Friday, 30 October 2009

Meetings galore, and off to the snow

Last blog post before I set off for EDUCAUSE 2009 which this year is in Denver. I've been before at this time of year and it's been very autumnal, nice warm days and coolish nights. This year could be different - several inches of snow have fallen in the last few days and it's well below freezing. May have to revise my packing.

The last few days have been a series of meetings - Human Resource Management Committee where we looked at the results of the recent Voluntary Severance Scheme and the HR strategy for the next 5 years, and a meeting between the Executive Team and our Section Heads to look at how we will improve internal communications and what changes we might be making to cope with fewer staff.

I've been on a group reviewing the marketing function within the University and we met earlier today to approve our final report. Our swine flu management team met this morning - we're fairly confident we have plans in place to deal with an outbreak if it comes - at the moment it's as if we're playing a waiting game!

Finally, this week I've been to 10 leaving dos - most of them for staff within CiCS, but some from other departments - today was the last day for staff to go under our recent voluntary severance scheme. I'd just like to reiterate my thanks to everyone who's gone on to do different things, or in some cases to relish in doing nothing, and wish them all the best for the future. The University will be a very different place without you all.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Jazz chickens and coughing giraffes...

The University Drama Studio is a jewel of the University estate - but many staff have never been in it. Last night its profile was enhanced as a comedy giant - a certain Mr Eddie Izzard - performed his sell out show Stripped there.

Eddie was a student at the University in the early 80s but "opted out" of his degree course after one year. However, he stayed around Sheffield and spent a lot of time in the Drama Studio and established the Alternative Productions Society in the Union of Students with the aim of promoting fringe-based arts. He is well remembered by the current theatre manager. As part of his current tour Eddie was appearing at the Sheffield Arena, and we were delighted when we were approached by his management who told us that Eddie would like to do a late night gig at the Drama Studio - apparently in his many performances there he had never sold it out, but was fairly certain he could do now!

And of course he was right. On Sunday I saw him at the Arena perform in front of 11,000 people on a huge stage with 3 video screen, an enormous set and 5 trucks parked up outside.

What a difference it was to see him last night perform to 218 people. It was fantastic to see one of his trucks parked outside all lit up, and a searchlight lighting up the sky - I'm fairly certain that the first time that's happened at the Drama Studio. Inside the Studio looked fantastic.

I was involved in some of the hosting of the University guests to the event (including John Prescott) and was lucky enough to meet Eddie in his dressing room. He is a lovely bloke - very chatty and ordinary (in the nicest possible way - not at all prima donna-ish). As some of you know I have a thing about meeting him!

I'd like to thanks the team who worked so hard on this very demanding event - the Drama Studio isn't used to this sort of thing - it was handled extremely professionally, and I'm thinking we should now try to get on the Arena tour list!

Oh, and you had to be there to understand the title of this post! Cough (tiger).

PS - sorry about the quality of the photos - all taken on my iPhone. We hopefully have some professional ones on their way and I will post them as soon as we have them - hope these give you a feel for it though!

Monday, 26 October 2009

CampusM launch

Sorry for lack of posts - been away for a few days. Back today with a trip to London to the Apple HQ above their store on Regent St for the launch of CampusM. I've blogged about this mobile app before, and I was presenting a case study on our experience of the implementation so far. There were representatives there from oMbiel, the company who are developing the application who gave an overview of the product and some future developments.

I've been asked a lot of questions about this, including why did we decide to implement CampusM, why didn't we do it ourselves as webapps, how much effort did it take on our part, and what issues have we had. These were all things I covered in today's talk, so in summary.....

