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August 28, 2008

Lost in the JISC Information Environment?

Tony Ross, writing in the current issue of Ariadne, Lost in the JISC Information Environment, gives a nice summary of some of the issues around the JISC Information Environment technical architecture.  He hits a lot of nails on the head, despite using that diagram twice in the same article!  On that basis he seems anything but lost.  That said, one is kind of left feeling "so what" by the end.

The IE does not, can not, have existence. The term is a description of a set of interoperable services and technologies which have been created to enhance the resource discovery access and use for users in HE/FE; it exists to aid conceptualisation of this ephemeral subject. No more, no less.

Well hang on, either it exists or it doesn't (that paragraph says both!) but the creation of services tends to indicate, to me, that it does.  Whatever... it's an angels on the head of a pin type of discussion, best moved to the pub.

In his response, Paul Walk suggests that all models are wrong, but some are useful, the JISC IE architecture being one of the useful ones, and broadly speaking I agree, though one might argue that the prescriptive nature of the architecture (or at least, the prescriptive way in which it has often been interpreted) has got us to a place where we no longer want to be?  And, leaving the diagram to one side for a moment, the technical standards certainly were intended to be prescriptive.  I can remember discussions in UKOLN about the relative merits of such an approach vs. a more ad hoc, open-ended and experimental one but I argued at the time that we wouldn't build a coherent environment if we just let people do whatever the hell they wanted.  Maybe I was wrong?

Referring to the "myth" quotes in the Ariadne article, I don't have a problem with trying to be prescriptive but at the same time recognising that what ends up happening on the ground may well be different in detail to what the blueprint says.

Looking back, I do find it somewhat frustrating that the diagram came to epitomise everything that the JISC IE was about whilst much of the associated work, the work on UML use case analysis for example (which was very much focused on end-user needs), largely got forgotten.  Such is life I suppose?  But let's ignore that... the work certainly had impact, and by and large it was for the good.  Think about when the DNER effort first started, way back at the end of the last century (yes, really!), a time when any notions of machine to machine interaction were relatively immature and not widely accepted (certainly not in the way they are today).  The idea that any service provider would care about exposing content in a machine-readable form for other bits of software to consume and display somewhere else on the Web was alien to many in the community.  Remember Lorcan Dempsey talking about us needing to overcome the information brandscape? :-)

If nothing else, the IE architecture helped contribute to the idea that there is value in going beyond the simple building of an HTML Web site.  In that sense, it had a Web 2.0 flavour to it well before Web 2.0 was a gleam in anybody's eye.  The world has come a long way since then... a long, long way.  The IE architecture got things wrong in the same way that most digital library activities got things wrong - it didn't anticipate the way the Web would evolve and it adopted a set of technologies that, with the exception of RSS, were rather non-Web-friendly in their approach (OAI-PMH, Z39.50, SRW/SRU, OpenURL and so on).  The Web Architecture, the Semantic Web, Web 2.0 (and in particular the emergence of the Web as a social environment and the predominance of user-generated content), REST and so on never really got a look in - nor could they, since the work on the JISC IE came too early for them in many ways.

With hindsight, the appearance of registries down the left-hand side was probably a mistake - what we missed, again, was that the Web would become the only 'registry' that anyone would need.  But it is the largely exclusive focus on resource discovery through metadata rather than full-text, as though the Web was a library of physical books, that is the JISC IE's most harmful legacy - a legacy that we still see being played out in discussions around open access repositories today.  If I've done harm to the community through the work on the JISC IE, then that is where I feel it has been worst.  Remember that in the early days of the JISC IE the primary aim was around the discovery, access and use of commercially valuable content that was not being exposed (to anyone) for full-text indexing, so the initial focus on metadata was probably excusable. Unfortunately, the impact of that design choice has now gone well beyond that.

The addition of the 'indexes' box to the diagram (it wasn't in the original versions) was recognition that Google was doing something that the IE could not - but it was too little, too late - the damage had been done.  That's not to say that metadata doesn't have a place.  It certainly does.  Metadata is about much more than resource discovery after all, and in any case, it brings things to resource discovery that are not possible with full-text indexing alone.  But we need balance in the way it is adopted and used and, looking back, I don't think we properly had such balance in the JISC IE.

Towards the end of his blog entry Paul says:

Turning to the reworked diagram which Tony offers at the end of his piece - I presume this is not offered too seriously as an alternative but is, rather, meant simply to show an ‘non-deterministic’ version. It is interesting that this version seems to miss what is, in my view, the most important issue with the original, in the way it simply copies the same depiction of the client desktop/browser.

