Thursday, 28 January 2010

UCISA Planning

Today was a planning meeting for the UCISA Executive where we look at our activities for the next year, and how we can best serve the interests of our members. As always, lots of events are planned - these take the form of conferences, workshops, training courses, seminars and management days. Topics to be covered this year include Business Intelligence,Research management systems, Business process engineering, VOIP, CCTV, Unified Communications, Mobile Computing, Effective procurement, and Customer relationship management. Although there is an office of full time staff to help with the organisation of these events, much effort comes from the membership of the various groups and is voluntary - it is much appreciated.

We also looked at the top current concerns of our members, and how we might address those over the coming year. Not surprisingly, the top one was funding. We are all going to be faced with spending less, doing more with less, and deciding what we can stop doing. We had a very lively discussion on areas we should be looking at, including more use of shared services, outsourcing and centralisation of services and support. We will be having an event in the next few months to look in more detail at a vision of what IT Services might be like in 5 years time.

The second top concern was the whole area of sustainability and carbon reduction. There are a number of drivers for this - cost savings, climate change, and perhaps not least, carbon reduction targets we've all been given by the funding council and and the subsequent fines if we don't meet them. Another event to cover this area is being planned, together with the collection and publication of a number of good practice case studies. So, lots to keep UCISA occupied over the next year.


I've got round to this really late in the day, and so many people have blogged today about the iPad I nearly didn't bother. But then I decided it would be interesting to put down what I think about it today, so that I could compare with how I feel when I've got my hands on one, and when versions 2, 3, 4 have come out, or when it's followed the same fate as the Newton.

So - initial thoughts watching the launch and subsequent videos were wow - looks like I thought it would, very sleek, beautifully designed, looks like a great interface and screen, very fast, great quality video and photos. Typical Apple attention to quality, design and detail. Not too keen on the name and the subsequent jokes ("does it come with wings?" being my favourite) but that will pass. And yes, I am lusting to get my hands on one.

So - what about the criticisms and disappointments. What's it for? Why hasn't it got this? Or that? Is it supposed to be a big iPhone, or a netbook? The last question to my mind is the easiest, and the key to the previous one. The answer is neither - it isn't a phone (that's why you can't make calls on it - and why would you want to on something that size), and it's not a netbook. A couple of blog posts have summed the issues up for me, the most eloquent being Stephen Fry's - he puts things so much better than I could! The other is a short post from Mashable - I particularly like the thought of an engineer breaking it to Steve Jobs that he forgot to put the camera in....

I personally think it's going to be a great device for consuming content (you can use it to create it, but I don't think it's going to be significant), web browsing and for gaming. The latter is where I can see it really taking off very quickly.

And yes, iCertainlyWill.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

I'm disturbed...

...or concerned. Or maybe both. A number of things buzzing round the blogosphere/twitterverse/tinterwebs which are making me uncomfortable.

I'm concerned about the Digital Economy Bill, which is currently working its way through the House of Lords and is the legislative response to the Digital Britain Report. It seems to be to be unduly draconian in its response to copyright and file sharing. I truly believe that the current copyright laws are not appropriate for today's digital age - if you don't believe me, listen to Larry Lessig. This bill does not help, in my opinion, and in fact will only serve to reduce the advantage we should be taking of new technologies, putting undue pressure for example on account holders and holding them responsible for the behaviour of other users. Our own Professor of Law has already written that she fears that it could lead to the demise of free w-ifi networks.

I'm disturbed by the involvement of the police in what seems to be a spat between two bloggers. The BBC correspondent Rory Cellan Jones covered it today, but currently there are many blog posts about it - most expressing support for the blogger who received a visit from the police and subsequently took his blog down. Even more interestingly, it is alleged by the blogger that the police got his personal details from the University where he was a student (not confirmed by the University), and that they "relayed a message from the head of ICT department that I shouldn't be using university property in such ways" - also not confirmed. There are a couple of aspects to this case which disturb me. As a blogger, I'm worried that if I post something that someone else doesn't like they could complain to the police and I might get a visit. As an IT Director I need to question what we would have done in these circumstances. How much information would we have asked for before releasing personal details to the police? What does our code of conduct say about use of University facilities, and what are our views on students posting controversial, but legal, blog posts? Peter Tinson has posted a good summary of the issues for University IT Directors here.

