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May 25, 2010

The implications of mobile... or "carry on up the smart phone"

This is the second of my two posts on the Eduserv Symposium 2010: The Mobile University, this one focusing on the day's content.

I'll start by revisiting the sound-bites that I used in my brief summing up at the end of the day. I'm not totally sure how useful these are but I wrote them down as things I would have tweeted, had I been on Twitter during the day (which I wasn't, for the reasons outlined in my last post). I'm not going to analyse the talks in detail - all the material is now available (slides and video) so you can watch/listen to it all in any case and various other people have written their own summing up of the day - Marieke Guy, Mike Nolan, Christine Sexton, Paul Sweeney, Chris Thomson and Mike J for example. [Who have I missed?]

Paul Golding kicked the day off with a great overview of the mobile space.  He provided all sorts of facts and figures but added, "It [mobile] is not just about the tech, it's about how it changes behaviour" and I think this theme re-emerged at several points during the day. The key point, for me, is that mobile is different this time round and it is different because mobile technology now allows us to do things we couldn't do before, to work, communicate, socialise, play and relax in different ways, and that is being recognised not just by the geeks but by all sorts of ordinary people.  So what is different? Paul's key drivers for smartphone adoption are worth re-iterating:

  • "faster access,
  • rich user-interfaces,
  • sensor proliferation,
  • cloud computing,
  • social computing,
  • real-time web"

and it strikes me that one of things that is really interesting here is the coming together of handheld devices with the social web.

Christine Sexton re-iterated the cultural change aspects of mobile anecdotally by noting that students now turn up at university not with questions like, "how do I get a username and password?" or "where are the computers?" but with "where's the Internet?". She went on to outline the implications on support models for universities - control, choice, innovation and hands off - before ending with a nod to the business model drivers at play in this space... something that I'll return to in a moment. Christine ended with a call for universities to build 'mobile' into existing strategies and policies around delivery, infrastructure and support and to "carry on innovating".

Andy Ramsden drew an analogy between change in universities and 'soil creep' (a slow underlying process where you can't tell if much has really changed, where the changes themselves are quite variable across the landscape and where it's not clear what the underlying processes are). He was talking specifically about moves towards the greater use of mobile in teaching and learning within the HE sector, though I suspect that the analogy works just as well more generally!  Andy also characterised two kinds of mobile adoption - the first being "more of the same but on your phone" (continuing the trend from desktop to laptop) and the second being the "new learning landscapes" that the use of mobile enables.

Simon Marsden ended his lightning talk by suggesting that we (as providers within universities) need to "lighten up" - again a strong reference to the cultural changes that are happening around us but also, I suspect, echoing Christine's anti-"we don't support that" approach and hinting instead at a 'just do it' kind of mentality.

Tom Hume's talk was very pragmatic, coming from years of experience of building mobile apps on various platforms.  It struck me that much of what he talked about concerned quite generic 'agile' approaches to software development ("release early, release often"), rather than being specifically about mobile but it was very interesting nonetheless. For example, I really liked his case-study where a mobile app was built around the hypothetical needs of a bunch of named but imaginary "real" people. He noted that one of the key things that Apple had done with the introduction of the iPhone was not the handset itself but the fact that they managed to force mobile operators to move to flat-rate data tarrifs (he used the phrases "more fragmentation, simpler tarrifs" and "commoditisation of access" both of which I quite like), a fundamental part of the cultural shift we have seen happen since.

Finally, John Traxler rounded off the day with a wide-ranging keynote about the use of mobile in education. He noted that "mobile doesn't necessarily mean free[dom] - there are a new set of affordances but also a new set of tetherings" - something that we would all do well to remember the next time we are tempted/forced to make work-related use of our smart phones outside of working hours... which reminds me of Dick's regular calls back to the office in Woody Allen's Play it Again Sam (1972):

Making telephone calls from landlines wherever you are such as "This is Mister Christie. I'm at the Hong Fat Noodle Company. That's er, 824-7996." are probably lost on the mobile phone generation. Infact, there were barely any people like this in the early seventies but this running gag is a classic addition to this great movie anyway.

