JISC INF11 Programme Meeting: From unprojects to services

I’m going to the JISC Information Programme Meeting on Thursday and have been asked to join a panel where I’ll talk about our work at Lincoln under the heading ‘from unprojects to services’. Here are my notes.

Over the last couple of years, staff in CERD, The Library and ICT have worked closely together on a number of ‘rapid innovation’ projects, which have sometimes later attracted JISC funding.  Much of our work has been undertaken at the initiative of individual staff, who have benefited from a supportive ICT environment that allows us the freedom to develop and test our ideas without running into bureaucratic walls. ICT – in particular the head of the department, Mike Day, and head of the Online Services Team, Tim Simmonds – recognised the benefits of employing undergraduate students and recent graduates, and established a post which Nick Jackson and Alex Bilbie share. Alongside this, I have been applying for JISC funding and successful bids have allowed us to employ Nick and Alex full-time rather than part-time. In recent months, this has worked very well and currently much of their time is spent working on JISC-funded projects which bring value to the University. Below, are a list of the services that this culture of innovation has allowed us to work on over the last year or so. Click on the links to go to the services.

The Common Web Design: Distributed HTML5/CSS3 template for internal services
Posters: A repository for visual communications
lncn.eu: The official URL shortner for the university. Provides real-time stats, API and acts as branded/trusted proxy for other services.
Single Sign On: OAuth/SAML/Shibboleth/NTML/Eduroam integration
Zen Desk: University Help Desk
My Calendar: An aggregation of space-time data into a flexible web service. JISC-funded.
Nucleus: Datastore for People, Events, Bibliographic and Location data (and more to follow). Provides (open) APIs to all other services. MongoDB.
James Docherty, a third year student, used the nucleus datastore as a source of data for his final year project: Situated Displays for buildings, showing room booking information, posters and announcements.
Staff Directory: Fast, versatile people-focused search engine
Jerome: Fast, modern, personalised library search portal aggregating books, journals and EPrints data. JISC-funded.
Mobile: A directory of university services for mobile devices
Online Server Monitoring: A simple dashboard for anyone to check whether a service is working
QR Codes: Will be used for asset tags and already being used in rooms to create Help Desk tickets.
  • Most of these services push and pull data to Nucleus, the central, open datastore built on MongoDB. e.g. Zen Desk=People + Locations, My Calendar=Events, Jerome=Bibliographic
  • We’re currently looking at how Nucleus can also be a source for Linked Data. It has open(ish) APIs.
  • CWD sites transparently sign the person in to the site, if they are signed in elsewhere.
  • We like Open Source. SSO is mostly open source software. Alex has released his OAuth 2.0 code. CWD likely to be open source; MongoDB, bits and pieces from Jerome and My Calendar.
  • As we build these services, they are being integrated, too. e.g. lncn.eu will be a URL resolver for Jerome offering realtime monitoring; posters will show up in My Calendar events; CWD is the design framework for My Calendar.
  • Most of these services are for official launch in September. They will be included in the new ICT Handbook, included in brochures and other announcements.
  • We’re working with the Student Union to develop the use of FourSquare around the university.
  • Now that we know we can develop this way and that it works and we enjoy it, we’re hoping to expand from two to four student/graduate developers and have our own budget for hardware/software/conferences and to give to staff and students that want to join us.
  • Our approach links into the University’s Teaching and Learning Strategy: Student as Producer. We want to work with students and staff across disciplines to create useful, innovative and enjoyable online services that make the University of Lincoln a great place to work and study at. It’s not about a team that works on ‘educational technology’, but rather a network of people who develop and support technologies that make Lincoln a productive environment for research, teaching and learning. It’s inclusive, with students (and therefore learning) at its core.

Working on the web

Each month, David, Paul and I offer workshops for ‘Working on the web’, aimed at introducing staff to different aspects of Web 2.0 which might be useful in their research and teaching. Our original outline for these sessions can be seen over on the Learning Lab wiki.

A couple of things have reminded me recently that it might be useful to describe how I work on the web.

First of all, I use an up-to-date browser (Firefox or Chrome) with a few extensions. I block all advertising, using AdBlock, all trackers, using Ghostery and a password management extension, so I never use the same password on any two websites. Chrome allows me to synchronise all my preferences, bookmarks, passwords and other bits and pieces across different computers, so my experience on my desktop, laptop or home computer is the same. When using Firefox, I have the Sync extension installed, for the same reason.

Next, in terms of my basic set up, I have four useful ‘bookmarklets’: One for j.mp, which allows me to create a short URL for the current site, another for Readability, that makes reading long articles somewhat easier, one for delicious, to bookmark or ‘favourite’ sites, and a Posterous bookmarklet that allows me to quickly take clippings from web pages and post them to my Posterous site.

My Posterous site ‘things that stick’, is one of a few ways that I organise information on the web. I use Posterous almost exclusively for posting selected text (‘clippings’) from websites or PDF articles that make an impression on me. I use delicious for straightforward social bookmarking of a website, usually copying a piece of text from the site that best describes what it’s about. I use Google Reader to ‘Share’ whatever crops up in my feed reader that interest me. Whether I clip, bookmark or share, none of these actions is any kind of endorsement of the content but simply means the information is, in some way, of interest to me and I might want to come back to.

I share what is of interest to me by creating a ‘bundle’ from the RSS feeds of these three services in Google Reader. That bundle has a public web page and atom feed. However, all the items are presented in full text and therefore a hassle to get a quick overview of what’s been recently shared. So, I also aggregate the three sources to my own blog, ‘Elsewhere‘, where anyone can get a quick summary of the information I gather each day (and you can grab an RSS feed, too). I do this using the lifestream plugin for WordPress. This also means that through this process, the links I’m collecting ultimately come back to a site that I own and I have some kind of control over the retention of that data.