Why - well it fits with our strategy of delivering services in a way that suits the user, rather than one that suits us. Our last survey showed that about 15% of students had smart phones, and that number is steadily rising, so we will be getting information to students in a way that is familiar to them. Because it's based on Service Orientated Architecture and open standards it enables us to reuse functionality. We've had a student portal since 2003 and some of the development work has been reused in CampusM, and we will also be able to use the functionality in CampusM to plug back into our student portal. The other major factor is one of resources - we just haven't got the development resource to do this ourselves - we have too much else on. oMbiel are specialists in this sort of work, having a history of being systems integrators and are much better placed to do it. One other factor - it was a low risk project. At relatively little cost, we didn't tell anyone we were doing it until we had a working system, if it had all failed, nothing else was riding on it.

Why didn't we develop it ourselves as web apps is partly answered above - we could have done, but we just don't have the resource. This was done in a matter of weeks - it would have taken us much longer. Plus, we now have an application that has everything in one menu - pulling in information from many different sources but it is seamless to the user and they don't have to go to lots of different web apps to get it. The application makes a lot of use of location services, and its integration with other apps on the iPhone such as Google maps is something that would have taken us more than a few weeks to do. In addition, oMbiel are doing all the work in optimising it for viewing on different types of phone with different operating systems and browsers. It's a pragmatic approach - I'm into rapid development and deployment at the moment, and if someone can do it quicker than we can we should let them do it.

In terms of effort on our part - very little. We supplied the expertise on where the data was held and database views. We had a project manager at both ends, and ours liaised with different data owners and handled testing and rollout issues. oMbiel did almost everything else.

As for issues - there's not been many. A certain initial cynicism of whether this would work, decisions on what functionality to deliver initially and what not to, some difficulties with testing because we needed live student data (solved by getting a group of students to pilot it for us).

So, we now have a working application which should be available from the iTunes store in about 4 weeks, and we're using that time to get more data into it. By the end of the year it will be available on many more smart phones.

The location based features are for me the most impressive. Take something simple like PC availability - we can show students where PCs are free on a campus map or on Google maps, or they can locate the nearest free PC to where they happen to be. We're going to add more things like printers, value loaders etc to it. Just imagine the potential - someone suggested free car parking spaces! If only we had the data we could do it.

So - what next? Well, we will be oMbiel are developing an application targeted at staff, and we know from our limited testing with staff that they're very keen on having something similar, especially for the directory features. They're also looking at a version for visitors to campus such as on open days where I can imagine the location based features such as campus maps will be very useful. there's also talk of a version for prospective students and alumni - we'll have to take a decision on how far we want to go!

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Zombies, Sushi and Dreams

Had an interesting journey yesterday afternoon at the External Affairs and Knowledge Management Committee. We went from discussing Zombies, through talking about dreams, to enterprising students selling Sushi, and finished with a session on caring for at-risk elderly people. Let me explain how....

Every year Sheffield has a Fright Night around Halloween - an extremely successful event attracting over 30,000 people into the City Centre. The University is one of the sponsors and our very own Professor Vanessa helps with the entertainment, including providing Sheffield students to dress up as Zombies and mingle with the crowd.

Then we went on to talk about some research we have commissioned to find out more about the perception of the University in the City, and a campaign we're launching in a few weeks to raise our profile. There's an excellent film clip about Dreams which we'll be showing in cinemas and around the City and we got a sneak preview - don't want to say more and give the game away but it's excellent.

Enterprising students were up next. We've just launched USE - a service to help students with enterprising ideas, setting up their own business, getting work experience etc. An excellent service, and one that's very relevant as we aim to improve the employability of our graduates in the current financial climate. One of our success stories in this area is Will Christophers who began a few years ago selling Japanese food form a small handcart on the University concourse. Now he's the founder of WillYaki Ltd - a thriving Japanese food retailer and supplier.

Finally, something that is becoming more relevant to us all, a presentation on an innovative piece of research with practical applications in the care of elderly people from Professor Ian Philp. Easy-Care is a set of assessment tools to help health care practioners assess the needs of elderly and at risk people, developed out of a research project here in Sheffield and now in use internationally.

It was the first of this new committee's meetings I've been able to attend and it surprisingly enjoyable - I wish all meetings could be as interesting!

