The cost of developing a good idea

How much does a student hacker need to develop a good idea to the point that it attracts further investment?

I’ve been thinking about this recently for a couple of reasons. I was reading the early Y Combinator site, via the Wayback Machine, about how they reckoned on $6,000 per person for their first Summer Founders Program. Each new startup could expect to receive less than $20K (the average is $17,000 / £10,000), with two or three friends being the ideal number of founders per company. The Summer Founders Program was aimed at undergraduate or graduating students.

I’ve also been looking at JISC’s Elevator funding programme, where people working in UK universities and colleges (with a *.ac.uk email address), are able to pitch an idea to receive up to £10,000 funding from JISC.  That’s the same amount of money Y Combinator seeds their successful applicants with. I think the JISC Elevator is a great idea, but looking at the proposals that have been submitted so far, I’m surprised and disappointed that there aren’t any proposals where the money goes directly to students to develop ideas of their own.  Maybe students haven’t been told? I’ll admit I’ve not publicised it at Lincoln, having been busy bidding for other JISC funds (where graduating 3rd year students are the main contributors to the projects) and awarding funds to projects of our own (where students receive most of the money). Still, I feel bad about not supporting JISC Elevator more. I have voted for one proposal.

I asked Alex, an undergrad and co-worker, how much a student who is hacking on an idea all day, every day, needs to live on in Lincoln, and he reckons about £600/month. That sounds harsh to me, so let’s assume they need £800/month and that there are three of them, because after all, if you can’t persuade a couple of friends that an idea is worth working on, then it probably isn’t a very good idea (or so says Y Combinator). On a related note, Google’s Summer of Code provides students with a $5000/£3000 stipend for the summer.

When I first heard about the JISC Elevator, my immediate thought was that the £10K maximum per project isn’t very much to attract FEC costed projects involving staff, but is perfect for offering to students as bursaries. A bursary, as I understand it, is supposed to cover the costs of living, rather than being seen as a wage, so they’re similar in purpose to the GSoC and Y Combinator funds. On our DIVERSE project, almost all of the money received went to paying the fees and bursaries of two MRes students. We are also prepared to contribute a larger percentage of the overall cost. Our recently funded beBOP project is an example of this, with a recent graduate being employed on grade 4, and the funding from JISC covering only 65% of the overall cost, compared to the maximum 80%.

I’ll admit, I don’t really understand how FEC works and where a lot of the money actually goes, but for the kinds of projects that the JISC Elevator is trying to attract, as well as JISC’s Rapid Innovation calls, I do wonder whether the GSoc or Y Combinator model of funding is a more cost-effective one. Pay students to hack over the summer, with a member of staff overseeing their work and call that the institutional contribution. £10K will pay for three students to hack over the summer, travel to a conference to talk about their work and pay for some servers on Rackspace for a few months. The tools to develop software in the early stages are cheap (a basic Linux stack on Rackspace is £7/month and there are enough open source tools available to explore ideas and develop prototypes, even if the ideal tool happens to be a proprietary one.

At Lincoln, we recognise that, given the opportunity and mentorship, undergraduate students have much to contribute. They’re not simply consumers of education. Like other universities, we’ve been running funding programmes each year that fund students to work on a research project with a member of staff over the summer. At Lincoln, it’s called UROS, the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Scheme. The Student as Producer UROS call was announced a few days ago. The LNCD group, which I co-ordinate awarded five projects £1000 each last week, which focus on the use of technology for education (more info on those projects soon). For the UROS and LNCD funded projects, almost all of the £1000 goes on undergraduate student bursaries. In my experience, undergraduate hackers can produce good work. Work that’s worth funding. Y Combinator thought so, too, and they’re now the most admired angel fund among young hackers. Each Y Combinator funded start-up is now guaranteed $150,000 as follow on funding by another investor. If you go Wayback to the first Summer Founders Program FAQ, you’ll see this:

Why are you doing this?

Partly because we feel guilty that we all got rich almost seven years ago, and still haven’t yet given seed money to new startups; partly because we think it is an interesting hack; and partly because we think it may actually make money.

