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August 21, 2009

Browser use in UK universities

Tony Hirst asks about current browser use in UK HE, Browser Use In Higher Education – A Brake on Innovation?

On the basis that it might be helpful to Tony (and others), here is a breakdown of accesses to our MyAthens service (by browser type) for the period 19 June to 19 July this year, based on a total of 306,213 visits:

IE (total) 224,002 73.15%
IE7 101,047 33.00%
IE6 88,374 28.86%
IE8 34,382 11.23%
Firefox 61,073 19.94%
FF3.0.11 44,089 14.40%
FF3.5 3,612 1.18%
FF30.10 2,362 0.77%
FF2.0 1,548 0.51%
Safari 11,284 3.69%
Chrome 9,223 3.01%
Opera 1,093 0.36%

MyAthens is only used by UK universities and FE colleges (as far as I know) and while it isn't used by all of them, I assume these figures will be reasonably representative of the community as a whole.

[Thanks to Lisa Price (our Online Communications Manager) for the numbers.]

August 20, 2009

What researchers think about data preservation and access

There's an interesting report in the current issues of Ariadne by Neil Beagrie, Robert Beagrie and Ian Rowlands, Research Data Preservation and Access: The Views of Researchers, fleshing out some of the data behind the UKRDS Report, which I blogged about a while back.

I have a minor quibble with the way the data has been presented in the report, in that it's not overly clear how the 179 respondents represented in Figure 1 have been split across the three broad areas (Sciences, Social Sciences, and Arts and Humanities) that appear in subsequent figures. One is left wondering how significant the number of responses in each of the 3 areas was?  I would have preferred to see Figure 1 organised in such a way that the 'departments and faculties' were grouped more obviously into the broad areas.

That aside, I think the report is well worth reading.  I'll just highlight what the authors perceive to be the emerging themes:

  • It is clear that different disciplines have different requirements and approaches to research data.
  • Current provision of facilities to encourage and ensure that researchers have data stores where they can deposit their valuable data for safe-keeping and for sharing, as appropriate, varies from discipline to discipline.
  • Local data management and preservation activity is very important with most data being held locally.
  • Expectations about the rate of increase in research data generated indicate not only higher data volumes but also an increase in different types of data and data generated by disciplines that have not until recently been producing volumes of digital output.
  • Significant gaps and areas of need remain to be addressed.

The Findings of the Scoping Study and Research Data Management Workshop (undertaken at the University of Oxford and part of the work that infomed the Ariadne article) provides an indication of the "top requirements for services to help [researchers] manage data more effectively":

  • Advice on practical issues related to managing data across their life cycle. This help would range from assistance in producing a data management/sharing plan; advice on best formats for data creation and options for storing and sharing data securely; to guidance on publishing and preserving these research data.
  • A secure and user-friendly solution that allows storage of large volume of data and sharing of these in a controlled fashion way allowing fine grain access control mechanisms.
  • A sustainable infrastructure that allows publication and long-term preservation of research data for those disciplines not currently served by domain specific services such as the UK Data Archive, NERC Data Centres, European Bioinformatics Institute and others.
  • Funding that could help address some of the departmental challenges to manage the research data that are being produced.

Pretty high level stuff so nothing particularly surprising there. It seems to me that some work drilling down into each of these areas might be quite useful.

A socio-political analysis of the history of Dublin Core terms

No... this isn't one. Sorry about that! But reading Eric Hellman's recent blog post, Can Librarians Be Put Directly Onto the Semantic Web?, made me wonder if such a thing would be interesting (in a "how much metadata can you fit on the head of a pin" kind of way!).

Eric's post discusses the need for, or not, inverse properties in the Semantic Web and the necessary changes of mindset in moving from thinking about 'metadata' to thinking about 'ontologies':

In many respects, the most important question for the library world in examining semantic web technologies is whether librarians can successfully transform their expertise in working with metadata into expertise in working with ontologies or models of knowledge. Whereas traditional library metadata has always been focused on helping humans find and make use of information, semantic web ontologies are focused on helping machines find and make use of information. Traditional library metadata is meant to be seen and acted on by humans, and as such has always been an uncomfortable match with relational database technology. Semantic web ontologies, in contrast, are meant to make metadata meaningful and actionable for machines. An ontology is thus a sort of computer program, and the effort of making an RDF schema is the first step of telling a computer how to process a type of information.

I think there's probably some interesting theorising to be done about the history of the Dublin Core metadata properties, in particular about the way they have been named over the years and the way some have explicit inverse properties but others don't.

So, for example, dcterms:creator and dcterms:hasVersion use different naming styles ('creator' rather than 'hasCreator') and dcterms:hasVersion has an explicit inverse (dcterms:isVersionOf) whereas dcterms:creator does not (there is no dcterms:isCreatorOf).

Unfortunately, I don't recall much of the detail of why these changes in attitude to naming occured over the years. My suspicion is that it has something to do with the way our understanding of 'web' metadata has evolved over time.  Two things in particular I guess.  Firstly, the way in which there has been a gradual change from understanding properties as being 'attributes with string values' (very much the view when dc:creator was invented) to understanding properties as 'the meat between two resources in an RDF triple'.  And, secondly, a change in thinking first and foremost about 'card catalogues' and/or relational databases to thinking about triple stores (perhaps better characterised (as Eric did) as a transition between thinking about metadata as something that is viewed by humans to something that is acted upon by software).

I strongly suspect that both these changes in attitude are very much ongoing (at least in the DC community - possibly elsewhere?).