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The thorny issue of internal communication

As part of our programme of staff development we've introduced a Management Development programme which we're cascading down the department, based on the premise that many people find themselves managers of staff often as a result of regrading or job changes, and yet have had little training. And those of us who've had staff management responsibilities for longer than we care to remember know that running an entire IT infrastructure is a piece of cake compared to dealing with staffing issues! Over the summer our "middle managers" - sorry, can't think of a better name for them - had 3 full days of tailored training, and as part of that they were to report back to their managers ( Section Heads) on issues. This they have done, and I had an interesting hour this morning going through some of the issues raised (as I couldn't be at the original feedback session).

One of the issues we discussed at length was communication and how that can be improved - always an issue in any large organisation and one that seems so difficult to get right, especially as we all prefer different styles and ways of communicating. We touched on how best to use technology especially Web 2.0 stuff - one of the things that came up which I find fascinating is the overlap between work and non work and how that is managed. I try and keep this blog work related (although it was pointed out to me this morning that the occasional morris dancer does crop up in it). That can be difficult, and there are lots of things I'd like to write about which aren't to do with work, so I have another blog set up and ready to go which would be a more personal one. I say set up and ready to go - it's been there 2 years and I've never posted anything in it. Worried that I think I wouldn't have the time to keep it going maybe? And to a certain extent it's been overtaken by Twitter. I have a very different rule for Twitter than for this blog, and it does combine work and social posts. I'm just as likely to tell you what I'm eating or what music I'm listening to, or how cold I am in my tent, than what I'm doing at work. That's what I like about Twitter, and why I try and follow people who do the same - I like knowing about people generally, and build up a much better picture of them if aspects of their life other than work are included. It's an interesting topic, and one which I'm sure we'll return to.

So, we had lots of positive discussion about tools such as blogs and twitter and how they could be used in the department. It was pointed out that after 2 years and usually very positive feedback, I'm still the only senior management person in the department using a blog to communicate. Perhaps that will change now we have our own blogging environment uSpace. To try and address the issue of information flow we have just set up a new area in uSpace where we are going to experiment with a communal executive blog to record our meetings and decisions taken, and we're hoping that all of our teams will do the same. It will be an interesting experiment.

And finally on communication, something that makes me cross is people who don't make an effort to find our what's going on, but sit back and expect the information to be spoon fed to them. We are a University after all and a certain amount of proactivity is expected. Despite all of the technology we have at our disposal, nothing beats getting up off your chair, walking into someone's office and actually talking to them face to face!

Monday, 12 October 2009

We don't provide the systems anymore.....

Departmental meeting today - about 160 of the department got together first thing this morning, and we were very lucky to have a visit from our Vice Chancellor. He spoke about a number of issues affecting the University at the moment including the financial climate, the effect a change of government might have, the possibility of changes to student fees and consequent changes to the funding mechanisms. As a University we're in a much better financial position now as we've saved a lot of staff costs over the past few weeks, but there are still challenging times ahead. He also (very kindly and with no prompting from me) told the staff what a good job he thought they were doing and how much our services are respected and appreciated. Excellent start to the day.

We also had presentations on CampusM (blogged about last week), and the use of Web 2.0 technologies. We're pushing the latter a bit at the moment because we're already starting to see the effects of the changing attitudes to using technologies that we don't supply. So for example, we've just launched a major collaborative space with blogs, wikis, discussion boards etc, and one of our research groups has just launched their own based on a piece of free open source software. What do we do? Ours is secure, authenticated, backed up, supported etc. There's doesn't link to any of our systems, and probably isn't as secure. How do we broach it with them? Should we?

We also looked at students' use of technology and how easy it is for them to create content using relatively simple tools, like this video which won a recent MMUBS Podcast Competition:

Of course another great example is the IC Girls video, filmed surreptitiously in the IC and edited in someone's bedroom on iMovie - a great piece of film!