That diagram was created by me, initially for a small group of JISC-people but then re-used in the presentation that Tony cites.  It originally had the caption, "what the user sees" and was preceded by the usual diagram with the caption, "what the architecture says".  So yes, some humour was intended.  But the serious point was that every variant of every box on the diagram necessarily offers a human Web interface, irrespective of whether it also presents a machine-interface, so the user just sees a Web of stuff, some of which is joined together behind the scenes in various ways.

As to that "client desktop/browser" icon!?  Yes, it's use was somewhat simplistic, even at the time - certainly now, where we have a much wider range of mobile and other client devices.  But as with the rest of the diagram, there was/is a tension between drawing something that people can easily engage with vs. drawing something that correctly captures more abstract principles.

On balance, I think the UK HE and FE community is better off for having had that diagram and the associated work, around which a useful and significant programme of activities has been able to be built by the JISC, as described by Paul.  Does the diagram remain useful now?  I'm less sure about that tbh.

August 26, 2008

Web futures - who ordered the pragmatic semantic organism with fries?

In the first of his Ten Futures (which is an interesting read by the way) Stephen Downes suggests that the Semantic Web will never happen and that we need the Pragmatic Web instead:

Forget about the Semantic Web. Whether or not it ever gets built, you can be sure that we will be complaining about it. Because while the Semantic Web gives us meaning, it doesn’t give us context. It will give us what we can get from an encyclopedia, but not what we can get from phoning up our best buddy.

The pragmatic web, by contrast, is all about context. Your tools know who you are, what you’re doing, who you’ve been talking to, what you know, where you want to go, where you are now, and what the weather is like outside.

Whilst I remain unsure about the likely arrival date of the Semantic Web or indeed whether it will ever arrive at all (in any real terms), and whilst I quite like the Pragmatic Web label, I can't agree with him about the cause.  Success or failure of the Semantic Web does not rest with context - there is plenty of semantic work in that area it seems to me, typically referred to as the graph or the social graph.  As Tim BL said at the end of last year:

Its not the Social Network Sites that are interesting -- it is the Social Network itself. The Social Graph. The way I am connected, not the way my Web pages are connected.

The Semantic Web's problem, if indeed it has one, has to do with complexity and a high cost/benefit ratio.  That said, even given my world view rather than Stephen's, I accept that the 'Pragmatic Web' label still works well as a nice alternative to 'Semantic Web'.

And while I'm on the subject of both the future and the Semantic Web, Kevin Kelly's TED talk, Predicting the next 5,000 days of the web, makes use of a lot of Semantic Web thinking and suggests that the Web of the future is not just going to be today's Web "but only better" but that it will be:

  • smarter,
  • more personalized,
  • more ubiquitous

and the price of that will be more transparency (of us to the Web).  The Web as "an organism" that we interact with.  Hmmm, nice...  I sense a Hollywood blockbuster coming on.

ARG (as opposed to Arghhh)

I'm not a big gamer and never have been (brief flirtations with Space Invaders and Pac-Man way back when, Tony Hawks Pro Skater on the PS2, Guitar Hero III on the Xbox 360 and a couple of other things aside).  But I do quite like the idea of alternate reality games (ARGs), if only because of the explicit merger of real-world and online activities (note that I said idea - I am very unlikely to ever actually play one of these things!):

An ARG is an interactive narrative in which players work together to solve puzzles and co-ordinate activities in the real world and online, using websites, GPS tracking devices, telephone lines, newspaper adverts and more.

On that basis, the JISC-funded ARGOSI project looks interesting, a collaboration between Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Bolton that will use an ARG to support the student induction process. [Via play think learn]

Two-thirds of UK homes now online

More background news about the penetration of Internet access into UK homes, this time from the Office for National Statistics, via the BBC.  The two-thirds proportion is pretty much as expected but I was surprised by the figure quoted towards the end of the article, which appears to indicate a big jump in the number of households that explicitly said they did not want Internet access:

In the 35% of households with no access, there was an increase in the proportion that said they did not want the internet at home, from 3% in 2006 to 24% in 2008.

It'd be interesting to know why.

Two-thirds of us (adults) now go online every day in the UK (men more often than women).

August 20, 2008

Directory of repository-related blogs

The JISC-funded Repositories Support Project has developed quite a nice list of repository-related blogs (and other RSS feeds).

Worth taking a look and suggesting additional feeds if they are missing.

They provide an OPML file which means that everything listed here should be aggregatable (is that a word!?) but I had a quick go using Yahoo Pipes and failed miserably I'm afraid to say.  Not sure if that is my fault or not but I seem to recall having problems before with large OPML files in Yahoo Pipes so perhaps there is some built-in limitation?