We suspect that students, and particularly undergrads, are undervalued. Twenty years ago the idea of grad students starting companies would have seemed odd. Not after Yahoo and Google. And if grad students can do it, why not undergrads too?

I agree. Undergraduates can do it and I think institutions, together with JISC, should be thinking about our own Hatchery for Hackers.

DevXS: Improve, challenge, positively disrupt

Even student hackers need to rest

I’ve spent the last five months helping to organise and host DevXS, a national student developer conference. The conference on 11-13th November was fully booked and a great success. Over 170 students attended from across the UK, representing 37 universities, as well as a further 20 tutors and developer mentors working in the Higher Education sector.

You can read more about DevXS on the conference blog which was updated throughout the weekend by a superb team of media students. There are lots of videos and presentation slides on the blog as well as pictures and information about the prize winners and their applications.

It was a really exhausting and satisfying experience to be involved in and not only was it the first conference of its kind in the UK but it looks like it will become an annual event hosted by a different university each year and organised by the JISC-funded DevCSI project.

You can read a report about the conference on the DevCSI website. The Guardian also published an article (originally titled ‘Hacking the Academy’) in the run up to the conference, which I wrote with Mike Neary.

Aberystwyth hardware hackers

Aberystwyth hardware hackers

Team HTTP Error #418

Team HTTP Error #418

Some brought their desktop rigs

Some brought their desktop rigs

The Aberdeen team raised sponsorship to attend

The Aberdeen team raised sponsorship to attend

The venue

The Engine Shed, where we lived for two days.

 

 

data.lincoln.ac.uk

Recently, I posted on the LNCD blog about our work on data.lincoln.ac.uk. You might find it interesting.

One of the by-products outcomes of our recent ‘proper’ projects is data.lincoln.ac.uk. This is simply a site that documents the data we are warehousing in our MongoDB datastore (called ‘Nucleus’), and the programatic methods by which we (and the public) can access that data. Most of the data is licensed for public use, but where appropriate (e.g. personal data), a secure access token must be requested. Currently, outside of our own projects, the only people needing/wanting secure access tokens are some third year computer science students who are using data.lincoln.ac.uk as the basis for their dissertation projects and require access to their own personal event data.

Our approach to publishing open data at the University of Lincoln has been to do so in a way that was immediately useful to the work we were doing…

Read more about ‘an open platform for development‘.

LNCD, DevXS and Orbital

It’s been a busy summer, to say the least.

The DIVERSE project is up and running and the Linking You and Jerome projects came to a successful end. We were joined by Jamie Mahoney, a new full-time Web Developer Intern and established a new group (LNCD). We’re co-organising a national student developer conference (DevXS) and have just been awarded a £241,500 grant for Orbital, an 18 month project to develop and pilot a new research infrastructure for the School of Engineering. Orbital is a great opportunity to build on some of our earlier work and get stuck into the challenges of managing raw research data. Which reminds me: data.lincoln.ac.uk is live, too :-)

Please do tell your students about DevXS.

    A Pedagogy of Excess: Interventions in the poverty of student life

    Below is an abstract that I’ve just submitted, to be considered for the special issue of Critical Studies in Peer Production. I was drawn to the call for papers for three reasons: 1) One of the co-editors, Johan Soderberg, wrote an excellent book, Hacking Capitalism: the free and open source software movement (it’s expensive to buy but worth it. His PhD thesis is here); 2) One of the ways I frame our new LNCD group, is around peer-production of technology for education by students and staff; 3) I’ve been planning to write this paper anyway but could do with a deadline. It’ll get written before the end of the year, one way or another. There’s just so much happening at the moment, I could do with a deadline.

    == //

    A Pedagogy of Excess: Interventions in the poverty of student life

    Despite the increasing marketisation of higher education, the generous practices of peer production have long been a characteristic of university life, giving rise, for example, to the emergence of the Free Software, Open Access and Open Education movements. These practices point towards a state of abundance that is not simply a Utopian vision but a real possibility of conditions already in existence within higher education where needs and capacities can be brought together (Kay and Mott, 1982). This possibility of abundance is at the heart of a critical political tradition that the University of Lincoln (UK) is engaged with through its institution-wide Student as Producer initiative (http://studentasproducer.lincoln.ac.uk/), articulated through a ‘pedagogy of excess’ (Neary and Hagyard, 2010) where students are more than just students and become producers of their own social world.

