Monday, 31 March 2008

IC girls

Met the guy who made this great video today - one of our dental students, who made it to help raise money for a charity at the Dental Society Review evening. I think it's fantastic - very creative and some excellent editing. Funny thing is, when he was trying to make it in the IC, our staff stopped him. That's why some of it was filmed at night - they had to come back later when the staff had gone home. Of course, we don't want hundreds of students trying to make films in there, but it's great to see the IC inspiring such creativity.

Had my regular meeting with the Student Union Education Officer today, and discussed some student related issues. One of the biggest problems we have is that students want to use the Information Commons to work, and don't go to our other computing rooms. So, we can have every PC in use in the IC, students complaining that they can't find a free one and about a hundred free in other locations less than 5 minutes walk away. We've tried publicising our find a PC web page (also available on a mobile phone), but obviously we need to do more.

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Application Groups

One of the areas we're trying to change at the moment is how we prioritise and allocate resources to new projects as well as enhancements to existing systems and applications. We're just establishing a new set of Application Groups, each chaired by a senior member of staff , and all having representation from academic departments, professional services and students where appropriate. Application groups have existed for some time, but they're getting a radical shake up, with new membership and terms of reference, with a remit to look at strategy for development in their areas. The groups will be:

Student Application Group covering all areas relating to the student systems, including prospective and existing students, and alumni.

Finance Application Group covering all areas relating to the Finance system including its deployment in departments.

Staff and Payroll Application Group, covering all developments relating to Open HR/Payroll, including those relating to academic departments, Personnel Cost Planner and other related HR systems such as staff development

The Portal Application Group covering all developments relating to the portal

Management Application Groups covering all developments relating to Reporting and Management Information

We're also about to start discussion to form a new Application Group to oversee systems relating to the University’s Estate and Facilities where there is a need for them to interface with central systems (including catering, uSport, conferencing, and the Library). One of the things I'm concerned about is the proliferation of systems using their own authentication methods, and not based on our central standards and integration principles. Hopefully this will allow better coordination.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Hosted services

Had an interesting discussion last week about the possibility of hosting services with external companies ( ASPs - Application Service Providers, usually an arm of the company making the actual software product), rather than us running them here. So, they would run the application on their servers, in their data centre, carry out upgrades and back ups etc. They would have to guarantee a minimum level of uptime, and only carry out scheduled maintenance in timeslots agreed with us, which would be able to to be in the middle of the night, or other times when it's antisocial for our existing staff to do them. This is fairly common in other sectors, but not as common in the HE sector, but becoming increasingly so. Although it may not be the cheapest way of running services, it transfers the risk, and frees up our staff up to do other more innovative things rather than running core services.

Lots of interesting questions around the provision of core services in the future. How many University IT departments will be running email services in 5 years time? Should we be running them now when other companies have the benefit of massive scalability? Why can Google give all of their mail users 1GB of storage and we struggle to give everyone a couple of hundred MBs? Should we be moving away from the provision of these core services, letting other companies run them, and concentrating on things that give us a competitive advantage? Answers on a postcard please, or in the comments box!

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

What a difference a year makes..

Hope everyone had a good Easter break with lots of chocolate. I tried to do some gardening, but was beaten by the weather - far too cold! What a difference to last year - we were trying to get the Information Commons ready to open, and worked over the Easter weekend - it was very hot and we were jealous of everyone sitting in the sunshine. I think the only time I saw the sun was on many trips carrying what seemed like tons of cardboard to a skip. Oh, and we sat outside to eat lunch - looking at the picture, everyone except me seems to be eating fish and chips. I obviously missed out there! I know it was about 3 weeks later, but it's difficult to imagine we'll be sitting in the sunshine in a couple of weeks time. Also hard to believe that the IC will have been open for a full year on 10 April.