John hinted at three problem areas:

  • "Lack of scale,
  • lack of sustainability, and
  • lack of evidence of effectiveness."

Which brings me back to those business-model issues...

Towards the end of her talk, Christine considered the financial situation. She said (words to the effect of), "the question is not, 'can we afford to support mobile?' but, 'can we afford not to?'" - not an unusual sentiment where new technologies are concerned, particularly where uptake outside education has been widespread.  But it is an interesting statement and I can think of two reasons for making it - either that there will be financial penalties for not adopting/supporting it or that universities will be failing in their mission to deliver learning and research effectively unless they do (or both). Note that this is my interpretation, Christine may have meant something completely different. However, given that the assertion was made in the context of money, I assume that the former was intended.

Which makes me wonder...

In financial terms, how significant are the drivers for universities to adopt 'mobile', or any other form of ICT for that matter? The implication is that prospective students and/or prospective staff and researchers will not bring their funding to a university that is perceived to be lagging behind others in ICT terms. Speaking as a parent of one actual (and two potential) university student(s), I'm not convinced we are at that point yet. Provision of (and use of) ICT is a factor in the overall perception of what makes one university a better choice than another one but it is only one such factor and (I suggest) still a relatively small one. Coupled with the lack of evidence for the effectiveness and sustainability of mobile in both teaching and learning and research I'm not sure how much of a watertight business case could be made for significant investment in 'mobile' currently?

Now, of course, a similar lack of business case would have existed around the adoption of the Web at the end of the last century (I love being able to say that!) and there would have fairly rapidly come a point (though I don't recall exactly when it was) where any university that didn't have a website would have looked very out of place, probably to the point of having a negative impact on staff and student recruitment. Are we at that point yet with mobile? No, I don't think so. How quickly will we reach that point? I don't know, though I guess it will be reasonably soon. But I also think we need to understand the issues about the effectiveness and sustainability of 'mobile' and the perception and decision-making factors within our target audiences rather better than we do currently in order to be able to make more balanced decisions in this area.

At the start of the day I suggested that the symposium had two objectives from an Eduserv perspective... Firstly, to help us understand the impact that 'mobile' might have on both our current services (single sign-on, licence negotiation, web development and hosting, and the data centre) and our potential future services. Secondly, to help the HE community in thinking about how it responds to an increasingly mobile world.

I find it hard to comment on whether we succeeded in the second of these two aims, other than to note that all the talks seemed to me to be both relevant and helpful in that context. In terms of our own services, it seems clear to me that we have to take 'mobile' on board in everything we do, whether that's in the way our access management services work on smart phones, the relevance of our licence negotiation services to the mobile space, the kinds of web solutions we build for government and other clients and the kind data centre services we offer.

Or, as Christine put it, we have to build 'mobile' into everything we do and carry on innovating.

May 20, 2010

Audiences and chairing events in a 'social media' world

This is the first of two blog posts about the recent Eduserv Symposium 2010: The Mobile University, which took place last Thursday at the Royal College of Physicians in London.

My next post will take a look at the content of the day, including my take on what it all meant. For this post I want to think more about mechanics - not of the "did the streaming and wifi work?" kind (actually, we did have some problems with the streaming early on in the day but Switch New Media, our streaming partner, and the venue's networking staff acted swiftly to resolve them by and large, for which I am very grateful) but thinking about my role as chair of the event.

Before doing so, let's think a little bit about the nature of conferences, and conference audiences, in the new 'social media' world (I'm using social media here as a shorthand for the use of those technologies that allow people to collaborate online in a real-time, relatively open, and social way with their peers, colleagues and friends - I'm including both the live-streaming of the event and tools like Twitter).

