MULTIEXPERT: AN INTERNET-BASED SUPPORT ENVIRONMENT FOR SOLUTIONS EVALUATION

Alexander Smirnov, Mikhail Pashkin, Irina Rakhmanova

e-mail: smir@iias.spb.su

St.-Petersburg Institute for Informatics and Automation of the Russian Academy of Sciences,

39, 14-th Line, 199178, St.-Petersburg, Russia,


Abstract. Although Decision Support Systems (DSS), based on modern information technologies, have become widespread in recent years their use in the field of Small and Medium Business has rarely been seen. This paper investigates how DSS technology can be applied to evaluation of solutions. The goal of the presentation is to show how to implement the principles of Group Decision Making in INTERNET environment. The approach is illustrated by an environment, developed on FoxPro 2.6 for Windows.




1. INTRODUCTION

For operational control, DSS have become widely used. They represent computer-based applications for the decision making process. Yet DSS have hardly been used in the field of Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) especially on strategic level of decision making. There are obvious but predictable problems in this case. Two of the following features of this problem domain seems to be important: small highly specialized staffs, and limited finances with high turn-over. It is usually very expensive for SME managers to have home software engineers to proved information support for their activity. But in the case of conventional information systems it is often not clear to the customer whether the software developers from outside will understand the nuances of his or her requirements, nor is it clear how well they can respond to ongoing changes in this requirements. To make end-user to trust in the computer obtained results with the development of a mission critical system it must be featured with additional means, embedded in the advanced information technology. So the main features of advanced information technology to be proposed include group decision support facilities, intelligent support for system navigation, quantitative and qualitative information to process [1].

The next important feature of the system under consideration its cooperative nature which requires cooperative DSS techniques application. Conventional decision making general scheme consists of the following stages: requirements specification, solutions generation, alternatives evaluation, choice of efficient solutions.

At present a set of specialists from different parts of the world are involved into decision making processes. Bounds and distances do not prevent for people contacts. The most accessible and cheapest channel for information exchange is a global international net - INTERNET. Having a modem and a computer a person can connect to the international computer network INTERNET and exchange the information with colleges in different parts of the world. Using the INTERNET tools, a group of experts will be able to propose and discuss alternative solutions to some problem or issue.

INTERNET provides exchange of the files (File Transfer Protocol - FTP), on-line dialog and electronic conferences access. Due to using INTERNET it is possible to organize information exchange between computers with different operation systems and based on the different platforms, to find information about people and new programs and to make a lot of other useful things.

To our mind the best organizations of working with distributed databases via INTERNET may be following:

But this type of job have some drawbacks. Some users have access to INTERNET via modem and phone line. In this case expert has to have a special quality phone line. Addition, the software development is too expensive for this scheme. On this reasons we will not consider problems and methods of the on-line work in this paper. Our choice is files exchange.

2. PROBLEMS OF TELESERV PROJECT USERS IN RUSSIA

2.1 Project Description

As part of the Copernicus Programme of the European Parliament, the TeleServ project offered free PCs, modems, friendly user interface software, and a 75$ usage credit to Technology based users in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as a free range of INTERNET services, including Common Interest Group Forums.

The Central and Eastern European Countries were participating in the project, which was started in 1994, and around one thousand users were already signed up, with a project total in 1995 for 2000 signups in total. The following countries participated:

Bulgaria Czech Republic Estonia
HungaryLatviaLithuania
Poland Romania Russia
Slovakia Slovenia Ukraine



The target 2000 users, working in the field of technology and research, included members of academic institutions as well as those working in technology oriented enterprises, including small and medium enterprises. The project strategy was initially to provide connection to already available services already used widely by western peer groups and subsequently to add services specific to the region/domain. The user application domains:

I Information Technology

a) Microelectronics
b) Software Systems
c) High Performance Computing
d) Computer Integrated Manufacturing and Engineering

II Communication Technologies, Telematics and Language Engineering

a) S&T Teleworking and Information Relay Networks
b) Language Engineering

III Manufacturing, Production, Processing and Materials:

a) Manufacturing
b) Design of products and processes
c) Recycling

IV Measurement and Testing

a) Support to regulations and standards required for trade purposes
b) Common means of calibration
c) New methods of measurements

There are over 400 places available in Russia, and each group of 4 or 5 users is eligible to receive a free PC. Every user receives a modem and a TeleServ software pack free and a Compuserve unit and 75$ free usage credit.

