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March 20, 2009

Unlocking Audio

I spent the first couple of days this week at the British Library in London, attending the Unlocking Audio 2 conference.  I was there primarily to give an invited talk on the second day.

You might notice that I didn't have a great deal to say about audio, other than to note that what strikes me as interesting about the newer ways in which I listen to music online (specifically Blip.fm and Spotify) is that they are both highly social (almost playful) in their approach and that they are very much of the Web (as opposed to just being 'on' the Web).

What do I mean by that last phrase?  Essentially, it's about an attitude.  It's about seeing being mashed as a virtue.  It's about an expectation that your content, URLs and APIs will be picked up by other people and re-used in ways you could never have foreseen.  Or, as Charles Leadbeater put it on the first day of the conference, it's about "being an ingredient".

I went on to talk about the JISC Information Environment (which is surprisingly(?) not that far off its 10th birthday if you count from the initiation of the DNER), using it as an example of digital library thinking more generally and suggesting where I think we have parted company with the mainstream Web (in a generally "not good" way).  I noted that while digital library folks can discuss identifiers forever (if you let them!) we generally don't think a great deal about identity.  And even where we do think about it, the approach is primarily one of, "who are you and what are you allowed to access?", whereas on the social Web identity is at least as much about, "this is me, this is who I know, and this is what I have contributed". 

I think that is a very significant difference - it's a fundamentally different world-view - and it underpins one critical aspect of the difference between, say, Shibboleth and OpenID.  In digital libraries we haven't tended to focus on the social activity that needs to grow around our content and (as I've said in the past) our institutional approach to repositories is a classic example of how this causes 'social networking' issues with our solutions.

I stole a lot of the ideas for this talk, not least Lorcan Dempsey's use of concentration and diffusion.  As an aside... on the first day of the conference, Charles Leadbeater introduced a beach analogy for the 'media' industries, suggesting that in the past the beach was full of a small number of large boulders and that everything had to happen through those.  What the social Web has done is to make the beach into a place where we can all throw our pebbles.  I quite like this analogy.  My one concern is that many of us do our pebble throwing in the context of large, highly concentrated services like Flickr, YouTube, Google and so on.  There are still boulders - just different ones?  Anyway... I ended with Dave White's notions of visitors vs. residents, suggesting that in the cultural heritage sector we have traditionally focused on building services for visitors but that we need to focus more on residents from now on.  I admit that I don't quite know what this means in practice... but it certainly feels to me like the right direction of travel.

I concluded by offering my thoughts on how I would approach something like the JISC IE if I was asked to do so again now.  My gut feeling is that I would try to stay much more mainstream and focus firmly on the basics, by which I mean adopting the principles of linked data (about which there is now a TED talk by Tim Berners-Lee), cool URIs and REST and focusing much more firmly on the social aspects of the environment (OpenID, OAuth, and so on).

Prior to giving my talk I attended a session about iTunesU and how it is being implemented at the University of Oxford.  I confess a strong dislike of iTunes (and iTunesU by implication) and it worries me that so many UK universities are seeing it as an appropriate way forward.  Yes, it has a lot of concentration (and the benefits that come from that) but its diffusion capabilities are very limited (i.e. it's a very closed system), resulting in the need to build parallel Web interfaces to the same content.  That feels very messy to me.  That said, it was an interesting session with more potential for debate than time allowed.  If nothing else, the adoption of systems about which people can get religious serves to get people talking/arguing.

Overall then, I thought it was an interesting conference.  I suspect that my contribution wasn't liked by everyone there - but I hope it added usefully to the debate.  My live-blogging notes from the two days are here and here.

March 11, 2009

Eduserv Symposium 2009

Yesterday we announced our annual symposium for 2009, Evolution or revolution: The future of identity and access management for research [title updated 23 March 2009], which this year will focus on the intersection between identity management, access management and e-research. I think this is an important conjunction of themes and one where most focus to date has been on controlling access to resources whereas I think the interesting issues in the future will be around the changing nature of a researcher's online identity.