Let's start by partitioning delegates at conferences into three broad groups:

  • Firstly, there is the local physical audience - the people who are in the venue, watching and listening live to all the talks, asking questions, collaring speakers after their talks, and drinking the coffee at the breaks but who are, critically, not taking part in any digital activity during the event. This is what you might call the 'traditional' audience I guess.
  • Secondly, there is the local virtual audience - those people who, like the first group, are physically in the venue but who are also using their mobile devices and social networking services (such as Twitter) to discuss what is going on in the room. This discussion is typically refered to as the 'conference back-channel' though it is worth noting that it might start well before the event ("I'm on the train") and continue well after it ("presentation slides are now available"). In my experience, this group is usually smaller than the first group (often much smaller) and is often mis-understood or unrecognised by the people in the first group. It is perhaps also worth noting that this group tend to create a disproportionately large amount of the wider online buzz around an event.
  • Finally, there is the remote virtual audience - the people watching the live video stream from their office or home and who are typically also an active part of the event's back-channel.

This is not a perfect partitioning of the audience, and the names aren't quite right, but bear with me for a moment...

Increasingly, I think that event organisers need to strive to bring these three groups together, i.e. to maximise the interaction that takes place in the middle of the diagram above. That responsibility can be shared of course. For example, at the symposium this year, my colleague Mike Ellis had primary responsibility for encouraging the two virtual groups to gel effectively. However, I also think that the chair of the event increasingly has to be fully engaged with all three groups in order to properly do his or her job... and that, in my experience at least, is not an easy thing to do well. In short, it's not enough just to 'chair' what is going on in the room.

It is interesting that we use the term 'back-channel' for the virtual groups above (the right-hand side of the diagram), which implies there is also a 'front-channel' (the left-hand side). The labels 'front' and 'back' seem to me to be somewhat pejorative of what I'm labelling 'virtual' and I tend to think that, for all sorts of reasons, we need to get over this. I also think there are some barriers that currently get in the way of maximising the interaction between the three groups and it is perhaps worth outlining these briefly.

For those people physically in the room there are some very practical issues around the growth of 'virtual' activity - ownership of appropriate mobile devices, availability of power outlets (still a regular issue at events), good 3G coverage, and confidence that the wifi will be good enough spring immediately to mind. There are also problems of 'attitude' to the virtual activity. How many events still ask people to turn off their mobile devices at the start of the day? At this year's symposium we offered a quiet area for those delegates who did not want to sit next to someone who was using their laptop and, as reported previously, this was reasonably popular. My suspicion is that those people who don't use mobile devices and social networks at events see them only as a distraction, as being somewhat trivial ("oh, they're just reading email"), or perhaps even as being rude to the speakers on the day. Clearly, these views would not be shared by those people who see great value in a vibrant back-channel. There is a cultural shift going on here... and such shifts take time and happen at different rates across different parts of the population and I think we are still in the relatively early stages of this particular one.

For those people in the back-channel (both local and remote) I think there is generally a good 'coming together' of the two groups and Mike's work on the day helped this to happen at this event. Clearly though, those people who are actually in the room are able to engage directly with the speakers (they can put up their hand or interrupt or whatever) in a way that remote delegates can not. Remote delegates can usually only engage with speakers via an intermediary. Admittedly, there are some speakers who do appear to be able to stay on Twitter even as they speak but these are still few and far between and so, for the most-part, the lack of direct engagement by remote participants remains. For our symposia, we channel questions from remote delegates thru a designated person in the room (Mike Ellis in this case) but for this to work properly the chair has to give that person special attention and I think that, by and large, I failed to do so on the day this time round. Even where such attention is given, it still feels like something of a second-class experience for those delegates that choose to make use of it.

There is also the cognitive barrier of doing two things at once (perhaps it's just me?) - i.e. listening to the speaker and engaging in the back channel. This is partly device dependant I think. I can live-blog an event without difficulty using my laptop - indeed I strongly suspect that doing so actually improves the way I listen to the speaker - but I can't do the same on my iPhone (largely because the soft keyboard is too fiddly for me to use without thinking).