Note also the difference in naming between dcterms:valid and dcterms:dateCopyrighted (both of which are refinements of dcterms:date). The former emerged at a time when the prefered encoding syntaxes tended to prefix 'valid' with 'DC.date.' to give 'DC.date.valid' whereas the latter emerged at a time when properties where recognised as being stand-alone entities (i.e. after the emergence of Semantic Web thinking).

If nothing else, working with the Dublin Core community over the years has served as a very useful reminder about the challenges 'ordinary' (I don't mean that in any way negatively) people face in understanding what some 'geeks' might perceive to be very simple Semantic Web concepts.  I've lost track of the number of 'strings vs. things' type discussions I've been involved in!  And to an extent, part of the reason for developing the DCMI Abstract Model was to try to bridge the gap between a somewhat 'old-skool' (dare I say, 'traditional librarian'?) view of the world and the Semantic Web view of the world.  Of course, one can argue about whether we succeeded in that aim.

August 06, 2009

The management of website content in UK universities - report available

The final report from the Investigation into the management of website content in higher education institutions (undertaken by SIRC and funded by us) is now available.

We funded the investigation for two reasons: firstly, to help the community (particularly those involved with university 'web teams') to understand itself a little better and secondly, to help us understand the space in order that we can think about tailoring our own content management, web hosting and other services to the needs of UK higher education in line with our charitable mission.  I think/hope we've succeeded on both counts.

So what have we learned?  Well, first off, it's a long report, 58 pages, so it's not easy to summarise in a few words.  At the Care in the community session we ran at IWMW a week or so ago, Simon Bradley from SIRC presented these slides, which give a nice overview:

Trying to look past the raw numbers a little, here are my thoughts...

The management of university Web content (and associated provision of Web applications more generally) continues to mature as an area of professional activity and there is a growing recognition of the value that the Web and the Web team bring to the institution. That said, there appears to be a continued emphasis (particularly amongst senior members of HEIs) on using the Web as a way of “marketing the institution to new audiences” rather than meeting the ‘business’ needs of existing members of the institution (lecturers, students and researchers and other staff). Furthermore, despite the growing recognition of value there is a perceived mismatch between the expectations put on the Web team and the level of resources made available to them leading to significant ‘time pressures’ for many teams.

Web teams need to be as good at writing plain English as they are at writing code and the challenges they face are at least as much ‘managerial’ as they are ‘technical’. Given that many Web teams remain quite small that seems to imply that flexible people with a broad skills-base are quite valuable. Web strategies are seen as very important but need to be adopted institution-wide to be properly effective. Sitting at the cross-roads between new media, ‘old school’ university culture and the more hard-nosed world of marketing and business requires good communication skills. Such positioning makes Web teams crucial to the successful functioning of HEIs but can also leave them vulnerable to the kinds of issues and challenges faced by such large, complex organisations. The wide variety of job titles, job descriptions and organisational positioning for those with responsibility for the management of Web content leads to a somewhat confusing picture across the UK as a whole – something that is indicative of a profession that, while continuing to mature, is still relatively young.

Despite the indicated shift towards greater recognition of the importance of the Web in universities, there remains a need for broad 'cultural shifts' in Higher Education. Attitudes and perspectives are changing, but academics and senior management alike still need to develop a better understanding the nature of the web as a context for academic practice, as a platform for sharing knowledge, and as an avenue for economic development.

The use of Content Management Systems is wide-spread, with about half having been deployed since 2006. Major factors in the decision-making process appear to be usability, reliability and scalability while familiarity and popularity are not deemed to be important. In general, HEIs seem reasonably happy with their choice of CMS with the majority not currently considering a change. Where change is being considered, technical limitations and changing institutional requirements are cited as the reason. There seems to be little evidence that the university community takes a particular view ‘for’ or ‘against’ open source or proprietary software CMS solutions.

There seems to be a similarly balanced attitude to outsourcing. Whilst valid reasons are presented for developing skills in-house, it is clear that Web teams are willing to consider outsourcing work to external consultants (e.g. where there are skills gaps) not least because it is sometimes the case that senior management seem to be prepared to take more notice of an ‘impartial’ external view. That said, the survey data does not suggest overwhelming satisfaction with the use of external consultants in the work of the Web team.

It is clear that most university Web teams now monitor user behaviour in some way in order to inform the future design of the website. However, most teams indicated that such monitoring is not comprehensive enough.

Web teams seem to be broadly optimistic about the future of Web content management, recognising several key areas as short-term drivers for development (growing use of rich media and social networking and the need for a more personalised website offering for example). However, there appears to be a more cautious response when asked to consider the institution’s ability to keep pace with the current and future rate of technological change, the implication being that more investment in resources is required if universities are to continue to maximise the effectiveness of their use of the Web in the future.

A big thank you to all those people who contributed to the report, either thru the interviews or by completeing the Web survey. It is much appreciated. The report is dotted with some pretty pithy comments from those interviewed, some of which I've been tweeting over the last few days. Here are two of my favorites:

I think universities have a habit of going “Yes, the web is the future” without actually giving it any resource because it’s seen as being free and actually it’s a huge entity involving a lot of people, underlying technologies, and it needs managing in the same way as any other resource.

and:

I think there are several opposites that I naturally find myself in the middle of with understanding of both; so mediation is an enormous part of the role because I’ve got quite extreme marketing coming in one ear and the usual academic way of just talking in really quite difficult language and sounding very clever for five pages without any paragraph breaks in another.

Happy reading... I really hope people find this report to be of value. Let us know how you get on with it.

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