The right time for outsourcing

Paul Walk has an interesting post, “Did Google just make me look like an idiot?”, questioning whether the time is right for universities to start outsourcing services in a Web 2.0, SaaS kind of way.

As Paul notes, this was very much the focus for our symposium earlier on this year.

To be slightly frivolous, I have a gut feeling that no time is the right time but I very strongly agree with Paul that the question needs to be asked, especially given the possibility of global recession and its potential impact on Web 2.0 business models.  The sustainability of whoever you choose to outsource to has to be a major consideration in any decision - whether at an institutional, departmental or personal level.

August 18, 2008

The importance of non-literals to linked data

I'm less involved in Dublin Core metadata discussions than I used to be but a brief exchange on one of the DC lists caught my eye and reminded me how confusing the concepts underpinning metadata on the Web can be.  The exchange started with an apparently simple question:

I'm currently involved in the selection of standard fields for a metadata project and we have some fields that we are calling Dublin Core fields (Subject and Relation fields), but we are including free text or uncontrolled terms. I notice that the DC Subject and Relation fields are "intended to be used with a non-literal value." I'm not sure what this means. Is there anyone that can explain in simple terms? I've looked at the DCMI Abstract Model and I'm still not sure what they mean by "non-literal" value. Also, can you say you are using Qualified Dublin Core for some fields and Simple Dublin Core for other fields in an  application profile?

To which the initial response included:

I suspect the members of the small coterie that could explain this are all on vacation at this time. I am not in that group, but I will attempt an explanation anyway ;-)


Leaving aside the DCAM (which is often puzzling), it seems to me that you need a way to indicate 1) whether or not the values in the subject field are controlled and 2) if they are controlled, what list they come from.


Well, OK... point taken!  Let me attempt a response... though I note that, in support of the comments above, it will probably be neither simple nor clear!

I'll start by quoting the DCMI Abstract Model:

The abstract model of the resources described by descriptions is as follows:

  • Each described resource is described using one or more property-value pairs.
  • Each property-value pair is made up of one property and one value.
  • Each value is a resource - the physical, digital or conceptual entity or literal that is associated with a property when a property-value pair is used to describe a resource. Therefore, each value is either a literal value or a non-literal value:
    • A literal value is a value which is a literal.
    • A non-literal value is a value which is a physical, digital or conceptual entity.
  • A literal is an entity which uses a Unicode string as a lexical form, together with an optional language tag or datatype, to denote a resource (i.e. "literal" as defined by RDF).

Resource Description Framework (RDF): Concepts and Abstract Syntax (the foundation stone of the Semantic Web), says this about literals:

Literals are used to identify values such as numbers and dates by means of a lexical representation. Anything represented by a literal could also be represented by a URI, but it is often more convenient or intuitive to use literals.

So, in Dublin Core metadata, each value is either "a literal" (a literal value) or "a physical, digital or conceptual entity" (a non-literal value) and the choice of which to use is largely one of convenience.

In the case of dc:subject, the value is the "topic" of the resource being described.  The topic might be a concept ("physics"), a place ("Bath, UK") or a person ("Albert Einstein") or something else.  While that topic could be treated as a literal value (and superficially at least, doing so may appear to be more convenient) good practice suggests that it is better if it is treated as a non-literal value, i.e. as a physical, digital or conceptual entity.  Why?  Because if the topic is treated as a non-literal value then it can be assigned a URI and can become the subject of other descriptions.  If the topic is treated as a literal value then it becomes a descriptive cul-de-sac - no further description of the topic is possible.

A literal may be the object of an RDF statement, but not the     subject or the predicate.

In short, by treating values as non-literal resources and assigning URIs to them we give ourselves (and others) the hooks on which to hang further descriptions.  This is a very fundamental part of the way in which the Semantic Web (and indeed the Web) works.

Unfortunately, in my experience at least, people find it difficult to grasp the importance of this point, particularly if they come to Dublin Core from the "old world" of library cataloguing, attribute/value pairs and text-string values.  For them, values have always been strings of text written onto cards, or the electronic equivalent of cards.  Doing things that way has always been good enough.  Why should things have to change?  Answer: the Web changes everything - even library cataloguing... eventually!

By way of an example...  let's consider the case of a book, Shakespeare: The World as a Stage by Bill Bryson which I happened to read on my summer holiday a couple of weeks ago.  The dc:subject of this book is William Shakespeare, a person.