    The possibility of a state of abundance in university life has been partially recognised by both the State (e.g. Lammy, 2009) and educators (e.g. Weller, 2011). In the world of Web 2.0, universities are being positioned as ‘edgeless’ resource providers through the funding of Open Access institutional repositories and and Open Educational Resources (Winn, 2011a). Student as Producer both challenges and leverages this abundance of open resources by articulating a pedagogy of excess, whereby the student is encouraged and supported in being not just a student-consumer but rather a critical, productive, social individual. In practice, a pedagogy of excess attempts to re-orientate the roles of staff and students against the marketisation of university life, to become producers of a really existing Utopian university and creators of social wealth (Neary and Winn, 2010).

    This paper will introduce the unique approach of Student as Producer at the University of Lincoln and the ways in which we are actively supporting the re-establishment of a ‘hacker culture’ within the university where students are invited to share their ideas, mash up university administrative data and build prototypes that improve, challenge and positively disrupt the research, teaching and learning landscapes of further and higher education. In doing so, I will discuss the theoretical and practical articulation of a pedagogy of excess in terms of the peer-production of technology for education (Winn 2011b) as well as highlight the limits of our approach within a capitalist social universe.

    379 words.

    Kay and Mott (1982) Political Order and the Law of Labour. The Macmillan Press.

    Lammy (2009) The Edgeless University.

    Neary, Mike and Hagyard, Andy (2010) Pedagogy of Excess: An Alternative Political Economy of Student Life. The Marketisation of Higher Education and the Student as Consumer. Eds. Molesworth, Scullion and Nixon. Routledge.

    Neary, Mike and Winn, Joss (2009) The student as producer: reinventing the student experience in higher education. The future of higher education: policy, pedagogy and the student experience. Continuum, London.

    Neary, Mike (2010) Student as Producer: A Pedgogy for the Avant-Garde. Learning Exchange,Vol 1, No 1.

    Neary, Mike and Winn, Joss (2010) Education Beyond the Property Relation: From Commons to Communism. Presented at the Open Education 2010 Conference, Barcelona, November 2010.

    Weller, Martin (2011). A pedagogy of abundance. Spanish Journal of Pedagogy, 249 pp. 223–236.

    Winn, Joss (2011a) Open Education: from the freedom of things to the freedom of people. In: Towards teaching in public: reshaping the modern university. Continuum, London. (In Press)

    Winn, Joss (2011b) Technology for education: A new group.

    LNCD: Web Developer Intern

    Last month, I wrote about LNCD, a new progressive new group that includes educational developers, technologists, teachers, researchers and students and was set up to support the objectives of Student as Producer through the research and development of technology for education. With the formation of LNCD, we’re also looking to employ a recent graduate (or an MComp student on their placement year). The job is advertised from today and more details can be found on our Careers website.

    This Internship is designed to help recent graduates develop the skills and experience required for a number of potential roles in web development and open source hacking. We’re looking to work with, support and mentor an enthusiastic developer with a genuine interest in the use of the open, data-driven web in higher education. We’re looking for someone who enjoys working both face-to-face and in a distributed online environment and who is keen to share their work with others across the university.

    Based in the Centre for Educational Research and Development (CERD) but working across the university, you’ll be a member of LNCD, a progressive group that was recently set up to support the research and development of technology for education and includes educational developers, technologists, teachers, researchers and students. This graduate Internship is a new 12-month position, designed to provide you with the relevant mentoring, experience and skills for working in a cutting-edge web development and research environment. The role will require significant interaction with students and academic staff and you will be encouraged and supported to write about your work and present your work to peers across the university sector.

