the hands of the right designer, the term "cookie cutter" can somehow translate into cutting edge.

Ask Michael Halaas how he managed to get the approximately 400 sites and 300,000 pages of the School of Medicine's overall public web environment to adopt a cohesive look and a standard way of presenting, navigating and managing information—and he'll liken the effort to creating a home.

"There's a framework. If you imagine a house frame, the frame is consistent. But you can decorate the house however you want," said Halaas, director of public web services for the school's Information Resources and Technology (IRT) office. "The only way for this to be successful is to give people freedom. That's how this place works."

Most of the school's websites and pages are visually consistent in the placement of the school's official seal, menu and search function up top—with Halaas describing the overall look as that of a news-magazine website. Many also feature people's pictures in about the same place; and behind the scenes, a flexible publishing program provides a common infrastructure.

But it wasn't always like that. Everyone had their own ideas about how their website should look, and researchers and faculty would be on the web all day and yet have no way of quickly looking up who else shared their interests. All the disarray prompted Halaas to propose an overhaul in 2002, and five years later, all the effort appears to have paid off.

His selection as one of this year's Amy Blue Award winners recognizes this achievement, which Halaas said involved crucial support from Dean Philip Pizzo; Henry Lowe, the school's chief information officer; and his team of five graphic designers and web developers. The award includes an A parking permit and a $3,000 cash prize.

"He believes deeply in the school's mission and sees the website as the best way to support that mission internally and to communicate it to the world at large," said Lowe, senior associate dean for IRT. "Michael has literally knit the school's diverse elements together into a single coherent electronic community."

A Stanford alumnus with a bachelor's degree in human biology, Halaas had considered applying at the School of Medicine. But the demand on his schedule would have forced him to put his piano playing on hold. He started when he was 4, and he has been recording his music onto compact disc since he was 19.

Making CD-cover artwork for himself and fellow musicians is what got him into graphic design. It was also around that time that the web started to take off. "It was clearly going to be something amazing," Halaas said.

He had also taken computer-programming classes in high school and computer science courses as an undergraduate, and after four years as a research assistant in the Department of Psychiatry's Sleep Research Center, he moved to the School of Medicine's information-technology group.

Having come a long way over the past decade, the school's website now features Community Academic Profiles, which Halaas likens to MySpace pages for faculty and scholars that allow them to upload pictures, post CVs, list their interests and connect with others. Other examples of the school site's richness include a comprehensive public directory of clinical trials, an academic seminar calendar with distributed publishing and an online survey-creation tool for researchers.

When told that superiors in the School of Medicine describe its website as one of the best of its kind in the country, Halaas sheepishly raises a fist in triumph. His gratitude, in the era of Web 2.0, comes from knowing how the school is ranked among peers in the wider online universe.

"One way to gauge it is, of course, is Google, and we come up first," said Halaas, specifying that the top ranking appears when the term "school of medicine" is entered. "It's a cutting-edge view for the average person into the world of biomedical research."