Now, as I indicated above, we could treat this as a literal value, the string "William Shakespeare" for example (though a string taken from a well recognised name-authority file would be better).  But in doing so we don't provide any hooks that allow other people to say, "hang on, I know something useful about William Skakespeare and I'm going to provide a description of him so that it can be automatically integrated into your metadata if you want".  By treating William Shakespeare as a resource (as a non-literal value) and by assigning him a URI, we give people that hook.  We give them an unambiguous way of saying, "here is a description of the person that you are saying is the subject of that book by Bill Bryson".  Indeed, it allows us to go further...  it allows us to say things like, "that person who you say is the dc:subject of that book by Bill Bryson is also the dc:creator of these plays".  We can build a massive global graph of data about stuff, all linked together unambiguously thru their 'http' URIs in much the same way that Web pages are currently linked together with their 'http' URIs.  This is known as linked data.

Now, of course, that leaves us a with a very fundamental problem.  Who the hell is going to mint 'http' URIs for people like William Shakespeare, for concepts like physics and for places like Bath, UK?

This is not an easy question to answer and there are arguments that we should all just go ahead and start doing so, leaving it to someone else to say, "hang on, this is actually the same as that".  But I would argue that libraries and related organisations are well placed to mint persistent and reusable 'http' URIs for much of this stuff (and indeed some of them are now beginning to do so) provided that they drag themselves out of the old world of text strings on cards and into the new world of the Web and the URI.  Just look at the list of example data sets on the Wikipedia page for linked data - can you spot the missing contributing organisations? :-(

August 16, 2008

Social media and the emerging technology hype curve

I've noticed two behavioural changes in myself over the last while...

Firstly, I'm trying to do less work at home outside of normal office hours.  Yes, this blog post indicates I'm not being totally successful at this - written on a Saturday morning as it is - but I'm not intending to be totally dogmatic about it, it's just a general trend.  Me, I quite like spreading my working day over a large proportion of the available 24 hours and I tend to find early mornings and late evenings both very constructive times to work, but my family don't like it much and I have to take that into consideration.

Secondly, I find I'm reading much more based on links that turn up in my Twitter feed than I do based on explicitly seeking stuff out using Bloglines (my preferred RSS reader).  This isn't necessarily a good thing, in fact I'm pretty sure it isn't a good thing - I'm just reporting what I find myself to be doing on the ground, so to speak.  It isn't a good thing because although I like my Twitter environment, I don't think it is particularly representative of the whole working social environment in which I want to be positioned.

Anyway... via @DIHarrison I discovered Study: Fastest Growing US Companies Rapidly Adopting Social Media on ReadWriteWeb which gives yet more evidence of our changing attitudes and habits around social media and the Web.

What does this mean? It means that when you tell people you write, read or listen to blogs, wikis, podcasts, social networks and online video - if they give you a funny look, it is now officially them that's a freak, not you. Are these tools really as useful as so many people appear to believe they are? That's another question, but at least we're getting a healthy number of people and businesses trying them out.

It ends with Gartner's hype curve for emerging technology (July 2008) on which I was surprised to see that they'd positioned 'Public Virtual Worlds' and 'Web 2.0' at more or less the same point on the curve whereas I would have expected to see the former well behind the latter?  They also position 'SOA' as climbing out of the trough of disillusionment, which is not a view that I happen to share.

While I'm (just about) on the subject of virtual worlds, there seems to have been a recent surge in the breadth and depth in available virtual worlds - or, more likely, that breadth and depth seems to have been made much more visible of late - particularly as evidenced by this diagram and this video (both via Stephen Downes).  In my spare time I've vaguely started work on a project called MUVEable.com, which is intended to bring together material from various virtual world offerings, but I strongly suspect that I don't have the engery to do it justice, particularly in light of the breadth noted here and the first point above.

August 15, 2008

What Web 2.0 teaches us...

Preface: I've had this post on the back-burner for a while, worried that it might cause offense to various colleagues/friends/readers.  It's intended to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek and humorous but like most such things, from my perspective at least, I think it contains at least a grain or two of truth.

The advent of desktop publishing software, way back when, showed us that although pretty much anyone could use clip-art and fonts, most people weren't (and indeed still aren't) graphic designers.  Over the years we've mostly got used to calling in the professionals whenever necessary, though there is always a place for do-it-yourselfness.

So, what does Web 2.0 tell us?

  • That anyone can blog but not everyone can write (or even spell-check!)?
  • That anyone can podcast but not everyone is a radio chat-show host?
  • That anyone can make a video but not everyone is a TV presenter?