Google Reader is central to how I work on the web. I subscribe to news feeds from anywhere between 200 and 400 sites at any one time. Currently, it’s at a comfortable 230 subscriptions, which I read on my walk to and from work and occasionally during the day. I scan a couple of hundred headlines a day and click on about 10% of those headlines to read the article. This is my main method of reading the web.

I also use Google Reader to subscribe to every service I use on the web, so it’s a way of aggregating my own footprint on the web and keeping track of services I have used. The other reason for doing this is that Google Reader is searchable, so I can search over any of my activity on the web if I want to go back to something I read, create, shared or wrote.

Next, I have this work blog, which I use as a notebook more than anything else. I regularly refer back to it and search through it to remind me of the work I’ve done, ideas I’ve had and events I’ve been involved in. Whenever I have to report on my work, I refer back to this blog.

I use an Amazon ‘wishlist’ to maintain a list of books that look interesting and I might buy in the future. It’s a shame that there’s no RSS feed from wishlists. If there was, I’d add it to my daily bookmarks and clippings on my Elsewhere blog.

I use Mendeley to organise research papers in PDF format. Currently, I have over 500 PDF files synchronised across my work desktop and laptop (about 1.3GB). I moved to Mendeley, not for its social features, but simply because it renames and organises the files nicely on my hard drive and synchronises across computers. Before using it, I was in a mess.

I visit Wikipedia more than any other single website. It’s not perfect but its imperfections merely reflect our own imperfections and it is more perfect than any other collected source of information on the web.

I use Google docs for most of my non-blog writing these days. Funding applications, conference papers and articles I’m working on, all start off on Google docs and only move to Open Office if formatting requires.

I use slideshare to publish any presentations I give. I used to use Scribd until they starting charging people to download content from their site. When slideshare start charging, as I suspect they will, I’ll delete my account there, too.

On the subject of deleting accounts, I stopped using Twitter at the weekend. I’ve been trying to wean myself away from Twitter for months, having moved to using it largely for sharing links and as a news aggregator, picking up links from other people. I’ve never really liked it for conversation, finding the 140 character limit, well, limiting, in a demeaning sort of way. More recently, I’d created a private list of 20 or so people out of the 400 or so that I followed, who regularly pick up on sources of information I value, and this had become the extent of my experience using Twitter as I intentionally tried to wind down my use of it. Last weekend, I felt particularly overwhelmed with work and the intrusion that it can become at home, and so I deleted my account altogether. I know from past experience that not using it, rather than deleting it, wasn’t an option for me. I’d have simply ‘done a Stephen Fry’ and returned to it before too long, sorry addict that I’d become.

I’ve been on Twitter for a couple of years and had over 1000 followers, a few of whom are now real friends, though about half looked like people simply looking for re-follows, another large percentage were people who subscribed on mass to lists of people (usually EdTech lists) and quite a few more were people I’ve never had any contact with whatsoever. I’ve also found that my ability to concentrate has severely diminished over the last couple of years, with the constant distraction of having email/SMS/Twitter present in the back of my mind. Even turning off all notifications on my phone and computers hasn’t helped. Now I just use Google Reader to follow the RSS feeds of about 10 people on Twitter. It’s a bloody relief, to be honest. Here’s to being able to concentrate a little better from now on.

As with Twitter, I stopped using Facebook at the end of last year. The web is my social network and the above tools, my personal working learning environment.

Anytime Anywhere Computing

Together with the ITC Department, we’ve recently begun a feasibility study which looks at related areas of the university’s ITC provision. It brings together three, originally separate proposals to look at upgrading our wireless infrastructure, provide a more flexible desktop experience through virtualisation and improve our understanding of and support for Netbooks and Mobile Internet Devices. It’s good to be working so closely with our ITC Department. So often I hear people at other institutions complain about their ITC departments being ‘brick walls’ and showing no flexibility, but fortunately I can’t say that about my experience at the University of Lincoln.

The Head of ITC sent me a link to this video today. It’s a good example of why our study is both necessary and worthwhile.

Related to this, Tony Hirst recently bookmarked this ITC syllabus for 13-14 year olds recently, which, together with the video, provides a clear indication of what’s happening in schools.

We’re working closely with the Student Council and Academics and intend to survey them on the issues raised by the study early in the new year.  We’ve started talking to vendors of desktop and application virtualisation ‘solutions’, too (the virtualisation of our server infrastructure is almost complete). We’re also lining up some visits to other institutions that have experience in these areas.

If you or your school, your FE or HE insititution has seriously considered or implemented desktop and/or application virtualisation, a full service wireless infrastructure (i.e. it matches the services on your wired network) and support Linux and XP-based Netbooks and other mobile devices, please do get in touch or leave a comment below.

Ted Talks: My ‘Lifelong Learning Strategy’

These days, I’m working my way through 300+ Ted Talks on my iPod Touch while walking to and from work, managing about three 20 minute talks a day.  It’s part of my personal ‘Lifelong Learning Strategy’ 🙂 In fact, Ted via iTunes in the palm of my hand is my ‘Virtual Learning Environment’ with the highest calibre of Lecturers you’ll ever find in your pocket. Along the way of this wandering, multidisciplinary education, some talks stand out for their poetry…

When lectures of this calibre are delivered I’m absorbed to the point of being a hazard on the footpath.