Finally - I am bloody angry about this. Irish blogger posts a fairly innocuous post last November about what it was like being a female air traffic controller when she first started nearly ten years ago. Quite a chatty post, nothing particularly controversial, some comments about how things have changed - that's all. Some (insert suitable adjective here - I can think of plenty) "journalist" called Luke Byrne at the Daily Mail found it and published an article under the heading "The Male Chauvinist Pigs of Irish Air Traffic Control" complete with picture of blogger. She knew nothing about it, wasn't contacted for comment, wasn't asked for permission to have pieces of her blog misquoted, or her picture used. Utterly disgraceful, sloppy, lazy journalism. I wish her all the best and hope she gets some sort of retraction or apology from them.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Re-using labs, and getting rid of paper

Liaison Meeting with the Faculty of Science today- lots on the agenda, including big discussion on teaching space. We're trying to make the best use of our estate, and reduce space if we can - we need to reduce our carbon emissions, like all Universities, and reducing space is one way of contributing to it. In order to reduce space, we have to utilise what we have much better, and we were discussing today ways of doing that. Our common timetabling project should help, but we're also looking at other innovative ideas, such as using laboratories as computer rooms when they're not in use for practical classes. Obvous we can't have hard wired PCs in there, but we could have a stack of laptops using the wireless network that could be brought out when needed. Issues to address obviously such as what applications we can deliver to them, can we cope with 75 simultaneous connections to wifi, have we got the staff to maintain them - but nothing insurmountable. Of course students could also use their own laptops, if we could get the applications to them. Hopeful our new desktop project will solve that one...

Another area where we need to improve our carbon footprint is in printing - and we are currently going in to departments carrying out printing audits to see how we can help them print less, and where they do have to print, do it in a more efficient and carbon friendly way. I'm still amazed by how little people consider the cost (£ and C) of printing. The number of meetings I go to and see people clutching folders of single sided papers, carefully printed out by clerical staff I assume, often with colour banners, and presumeably filed when they get back - despite the fact that nearly all papers are held electronically centrally. Or thrown away, often having never even been referred to in the meeting. Hobby horse of mine I'm afraid!

Finally today we had a long look at our budget, and discussed costs, prioritisation and timing of our capital spending. Very difficult to do when you can't get good cost estimates for projects which are not complete, and will be making decisions about possible changes to technologies and infrastructure. Lots of flexibility needed!

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Spotify - banned!

It's always interesting when another University hits the press - and any interest is usually accompanied by a sigh of relief that it's not us. This week it's the turn of Oxford University who have banned the use of Spotify on their campus network, and made it into many papers and web sites, but I think the news first broke on the University Student newspaper site. It interested me for a number of reasons - the first being that I use Spotify a lot, and am often to be heard using it to listen to music while I work. It's legal, only offers up adverts about every 20 minutes, and seems to use very little bandwidth. In fact, although we have nearly 25,000 students and assume many of them use it, it forms a very small part of our traffic - it doesn't even merit its own classification and is lumped into "miscellaneous". The big bandwidth usage comes from flash video and YouTube, and I can't imagine banning them.

So - why have Oxford chosen this application to ban? Well, I assume (although I could be wrong) that as their University Computer Usage Rules state that unauthorised use of peer to peer networking software is forbidden, and as Spotify is classed as peer to peer, it's banned. Were they right to do it? Well, it is obviously their decision and they have to do what's best for their network and users, but I do have my own opinion!

I think University IT departments have to embrace and facilitate the use of new technology - we should no longer be the gatekeepers, banning things because they use our precious resources. We will be fighting a losing battle if we try to do so - new things will always appear to replace the things we ban. How many of us tried to ban Skype because we were worried about the security issues and bandwidth use? Now it's a common way of communicating. Yes there are bandwidth issues with more and more services coming on stream, but with good monitoring and traffic management you can ensure that one type of traffic doesn't degrade the service for others.

I'm always depressed when I speak to people outside of our sector where access to social networking sites and other social media is banned - I really hope Universities never go down that route. The IT department as the department that likes to say "no" should be a thing of the past.

Edit: Just to confirm what I said in this post about Local Authorities...

