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Life on Earth
Maybe it sounds like the making for an unpopular reality television show -- a program that simulates all the workplace business processes and interactions, from the fussy fax machine to the time spent responding to emails.

What the program called Brahms does, though, is help transform the workplace into a more productive and efficient environment.

Brahms is a multi-agent modeling and simulation environment that improves our understanding of interaction between people and systems. The software is a work system design and modeling tool that brings into view the roles people and technology play in how a job actually gets done. It puts together the overt and tacit interactions to produce information people can use to develop technology that will enhance work performance.

For example, how do people gather data that must be input to a computer tool? How do these people share its output? Bill Clancey, the project lead, said, "Instead of focusing on the screen design or keystrokes, we consider how personal knowledge is called into play: Who is participating? How is that choice made? And how does it affect what is input to the program and how the results are interpreted and acted upon?"

The Brahms environment consists of a number of software tools: a multi-agent programming language for modeling people's behaviors, geographical environment, movements, communications, systems and tools, as well as system behaviors and how technology might be inserted.

"It's understanding the differences between people and their environment and bringing them together," said project manager Maarten Sierhuis. "It's based on the scientific study of communications, to help rather than replace people."

The tool is being researched in context with the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission operations, as well as other areas of space exploration, including the International Space Station, a Mars habitat and surface exploration vehicles.

Imagine starting a company for just three months that employs 240 highly skilled scientists and engineers who will work around the clock to manage a new space mission. That's MER. Never has NASA managed a planetary rover exploration mission involving so many collaborators. The days will be tightly scheduled, requiring order among the hundreds of team members.

For the 120 scientists, each day the job requires analyzing volumes of existing and incoming data to determine a set of priorities for the rovers and build plans to achieve a goal. The same number of engineers will translate the scientists' goals into instructions for the rovers and will uplink the information.

Current research involves how the Brahms model can be used to develop an actual workflow system for mission operations, based on the Brahms agent technology and models of mission operations. The Brahms team plans to observe mission operations at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and is hoping to assist in designing and implementing a surface mission operation scheduled for 2009.

The tool could save the space agency money, said computer scientist Chin Seah. "You don't want to build a facility that you won't use or build technology that you won't use."

Brahms is the result of 10 years of research by co-principal investigators Clancey and Sierhuis, both of the Work Systems Design and Evaluation Group, in how understanding the interactions of people and their environment can improve the design of work processes.

NASA's Computing, Information and Communications Technology Program is funding Brahms.

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