Applying scientific knowledge for practical purposes is a big deal at Mill 180 Park. It is not just that technology such as hydroponics and LED lighting made it possible for us to create an indoor public park that could be open regardless of the weather. We also try to operate as if we are a high-tech startup -- especially when it comes to developing software that furthers our mission of helping marginalized populations through community building and economic development. This has led us to focus on using computers to increase productivity, not only for those of us working in the Park but for anybody who might benefit from more effective time management.
HANDS ON APPROACH
We use a hands-on approach to software development. Before writing any code, we spend months — and sometimes longer — performing the activities that the software will support. Only then do we start programming. When we have a beta version, we test it under real-world conditions, modify it to address bugs and deficiencies, and re-test it. The final software is user-friendly because actual users helped to write it.
All of this has helped us to deal with our biggest problem: How to staff the Park appropriately when all sorts of operations are taking place, including cooking, farming, displaying art, cleaning, serving food and drinks, managing inventory, hosting events, building hydroponic systems, baking, accounting, ordering from vendors, and scheduling musical performances. In other words, we need our employees to work efficiently even though their responsibilities vary widely and unpredictably.
It is easy to come up with schedules for discrete tasks. Similarly, assigning employees to shifts so that everybody is supposed to work the same number of hours each week is a simple matter. In the real world, however, what actually happens is always different from what was expected to happen. Employees don't watch expiration dates so milk spoils. A cornhole player throws a beanbag that hits and shatters a light bulb, so a staff member has to spend time vacuuming up glass. Or, it is a snow day, there are many more children wanting to eat than usual. Employees have to adjust to unanticipated events while keeping the Park's overall goals in mind, and they differ widely in their ability to do that.
In sum, our experience operating the Park has made it clear that the most important skill leading to success is time management, which Wikipedia defines as follows:
Time management is the process of planning and exercising conscious control of time spent on specific activities, especially to increase effectiveness, efficiency or productivity. It is a juggling act of various demands of study, social life, employment, family, and personal interests and commitments with the finiteness of time. Using time effectively gives the person “choice” on spending/managing activities at their own time and expediency.
It makes perfect sense that, like other skills, time management is present at different levels among different people. Does that mean that somebody with poorly-developed time management is destined to suffer throughout her life? Perhaps the solution is to employ technology to supplement her deficient skills. Unfortunately, traditional scheduling software is not good at what we call Automated Improvisation: continually monitoring what is taking place and modifying plans when predefined parameters are triggered. Figuring out how to computerize Automated Improvisation effectively has become the focus of our software development efforts.
The result is our Ophanim time management software. It monitors the conditions of all of the important objects in the Park as they experience events and, using Artificial Intelligence (AI), determines what tasks should be performed. The objects being monitored range from food inventory items like milk, to the water in a hydroponic system’s reservoir, to a bathroom soap dispenser. Events might include recorded observations internal to the Park, such as a report that somebody spilled a drink in the Mushroom House, or external happenings that affect the Park, such as a school holiday. Ophanim promotes efficiency by translating high-level goals into specific tasks, by scheduling those tasks, and, most important, by rescheduling tasks as new events occur and are processed.
Although we use Ophanim to manage operations throughout the Park, it is especially useful for our hydroponic farming activities. Its task- and event-based approach is consistent with the philosophy that controls how we grow plants, which is that employees, not machines, should take care of them. Once our Head Farmer has developed the Grow Plan for a specific hydroponic system in the Park, Ophanim reminds employees when to conduct each required maintenance task, such as measuring the pH of the water in the system’s reservoir. Then, based on the pH value that is recorded, our software determines what additional tasks, if any, employees should perform. This process is virtually identical to the way in which Ophanim manages the Park’s inventory. In the case of milk, for instance, our software tracks the quantity by expiration date. At the same time each day – or on demand — Ophanim compares the current quantity with the anticipated need. If our software determines that it is likely that some unused milk will spoil, employees will be tasked to perform a task such as making yogurt in order to use milk at a faster-than-normal rate.
We expect Ophanim to play two roles when it comes to economic development. First, we plan to make our software available to small businesses, college students, and other entities and individuals who could benefit from improved time management. We also see Ophanim as a vehicle for bringing high-tech entrepreneurism to neighborhoods and cities whose residents do not normally participate in the knowledge economy. The software provides an accessible and understandable introduction to using modern technology in order to improve lives. It could serve as the basis for a business in which employees are trained to set up Ophanim instances for local residents and their organizations, and thereby gain both business and technical experience.