Finally then, there's the intersection between the local physical audience (who are not using the back-channel) and the remote virtual audience (who are). It seems to me that these two groups are least engaged in any real sense. For those people who are remote, there is some sense of shared presence with those in the room by virtue of the shots of the physical audience being shown as part of the live stream. (Incidentally, this is the main reason why I actually quite like having such shots included in the stream, though this is not a view shared by some of my colleagues here, nor by part of the audience.) On the other hand, for those people in the room, it is probably quite hard to remember that there even is a remote audience (let alone the fact that such an audience might actually be bigger than the one in the room - this year, 691 visitors from 7 countries, in 93 cities, in 153 organisations watched the live stream).

The result is something of a disconnect between the two groups.

Interestingly, I think this might currently leave the local virtual group in the role of bridging the two other groups. I don't think this is done in an explicit or intentioned way but it is interesting to note it nonetheless. Of course, it is also part of the event organiser's and chair's roles to bring these two groups together in some way.

Thinking back to our 3D virtual world symposium a few years ago, we overcame the 'local audience not being aware of the remote audience' problem to a certain extent by actually showing the virtual audience to the real audience during the day. (As an aside, one of the advantages of hybrid real and virtual world events is the greater sence of presence that is generated for delegates in the virtual world.)

For this year's (non-3D virtual world) symposium, one way of highlighting the remote virtual delegates would have been to show the Twitter stream live during the talks. We took the decision (I think rightly) not to do so because of the distraction this might cause to the in-room audience. We did however try to achieve some of the same effect by displaying the event Twitter stream in the lunch/coffee/tea room. My suspicion is that this didn't work - the single screen which we used was probably too small and people were busy doing other things to notice.

So... a couple of recommendations (essentially in the form of notes to self for next year!):

Event chairs should engage as much as possible with all three groups above (preferably actively - i.e. by tweeting or whatever - but at least passively). At my age, this means having a screen in front of me for most of the day, showing me what is happening in the back-channel. This doesn't have to be projected for everyone else but trying to do it on an iPhone screen is too difficult with anything less than 20:20 eyesight!

Event chairs should speak directly to the remote audience as often as possible and should explicitly acknowledge the back-channel in their communication with speakers and audience. Oddly, I felt that I've done this better in previous years than I did this year. I'm not sure why, though the time that I gave myself to introduce the day at the start of this year's event, coupled with the fact that we had some early teething problems with the streaming, meant that I wasn't properly able to introduce the remote audience and back-channel as I would have liked.

To sum up then, a chair's role in this new 'social media' world is to actively engage with the whole audience, not just with those sitting in the room in front of him or her. This is not easy to do and I suspect it requires a slight change of mindset. The chair's role is quite complex, at least that is my experience, at the best of times, a situation made worse by the new environment. For this reason, I'm not convinced that it can easily be combined with other tasks (like keeping one eye on other mechanics of the event or preparing a final summing up). Such tasks are better handled by other people.

To a certain extent, the chair's role becomes rather like that of David Dimleby hosting BBC's Question Time. The bulk of his time is spent focusing on the local audience and speakers but the remote audience watching the TV is the real reason why the programme is being made at all and every so often he will speak explicitly to camera to address that audience.

Note that this post is not intended to be negative in any sense. I think this symposium was our best yet and I'm really pleased with the way it went both in terms of the coherence of the overall theme and individual speakers and in terms of the mechanics of the day itself. I also think that our decision to limit the back-channel to Twitter-only was the right one and actually resulted in less confusion about what should be discussed where - though there is a proviso that 140 characters is probably too short for asking serious questions (so this is something we will have to think about for next year). But one can always do things better and that only starts by acknowledging where there were areas of weakness. When I woke up the morning after the event I was concerned that I could, and possibly should, have done a much better job of embracing the true 'hybrid' nature of the symposium in my role as chair for the day.

And a final thought... I've written this post with a particular focus on the chair's role within an event. The reality is that embracing the hybrid nature of events is incumbent on us all. We are going thru a cultural shift that requires the development of new social norms, not just in the digital space but in the hybrid space where physical meets digital. My suspicion is that the groups above will remain for some time to come (probably for ever) and that we will all have to work to bring these groups together as best we can - chairs, speakers and delegates - even if that just means remembering that the other groups exist!

