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April 24, 2008

Slideshare, Tibet, China and DoS attacks

I Twittered briefly (yes, I know that all tweets are brief by definition) this morning that Slideshare appeared to be down again.  Within minutes I got a response from a member of staff at Slideshare indicating that they were under attack from hackers.

As an aside, I should note that this is not the first time I've received very prompt and helpful technical support as the direct result of tweeting about an issue (and not just from Slideshare either).  This feels very impressive, at least to me as an end-user of the service offering its help.  At the current stage of its development, Twitter seems very good for this right now.  I'm not sure it will last - not because the will won't be there but because the growing numbers of Twitter users will become increasingly difficult to deal with.

Anyway, it turns out (as reported by Techcrunch, SlideShare Slammed with DDOS Attacks from China) that Slideshare is suffering from a series of Denial of Service (DoS) attacks launched from somewhere in China at the moment, apparently in protest at various presentations on Slideshare covering the situation in Tibet.

Now, I'm not in a position to comment on where these attacks originate, nor why they are happening.  But I assume that they are real and, if so, that their effects can be felt by ordinary end-users of the Slideshare service.

In recent comments on my own blog post about Jorum I suggested that the global impact of services like Slideshare is hard to ignore when thinking about where content is best surfaced on the Web.  But success brings with it both negatives and positives I guess.  Most obvious are the issues around sustainability and reliability - like many such services, Slideshare uses Amazon S3 behind the scenes to help cope with peaks in demand and, by and large, it seems to do so reasonably well.  This is a different kind of threat - that success brings with it attention of a less healthy kind.  We've seen similar but different things of late with Second Life, where Linden Lab seem to have come increasingly under the scrutiny of political interests in the US - not of the direct action kind we are seeing here but certainly capable of having a significant impact on the way the service grows and develops.

I'm not suggesting this as a reason for not using the likes of Slideshare - just noting an interesting aspect of the globalised world in which we live and that service architectures and delivery models need to be mindful of those cases where the wrong kind of people want to do the wrong kind of things.  The Internet itself being a classic example I suppose.

April 21, 2008

Jorum to move to open access

The JISC have announced that Jorum, the national learning object repository hosted and run jointly by MIMAS and EDINA, is to move to an 'open access' model.

This is good news, though one is tempted to wonder why it has taken so long!  I've argued for a while now that using a relatively closed licensing model and forcing registration before use would more or less stop the service in its tracks.

Through the development of JorumOpen, lecturers and teachers will be able to share materials under the Creative Commons licence framework: this makes sharing easier, granting users greater rights for use and re-use of online content and easier to understand. Importantly, it does not require prior registration. As a result availability is global as well as across UK universities and colleges. JorumOpen will run alongside a 'members only' facility, JorumEducationUK, that will support sharing of material just within the UK educational sector; this will be available only to registered users and contributors, as is currently the case.

Is the addition of JorumOpen enough to turn the service around?  I'm not sure to be honest.  It might be, though I'm not fully convinced that the notion of learning objects, as relatively complex packages of other objects, is compelling and/or simple enough to really succeed.  Can something like Jorum really take on the likes of Slideshare, Flickr and YouTube?

Libraries of the future

There's a special supplement in tomorrow's Education Guardian (Tuesday, 22 April) looking at college and university libraries of the future.  This has been prepared in collaboration with the JISC as part of their Libraries of the Future programme.  Material from the supplement, covering information literacy, physical learning spaces, Library 2.0, business models, digitisation, users and librarians is already available on the Guardian Web site.

April 15, 2008

IMLS Digital Collections & Content

Another somewhat belated post.... Andy and I both get occasional invitations to be members of advisory/steering groups for various programmes and projects operating in the areas in which we have an interest. I'm currently a member of the Advisory Group for the second phase of the Digital Collections and Content project which is funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and led by a team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Given the UK focus of the Foundation, it's probably slightly unusual for me to take on such a role for a US project, but it combines a number of our interests - repositories, resource discovery, metadata, the use of cultural heritage resources for learning and research, and I have also worked with some members of the project team in the past in the development of the Dublin Core Collections Application Profile.

The group met recently in Chicago, and although I wasn't able to attend the meeting in person, I managed to join in by phone for a couple of hours. One area in which the project seems to be doing some interesting work is in the relationships between collection-level description and item description, and in particular the use of algorithms/rules by which item-level metadata might be inferred from collection-level metadata.