Monday, 18 January 2010

A laboratory in your pocket

The last session of the Apple Leadership event last week was about mobile computing, and how the smart phone could change the way we deliver content to students. As well as delivering web applications and native apps, lectures and electronic resources, they are starting to be used in scientific experiments and for capturing data. Pasco have developed the Spark app for the iPhone and iPodtouch which offers a variety of experiments, and they have also developed a series of probes and sensors which can be connected to the iPhone to collect real time data. Coupled with some of the mini devices we've been looking at recently such as the pico projectors, students will soon be able to carry a mobile laboratory around with them.

After dashing back from London I went to another strategic liaison meeting - this time with the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health. We talked about a number of new initiatives, and some issues which are particular to that area - links with the NHS networks, access to services for staff that we don't employ, and dealing with students who are away from the campus for much of the time. We also spent quite a lot of time talking about teaching space - especially the types of space they need - flat floored, flexible, IT equipped, good AV facilities, and in particular large enough to cope with the size of classes medicine teaches. The equipment and infrastructure we can provide - but not the spaces.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

BETTer technology

Spent most of today at BETT in Olympia, I've never been before so didn't know what to expect. well for a start it's massive - both of Olympia's Halls full, plus both galleries, plus some side rooms. Lots of different areas - Playful Learning, Future Learning Spaces, and Special Education Needs just a few of them. Many hundreds of exhibitors of educational technology.

Some themes/highlights for me included:

  • An emphasis on safety and security. Lots of stuff around security - web filtering, safe searching, detection of cyberbullying. Something that's very important in schools.
  • Biometrics - a very good demo of a device which recognises the pattern of veins in your fingers (which I didn't even know was unique) to identify you
  • Facial recognition software - to be used in classes instead of taking registers, and to detect latecomers!!
  • Lots of green themes - apparently I saw the only environmentally certified interactive whiteboard in the world!
  • Masses of different sorts of displays - huge interactive plasma screens, whiteboards, video walls and even 3D interactive projectors
  • Future learning space design with some very exciting use of space with innovative IT and furniture layouts
  • Some excellent learning packages, and it was interesting to see how much gaming is having an influence on design. The Playful Learning section was my favourite - even Lego had a stand - we should do more exciting and playful learning in Universities I think!

I spent sometime at the Microsoft stand looking at demos of Office 2010, particularly the web apps which look impressive, and I was initially impressed by the video conferencing app which JANET were promoting, until I was told that it was a windows only app.

The exhibition was definitely worth attending, and certainly opened my eyes to how much great and innovative technology schoolkids are being exposed to, and how that will be influencing their expectations when they come to University. No wonder they think our VLE is clunky!

Mobile campus

In London at the moment for two events. First is the Apple Leadership Event, where yesterday I gave a joint presentation with oMbiel about campusM - our mobile application. The talk was so popular we had to deliver it three times, so it was pretty tiring! But it was very well received and we had lots of questions - especially about future developments of the application - could we use it to deliver learning materials from the VLE for example? Some of the international delegates were concerned about the cost of running the app for students because of very high data costs from ISPs and telecommunications providers. I was amazed at some of the charges being levied - I think Belgium was probably the dearest - and am grateful for the fact that we can make good use of networks for relatively little cost over here.

When I put the slides for the talk together on Monday we had 500 downloads - by the time I gave the talk yesterday afternoon we'd had 900! The extra publicity given to it by featuring on the University home page for the last few days had obviously had an effect. The split between iPhone and iPod touch users is about 70% iPhone, 30% iPod touch. Surprising number of iPod touches - and that sort of device never features in our surveys of what students have and yet they're obviously using them to access our services via wireless.

In the next few week we'll be releasing the app for use on other phones - I saw it working on a relatively cheap simple Nokia yesterday and it was surprisingly good.

Now I'm off to BETT2010, so will blog about that later.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Common Timetabling

Very short Programme Board this week as no project reports due to Christmas break but we did approve two new projects - one s a continuation of an existing one. Currently we're reviewing our VLE, and once a decision is taken on how to proceed we will have quite a big implementation task, so that's been set up as a new project. The other has been under discussion for some time, but we're finally getting on with it, and this is to implement a common approach to timetabling.

Timetabling is currently based at a departmental level and there is consequently considerable duplication of effort as timetables are created locally. Requests are then made for room bookings centrally, and then often timetablers will transpose the allocated room information back into local systems.