2.2 Current Situation of the Project in St.Petersburg

There are 15 TeleServ's users in St.Petersburg Institute for Informatics and Automation. There are following user problems:

  1. Technical problems
    1. The TeleServ's equipment are not modern:
      • The IBM Personal Systems/2 Model 55 SX is a IBM PC AT 386SX16 (RAM - 4MB, HDD - 60MB)
      • The Sportster 2400 Fax with V.42bis is an external fax modem.
      • The ET-1418 monitor is a monochrome monitor.
    2. The software is not advanced:
      • The TeleServ software kit contains a basic set of software that will manage user connection to the INTERNET. This software comes with a basic set of INTERNET applications. There are: file transfer, logging in to remote hosts, searching archives, on-line "conversations", check access to remote hosts and verify routes to remote hosts.
      • The CompuServe kit contains access software from CompuServe.
    3. The absence of the TeleServ home page.

2. Organizational problems

The positive result of TeleServ project has been made possible by the use of RUSnet features.

2.3 The RUSnet Project

At the beginning of 1990's RELARN (Russian ELectronic Academic Research Network) association has been established as a result of an initiative of the number of universities and research institutes. The association was funded by State Committee for High Education of Russia (SCHE) and has a goal to support Russian academic community's interests in modern network services.

At the first steps RELCOM company has been chosen as INTERNET provider for the members of RELARN. So it was not purely academic network and RELARN community could not get the full advantages of cooperation with European academic networks and associations.

That is why Russian Ministry of Science and Technical policy jointly with the State Committee for High Education of Russia have started several pilot projects with the common aim to establish a basis of whole-Russian IP backbone. Simultaneously, several projects were started at a regional level independently. One of such projects is RUSnet -- Regional University and Science network in North-West part of Russia. One of the main features of this project is its close cooperation with national telecommunication operators and RELARN association and Nordic academic network (NORDUnet) as a foreign partner. The geographical position of North-West region determines RUSnet role as a gateway to INTERNET through Nordic countries for whole Russia.

The concept of RUSnet, based on intelligent information infrastructure (III), has been offered by Analytic Research Group of the State Technical University of St.Petersburg (STUSP) and approved at a number of international conferences [2]. According to this concept, RUSnet had to become INTERNET provider for regional academic community instead of commercial networks. Advanced telecommunication basis of RUSnet has to make RUSnet a sophisticated testbed for experiments on multimedia communications and information technologies.

That is a base of MULTIEXPERT pilot project developed in the field of INTERNET-based group decision support system for solution evaluation.

3 MULTIEXPERT: A GROUP DECISION SUPPORT SYSTEM

3.1 General Principals of the Environment

To sample and order internal requirements (particular attributes of solutions) in dependence upon the external requirements (general attributes of solutions), and to order and choice obtained alternative solutions quality evaluation tool (MULTIEXPERT) has been developed. For this goal external experts estimate alternative sets of requirements or solutions from different viewpoints reflecting aspects of design. The initial DSS is interfaced by appropriate techniques to an intelligent front-end for group expert decision support for functional and quality attributes sampling, weighing and evaluation with subsequent acceptance of conformed decisions. Figure 1 represents MULTIEXPERT external environment.

MULTIEXPERT implementation is based on the type algorithm for creating the requirements specification and alternatives evaluation: create attribute structure, conform the attribute structure, evaluate attribute values, conform the attribute value evaluation, determine the attribute significance, rank the projects.

MULTIEXPERT tool is realized with using FoxPro 2.6. MULTIEXPERT consist of two parts - client and server parts (see Figure 2). The server part situated at the main computer and includes software for receiving information from the experts and the leader, creation, modifying and integrity control of databases, sending information to users. The client part contains the tools for browsing and adding incoming information. Using e-mail system the experts can posting results of their work to the leader and sending messages to each other.

Figure 1. MULTIEXPERT external environment


Figure 2. MULTIEXPERT architecture

Different experts work with different operation systems and under different computer platforms. And it is difficult to provide the same interface for them. We solve this problem using FoxPro 2.6. The basic version is elaborated for MS Windows, and now it is possible to modify existing version for DOS, SCO UNIX and for Macintosh. Next stage is to move our project to Visual FoxPro for Windows.

With the information about name, science degree, list of the papers and occupations, information about experts' locations stores in the leader's databases. In addition to it e-mail address (it is possible, a set of addresses) of experts is also stored there. Creating working group a leader can define where experts are situated and what kind of communication resources they have. Under "location" we mean if the expert have a direct access to the leader's local network or he is far from leader.

Allocate three types of information exchange between leader and the experts (Figure 3):

Expert's computer N 1 and N 2 are located in the same network with the leader's computer. Expert's computer N 3 is located not far from expert. Expert's computer N 4 and N 5 are located far from expert and they exchange information with leader using INTERNET or e-mail.