We think we've put together a nice mix of speakers, including those speaking from the perspective of researchers, funders, publishers, providers of national services and providers of institutional services. We also have a couple of speaking slots for which we are awaiting confirmation before we can go public.

This meeting is the 5th in our symposium series and comes at a time when we are transitioning from a Foundation to a Research Programme (about which, more later). As usual, attendance on the day is free. The symposium will be held at the Royal College of Physicians in London on Thurs 21 May 2009. Hope to see you there.

March 10, 2009

Free lunch?

Interesting that ClaimID (my current OpenID provider) are considering a subscription model, ClaimID nears 75k users.  As they say in their blog post:

Unfortunately, running ClaimID is not cheap, so we’re going to strive for a model that is both sustainable and secure.

I find myself increasingly prepared to pay for those services that I find valuable. Perhaps more importantly, I find I worry more about those services that don't offer me a way of paying directly for what I'm getting. This is just a personal thing and its certainly not clear cut one way or the other - some things are so successful that subscription model or not I don't have concerns about their future (though I appreciate that cast iron "sure things" don't actually exist in the real world). Others are worrisome even with the ability to pay directly for them. Indeed, this is one of the major considerations before starting to shell out hard-earned cash for something I guess. Whatever... one of the benefits of paying for something is that it helps to provide some direct context for the question, "How valuable is this?".

I'm saying all this primarily from a personal perspective you understand, though the reality is that the same considerations apply for those things we buy into in a professional capacity - it's just that in that case someone else is usually stumping up the cash.

March 06, 2009

Comments feed for this blog

In response to end-user demand (thanks Brian!) there is now an RSS (1.0) comments feed for this blog, listing the 25 most recent comments on all posts.  A link tag in the head section of this blog's home page should take your favorite feed reader to the right place fairly automatically.

Note that we also offer feeds of comments on individual posts (though that strikes me as somewhat less useful since we rarely get more than a few comments per post anyway).

Also note that configuring this kind of thing on Typepad strikes me as being way more complicated than it should be!

March 05, 2009

A National Research Data Service for the UK?

I attended the A National Research Data Service for the UK? meeting at the Royal Society in London last week and my live-blogged notes are available for those who want more detail.  Chris Rusbridge also blogged the day on the Digital Curation Blog - session 1, session 2, session 3 and session 4.  FWIW, I think that Chris's posts are more comprehensive and better than my live-blogged notes.

The day was both interesting and somewhat disappointing...

Interesting primarily because of the obvious political tension in the room (which I characterised on Twitter as a potential bun-fight between librarians and the rest but which in fact is probably better summed up as a lack of shared agreement around centralist (discipline-based) solutions vs. institutional solutions).

Disappointing because the day struck me more as a way of presenting a done-deal than as a real opportunity for debate.

The other thing that I found annoying was the constant parroting of the view that "researchers want to share their data openly" as though this is an obvious position.  The uncomfortable fact is that even the UKRDS report's own figures suggest that less than half (43%) of those surveyed "expressed the need to access other researchers' data" - my assumption therefore is that the proportion currently willing to share their data openly will be much smaller.

Don't take this as a vote against open access, something that I'm very much in favour of.  But, as we've found with eprint archives, a top-down "thou shalt deposit because it is good for you" approach doesn't cut it with researchers - it doesn't result in cultural change.  Much better to look for, and actively support, those areas where open sharing of data occurs naturally within a community or discipline, thus demonstrating its value to others.

That said, a much more fundamental problem facing the provision of collaborative services to the research community is that funding happens nationally but research happens globally (or at least across geographic/funding boundaries) - institutions are largely irrelevant whichever way you look at it [except possibly as an agent of long term preservation - added 6 March 2009].  Resolving that tension seems paramount to me though I have no suggestions as to how it can be done.  It does strike me however that shared discipline-based services come closer to the realities of the research world than do institutional services.