May 11, 2010

Preparing for the mobile university

We're in the final stages of preparing for this year's Eduserv Symposium, The Mobile University, and now that the programme-setting, speaker-inviting, venue-finding, catering-arranging, badge-making, printing, courriering, hotel-booking and the rest of it are pretty much out of the way (I hope that isn't a case of famous last words) I'm hoping that I can relax slightly and look forward to the talks by Paul Golding, Christine Sexton, Andy Ramsden, Tom Hume and John Traxler as well as the lightning talks by Nick Skelton, Wayne Barry, Simon Marsden and Tim Fernando.

In short, I think we have a great programme.

We also have our biggest audience ever this year (around 280) and we are live-streaming all the talks as usual (done by Switch New Media as per last year) so I'm hoping that we will have a big virtual audience as well.  The stream is open to anyone, so feel free to watch and contribute - check your timings if you are joining us from outside the UK.

There are also a couple of minor changes to the way we have organised things this year:

  • In response to last year's feedback, we have set aside an area of the auditorium, designated as a 'quiet area', where we will ask people not to use laptops and where we will try and avoid capturing people in photos and on the video stream.  This dual use is slightly confusing I guess, but we felt it would be even more confusing to try and segregate people into separate 'no photos' and 'quiet' areas.  We'll see how it goes.  For info... about 20% of this year's delegates indicated that they would like to sit in this area, though it isn't clear whether the preference was primarily for the quiet or the lack of photos - my guess is that it is the former.
  • Last year we used both an online chat room and Twitter to encourage a symposium back-channel (with an emphasis on "use the chat room to ask questions" for remote delegates).  The back-channel was used both in the room and by remote delegates but we felt that the choice of virtual venues caused some confusion as to what was expected to happen where.  This year, we've decided to only use Twitter.  There's a cost to this (for delegates), in that everyone has to sign up to Twitter if they want to take part in the back-channel, but we felt that the time is right to make that particular move.  Again, we'll see how things work out.  If you want to take part in the back-channel, the hash-tag for the event is #esym10.
  • Last year (as in previous years) we set up a social network for the symposium using Ning before the event so that people could introduce each other. This year we sensed that people were feeling somewhat jaded about these kinds of meeting-specific social networks and so we decided against the use of one this time around.  To be honest, such networks rarely seem to get used for anything much in any case.
  • Finally, it wouldn't have been a 'real' mobile event without some use of QR Codes, so please remember to install a QR Code reader onto your smart phone before you leave home.  More info on the day itself.

From an Eduserv perspective the symposium has two objectives... Firstly, to help us understand the impact that 'mobile' might have on both our current services (single sign-on, licence negotiation, web development and hosting, and the data centre) and our potential future services. Secondly, to help the HE community in thinking about how it responds to an increasingly mobile world.

All in all, I'm really looking forward to the event on Thursday and I hope it proves useful to people.  I'll blog again after the event with my own thoughts on how it went and what it might mean.

May 05, 2010

RDFa for the Eduserv Web site

Another post that I've been intermittently chiselling away at in the draft pile for a while... A few weeks ago, I was asked by Lisa Price, our Website Communications Manager, to make some suggestions of how Eduserv might make use of the RDFa in XHTML syntax to embed structured data in pages on the Eduserv Web site, which is currently in the process of being redesigned. I admit this is coming mostly from the starting point of wanting to demonstrate the use of the technology rather than from a pressing use case, but OTOH there is a growing interest from RDFa amongst some of Eduserv's public sector clients so a spot of "eating our own dogfood" would be a Good Thing, and furthermore there are signs of a gradual but significant adoption of RDFa by some major Web service providers.

It seems to me Eduserv might use RDFa to describe, or make assertions about:

  • (Perhaps rather trivially) Web pages themselves i.e. reformulating the (fairly limited) "document metadata" we supply as RDFa.
  • (Perhaps rather more interestingly) some of the "things" that Eduserv pages "are about", or that get mentioned in those pages (e.g. persons, organisations, activities, events, topics of interest, etc).