In short...  Web 2.0 technology democratises production but creative talent and presentation skills remain rare commodities.  For the record, I include myself mostly in the "have-nots", as my limited attempts at YouTube and Veodia demonstrate admirably.  (I'm not even going to embarrass myself by including links!)

Seesmic is a good case in point.  Seesmic is a kind of video Twitter.  It's a brilliant idea and has been well executed technically.  The trouble is, like the video phone, one is left asking, "Do I actually need this?" (by which I mean, "Does video really add anything to what I'm trying to do here?").  Perhaps it is just me - clearly there are a lot of Seesmic users who like what it offers, though I couldn't find an actual number anywhere on the site?

Take 140 characters from Twitter, turn it into anywhere between 30 seconds and 5 minutes of variable quality audio and video, where the video carries no additional information over the audio and where the audio carries little additional information over the original 140 characters.  That's Seesmic in a nutshell.

Now... maybe I fall into the category of "people who haven't tried it and therefore don't get it"?  Maybe I'm just plain wrong and within a month I'll be Seesmic'ing with the best (and worst) of them!  Anything is possible - stay tuned to find out...

With apologies to everyone and no-one.

I appreciate that I'm sounding a bit like Andrew Keen.  But that's not my intention.  My point is not that amateurs don't have anything interesting to say - I think they do - and indeed, for the most part I include myself as one.  My point is that our desktop use of audio and video in particular tends to highlight an amateurish approach to production.  There are exceptions of course - Mike Ellis' video of the museum mashup day a while back and the podcasts produced by our PsychoPod project being good 'local' examples.  Maybe the dross is the price we have to pay for this kind of good stuff?

Reflecting on this for a while, I think the problem is two-fold.  Firstly the linear nature of audio and video tends to defy attempts at scanning the content. Fast-forwarding and reversing are difficult at best, as is getting a feel for whether the next 3-5 minutes of audio/video is worth sticking around for (though Slideshare slidecasts offer an interesting counter-example, since the slide transitions do give a nice way of quickly navigating the content).  These tasks are much easier with text and most of us have well-honed skills at scanning and appraising textual material pretty quickly (even where that material is just a 140-character tweet).  Secondly, the problem is not so much with the video quality (shaky camera work and the like - I'm quite happy with that within reason) - it's with the audio.  Some people's voices simply become wooden when faced with a microphone and the 'record' light, to the point that listening to them is painful.  (That's not to mention that those of us in shared office spaces can't really engage in this kind of dialog anyway).

Being able to talk to camera (or microphone) is a skill that I wish I could learn - the trouble is, I'm not sure that it is learnable?  A voice coach would probably help I guess.  Maybe I should ask for voice training in my next staff appraisal? :-)

BTW, there is no doubt in my mind that there will be some interesting applications of this kind of immediate micro-vodcasting in teaching and learning - learning foreign languages comes to mind very quickly - (kids are nearly always better at this kind of thing anyway) so I haven't written it off completely.  Just feeling somewhat cautious (err... snobbish?) about its use too liberally.

Student part-time work offered: controlling the VC's avatar

A nice quote in yesterday's Times Higher by John Coyne, VC at the University of Derby, in an article about transliteracy:

"While I was on the walkabout in Second Life, I bumped into another avatar (online persona) and it was one of my lecturers. He was surprised to discover his vice-chancellor there," Coyne explains.

"We engaged in a conversation, but I think he realised my avatar was being directed by a student colleague when he asked me a question. Apparently I responded by saying, 'Cool.'?


Preserving virtual worlds

The BBC have a short article about digital preservation entitled, Writing the history of virtual worlds.  Virtual worlds and other gaming environments, being highly dynamic in nature, bring with them special considerations in terms of long term preservation and the article describes an approach being used at the University of Texas involving interviews and story telling with both makers and users.

Belatedly, I also note that last week's Wallenburg Summer Institute at Standford University in the US included a workshop entitled Preserving Knowledge in Virtual Worlds.  Stanford are (or were?) partners in another virtual world preservation project, Preserving Virtual Worlds, led by Jerome McDonnough at the University of Illinois (someone who is probably better known by many readers as the technical architect of METS), which was funded by the Library of Congress a year or so ago.

At the risk of making a gross generalisation, it looks like the Texas work is attempting to preserve the 'experience' of virtual worlds, whereas the Illinois work has been focusing more on the content.  It strikes me that virtual worlds such as Second Life that are surrounded by a very significant level of blogging, image taking, video making and podcasting activity are being preserved indirectly (in some sense at least) through the preservation of that secondary material (I'm making the assumption here, possibly wrongly, that much of that associated material is making its way into the Internet Archive in one form or another)?