The project is also exploring how collection-level metadata might be presented more effectively during searching, particularly to provide contextual information for individual items.

April 14, 2008

Open Repositories 2008

I spent a large part of last week the week before last (Tuesday, Wednesday & Friday) at the Open Repositories 2008 conference at the University of Southampton.

There were something around 400 delegates there, I think, which I guess is an indicator of the considerable current level of interest around the R-word. Interestingly, if I recall conference chair Les Carr's introductory summary of stats correctly, nearly a quarter of these had described themselves as "developers", so the repository sphere has become a locus for debate around technical issues, as well as the strategic, policy and organisational aspects. The JISC Common Repository Interfaces Group (CRIG) had a visible presence at the conference, thanks to the efforts of David Flanders and his comrades, centred largely around the "Repository Challenge" competition (won by Dave Tarrant, Ben O’Steen and Tim Brody with their "Mining with ORE" entry).

The higher than anticipated number of people did make for some rather crowded sessions at times. There was a long queue for registration, though that was compensated for by the fact that I came away from that process with exactly two small pieces of paper: a name badge inside an envelope on which were printed the login details or the wireless network. (With hindsight, I could probably have done with a one page schedule of what was on in which location - there probably was one which I missed picking up!) Conference bags (in a rather neat "vertical" style which my fashion-spotting companions reliably informed me was a "man bag") were available, but optional. (I was almost tempted, as I do sport such an accessory at weekends, and it was black rather than dayglo orange, but decided to resist on the grounds that there was a high probability of it ending up in the hotel wastepaper bin as I packed up to leave.) Nul points, however, to those advertisers who thought it was a good idea to litter every desktop surface in the crowded lecture theatre with their glossy propaganda, with the result that a good proportion of it ended up on the floor as (newly manbagged-up) delegates squeezed their way to their seats.

The opening keynote was by Peter Murray-Rust of the Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics, University of Cambridge. With some technical glitches to contend with, which must have been quite daunting in the circumstances - Peter has posted a quick note on his view of the experience! "I have no idea what I said" :-)) - , Peter delivered a somewhat "non-linear" but always engaging and entertaining overview of the role of repositories for scientific data. He noted the very real problem that while ever increasing quantities of data are being generated, very little of it is being successfully captured, stored and made accessible to others. Peter emphasised that any attempt to capture this data effectively must fit in with the existing working practices of scientists, and must be perceived as supporting the primary aims of the scientist, rather than introducing new tasks which might be regarded as tangential to those aims. And the practices of those scientists may, in at least some areas of scientific research, be highly "locally focused" i.e. the scientists see their "allegiances" as primarily to a small team with whom data is shared - at least in the first instance, an approach categorised as "long tail science" (a term attributed to Peter's colleague Jim Downing). Peter supported his discussion with examples drawn from several different e-Chemistry projects and initiatives, including the impressive OSCAR-3 text mining software which extracts descriptions of chemical compounds from documents)

Most of the remainder of the Tuesday and Wednesday I spent in paper sessions. The presentation I enjoyed most was probably a presentation by Jane Hunter from the University of Queensland on the work of the HarvANA project on a distributed approach to annotation and tagging of resources from the Picture Australia collection (in the first instance at least - at the end, Jane whipped through a series of examples of applying the same techniques to other resources). Jane covered a model for annotation on tagging based on the W3C Annotea model, a technical architecture for gathering and merging distributed annotations/taggings (using OAI-PMH to harvest from targets at quite short time intervals (though those intervals could be extended if preferred/required)), browser-based plug-in tools to perform annotation/tagging, and also touched on the relationships between tagging and formally-defined ontologies. The HarvANA retrieval system currently uses an ontology to enhance tag-based retrieval - "ontology-based or ontology-directed folksonomy" - , but the tags provided could also contribute to the development/refinement of that ontology, "folksonomy-directed ontology". Although it was in many ways a repository-centric approach and Jane focused on the use of existing, long-established technologies, she also succeeded in placing repositories firmly in the context of the Web: as systems which enable us to expose collections of resources (and collections of descriptions of those resources), which then enter the Web of relationships with other resources managed and exposed by other systems - here, the collections of annotations exposed by the Annotea servers, but potentially other collections too.