Figure 3. Three types of information exchange between a leader and experts
  1. Using local network. Expert is in the same network with leader.
  2. Using external device for store information (for example, floppy disks). Expert works on the separate computer but not far from the leader.
  3. Using e-mail. Expert situated far from the leader and have an access to e-mail or modem.

For every type we have to elaborate the own protocols of the information exchange. In the first case it is enough to provide for experts a direct access to working bases. This type is not difficult to develop using existing DBMS. If expert's computer is not connected to leader's network, but located not far from the leader it is possible to exchange data using external storage medium - floppy disks and others. Exchange protocols of this type is similar with protocols of the third type.

There are three types of working with distributed system:

Internal work Sending information Receiving information

Sending and receiving information are realized by forming a post packets. A packet consists of two files - a file with information and a label-file. A file with information may be skipped. A label-file includes information about context of the packet, short comment and some other internal information. Every packet has an unique name. It includes a number of the task, a special prefix and a number of expert.

If experts work with secret project it is possible to use for exchange (plainkey - open key) encoding information. In this case the leader generates for every project a secret key and it's public part is sent to the other experts. And every expert has its own secret keys and sends their public parts to the leader. And when the packet is created it must be encoded. After receiving the packet must be decoded and analyzed.

3.2 Main Functions for Support of the Users Job in the Environment

Leader sends following types of packets: message about new project; message about project locking; message about changes in the project; message about changes making by other experts; message about project terminating; trying to cancel an old packet (correcting message); check message; new public part of the key.

For post receiving the leader runs an intelligent agent. It works according to the following algorithm:

  1. When a leader generated a new task and a new group he run a special program - an agent, which automatically defines a set of operations for information sending to experts. For remote users it generates label files. When it generates a set of databases for adding a new task. After that it creates archives and if this is a secret project, encodes archives.
  2. The leader can not modify an existing project if somebody works with it. Firstly he have to run the program "Lock Project". A special agent forms messages for every member of this project. Then every expert check project locking, an agent sends a message to the leader: "Project locked".
  3. Then the leader locks the project and modifies what is necessary there, he runs the program "Send changes". A special agent generates packets. Then the experts receive them, status of the project automatically changed.
  4. Then the leader receives a message from expert with results, automatically run an agent, which generates new messages for members of this projects. Due to this messages experts can look recent changes in the work of their colleges.
  5. If the leader decides to remove an expert from the project, he makes (2), changes working group (3) and this expert receives special message.
  6. If the leader mistakes he can try to correct the situation. He chooses the wrong packet and runs a program, which generates a special packet - "Correct Packet". If the wrong packet is not yet processed by the expert, his receiving program destroys the wrong and the "Correct Packet".
  7. Then the leader receives information from the experts and processes it, his program automatically generating check messages for experts.
  8. The leader makes (2), changes a secret key and sends it's public part .

Expert sends following types of packets: results of his work; message about project locking; check message; new public part of his own key.

For post receiving the expert runs an intelligent agent. It works according to following algorithm:

  1. It looks for "Correct packets". If they are found, agent looks for wrong packets. Wrong and "Correct packets" are deleted. Message to leader generated.
  2. It looks for messages to the expert. This packets include in their names expert's unique number. When it may:
  3. It looks for information about results of other experts and adds this information.
  4. It looks for locked messages. Generates message for the leader about the current expert's work with this project and locks the project.
  5. It generates a report about received information.
  6. It generates messages about errors.

4 CONCLUSION

We have considered an approach, which covers the main stages of decision making process and well do for problem solving. The INTERNET-based environment designed comprises means for group decision support for external requirements specification, project consistency control, multi-aspect parallel configuration design of objects from template components, and project quality evaluation.

We elaborate a working scheme and protocols for information exchange in distributed system. For sending and receiving information we use INTERNET. At present WWW widespread and our next stage is in presentation of results using WWW-pages using hypertext references. This is provides a quick access of one experts to results of work of another.


REFERENCES

  1. A.V.Smirnov, L.B.Sheremetov, P.A.Turbin, Multi-Paradigm Approach to Cooperative Decision Making, in: Proceedings of the II International Conference on Concurrent Engineering: Research and Applications, Wachington, DC Area (1995) 215 - 222.
  2. Vladimir Zaborovski, Vitaliy Lopota, et al. "Bringing INTERNET to North-West of Russia - RUSnet N/W project." Proceedings of INET'95 Honolulu, USA, 1995.

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