August 14, 2008

No tweets by SMS in the UK

Twitter is no longer delivering tweets by outbound SMS in the UK.  This doesn't bother me, since I've never wanted to clutter my mobile phone with the kind of noise one generally gets on Twitter (don't get me wrong - I like the noise, I just don't want it to appear as text messages on my mobile phone).  But clearly this change will affect some users and there is already a Facebook group to protest about the change (primarily aimed at UK mobile operators rather than Twitter).  The announcement from Twitter suggest some alternatives for those (unlike me) with reasonably up to date phones.

What is interesting about the announcement is that it highlights a certain level of tension between mobile operators and services providers such as Twitter as well as the inconsistency of approaches to text messaging business models internationally (Twitter have reached business agreements with telecom companies in the US, Canada and India for example, and are continuing to try and do so in other countries).

Note that the change does not stop UK twits from sending tweets via SMS.

Ofcom UK Communications Market Review 2008: Interactive Key Points

Ofcom's Market Review for 2008 has been released, with a new interactive view of the key points being made available separately allowing people to leave comments against each of the key points (though none appear to have been made at the time of writing).

A useful set of UK media and communications statistics for those with an interest in such things.

August 13, 2008


We funded the one year BRUM project back in 2006 as part of our programme of small-scale information literacy projects.  I've just noticed that the project has secured another tranche of funding, this time from an internal source at the University of Birmingham where it is based.  Now known as ReJiG (Repurposing from Jorum into GEL) the project is looking to "repurpose learning material from Jorum to fill gaps in our Guide to Effective Learning (GEL) web site. The GEL site contains a host of study skills material, most of which is available to anyone accessing the site".

This is great news. One of the pieces of evidence we use to judge whether our funding has been successful is the ability of projects (particularly small projects) to go on and get continuation funding from other sources.

August 12, 2008

Metadata and microformats

<shamelessPlug>I happened to notice earlier on (OK, I admit it... I was checking at the time) that my Does metadata matter? slidecast has been featured on the Slideshare homepage.</shamelessPlug>  In doing do, I also spotted a similarly featured presentation called What Brian Cant Never Taught You About Metadata by Drew McLellan - such a great title that I couldn't possibly ignore it!

Turns out to be quite good, though much of it is about microformats (which isn't hinted at by the title).

Don't know what microformats are?  Try watching Drew's 5 minute Clangers' Guide to Microformats.

Digital literacy anyone?

Il_logo_bw_2 The Information Literacy Section of IFLA has announced the winner of a competition to design an "information literacy" logo.

The aim of creating this Logo is to make communication easier between those who carry out information literacy projects, their communities, and society in general. The Logo will be available free of charge and promoted as an international symbol of information literacy.

The initial funding for the logo contest came from UNESCO, as part of the Information for All Programme (IFAP).  ALA define information literacy as follows:

To be information literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.

A definition that is re-used by Wikipedia.

All well and good, though I am inclined to think that the kind of 'digital literacy' espoused by Tanya Byron in her Safer Children in a  Digital World: the report of the Byron Review is fast becoming at least as important as information literacy - discuss!  Odd though that Byron never once uses the terms 'digital literacy' or 'information literacy', preferring to use 'media literacy' instead (23 times I think), about which she says:

We need to empower people with the skills, knowledge and confidence they need to embrace new technology to make the decisions that will protect themselves and their family. In some circles this is called being ‘media literate’. However, ‘media literacy’ is an abstract title, which is difficult to translate into something that is meaningful to the public.

Ofcom defines media literacy as “the ability to access, understand and create communications in a variety of contexts”. This is a widely recognised definition for understanding the issues around media literacy in society. However, an approach that is perhaps more useful for understanding the role of media literacy in improving e-safety is ensuring that children broaden and deepen their skills, knowledge and understanding to use new technology. While this is a necessary discussion, it is equally important to ensure that the wider debate around defining media literacy does not distract focus from what should be the primary objective of protecting and empowering young people.

My understanding is that the research underpinning the Byron Report was funded by Ofcom's Media Literacy team (thanks @jukesie on Twitter) so perhaps this isn't too surprising.

'Digital literacy' doesn't have an entry in Wikipedia, redirecting to 'computer literacy' instead (which doesn't feel quite right to me), whereas both 'information literacy' and 'media literacy' do, from which I can only conclude that it isn't an accepted term (despite the fact that I'm sure I've regularly heard it being used informally).