Obviously it was one of our highlights of last year, and features in the CiCS Annual Report which has just been published - you can download a copy from our web pages - it's the first time we've produced it in this format and I'm really pleased with it. I hope it shows how much we did achieve last year, in addition to the very large projects such as the IC and the SAP implementation which took up so many resources.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Tor of Cism

The man widely credited with the invention of the WWW (no, not Al Gore), Tim Berners Lee, has drawn a map in the style of Lord of the Rings, illustrating the growth of the internet and the World Wide Web. Right in the middle of what appears to be Mordor, is the Tor of Cism. Hmmm, wonder what that could be?

You can download a pdf version of the map here.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Innvoative Communications

We have a new project which has just started - we had the first meeting of the Project Board yesterday. It's called "Innovative Communications", and is looking at how we might best support some Web 2.0 technologies in the University. Currently the ones we're looking at are blogs, wikis and social networking technologies. I'm a bit dubious about calling the project "Innovative Communications", when blogs and wikis are both about 10 years old, but it was the best we could come up with! Interesting debate for the first half of the meeting about the aim of the project. The project start up meeting had agreed that the aim should be "to improve the use and usability of Innovative Communications in the areas of teaching, learning and research."

I wasn't at the start up meeting (not because I didn't want to be, but it had been arranged at a time when I was giving a talk to another department about the use of these technologies.....). I feel very strongly that we should not be restricting these tools to teaching and research, but that they have a much wider use in terms of communication and collaboration in general. This blog for example could hardly be described as supporting teaching or research, but I hope it serves some sort of function! Other departments are using social networking technologies such as Facebook to communicate with students about social and welfare issues. After a full and frank discussion, we agreed that all uses of such technologies should be looked at, but that when we come to roll them out and provide support, our primary focus should be teaching and research. Good compromise which I'm happy with!

We also had a Programme Board meeting yesterday, where we looked at the progress of a number of projects - some going well, and some not going as fast as they should be, and we'll be a having a particular look at them over the next couple of weeks. I'm especially worried about the replacement desktop which we had hoped to get in by the start of this next academic year. We're working on replacing our current desktop based on Windows XP and Zenworks with a thin client version based on Sun Global Desktop, but it's not going as fast as we hoped it would. There are obvious implications if we don't get it in as we'll have to run another year with the current one. Other projects are needing resources - mainly people - and we'll have to have some serious discussions over the next couple of weeks about reallocation of duties I think.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Robots and Polar Bears

Still blogging about the UCISA conference – last post! The final morning saw a presentation by Nick Jones from Gartner on a look ahead at the future, and particularly the role of IT in the consumer market. It is interesting to note that IT developments used to be driven by the military, but now it’s the consumer market. Nick identified a few trends in the IT world – for example many of us have multiple personalities – some real, some virtual, avatars in Second Life, IM names. YouTube accounts etc. Will this affect the way we communicate - should we be using role based communication instead of personal ( he did raise the interesting issue of how to trust an avatar!)

Social conscience is becoming big determinant in what we buy – we need to be seen to be Green, with a lot of interest in our personal carbon and pollution footprint. Products have to let users show their values publicly

Human centric computing is developing, leading to the concept of personal area networks. Low power blue tooth chips which talk to mobile phone and sensors in our clothes and maybe bodies will allow a mobile phone for example to detect that we’re in a theatre, during a play, and will not allow calls through.

We should keep an eye on cyber crime, as this is a good indicator of dissatisfaction with technology, and where changes are needed. For example, the high level of digital piracy in music and video is a clear indication of dissatisfaction with Digital Rights Management.

Some interesting developments in Robotics are on the horizon – the Japanese are developing robots to look after old people. Would you trust a robot to look after you? Not sure if I would. Would depend what OS it was running on…

Finally, as is now traditional for the UCISA conference, we had a motivational speaker. This time it was Adrian Webster, talking about Polar Bear Pirates! An ex-policeman from Yorkshire, he was excellent. I particularly liked his story about policemen playing a game called chip sniffing, which I will leave you to imagine!

Sunday, 16 March 2008

This house believes that.....

Following the call to embrace new technologies, Andrew Charlesworth gave a very entertaining presentation on The Good The Bad and the Social Network, outlining some of the legal issues we all need to be aware of. His view was that basic legal knowledge is now becoming an essential skill for educational professionals. It is apparently the worst kept secret in Lawland, that lawyers don’t sue poor people – the institution, not the student will get sued if there are any legal breaches.