Friday, 9 October 2009

Smarter phones

Yesterday was our User Group, and I was able to report that our migration of student email accounts to Google had gone really well - and today Google announced it in a press release. Nice to get some good publicity. We had a very good discussion on the use of web 2.0 technologies in teaching and learning and how we will be supporting and facilitating them in the future.

As part of our commitment to providing applications to mobile devices, we gave a demo of our CampusM application which will be launched to students in the next couple of weeks for the iPhone, and then later to other smart phones.

It has some very nice features, including a directory linked to our University phone and email system, and friend locator (so that you can see where your friends are and meet up with them), news and event feeds, and course details.

It also has a powerful location application linked to GPS and Google maps. We are using it to show our student computing rooms - their location on the campus map and on Google maps and how many PCs are free. Exam venues are also listed, as well as all other buildings on campus. Over time we'll be adding a lot more functionality to this.

There's also information drawn from other systems including the Library so that students can see what books they've got out, their reservations and fines! Eventually they'll be able to extend loans and carry our other transactions. Other features include personal lecture and exam timetables.

We're impressed so far, and will be interested to see what the students think, and get their views on what is missing. How it performs on other platforms will also have to be carefully monitored as it looks particulary good on the iPhone - but then most things do :)

Liaison and Audit

Another strategic liaison meeting this week - this time with the Faculty of Engineering. Lots to talk about again as we followed our standard agenda around our 6 service areas (learning and teaching, Research,Communication and Collaboration, Help and Support, Infrastructure, and Corporate Business Activity). Research was a hot topic again as we looked at how we might fund more support, and they were also interested in the supporting infrastructure for supporting teaching and learning - especially planning of AV equipment in lecture theatres and the extent of the wireless network. Wireless is a particular issue for them as the original engineering building is 120 years old and very solid! the last timecwe surveyed it we thought we'd need an access point in almost every office to cover it completely, so we have had to stick to teaching and social space only.

I also had to attend the Audit Committee meeting yesterday - always a bit of a nerve racking experience. I've been summoned to see them many times in the past as we have our own set of internal auditors and have about 4 to 5 audits a year on different aspects of our business. We don't always see eye to eye with the auditors, and I have to go and explain to Audit Committee why. Yesterday was not such a meeting however, as I was there to go over an audit on Business Continuity. No serious recommendations had been made, and the ones that had been had all been actioned. As I explained to the committee, there's nothing like the threat of an impending disaster (in this case swine flu) to focus people's minds! We're in the situation now where we have a complete set of plans from all areas of the University, and we've managed to get departments to focus on prioritising their important business (namely teaching and research). I was slightly concerned that one member of the committee expressed surprise that we only had emergency power generators covering the data centres and not the whole University. I don't think he quite understood the extent of the University's power usage. It would have to be a mighty big generator!

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Research Support

We've just begun our second round of strategic liaison meetings with some Faculties - yesterday we met Social Sciences. One of the main topics of discussion was our support for research in the University. This is an important issue for us - research is highly complex and specialised, unlike teaching and learning where our support can be more generic, with our VLE and other services being used across the University. Traditionally we've supported research through our provision of a High Performance Computing (HPC) facility, data storage, a high speed network and various systems whcih support research administration. We also provide training for system administrators and support for specialist software, and more recently we're providing a collaboration tool which can be used across University boundaries in the form of uSpace.

What we're trying to do at the moment is clarify the level of support we provide and outline our plans for the future by drawing up a research support stragey. Currently it's in draft form and will be going out for consultation in the department soon, but we're trying it out on the Faculties as well to get their views.

One of the most difficult issues to deal with is funding. How much do we provide centrally and how much do we expect research groups to fund from grants and other income. If we are expecting research groups to fund some provision , how do we recover that money. Many models are in use in different Universities especially around HPC provision and we need to find the one that works best here. What we don't want is a proliferation of research computing clusters in individual departments, often housed in inadequate space without proper support when we can provide space and support more cost effectively.

What we're proposing is a model which will allow research computing support to be fed into research grant applications, which will create a rolling fund for research support staff in CiCS. Let's hope it works.