Within that category of data about "things", we need to decide which data it is most useful to expose. We could:

  • look at those classes of data that are processed by tools/services that currently make use of RDFa (typically using specified RDF vocabularies); or
  • focus on data that we know already exists in a "structured" form but is currently presented in X/HTML either only in human-readable form or using microformats (or even new data which isn't currently surfaced at all on the current site)

Another consideration was the question of whether data was covered by existing models and vocabularies or required some analysis and modelling.

To be honest, there's a fairly limited amount of "structured" information on the site currently. There is some data on licence agreements for software and data, currently made available as HTML tables and Excel spreadsheets. While I think some of the more generic elements of this might be captured using a product/service ontology such as Good Relations, the license-specific aspects would require some additional modelling. For the short term at least, we've taken a somewhat "pragmatic" approach and focused mainly on that first class of data for which there are some identifiable consuming applications, based on the use of specified RDF vocabularies - and more specifically on data that Google and Yahoo make particular reference to in their documentation for creators/publishers of Web pages.

That's not to say there won't be more use of RDFa on the site in the future: at the moment, this is something of a "dipping toes in the water" exercise, I think.

The following is by best effort to summarize Google and Yahoo support for RDFa at the time of writing. Please note that this is something which is evolving - as I was writing up this post, I just noticed that the Google guidelines have changed slightly since I sent my initial notes to Lisa. And I'm still not at all sure I've captured the complete picture here, so please do check their current documentation for content providers to get an idea of the current state of play.

Google and RDFa

Google's support for RDFa is part of a larger programme of support for structured data embedded in X/HTML that they call "rich snippets" (announced here), which includes support for RDFa, microformats and microdata. (The latter, I think, is a relatively recent addition).

Google functionality extends to extracting specified categories of RDFa data in (some) pages it indexes, and displaying that in search result sets (and in place pages in Google Maps). It also provides access to the data in its Custom Search platform.

Initially at least, Google required the use of its own RDF vocabularies, which attracted some criticism (see e.g. Ian Davis' response), but it appears to have fairly quietly introduced some support for other RDF vocabularies. "In addition to the Person RDFa format, we have added support for the corresponding fields from the FOAF and vCard vocabularies for all those of you who asked for it." And Martin Hepp has pointed to Google displaying data encoded using the Good Relations product/service ontology.

The nature of the RDFa syntax is such that it is often fairly straightforward to use multiple RDF vocabularies in RDFa e.g. triples using the same subject and object but different predicates can be encoded using a single RDFa attribute with multiple white-space-separated CURIEs - though things do tend to get more messy if the vocabularies are based on different models (e.g. time periods as literals v time periods as resources with properties of their own).

Google provides specific recommendations to content creators on the embedding of data to describe:

Yahoo and RDFa

Yahoo's support for RDFa is through its SearchMonkey platform. Like Google, it provides a set of "standard" result set enhancements, based on the use of specified RDF vocabularies for a small set of resource types:

In addition, my understanding is that although Yahoo defines some RDF vocabularies of its own, and describes the use of specified vocabularies in the guidelines for the resource types above, it exposes any RDFa data in pages it indexes to developers on its SearchMonkey platform, to allow the building of custom search enhancements. Several existing vocabularies are discussed in the SearchMonkey guide and the FAQ in Appendix D of that document notes "You may use any RDF or OWL vocabulary".

Linked Data

The decentralised extensibility built into RDF means that a provider can choose to extend what data they expose beyond that specified in the guidelines mentioned above.

In addition, I tried to take into account some other general "good practice" points that have emerged from the work of the Linked Data community, captured in sources such as:

So in the Eduserv case, for example (I hope!) URIs will be assigned to "things" like events, distinct from the pages describing them, with suitable redirects put in place on the HTTP server and syitable triples in the data linking those things and the corresponding pages.


Anyway, on the basis of the above sources, I tried to construct some suggestions, taking into acccount both the Google and Yahoo guidelines, for descriptions of people, organisations and events, which I'll post here in the next few entries.