In a very stimulating series of slides Andrew outlined some of the things that could go wrong with the adoption of social networking sites (SNS) for University business. I’ll just give a few examples:

  • Will the company still be around in 6 months
  • Will it get taken over by a larger company
  • Where is the SNS based and does it meet the requirement of our data Protection Act
  • Dose it have a privacy policy
  • Can information be easily removed
  • Who owns the data, and what rights to use the data does the SNS have
  • Does the institution have the right to remove materials
  • Is any material placed on the SNS secure and backed up
  • Who is responsible if there’s a security breach
  • What is the SLA relating to performance and downtime
  • Can you get the data out – are there APIs
  • How accessible is the SNS – does it meet SENDA requirements
  • How long is data kept and how is it archived
  • How is the data accessed – for example if it’s used for assessment, can an external examiner get access to it
  • What about the image and brand – will an institution want to be associated with a SNS if they do something controversial.

Institutions need to be fully aware of their roles and responsibilities, and do a full risk assessment before adopting SNS, and ensure adequate training and support is provided.
We should all know that Ignorantia legis neminem excusat – ignorance of the law is no excuse!

And finally a lawyer’s motto that we should remember - We win some we lose some, but we get paid for all of them!

Following these two sessions, we had a debate on social networking. The motion was:

"This house believes that the only sensible course of action for University and College IT departments is to block the use of social networking sites by students in order to give priority for use of hardware and networks for education and research purposes."

I volunteered to propose it (very tongue-in-cheek obviously). At first I thought no-one would vote for it, but after Andrew’s talk I thought maybe I was onto a winner. However, after a lively debate, the motion got firmly defeated, I'm pleased to say!

Friday, 14 March 2008

IT Services are Dead!

So busy yesterday, no time to post! I was in sessions from 9 till 5, speaking at one of them, chairing the afternoon session and at the UCISA AGM from 5 till 6.30. Still made it to the drinks reception by 7.15 though!

An interesting morning about social networking and innovative communications. We started with a pre-recorded talk from Brian Kelly entitled IT Services Are Dead. A good talk to give to Directors of IT Services! It did have the sub-title Long Live IT Services 2.0 though, so perhaps there is hope for us! Brian's talk focussed on the need for IT Services to transform themselves and provide a supportive framework for new technologies and ways of collaborating, and encourage a culture of openness. For example by using Creative Commons licences contributing to community activities, and not developing local system when other solutions are available. I won't go into too much detail as if you click on the link above, you can listen to it.

This was followed by Andy Powell, continuing the theme and talking about putting the user in control of the tools they use. User centricity, in terms of personal learning environments and personal research environments. Adopting Web 2.0 techologies will be disruptive, and we don't know what's round the corner. Currently we're on a roller coaster in a dark room, and our eyes are still getting used to the dark!

Two very entertaining and thought provoking talks.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Sustainable computing

Next session was Richard Barrington from SUN talking about sustainable computing. Currently we're not living a sustainable lifestyle - anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a mad man, or an economist. We have to move from consumption of products to a service based economy. For everyone to have our standard of living will require 3 planets worth of raw materials (and if you're talking a about an American lifestyle - 6 planets worth!).

As a hardware supplier, Sun are taking this seriously. IT contributes hugely to energy consumption - about 2% globally. It takes a ton of clean water to produce a computer, and 100 times the weight of raw materials - compared to twice the amount of raw materials for a fridge. In addition, the efficiency of energy use is not good. this is well demonstrated in data centres, which cost about£5.3m pa to run, and 65% of that energy goes on air conditioning and the actual running of the centre, rather than computing power.

Interesting anecdote about developing countries - some have banned the import of IT equipment, as well meaning individuals pack containers with equipment too old for us to use - it arrives there broken and useless and gets dumped. In effect all we're doing is transferring our toxic waste.

In order to achieve sustainability we need to use less stuff, adopt an efficient service culture, increase the efficiency of resources, reduce energy consumption and design for disassembly and recycling. SUN have put a number of measures in place which have yielded big benefits - rolling out sunrays instead of PCs, modular well designed data centres, reduced commuting by adopting home and flexible working.

