Creative Use of Technology and New Media: University of Calgary - Silver Award

2008 Circle of Excellence Awards Program
Category 12. Creative Use of Technology and New Media
University of Calgary
Electronic Billboards and U-Now Widget


Adam Zakreski
eCommunications Specialist
External Relations
2500 University Drive NW
Calgary, AB T2N 1N4
(403) 220-4545


Adam Zakreski Project Manager
Colleen Turner Sponsor
Catherine Bagnell Styles Sponsor

U-Now Electronic Billboards and U-Now Widget
Target audience(s)

Primary: Current students
Secondary: Staff, Faculty, Alumni, Community


Connecting with students on their turf has been the primary goal of a two-pronged University of Calgary e-communications project that combines desktop widgets with large-screen LCD monitors. The U-Now widget and U-Now Electronic Billboards were designed from the outset to complement and "feed" each other, providing a new vehicle to reach out to students in the places they congregate and right on their laptop.

  1. The Widget ( - With the implementation of U of C's campus-wide wireless internet coverage, laptops have become commonplace in the hallways and in the classroom. This provided an opportunity to leverage this connectivity to communicate with students directly through their computers through the use of desktop widgets. A widget is a small application that runs on your desktop and provides fresh information regularly. Fed through an RSS feed, the widget is customizable to display only the categories you've selected. Currently there are 9 categories each streaming their own distinct content.
  2. The Electronic Billboards (EBB) - When the U of C turned 40, it launched a massive project to overhaul 40 student spaces. Those new spaces, all designed by students, have become focal points for students to study, meet, and have coffee. These hubs are also an ideal location to offer news and information to students through large-screen electronic billboards. The billboards, designed, programmed, and installed by University of Calgary staff, offer the students information about upcoming events, campus news, sports scores, and even weather updates from across Canada. The University also partnered with our local daily newspaper, the Calgary Herald, to stream daily community content. Billboards that reside in faculty areas are equipped to offer site-specific content, enabling individual faculties and departments can stream pertinent information locally to their own students.

By coordinating these as a combined project, the widget infrastructure is able to feed the content for the billboards. As a result, the content is updated on a daily basis keeping the information dynamic and fresh.


This project makes use of two key tenets of the Web 2.0 world. First, by using RSS as the standardized means of data exchange, it means that our audience has the flexibility to choose how they receive their news. The feed can be streamed into many mediums not limited to the electronic billboards and widget, but also RSS readers, website aggregators, iGoogle, and many others. This lets students pick and choose not only what news they want, but where they want to see it.

Secondly, the project leverages the "long-tail" of our communicators by enabling all groups on campus, no matter how large or small, to post their news and events. By using a central web interface to submit their posts, any faculty, department, or club, has equal opportunity to make their story known. This also drastically streamlines the process for dispatching news to campus as one entry can be reused across many websites and mediums. This ease of posting has greatly contributed to keeping the content dynamic and fresh with new articles posted on a daily basis.

In February 2008, the EBBs were enhanced with an emergency response system allowing Campus Security or External Relations to instantaneously dispatch notifications across campus in the event of an emergency. This system is controlled through a web interface which can be activated from any internet enabled device including a Blackberry.


The U-Now widget and U-Now Live electronic billboards were conceived by External Relations. Implementation has been a partnership with several university departments, including Information Technologies, Student and Enrolment Services and Campus Infrastructure. Design work for the widget and corresponding templates for the bulletin boards also involved an external communications firm, Scout Communications. Both projects are technologically complex, and the task to create a "cross-pollinating" platform was no small accomplishment. From a design perspective, both projects also complement the U of C - This is Now branding. Plans are now in the works to develop direct feeds from the university homepage, which would further populate the widget and billboards with dynamic content.

After a successful trial of our first widget, a second widget was developed for the new school year. In following the feedback from our students and staff, the widget was rebuilt using the existing widget technologies of Yahoo! Widgets and Apple's Dashboard. This allowed for cross-platform compatibility and seamless integration with existing widgets. The electronic billboards use market-available software (Omnivex), as well as several university-developed utilities to enable the billboards and widgets to share information. RSS is used as the backbone of the system to enable authors to "write once, read anywhere" drastically streamlining the workflow to post news and events.


Over the course of the last academic year, the term "widget" has transformed from obscure computer jargon, to part of the daily vocabulary. The trial of the first widget ended March 8th, 2007, with 1,215 downloads of the student widget and 634 downloads of the staff widget. The new widget soft-launched September resulting in 450 downloads. With the official launch in January, the project has taken off with 750 total downloads from January to February. Downloads continue at the rate of approximately 100 per week. Currently, 98 "widgeteers" from campus faculty and staff, the Students' Union, and student clubs keep the widget fed with an ever-changing variety of news and events. A recent effort to make the widget more interactive by asking and posting student comments on a variety of topics is gaining steam.

With the billboards, uptake has been similarly positive with the EBBs mounted at 25 sites across campus, each site having either one or two LCDs. Faculties and departments who don't currently house a billboard are requesting their own screens, and we have also installed two billboards in our Edmonton office. Two more screens are scheduled to be installed this summer. Plans are in the works to install a billboard in our University of Calgary-Qatar campus, located in the heart of the Middle East. Development is ongoing with this fall marking the first time convocation has been broadcast on the screens all across campus.

The emergency response system is being integrated with the campus Emergency Response Plan and is scheduled for full scale drill this spring.

The University of Calgary respectfully submits the U-Now Widget and U-Now Electronic Billboards for your consideration.