JISC bid evaluation process - some suggestions

Brian Kelly has a blog post about the use that was made of Twitter during the writing and evaluation of a recent JISC call.

I can't comment on the writing side of things, because I didn't do any, and I haven't done any analysis on the way Twitter was used as part of the evaluation process.  However, I do admit to getting a little hot under the collar about over-length bids and I did publicly vent my frustration on Twitter, which resulted in a little discussion.

Actually, it was all a storm in a tea cup as far as I was concerned because, somewhat embarrassingly, I'd mis-read the email telling me which bids I'd been assigned to mark and the one that was over length (~18 sides rather than 12 I think) was one that I wasn't even supposed to be looking at!

Doh :-(

Anyway, for what it's worth, here are my suggestions for the evaluation process in the future:

  1. Set a hard rule, maximum X pages at minimum Y point size and stick to it.
  2. Make the page length include everything: cover sheet, FOI statement, appendices, etc. That way, there is no room for argument.
  3. Require that all bids are submitted as 2 PDF files (yes, I know, I normally say I hate PDF but in this case, having everything look exactly the same is important), one containing the bid itself (as per the above rules) and one containing copies of all the letters of support.  That way, evaluators don't have to print out all the letters of support unless they really want to.
  4. Automatically reject any bid that doesn't stick to these rules (i.e. this is an admin job).

I know this sounds harsh but the point is that if you relax the rules you end up doing so in slightly arbitrary ways (i.e. you do it for the people you know but not for others or you have some vague unwritten cut-off in your head about what is acceptable).  Further, if you allow some long bids, you are effectively being unfair on those bidders who comply with the rules.  Finally, if people can't write a bid that sticks to the rules, what are their deliverables going to be like?

If you send the long bids thru to evaluators but tell them not to read past a certain page (which is current JISC practice I think) then you leave individual evaluators with a difficult problem.  In the case of the bid that I was marking but not supposed to be marking(!) for example, the information about partners was in the additional pages but I knew them well anyway.  What was I supposed to do?  Give them a zero score for that section or give them the benefit of the doubt?

Note: I'm not suggesting here that there is anything significantly wrong with the current process and in the main it works well.  But I did find this round of marking more difficult than usual (the nature of the 12/08 call was quite complex) and I suppose that highlighted some issues for me that I've probably ignored in the past.  It didn't help that I'd left all my marking to the last minute (as usual)!

March 04, 2009

How uncool? Repository URIs...

I've been using the OpenDOAR API to take a quick look at the coolness of the URIs that people in the UK are assigning to their repositories.  Why does coolness matter?  Because uncool URIs are more likely to break than cool URIs and broken URIs for the content of academic scholarly repositories will probably cause disruption to the smooth flow of scholarly communication at some point in the future.

So what is an uncool URI?  An uncool URI is one that is unlikely to be persistent, typically because the person who first assigned it didn't think hard enough about likely changes in organisational structure, policy or technology and the impact that changes in those areas might have on the persistence of the URI into the future.

In short - URIs don't break... people break them and, usually, the seeds for that breakage are sown at the point that a URI is minted.

OK, so first... hats off to the OpenDOAR team for providing such an easy to use API, one which made it simple to get at the data I was interested in - the URIs of the home pages of all the institutional repositories in the UK - by using the following link:

http://www.opendoar.org/api13.php?co=gb&rt=2&show=min

This provides a list of 107 repositories (as of 23 Feb 2009) as an XML file. Here's just the URIs of the repository home pages, broken out into the first part of the domain name, the institutional part of the domain name, the port, and the rest of the path (as a csv-separated file for easy loading into a spreadsheet).

In the following analysis, I'm making the assumption that the URI of the repository home page is carried thru into the URIs of all the items within that repository and that, if the home page URI is uncool then it is likely that the URIs for everything within that repository will be likewise.  This feels like a reasonable assumption to me, though I haven't actually checked it out.