Red Monkey Domination

At the UCISA Management conference in Glasgow - a bit windy and rainy, but a lovely venue. I've not seen much of the City as I was in an executive meeting this morning, and sessions all afternoon, but my hotel room overlooks the river, so I've got a nice view at least.

Some excellent sessions to start with. the first was from Jeff Staes talking about 21st Century Futures. He based his talk on the premise that our environment has changed rapidly, from a predictable 2-Dimensional (2D) Channel into an unpredictable 3-Dimensional (3D) Ocean. This change is happening quickly, and many managers and organisations are unprepared for this very innovative and ever changing market.

Information is increasing at an exponential rate - by 2012 70% of digital information will be created by individuals. Social networking sites are increasing in use, and children use many different methods to communicate and learn. "Online gamers have a better learning & information culture then most of the organisations ... this should be the opposite."

In this new environment organisations have to be innovative, and intuitive. Mangers and leaders don't have to be the smartest in their organisations and know everything - they have to set the vision, and make sure the right people are in the right places. Major culture changes have to take place - so major that he referred to them as Drama Changes. The new leaders will have to accept conflict, disruption and risk.

And if you're wondering about the title of this post, he used the analogy of red monkeys as transformational ideas, being killed by the red monkey hunters in our organisations. We have to develop a culture where the red monkeys can thrive and evolve.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Assessor/Developer speaking

Today we had the first real session of our Management Development Programme which we're rolling out across the department. The aim is to help all of our managers to manage better, and to help all staff know what to expect from managers. Were starting with the Executive Team and the Section Heads/Service Managers but it will ulimately touch everyone on the department.

Last week we all completed an online questionnaire from which a Team Management Profile is produced for each individual. This shows the preferences we have at work when we're in a team - not skills, ie what we're good at, but what we prefer. It was fascinating - finding out if you're a Thruster/Organiser, or a Innovator/Creator for example! A number of different behaviours are scored - Introvert/Extrovert, or Structured/Flexible. One of the most interesting things was looking at our scores, and then lining up in order of our preferences, seeing who had similar preferences to us, and who's were most different. I'll give you all three guesses as to who scored highest in the extrovert category.......

We'll be using this information and other things we did during the day to draw up individual personal development profiles of where we want to improve.

Tomorrow I'm off to Glasgow with some of the executive team for the annual UCISA Management Conference, so expect some conference blogging in the next few days.

The Full Monty effect

It's always sad to say goodbye to people, and last Friday was no exception - Malcolm has worked here for 30 years and will be sadly missed. I think we gave him a good send off - I had a hangover on Saturday morning so we must have done. There's many people in the department who've been here 30 years or more - several reach their 30 years this year. We were debating why this is so - why do so many people choose to stay in Sheffield, and stay at the the University? I can only speak for myself. I came here many years ago to be a student, and I've never left - I'll clock up my 30 years working at the University in 2 years time. I've never been anywhere where I've wanted to live more than Sheffield - I like the City, the people and the Peak District on the doorstep. The University has been good to me as my employer, and my family, friends and social life are all here. We have one of the highest retention rates of students in the country after graduation, so they must think the same way. The Full Monty was on Film4 last night, and I stayed up to watch it - instead of the early night I'd promised myself. I love the film, but some research shows that it was partially responsible for a downturn in the perception of Sheffield - The Full Monty Effect as it's become known - portraying Sheffield as a dirty, run down City inhabited by unemployed steelworkers. Market research on prospective student applicants, has shown that this is still the view that some people have - especially the further south you go!

Friday, 7 March 2008

Teaching space review

One of the discussions I'm involved in at the moment is a review of our teaching space - have we got enough, is it in the right place, is the right size, is it in good condition and does it have appropriate facilities in? Changes in the way we teach means that we need different sorts of space - for example flexible spaces, break out rooms etc - and we're looking to see how that can be provided. There's also issues of how we timetable the huge number of modules we run and allocate space to them. Lots of work involved!

