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Fresh brew of Mocha includes textbook prices

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Friday, January 25, 2008

The team behind Mocha, Brown’s student-run alternative to the University’s online course catalog, released an updated version of the Web site yesterday, simplifying the software’s interface and integrating information on courses’ required textbooks and their prices from the Brown Bookstore and Amazon.com.

Launched in January 2006 by five computer science concentrators who developed it over winter break as a pet project, Mocha quickly gained popularity as a user-friendly alternative to the Brown Online Course Announcement. In March 2007, developers quickly adapted the software to function with the University’s ill-received Banner Catalog and Schedule.

Reached Thursday night in the Center for Information Technology, Colin Gordon ’08 and Andres Castroviejo ’09 told The Herald the latest changes have been in the works for several months.

“We started actually thinking about it seriously pretty much as soon as we figured out the books were listed online, and then hacked up a quick prototype last semester and cleaned it up last week,” Gordon said.

He and Douglas, along with Tim O’Donnell ’09, Dave Hirshberg ’08 and Aaron Myers ’07 GS, make up the student team that has maintained Mocha since four of its founders graduated last spring.

The team integrated textbook assignments using a method similar to that which connects Mocha to Banner: a program known as a “Web crawler” browses the Bookstore’s Web site and Amazon.com for course reading lists and prices for new and used volumes. That information is then stored on Mocha’s own server in the Department of Computer Science and displayed below scheduling information for some courses.

In addition, Mocha’s developers say they’ve made course listings easier to read and fixed several bugs in the site’s calendar.

The updates come amid continued discussions aimed at integrating Mocha into Banner, which have been taking place between student developers and University officials for several months.

“We have officially decided to adopt the Mocha functionality,” Michael Pickett, vice president for computing and information services and the University’s chief information officer, told The Herald Oct. 26. “By January 1, CIS will definitely own that piece of the code.”

Instead, negotiations have dragged on. Gordon and Douglas refused to discuss specifics, but the team’s demand for financial compensation may be a sticking point – though Pickett had said that he was open to the idea of money changing hands.

The student developers insist their motivations for working on Mocha stem from more than financial gain. “It’s nice to be able to work on something that actually has some impact and some value to the community, as opposed to most of our CS projects, which you write once, and then you’re done,” Gordon said.

For the most part, the developers’ workload skyrockets during pre-registration and shopping period, Gordon added, though “in the middle of the semester, it can stay mostly on autopilot.”

This is Mocha’s first major update since its integration with Banner in March 2007, but developers say it won’t be the last. One ultimate goal, should the University acquire the software, would be to permit course registration directly through Mocha.

“We haven’t looked at how (that part of) Banner actually works,” said Douglas, “but it shouldn’t be that hard.”

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