So... what do we find?

Looking at the first part of the domain name, we find 7 institutions using 'dspace' as part of the repository domain name and 35 using 'eprints'.  Both are, presumably, derived from the technology being used as the repository platform.  Building this information into the URL is potentially uncool (because that technology might well be changed in the future).  Now, in both cases, I suspect that institutions might argue that they would stick with their use of 'eprints' and 'dspace' (particularly the former) even if the underlying technology was to change (on the basis that these terms have become somewhat generic).  I'm not totally convinced by that argument, though I think it holds more water in the case of 'eprints' than it does in the case of 'dspace' but in any case, I would argue that this is something definitely worth thinking about.

Note that 10 institutions (with some cross-over between the two counts) have built 'dspace' into the path part of the repository URL, which is uncool for the same reasons.

3 institutions have built a non-standard port (i.e. not port 80) into their repository URL.  Whilst this isn't necessarily uncool, it does warrant a question as to why it has been done and whether it will cause maintenance headaches into the future.

Looking at the path part of the URLs, 3 institutions have built the underlying technology (.htm, .php and .aspx) into their URLs - again, this is uncool because of the likelihood of future changes in technology.

A small number of institutions have built the library into their repository URLs.  This is probably OK but reflects a commitment to organisational structure thaat may not be warranted longer term?

Similarly, a larger number have built a, err..., 'jazzy' project name into their repository URL.  I would have thought it might be safer to stick to 'functional' labels like 'research' than, say 'opus', at least for the URLs, since this seems less likely to change because of political or other organisational issues into the future.

Finally, 4 institutions have outsourced their repository to openrepository.com, resulting in URLs under that domain.  Outsourcing is good (I say that not least because I work for a charity that is in that business!) but I would strongly suggest outsourcing in a form that keeps your institutional domain name as part of the URL so that your URLs don't break if your host goes bust or you decide to move things back into the institution or to another provider.

Overall then, it's another 'could try harder' mid-term report from me to the Repository 101 course members.

March 03, 2009

Web content management in UK universities

We've decided to fund a study looking at the way in which UK universities manage their Web content. There are two primary reasons for this...

Firstly, we think that sharing knowledge about current practice across the community is likely to be both of interest to people and beneficial in terms of moving things forward. Secondly, we offer content management systems as part of our charitable portfolio of services but we have not, to date, been very successful at convincing HE institutions that our offer is a good one. Consequently, we'd like to understand better what we can offer that is seen to be valuable.

We're undertaking this activity as part of our new Research Programme, which means that all the findings will be openly available to the community (including to our CMS competitors). We think this is a good thing. We're also hoping to use the findings of the study to seed a discussion session at the next Institutional Web Management Workshop.

What became of the JISC IE?

Having just done an impromptu, and very brief, 1:1 staff development session about Z39.50 and OpenURL for a colleague here at Eduserv, I was minded to take a quick look at the JISC Information Environment Technical Standards document. (I strongly suspect that the reason he was asking me about these standards, before going to a meeting with a potential client, was driven by the JISC IE work.)

As far as I can tell, the standards document hasn't been updated since I left UKOLN (more than 3 years ago). On that basis, one is tempted to conclude that the JISC IE has no relevance, at least in terms of laying out an appropriate framework of technical standards. Surely stuff must have changed significantly in the intervening years? There is no mention of Atom, REST, the Semantic Web, SWORD, OpenSocial, OpenID, OAuth, Google Sitemaps, OpenSearch, ... to name but a few.

Of course, I accept that this document could simply now be seen as irrelevant?  But, if so, why isn't it flagged as such?  It's sitting there with my name on it as though I'd checked it yesterday and the JISC-hosted Information Environment pages still link to that area as though it remains up to date.  This is somewhat frustrating, both for me as an individual and, more importantly, for people in the community trying to make sense of the available information.

Odd... what is the current status of the JISC IE, as a framework of technical standards?

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