Postscript: Facebook

Even more recently, of course, has come the news of Facebook's announcement at the f8 conference of their Open Graph Protocol. This makes use of RDFa embedded in the headers of XHTML pages using meta elements to provide (pretty minimal) metadata "about" things described by those pages (films, songs, people, places, hotels, restaurants etc - see the Facebook page for a full (and I imagine, growing) list of resource types supported).

Facebook makes use of the data to drive its "Like" application: a "button" can be embedded in the page to allow a Facebook user to post the data to their Fb account to signal an "I like this" relationship with the thing described. Or as Dare Obasanjo expresses it, an Fb user can add a node for the thing to their Fb social graph, making it into a "social object". This results in the data being displayed at appropriate points in their Fb stream, while the button displays, as a minimum, a count of the "likers" of the resource on the source page itself; logged-in Fb users would, I think, see information about whether any of their "friends" had liked it.

My reporting of these details of the interface is somewhat "second-hand" as I no longer use Facebook - I deleted my account some time ago because I was concerned about their approaches to the privacy of personal information (see these three recent posts by Tony Hirst for some thoughts on the most recent round of changes in that sphere).

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the popularity of Fb and its huge user base, the OGP announcement seems to have attracted a very large amount of attention within a very short period of time, and it may turn out to be a significant milestone for the use of XHTML-embedded metadata in general and of RDFa in particular. The substantial "carrot" of supporting the Fb "Like" application and attracting traffic from Fb users is likely to be the primary driver for many providers to generate this data, and indeed some commentators (see e.g. this BBC article) have gone as far as to suggest that this represents a move by Facebook to challenge Google as the primary filter of resources for people searching and navigating the Web.

However, I also think it is important to distinguish between the data on the one hand and that particular Facebook app on the other. Having this data available, minimal as it may be, also opens up the possibility of other applications by other parties making use of that same data.

And this is true also, of course, for the case of data constructed following the Google and Yahoo guidelines.

The future of UK Dublin Core application profiles

I spent yesterday morning up at UKOLN (at the University of Bath) for a brief meeting about the future of JISC-funded Dublin Core application profile development in the UK.

I don't intend to report on the outcomes of the meeting here since it is not really my place to do so (I was just invited as an interested party and I assume that the outcomes of the meeting will be made public in due course). However, attending the meeting did make me think about some of the issues around the way application profiles have tended to be developed to date and these are perhaps worth sharing here.

By way of background, the JISC have been funding the development of a number of Dublin Core application profiles in areas such as scholarly works, images, time-based media, learning objects, GIS and research data over the last few years.  An application profile provides a model of some subset of the world of interest and an associated set of properties and controlled vocabularies that can be used to describe the entities in that model for the purposes of some application (or service) within a particular domain. The reference to Dublin Core implies conformance with the DCMI Abstract Model (which effectively just means use of the RDF model) and an inherent preference for the use of Dublin Core terms whenever possible.

The meeting was intended to help steer any future UK work in this area.

I think (note that this blog post is very much a personal view) that there are two key aspects of the DC application profile work to date that we need to think about.

Firstly, DC application profiles are often developed by a very small number of interested parties (sometimes just two or three people) and where engagement in the process by the wider community is quite hard to achieve. This isn't just a problem with the UK JISC-funded work on application profiles by the way. Almost all of the work undertaken within the DCMI community on application profiles suffers from the same problem - mailing lists and meetings with very little active engagement beyond a small core set of people.

Secondly, whilst the importance of enumerating the set of functional requirements that the application profile is intended to meet has not been underestimated, it is true to say that DC application profiles are often developed in the absence of an actual 'software application'. Again, this is also true of the application profile work being undertaken by the DCMI. What I mean here is that there is not a software developer actually trying to build something based on the application profile at the time it is being developed. This is somewhat odd (to say the least) given that they are called application profiles!

Taken together, these two issues mean that DC application profiles often take on a rather theoretical status - and an associated "wouldn't it be nice if" approach. The danger is a growth in the complexity of the application profile and a lack of any real business drivers for the work.