At Wednesday lunch time, (once I managed to find the room!) I contributed to a short "birds of a feather" session co-ordinated by Rosemary Russell of UKOLN and Julie Allinson of the University of York on behalf of the Dublin Core Scholarly Communications Community. We focused mainly on the Scholarly Works Application Profile and its adoption of a FRBR-based model, and talked around the extension of that approach to other resource types which is under consideration in a number of sibling projects currently being funded by JISC. (Rather frustratingly for me, this meeting clashed with another BoF session on Linked Data which I would really have liked to attend!)

I should also mention the tremendously entertaining presentation by Johan Bollen of the Los Alamos National Laboratory on the research into usage metrics carried out by the MESUR project. Yes, I know, "tremendously entertaining" and "usage statistics" aren't the sort of phrases I expect to see used in close proximity either. Johan's base premise was, I think, that seeking to illustrate impact through blunt "popularity" measures was inadequate, and he drew a distinction between citation - the resources which people announce in public that they have read - and usage - the actual resources they have downloaded. Based on a huge dataset of usage statistics provided by a range of popular publishers and aggregators, he explored a variety of other metrics, comparing the (surprisingly similar) rankings of journals obtained via several of these metrics with the rankings provided by the citation-based Thomson impact factor. I'm not remotely qualified to comment on the appropriateness of Johan's choice of algorithms, but the fact that Johan kept a large audience engaged at the end of a very long day was a tribute to his skill as a presenter. (Though I'd still take issue with the Britney (popular but insubstantial?)/Big Star (low-selling but highly influential/lauded by the cognoscenti) opposition: nothing by Big Star can compare with the strutting majesty of "Toxic". No, not even "September Gurls".)

On the Friday, I attended the OAI ORE Information Day, but I'll make that the subject of a separate post.

All in all - give or take a few technical hiccups - it was a successful conference, I think (and thanks to Les and his team for their hard work) - perhaps more so in terms of the "networking" that took place around the formal sessions, and the general "buzz" there seemed to be around the place, than because of any ground-breaking presentations.

And yet, and yet... at the end of the week I did come away from some of the sessions with my niggling misgivings about the "repository-centric" nature of much of the activity I heard described slightly reinforced. Yes, I know: what did I expect to hear at a conference called "Open Repositories"?! :-) But I did feel an awful lot of the emphasis was on how "repository systems" communicate with each other (or how some other app communicates with one repository system and then with another repository system ) e.g. how can I "get something out" of your repository system and "put it into" my repository system, and so on. It seems to me that - at the technical level at least - we need to focus less on seeing repository systems as "specific" and "different" from other Web applications, and focus more on commonalities. Rather than concentrating on repository interfaces we should ensure that repository systems implement the uniform interface defined by the RESTful use of the HTTP protocol. And then we can shift our focus to our data, and to

  • the models or ontologies (like FRBR and the CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model, or even basic one-object-is-made-available-in-multiple-formats models) which condition/determine the sets of resources we expose on the Web, and see the use of those models as choices we make rather than something "technologically determined" ("that's just what insert-name-of-repository-software-app-of-choice does");
  • the practical implementation of formalisms like RDF which underpin the structure of our representations describing instances of the entities defined by those models, through the adoption of conventions such as those advocated by the Linked Data community

In this world, the focus shifts to "Open (Managed) Collections" (or even "Open Linked Collections"), collections of documents, datasets, images, of whatever resources we choose to model and expose to the world. And as a consumer of those resources  I (and, perhaps more to the point, my client applications) really don't need to know whether the system that manages and exposes those collections is a "repository" or a "content management system" or something else (or if the provider changes that system from one day to the next): they apply the same principles to interactions with those resources as they do to any other set of resources on the Web.

April 12, 2008

UKOLN 30th Anniversary video

I just know this is what you've been waiting for...

The images are on Flickr and my Facebook profile.

April 10, 2008

Shibboleth Technical Reading List

Simon McLeish at LSE has produced a nice (and compact) list of technical reading material for those who are new to Shibboleth and the UK Access Management Federation.

I think he is looking for suggestions of what else to include, so if you have any, get in touch with him directly.

UKOLN's 30th bash

Ukolnstaff Pete and I are travelling up to London later today to attend UKOLN's 30th anniversary celebrations, being held at the British Library.  30 years old - blimey... who'd have thought it!