I've also had a meeting about the University Collaboration Improvement Programme, and in particular how we measure the use of our services. It's important to measure use so that we can track changes as we try and increase the uptake of some of the services we offer. We're especially looking at MUSE (the University portal), myCalendar and myChat at the moment. MUSE is going well, with a large increase of people using it, but we have a lot to do to get the use of myCalendar and myChat up to our desired levels. Measurements of use are by department and we will be making these public on our web site soon, so we can see where departments are making full use of the services and maybe use those as examplars to other departments.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Emergency Planning

Business Continuity is a hot topic with us at the moment - not just for us as an IT and business service department, but across the University. We've had a few near disasters - last June Sheffield was badly flooded - and some real ones, such as the recent power failure. Every year the University holds a simulation of a possible disaster - so far we've burnt a major teaching building down, killed a few students on a field trip, coped with a possible terrorist attack, and had a major outbreak of an infectious disease. They're always good fun, but terrifying, especially as the consultants who run them engineer the situation so that just when you think things can't get any worse, they do. We also run them in CiCS, and have just completed our latest one which had 3 different scenarios - an outbreak of "bird-flu ", a fire affecting our main data centre, and serious damage to one of our main network cables. As always, this exercise has produced a list of recommendations which we're currently working through - one of which asks us to ensure that we manage customer expectations of what will be possible, and advises that although it's very nice to have the reputation of miracle workers, we need to make sure that we're not expected to actually work them!

That reminds me of a Business Continuity Plan I was asked to comment on a couple of years ago which listed a number of scenarios, and responses. The scenario, "complete loss of all network and systems" had the response "send an email to all staff to let them know what to do."

I've been to a number of presentations on emergency planning - some of the most memorable a couple of years ago in the States. At that time The University of Central Florida had been hit by 3 hurricanes in 8 weeks, and the Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge had been seriously affected by Hurricane Katrina - which certainly puts our floods into perspective!

Although we have good plans and procedures in place, we still have a lot of work to do, especially around maintaining the continuity of teaching and research in the event of a major incident hitting the University.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Demise of an icon

I was sad to read this weekend of the demise of Netscape - the original web browser, and a symbol of the early days of the internet. In fact, I remember when the two things were interchangeable - people would talk about using Netscape, when they meant using the internet. But of course, we didn't refer to the internet then either, we talked about using the "World Wide Web". There was a lot of fuss about it, and how much time could potentially be wasted browsing this new source of information. I was asked by the then personnel department if I could restrict the amount of use people made of "Netscape" in one day, and maybe restrict it to outside working hours. I even headed off an internal audit on the use of "Netscape", by introducing the auditor to web pages about his favourite football team. It all seems a long time ago now.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Virtual workspaces

Sessions I haven’t mentioned so far included one on Immersive Education – a 3D virtual reality tool similar to Second Life with real time discussion rooms, and blended with audio, video and web pages. It had been created using Project Wonderland, an open source 3D engine written in java. Some good applications demonstrated, including a virtual workplace for Sun employees, as on any given day 50% of them can be working remotely, and this gives them a place to meet and interact with colleagues. Perhaps something for our collaboration project to look at?

Scott McNealy
– co founder of Sun, formerly CEO and now Chairman, always gives a presentation at this conference – it’s always highly anticipated, and heavily attended. His web page describes him as a human quote machine, and over the years I’ve certainly heard him come up with a few! This year his theme was open source – and why software should be open sourced wherever possible. His 5 reasons to use open source were:

It lowers barriers to entry – ie it’s free!
Interoperability is increased
Research and development costs are lower – the community doing much of it
It’s more secure – how many java viruses have you heard of? There are no secrets, as everyone can see the code so there’s nothing to exploit
It lowers the barriers to exit – is it doesn’t work you haven’t spent a fortune on it.

Overall a good talk – he finishes with asking us to think of what other industries could be open sourced, and suggested that the drug development companies would be a good start!

I’m now home, still slightly jet lagged, but a good long walk round Monsal Dale and Millers Dale yesterday blew a lot of cobwebs away!