Speaking from the perspective of the Scholarly Works Application Profile (SWAP) (the only application profile for which I've been directly responsible), in which we adopted the use of FRBR, there was no question that we were working to a set of perceived functional requirements (e.g. "people need to be able to find the latest version of the current item"). However, we were not driven by the concrete needs of a software developer who was in the process of building something. We were in the situation where we could only assume that an application would be built at some point in the future (a UK repository search engine in our case). I think that the missing link to an actual application, with actual developers working on it, directly contributed to the lack of uptake of the resulting profile. There were other factors as well of course - the conceptual challenge of basing the work on FRBR and that fact that existing repository software was not RDF-ready for example - but I think that was the single biggest factor overall.

Oddly, I think JISC funding is somewhat to blame here because, in making funding available, JISC helps the community to side-step the part of the business decision-making that says, "what are the costs (in time and money) of developing, implementing and using this profile vs. the benefits (financial or otherwise) that result from its use?".

It is perhaps worth comparing current application profile work and other activities. Firstly, compare the progress of SWAP with the progress of the Common European Research Information Format (CERIF), about which the JISC recently reported:

EXRI-UK reviewed these approaches against higher education needs and recommended that CERIF should be the basis for the exchange of research information in the UK. CERIF is currently better able to encode the rich information required to communicate research information, and has the organisational backing of EuroCRIS, ensuring it is well-managed and sustainable.

I don't want to compare the merits of these two approaches at a technical level here. What is interesting however, is that if CERIF emerges as the mandated way in which research information is shared in the UK then there will be a significant financial driver to its adoption within systems in UK institutions. Research information drives a significant chunk of institutional funding which, in turn, drives compliance in various applications. If the UK research councils say, "thou shalt do CERIF", that is likely what institutions will do.  They'll have no real choice. SWAP has no such driver, financial or otherwise.

Secondly, compare the current development of Linked Data applications within the UK data.gov.uk initiative with the current application profile work. Current government policy in the UK effectively says, 'thou shalt do Linked Data' but isn't really any more prescriptive. It encourages people to expose their data as Linked Data and to develop useful applications based on that data. Ignoring any discussion about whether Linked Data is a good thing or not, what has resulted is largely ground-up. Individual developers are building stuff and, in the process, are effectively developing their own 'application profiles' (though they don't call them that) as part of exposing/using the Linked Data. This approach results in real activity. But it also brings with it the danger of redundancy, in that every application developer may model their Linked Data differently, inventing their own RDF properties and so on as they see fit.

As Paul Walk noted at the meeting yesterday, at some stage there will be a huge clean-up task to make any widespread sense of the UK government-related Linked Data that is out there. Well, yes... there will. Conversely, there will be no clean up necessary with SWAP because nobody will have implemented it.

Which situation is better!? :-)

I think the issue here is partly to do with setting the framework at the right level. In trying to specify a particular set of application profiles, the JISC is setting the framework very tightly - not just saying, "you must use RDF" or "you must use Dublin Core" but saying "you must use Dublin Core in this particular way". On the other hand, the UK government have left the field of play much more open. The danger with the DC application profile route is lack of progress. The danger with the government approach is too little consistency.

So, what are the lessons here? The first, I think, is that it is important to lobby for your prefered technical solution at a policy level as well as at a technical level. If you believe that a Linked Data-compliant Dublin Core application profile is the best technical way of sharing research information in the UK then it is no good just making that argument to software developers and librarians. Decisions made by the research councils (in this case) will be binding irrespective of technical merit and will likely trump any decisions made by people on the ground.

The second is that we have to understand the business drivers for the adoption, or not, of our technical solutions rather better than we do currently. Who makes the decisions? Who has the money? What motivates the different parties? Again, technically beautiful solutions won't get adopted if the costs of adoption are perceived to outweigh the benefits, or if the people who hold the purse strings don't see any value in spending their money in that particular way, or if people simply don't get it.

Finally, I think we need to be careful that centralised, top-down, initiatives (particularly those with associated funding) don't distort the environment to such an extent that the 'real' drivers, both financial and user-demand, can be ignored in the short term, leading to unsustainable situations in the longer term. The trick is to pump-prime those things that the natural drivers will support in the long term - not always an easy thing to pull off.



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