    I really want this to be a rewarding 12 month Internship for someone, who’ll be working alongside colleagues in CERD, ICT (i.e. Nick and Alex) and the Library (i.e. Paul), as well as with academic staff and students. We’re asking for a lot, but you’ll get a lot back in return and you should end the year with experience working on several internal and externally funded projects, producing and contributing to publicly hosted open source code, attending and presenting at workshops and conferences and being a named contributor to at least one published academic paper.

    If you’re interested in the Internship and wondering what you might be getting into, please do read about the LNCD group, its remit and the tools we use, and take a look at some of the work we’ve been doing over the  last year, too. Read about Student as Producer and what its objectives are and think about how you want to contribute to the work we’re doing at Lincoln.  Thanks.

    Open Data at Lincoln: What have we got?

    Tony Hirst recently blogged about the Open Data scene in UK HE, mentioning Lincoln as one of the few universities that are currently contributing HEI-related #opendata to the web. Sooner or later, I’ll write a more reflective post, but here I just wanted to document the current situation (that I’m aware of) at Lincoln. There are two groups that take an interest in furthering open data at Lincoln: LiSC, led by Prof. Shaun Lawson, and LNCD, the new cross-university group I co-ordinate which consolidates a lot of the previous and current work listed below. (For a broader overview of recent work, see this post).

    Derek Foster in LiSC recently released energy data from our main campus buildings, updated every 2hrs on Pachube. I was just speaking to Nick and Alex and I think they plan to pull this data into our nucleus datastore, combine it with the campus location-based work we’ve done and generate dynamic heat maps (assuming Derek isn’t already working on something similar??)

    LiSC are also mashing open data from the UK Police Crime Statistics database to create a social application called FearSquare and last week put together MashMyGov, a site that randomly suggests mashups using data sourced from Data.Gov.UK.

    In the past couple of years, LNCD have worked on:

    JISCPress, a 2009/10 project we worked on that didn’t release any data but developed a prototype WordPress platform that atomises documents for publication and comment on the web and spits out lots of data in open formats. It also uses OpenCalais, Triplify and can push RDF Linked Data to the Talis Platform. JISC now use it to publish documents for comment.

    Total Recal, a JISC-funded project we completed recently and will roll out across the university this September. As well as providing a fairly comprehensive and flexible calendaring service at the university, it allowed us to work on our space-time data and develop a number of APIs on top of…

    Nucleus, the epicentre of our open data efforts. This is a data store, using MongoDB, which aggregates data from a number of disparate university databases and makes that data available over secure APIs. Through a lot of hard work over the last year, Alex and Nick have compiled the single largest data store that we have at the university. Currently, it offers APIs to university events, calendars, locations and people. We’ll also be adding APIs to over 250,000 CC0 licensed bibliographic records held in Nucleus, too (see Jerome below). It also uses the OAuth-based authentication that Alex has developed.

    Linking You, is a JISC-funded project we delivered last week to JISC, which looked at our use of URIs, undertook a comparative study of 40 HEI websites (more to come), proposed a high-level data model for use by the HEI sector and made some recommendations for further work. What we’ve learned on this project will have a lasting effect on the way we present our data and on our wider advocacy of open data to the university sector. I really hope that our recommendations will lead us to more discussion and collaboration with people interested in opening university data.

    lncn.eu, a URL shortener that Alex and Nick developed in their spare time for a while and has since been formally adopted by the university. Naturally, lncn.eu has an API and can be used (e.g. Jerome) as a proxy for other services, collecting real-time analytics.

    Jerome, is a current JISC-funded project that will release over 250,000 bibliographic records under a CC0 license. The data is stored in Nucleus and documented APIs will be available by the end of July. This is a very cool project managed by Paul Stainthorp in the Library (who’s also a member of LNCD).

    We’re currently using data.online.lincoln.ac.uk to document the data that is accessible over our APIs. At some point, I can see us moving to data.lincoln.ac.uk – we just need to find time to discuss this with the right people. So far, we haven’t really gone down the RDF/Linked Data route, preferring to offer data that is linked (e.g. locations and events data are linked) and publicly accessible over APIs that are authenticated where necessary and open whenever possible. We are keen to engage in the RDF/Linked Data discussion – it’s just a matter of finding time. Please invite us to your discussions, if you think we might have something to contribute!