I joined UKOLN in 1996 and I look back on my near-10 years there with a lot of fondness.  The early years of the eLib Programme were awash with excitement - particularly that librarians would somehow shape the way that the Web evolved - and UKOLN was fairly central to much of the activity, both in the UK and more widely.  With hindsight, this was, well, how shall I put it... somewhat naive?  But that didn't make it any less fun at the time.  The Web moved on and most of us have spent the rest of our working lives trying to catch up with it but I still like to think that we helped in a small way to lay the foundations of what has come since.  UKOLN's focus has broadened somewhat since those days but it continues to offer the community a valuable thought-leadership role in all aspects of digital information management.

Working at UKOLN gave me an opportunity to get involved in a whole range of interesting projects, services and standards-related activities including the Dublin Core, the OAI-PMH, OpenURL, RDF and the semantic Web, RSS, persistent identifiers, the JISC Information Environment, Intute (I should add hyperlinks to each of these but they are now so well known that it hopefully isn't necessary) and a whole range of other things.  Hey, there were times when I even enjoyed European projects!

I'd like to offer my thanks to both Lorcan and Liz for the way they have led UKOLN over the years, not least in dealing with the difficult task of balancing competing demands from funders, the University of Bath and the other stakeholders, to Lorcan for his ongoing vision and inspiration (for me - and others I suspect - the chance to work with Lorcan was a big draw in moving to UKOLN in the first place), to the other staff at UKOLN over the years (far too many to mention) for making UKOLN such a great place to work, to people like Cliff Lynch who have offered UKOLN significant support over the years, and to the funders for (mostly :-) ) remembering that UKOLN does what it does best when it is left to get on with things in its own way.

Here's to another 30 years...

[Image: UKOLN staff circa 1996 - taken from the UKOLN Facebook group.]

Brief grants update

Three of us - myself, Pete and Ed - have now deliberated, cogitated and digested the 128 short proposals (2 sides of A4) that we received under this year's grants call.  This was no easy task I can tell you, not least because there were a lot of really interesting ideas put forward this year.  Having said that, there was a remarkable level of agreement between us in our final selection.

Using a simple marking system (yes, no, maybe) followed by extensive discussion of each bid that got at least one yes, we have narrowed down the field to 17, each of which will be asked to prepare a longer proposal (8 sides of A4).  These will be more thoroughly peer-reviewed, with 6 or so of the proposal teams being invited for interview at Eduserv in due course.

I have already apologised in advance to those that haven't got thru this phase, so I won't do so again here. But I hope  people understand that reducing a field of 128 down to 16 or 17 meant that we had to reject a lot of proposals that might otherwise have got thru to the second phase.  It is also worth remembering that we have, in part at least, to make our decisions about what we fund in order to maximise synergies with the other things we are already funding and with what we are doing in-house.  In short, we have to think about the overall programme as well as the individual projects.  This is true of any funding body of course, but being a small funder, funding only a few projects each year, this is a surprisingly difficult thing to get right.

Powerhouse becomes first museum to join the Commons on Flickr

2362702043_3a80db9624_o_2 Via Seb Chan I note that the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia is the first museum to join the Commons on Flickr:

In the tradition of ’slow food’ we have decided to do a slow release of content with an initial 200 historic images of Sydney and surrounds available through the Commons on Flickr and a promise of another 50 new fresh images each week! These initial images are drawn from the Tyrrell Collection. Representing some of the most significant examples of early Australian photography, the Tyrrell Collection is a series of glass plate negatives by Charles Kerry (1857-1928) and Henry King (1855-1923), two of Sydney’s principal photographic studios at the time.

A follow-up post discusses the apparent impact this move is having.

Good stuff.  Which UK museum is going to be the first to do this I wonder?

[Image: A modern Australian shearer.  Glass plate negative.  Tyrrell Photographic Collection, Powerhouse Museum.]

April 04, 2008

Here comes everybody... well, some of us anyway

Writing in the Times Higher Education, Tara Brabazon (Professor of Media Studies, University of Brighton) provides an interesting review of Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations.  Having not read the book, I can't comment on the quality of this review as a critique, but it does serve as a useful reminder we are too easily fooled into thinking that the transformative changes brought about by Web 2.0 are equally beneficial to everyone.  Of course, they are not.  We live in a digitally divided world and it is arguable whether the gap is opening or closing?