Media convergence would suggest that these terms should probably come together anyway, and Ofcom's own definition of 'media literacy' includes aspects that ALA would probably refer to as 'information literacy' ("recognising and comprehending information to the higher order critical thinking skills such as questioning, analysing and evaluating that information") and that I would call 'digital literacy' ("use an electronic programme guide to find the programme they want to watch", "use the internet to find information" and "control what they and their children see to avoid being offended") though I have a concern that Ofcom's definition is very broadcast media centric (which, again, is not surprising).

Does anyone else regularly use 'digital literacy' to refer to the ability to manage, understand and use Web-based and other digital technologies/resources?  If so, perhaps we need to get together and update Wikipedia?  On the other hand, perhaps 'media literacy' is indeed better (provided we (I?) can get over any associations with 'old' media), being somewhat more generic and less tied to a particular form of technology?

August 05, 2008

ORE and Atom

At the end of last week, Herbert Van de Sompel posted an important proposal to the OAI ORE Google Group, suggesting significant changes in the way ORE Resource Maps are represented using Atom.

The proposal has two key components:

  • To express an ORE Aggregation at the level of an Atom Entry, rather than (as in the current draft) at the level of an Atom Feed
  • To convey ORE-specific relationships types using add-ons/extensions, rather than by making ORE-specific interpretations of pre-existing Atom relationship types

There are some details still to be worked out, particularly on the second point, and especially given that it is a significant change at quite a late stage in the development of the specifications, the project is looking for feedback on the proposal.

If possible, please respond to the OAI ORE Google Group, rather than by commenting here :-)

DC-HTML profile becomes DCMI Recommendation

DCMI announced today that the document Expressing Dublin Core metadata using HTML/XHTML meta and link elements has become a DCMI Recommendation. This document is an HTML meta data profile, in the sense that term is used in the HTML specification.

The new document updates DCMI's previous Recommendation for encoding DC metadata in HTML to provide explicitly:

This latter component is particularly exciting as it means that metadata encoded in XHTML headers using the conventions of this profile is automatically mapped to an RDF graph and becomes available to GRDDL-aware RDF applications, without any additional effort on the part of the document creator.

It's taken rather longer than I'd hoped to get this piece of the jigsaw into place, and it's a small piece in the scheme of things; but I do think it is an important one in (finally!) making the longest-established (I think?) convention for representing Dublin Core metadata a mechanism for contributing data to the Semantic Web. Anyway, I'm very pleased that it is finally out there.

It's probably worth highlighting the critical role of the HTML meta data profile feature in providing this functionality. The profile URI is the "hook" on which it hangs, if you like: for the data provider, the use of the URI of the specific profile in the value of the head/@profile attribute discloses the conventions they have used (e.g. the "schema.ABC" convention for abbreviating URIs, which is a profile-specific convention, not part of X/HTML); and for the consumer, it is the presence of that URI which licenses them to process/interpret the document in the specific way described by the profile.

August 04, 2008

Two new Linked Data sources

There were a couple of interesting announcements in the world of linked data last week.

The first came from Matthew Shorter of the BBC with the announcement of the public beta of their music artists pages. The site pulls in data from MusicBrainz, a community database of music metadata, and from Wikipedia (biographical information), and integrates it with the BBC's own data on when tracks by the artist have been played on BBC programmes. Using HTTP content negotiation you can get an RDF representation of the data. At the moment this doesn't include the play counts, but a message to the W3C public-lod mailing list indicates that the addition of this information is in the pipeline.

Hot on the heels of that came a second announcement on that same list, from Oktie Hassanzadeh & Mariano Consens of the University of Toronto, pointing to their Linked Movie Database project, which draws data from Freebase, Wikipedia and Geonames and provides (automatically generated, using a tool called ODDLinker) links to entries in several other datasets.

Now if someone extends the Southampton Pubs approach to Bristol and Bath, and then triplifies SoccerBase.com, we'll be well on the way to meeting many of my extra-curricular data needs :-)

August 01, 2008

Unleashing the Tribe

A final quickie before I go on leave for a week...

I just wanted to highlight Ewan Macintosh's keynote, Unleashing the Tribe, on the final day of the Institutional Web Managers Workshop (for which we were a sponsor), which is now available online.  This is a great talk and well worth watching.  (Note that the talk starts almost exactly 5 minutes into the video so you can skip the first bit).  The emphasis is very much on learning, which is fine, though we must not forget that most HE institutions also have a mission to carry our research.

Three comments, on mechanics rather than content, ...