The software we use has the capacity to capture relevant information such as staffing constraints and to automatically produce a scheduled, roomed timetable. We can then produce clash free personal student timetables which can be delivered to students though the portal and Google calendar, and though our mobile application, campusM. This should also save a considerable amount of staff time by reducing duplication of effort, and develop better timetabling expertise at Faculty level. The timetable will be produced earlier allowing for better planning, and we should also be able to utilise our existing rooms better. We intend to have draft timetables produced in this way for our pilot Faculties by this summer.

Another meeting on a similar topic - discussion about the Drama Studio and how we can accommodate everyone who wants to use it, including academic use for our Drama degree which is expanding, the Student Theatre society, other academic departments and external amateur dramatic groups. We have a user group coming up next week where a lot of these issues will be discussed.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Digital worlds

Had a really good meeting on Friday morning with one of our Research Directors - Fabio Ciravegna who is cross cutting Director for Research and Innovation for The Digital World. Very enjoyable and interesting meeting - I love meeting academics who are passionate about their area of research, and of course it's one of the reasons we're here. We were interested how we might work together, and whether there were any areas to which we could provide additional help and support to. We identified two areas where which we're going to investigate further.

The first is the Digital Region Project - the first major deployment of superfast broadband in the UK which will be in South Yorkshire. We'll be looking at whether there are opportunities to leverage this to improve our services to the community and to provide opportunities for research.

The second which I think has huge potential is the whole area of linked data. This is a way of exposing, connecting and sharing data from multiple datasets and databases. The UK government has pledged to open up public data in this way, and the Cabinet Office Digital Engagement Blog announced some interesting timescales for the release of public data (including postcode and ordinance survey mapping data). Well worth a read. The question which we should perhaps be asking is - if the government are doing it, should we be doing something similar with call the data we hold? Suitably anonymised and respecting privacy and security implications of course. We hold so much which I'm sure could yield all sorts of interesting applications. Think of the amount of data we hold on students - from their postcode at time of admission, all the way through progression through their course, to the careers they choose. Or procurement and spending data.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

CES trending

The Consumer Electronic Show (CES) opened its doors in Las Vegas today, and caused a me a little confusion at first as my initials have been a trending topic on Twitter all day. Every year I say I'm going to make it to the next one, and then forget until it comes round again. Next year, I really will try and be there!

There's lots of news coverage, and it's great watching some of the the things we've been predicting making it to the market - pico projectors for example. Some are small enough to fit into a mobile phone already but the quality doesn't look brilliant. The laser ones are much better quality, but still as big as the phone :

Still amazing though, and they will get smaller.

Other things I've seen of interest so far are huge 3D home TVs, and wireless chargers for mobiles. Both the BBC and the Guardian have got good short videos of some of the top stuff.

For those of us involved in technology, it is the consumer market which is the one to watch, where many new developments make their first appearance. Looking back over some past CES it's interesting to see when some things we now take for granted first appeared. The VCR in 1970, the CD in 1981, the DVD in 1996, the XBox and Plasma TVs in 2001, IPTV in 2005. And 2010? Well, apart from the above - eReaders with flexible screens and slates or tablets are there in force. There might also be an interesting announcement at the end of this month from Apple in this area!

Wednesday, 6 January 2010


Happy New Year everyone - hope you had a good break and are all set to face whatever 2010 throws at us. It won't be lots more funding - that's for sure!

Last year we had an exciting return to work after the winter break with not one but two power cuts - one to our data centre and one the next day to our offices. This year I was hoping for a more gentle return to normal work, without any surprises. So what did we get - snow! Lots of it. Enough to have the buses off the road, and the trams disrupted (although they didn't stop running). Roads were very difficult to drive on, especially as Sheffield is not known for its flatness, and many people commute from small villages in the Peak District. But - we managed fantastically. Many people made it in - some walking many miles to get here, others worked from home. The University stayed open, although staff with a long way to travel were sent home early. All of our services including remote access via the portal held up well. The Information Commons stayed open 24*7 and had 500 students in at 5pm - many of them making good use of the free heating I suspect!

Today a small incident team had a review of how we'd managed, and reviewed our plans - particularly those for closing the University in the case of adverse weather. I spent some of today looking at the implications of closing and what might trigger it - personal safety of staff and students being the key driver. Of course, the University never really closes - security and portering staff work 24*7, as do staff looking after students in the residences. We have staff constantly monitoring and fixing systems, and the IC never closes. So maybe we shouldn't refer to it as closure, but switching to "out of hours" mode.