Older citizens, the poor, the illiterate and the socially excluded are invisible in Shirky's "everybody". Once more, the US, and occasionally the UK, is "the world" in the world wide web. The hypothesis is clear: the internet/web/Web 2.0 changed "everything". The question remains: for whom? Shirky states that "the hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be contained by the institutional structure of the existing society". Yet he is no Bolshevik. His collectivised hippydom hits trouble when dealing with the less palatable/consumerable parts of social networking, such as cutter communities and the "pro-ana" anorexia websites. In response, Shirky simply continues his metaphor for radical change: "it's not a revolution if nobody loses". "Everybody" suddenly evaporates.

When I introduced our OpenID meeting in October last year I spoke about the increasingly varied use that members of my immediate family are making of the Web in general and social networks in particular and used the examples as evidence to support an argument for lifelong user-centric online identities rather than sector-specific institutionally-centric ones.  I think the argument remains valid, but I must admit that several members of the audience made comments along the lines of, "interesting talk, but one that bears no relationship to many of the students we get coming to our institution".

I disagree with Brabazon on one point.  Towards the end of the review she says, "The long tail of proliferating mediocrity, where bloggers link to other bloggers and podcasters namecheck other podcasters, is the great cost of Web 2.0".  I find myself frustrated by the continual association of Web 2.0 and mediocrity, not that I think that is quite what Brabazon is arguing - but there is a danger that it will be interpreted in that way.

Tech support via Twitter

I spent a few hours yesterday copying-and-pasting text from PDF into Powerpoint in order to create my Slideshare version of the Byron report summary for children.  Then I uploaded it to Slideshare and waited for it to appear on the Eduserv Foundation's Slidespace... and waited... and waited.  By this morning I'd waited 15 hours for the conversion to Slideshare's internal format to happen, something that usually only takes a few minutes at most.

I sent a tweet on Twitter asking if other people were having similar problems.  One of my followers (tango2) came back to say not.

Then something unexpected happened... I got a message via Twitter from someone at Slideshare saying:

  @andypowe11  Hi Andy, the SlideShare team is fixing the issue at the moment. It will be done in a couple of hours. Arun from SS.

A couple of tweets later and everything had been sorted, including a couple of stuck upload attempts of mine being removed.

Unsolicited tech support via Twitter... now that's what I call service!

Changing perceptions...

Eduservclientlist It's funny how our interpretation of design and text layout changes over time and is influenced by the Web.

Looking at one of our current paper flyers - the list of Eduserv clients (shown here) - one is struck, now, by how much it looks like a tag cloud.  Yet I'm pretty sure that isn't how it was intended to be viewed when it was designed - at least, I don't believe that the relative sizing and coloring of words carries any accepted 'tag cloud' semantics.

But, increasingly, I guess that is how it will naturally be interpreted?

Re-purposing the Byron report for kids

Via Dan Livingstone on Learning Games I note that that the Byron Report, Safer Children in a  Digital World: the report of the Byron Review, has been made available in a summary form suitable for children and young people.  Great idea... though it's a shame that has only been made available as a PDF copy of the paper document - hardly the most exciting format to use on the Web, particularly given the context.

I've taken the liberty of re-purposing this summary into a set of Powerpoint slides, uploaded into Slideshare.  This means that it can be very easily embedded into school's Web sites (or anywhere else for that matter):

I've tried as far as possible to retain the look and feel of the original summary, though there are places where the formatting has necessarily had to be changed.  This is text-heavy for a presentation - but then, it isn't really a presentation, it's an embeddable document.

Undertaking this work highlighted, for me, the utter, utter crapness of PDF as an online distribution format.  Copying-and-pasting the text resulted in me having to remove umpteen fixed line breaks for example.  It is also worth noting that this work probably contravenes the licence under which the summary has been made available:

Extracts from this document may be reproduced for non-commercial research, education or training purposes on the condition that the source is acknowledged.

I suppose that what I've done here isn't technically an extract! :-) Sigh... why would anyone want to limit the ways in which this particular document can be re-used and re-purposed?  If what I've done here offends anyone, let me know and I'll take it down.

[Note (added 2008/04/10): I'm pleased to say that the licence under which this material is made available is less restrictive than the above text would appear to indicate.  I don't quite understand why they are not more up-front about this, nor why a click-thru licence is required, but overall I think the licencing situation is acceptable.  See the comments for details.]

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