Firstly, as a remote attendee on the day, the importance of having someone in the venue dedicated to supporting remote participants (or rather, a lack thereof) was highlighted very clearly.  Ewan chose to use Twitter as the back-channel for his presentation, ignoring the existing ScribbleLive channel.  That was his prerogative of course, though I happen to think that Twitter isn't particularly appropriate for this kind of thing because it is too noisy for Twitter followers who aren't interested in a particular event.  Whatever... the point is that having announced the change to Twitter verbally at the start of the session, those of us who missed the announcement needed to be informed of the change more permanently thru the ScribbleLive forum so that we could move as well.

Secondly, I note that the streamed video from the various sessions hasn't been made available thru blip.tv (or something like it).  Instead, it is being served directly by Aberdeen, the workshop hosts.  As a result, the streamed video can't be embedded here (or anywhere else for that matter) - at least, not as far as I can tell.  This seems slightly odd to me, since the whole theme of the event was around sharing and mashing content.

That said, apart from a minor gripe about the volume being too low, the quality of the camera work on the video stream was very good.

Thirdly, it'd be interesting to do a proper comparison between Coveritlive, which we used as part of our symposium this year, and ScribbleLive.  My feeling is that ScribbleLive makes better use of screen real-estate.  On the other hand, Coveritlive has better bells and whistles and more facilities around moderation (which can be good or bad depending on what you want to do).  In particular (and somewhat surprisingly), Coveritlive handles embedded URLs much better than ScribbleLive.  Overall, my preference is slightly twoards Coveritlive - though I could be swayed either way.

SEO and digital libraries

Lorcan Dempsey, SEO is part of our business, picks up on a post by John Wilkin, Our hidden digital libraries, concerning our collective inability to expose digital library content to search engines like Google effectively.

This is something I've touched on several times in recent presentations, particularly with reference to repositories, so I'm really pleased to see it getting some air-time.  This is our problem... we need to solve it!  We can't continue to blame search engines for not trying hard enough to get at and index our content - we need to try harder to expose it in Google-friendly ways.

I agree with John that doing this for many significant digital libraries may not be trivial (though, actually, in the case of your average institutional repository I think it comes pretty close) but it needs doing nonetheless.  As Lorcan says, we need to emphasise "'disclosure' as a new word in our service lexicon. We may not control the discovery process in many cases, so we should be increasingly concerned about effective disclosure to those discovery services. Effective disclosure has be be managed, whether it is about APIs, RSS feeds, support for inbound linking, exposure to search engines, ...".

Bye, bye Athens... hello UK Federation

It's a big day today for federated access management in UK academia with "nearly 500 institutions and organisations [completing] the transition to a new open standard SAML compliant access management system and the UK Access Management Federation", many of them using our own OpenAthens offering.

Out with the old (Athens), in with the new (UK Access Management Federation) and all that (at least within education).

The JISC press release on the subject is somewhat disingenuous in not acknowledging the significant role that Athens has played in the UK's academic information landscape over the last 10 years or so.  I don't have the figures to hand but in a way the figures don't matter - the reality is that a very significant proportion of the UK academic community have found Athens to be a fundamental, usable, reliable and robust part of their online experience for a very long time.  I can't take any credit for that because I haven't worked at Eduserv for long enough... but there are people here, a lot of people actually, who deserve significant kudos for what they have achieved in servicability terms since Athens was first funded way back when.

It seems incredible to me that the end of such a fundamental and successful service is not being more overtly and publicly celebrated in some way.  Perhaps it is and I just haven't been invited! :-)

Similarirly, the press release makes no mention of the role that individual members of staff at Eduserv have had in helping with the transition.  Yes, there have been corporate differences of opinion along the way but my impression is that people here have been working hard to make the transition as painless as possible for institutions within the constraints of what is being funded.  It seems to me that you can't transition a service as fundamental as access manangement from A to B without at least some help from those who helped to kept A running smoothly.

In the past three months, membership of the Access Management Federation has risen dramatically as educational institutions and service providers move to take advantage of the numerous benefits of joining.

Well, yes... erm... that's "numerous benefits" as in "shotgun wedding" I presume? :-)

These include improved services to users, easier compliance with regulatory requirements, reduced support requirements and improved data security.

Grand claims... for which I'd like to see the evidence.  I'm certainly not holding my breath!  As I've argued before, I see usability getting significantly worse within the Federation than it has been using Athens, so I'm not sure that I see short-term "improved services to users" - but in the longer term, yes hopefully.  I'm not anti the Federation but I think we have to be honest about where the benefits come from - for me, it's purely about the adoption of open standards, which ultimately will bring benefits for the community - but possibly (probably?) with some short term pain on the way.

Anyway, I'm being churlish again... tonight I will raise a glass (probably on my own!) to the successes of the past and the even bigger successes of the future.  Here's to both Athens and the Federation.



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