Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Was your relative a criminal?

I've mentioned before some of the interesting work the Humanities Research Institute is doing, and recently they launched an expansion of the Old Bailey Proceedings online. This is a great resource where you can look up details of crimes and criminals from 1674 to 1913 - there are are details of over 197,000 criminal trials held at the Old Bailey. This launch got lots of press coverage - on the BBC web site and on the radio. Of course, one of the problems with this sort of coverage is huge demand of people wanting to access the site and the load it puts on the servers. This peak often lasts only a couple of days, but if the site is unavailable, good publicity can soon turn bad! Despite having predicted a lot of interest, and having tweaked (a technical term I'm told), everything as much as we can - we were no exception - the server being stuffed (another technical term) and failing to deliver the site from very early on Monday morning.

However, our brilliant team quickly worked out that it was the database causing the problem and very fortunately, our old portal server was lying around waiting to be scrapped or sold, so the database was very quickly transfered to a new server and hey presto - access to everyone again. Thanks to everyone (especially Chris) for the speedy resolution.

Monday, 28 April 2008

VC meeting

Today started fairly early with a meeting with the Vice Chancellor at 8.30am. This was a welcome opportunity for me to put forward some of the issues we are facing at the moment, and make some proposals about how we want to interact with the new University Executive Board. We discussed user expectations a lot and how we might manage them. The consumerisation of IT has led to an increase in expectations - of simple, user friendly web interfaces (who needs to be trained to shop on-line at Tescos or use eBay?), of 24 by 7 availability (despite us having no 24 by 7 people), and cheap commodity products such as storage (a 1TB storage device last week cost me less than £250).

IT systems - or lack of them - is often used as a reason why people can't do their jobs better - "if only we had a system which would do this", or "how much more efficient we could be if only we had a system to do x". In practice, many changes and improvements can be made without massive IT systems - by analysing and improving business processes. Another issue we face is the increasing number and complexity of the systems we are supporting- investment in infrastructure may not be glamorous but is necessary if we are going to continue to maintain our existing service levels.

Mobility and the proliferation of devices which people need to access information on gives us support problems - and a dependence on factors outside of our control such as data and voice network providers.

But - there are many opportunities we need to take advantage of - IT is a strategic resource, and can make a difference to the bottom line of a business if used effectively. Prioritisation is key, with clear business benefits set out for all development work. It will be important that we interact with the new UEB at a strategic level, with regular contact and feedback. Hopefully the new Faculty structure will improve our liaison, communication and support.

This afternoon we had an Executive Meeting, where we discussed many of the issues above, as well as the implications of implementing Office 2007 on our managed desktop this summer and the need for some investment in reporting and production of management and planning information.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Friday, 25 April 2008

UCISA continued

After the conference planning meeting, we had a UCISA Executive 2 day planning and strategy meeting. It began with a joint meeting with our "sister" organisation - SCONUL, where we discussed a few issues which IT and Library professionals have a common interest in. These included authentication, particularly in relation to access to electronic journals, and access to resources by visitors to the university. This latter issue was the subject of a joint UCISA/SCONUL project which went by the wonderful acronym of HAERVI and produced a very useful good practice guide.

One of the major issues in the meeting was a review of the UCISA groups. Currently there are 6:
Corporate Information Systems
Staff Development
Teaching, Learning and Information

They are all made up of volunteers from different institutions, and do an excellent job. However, we took the opportunity to review their remit, objectives and way of working and will be recommending some changes.

The day finished with a chance to discuss a number of hot topics with the Chairman of the JISC, Sir Ron Cooke. One of these was a recent report on students use of IT and the skills they have. Interestingly it found that the use of ICT in teaching and learning is still fairly primitive, and although students use IT all of the time, their skills are still fairly basic.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Conference organising

Good trip to Oxford yesterday - lot of work done on the train. Arrived in glorious sunshine and had a couple of hours to kill so went for a walk round the back streets. It is a beautiful city with fantastic buildings and history - but I prefer Sheffield to live in!

Conference Organising Committee in the afternoon - the management conference is one of the biggest we organise - and there's so many interesting things to decide. Who do we want as the after dinner speaker (and more important how much are we prepared to pay), what gift to do we give delegates at the end (there's some super USB tat around these days), and of course - who do we want to speak. The conference is next March, and most of the keynote speakers we want will already be filling their diaries, so we are starting to approach them now. We get a lot of feedback from delegates, and it's interesting how little things can seriously affect their enjoyment of the conference. A couple of years ago the main complaint was the coffee - mind you, it was terrible - big urns of hot water, and some pale brown powder in the bottom of plastic cups. Even the weather gets a mention if its bad. It's difficult to beat a wet and rainy conference in Blackpool - especially when the hotel is 20 minutes walk along the seafront from the conference centre..

Tuesday, 22 April 2008


One of the more interesting meetings I’m involved in is the Estates Strategy Advisory Group – we had a longish meeting yesterday discussing priorities for capital projects in the University. Lots of interesting developments on the cards, as well as some major maintenance projects. When they’ve finally been approved and I can release details, I’ll let you know.

A couple of major building projects are really coming on – the Jessop West development to house English, History and Modern Languages has a lot of its green and blue cladding on – the wing yet to be clad will be red, and I’m told it will look spectacular. The original Jessop is being refurbished for Music, and practice rooms will be in the new Soundhouse on Gell St which has also started having its rubber cladding put on. These building projects have a major impact on us, as we have to design and oversee the voice and data networks in them, usually up against tight deadlines. We are upgrading our telephone switch at the moment so that we can use Voice Over IP (VOIP) – basically running the phones over the data network, so new buildings will only have one set of cables instead of two.

On my way to Oxford at the moment for a UCISA Planning Meeting, a Conference Organising Meeting, and a Communications meeting, so it will be a busy 2 days.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

iPhone quest

So, my quest for an iPhone continues...

As there's still no corporate contract between Apple and O2 (what is wrong with you guys??), we can't buy our Support teams an iPhone or two to test and to help us support our users - many of whom have got them and are bringing them into us to help them connect to our wireless networks, get their email etc. Yesterday I had had enough, and decided to buy a couple using my university credit card, and pay the ordinary tariff (again using the card) until such time as the corporate tariff was agreed.

So, I set off to Meadowhell, pleased with this scheme, and entered the Apple store. They had plenty of iPhones, all priced at £269. Just 20 yards away in the O2 store, they were £169. What's the catch? Nothing - it's just that O2 have reduced them and Apple hasn't. So, I headed to the O2 shop, and discussed buying a couple. It was then I found out that you can't pay the tariff on a credit card - it has to be on a direct debit from a bank account. I didn't think the University would give me details of their bank account, so decided to pay the monthly charge myself.

With two shiny new iPhones in my possession I set off home. Picked one at random from the bag and set about getting connected. Everything was reasonably straightforward, (with the exception of some issues sending emails from my work account which I hope to sort out when back at work), I connected to my home wireless network, to the O2 Edge network, set up my contacts, had fun browsing the web etc. After a couple of hours playing, I decided to wipe the mark off the screen which I'd spotted - only to discover that it was a crack! A bloody cracked screen! You can just about make it out on the very blurred picture above - top centre. So, this morning I packed it all back up, drove to the O2 store - where they very kindly offered to swop it for a new one, swop the sim cards etc - but they'd sold out! And they don't know when they'll be getting a new delivery.

So I still haven't got a iPhone. I think someone might be trying to tell me something....

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Hype and more hype..

I was in London today for a RUGIT meeting. Began with a presentation on the UK National Grid Service. The NGS has over 700 registered users and is funded by JISC and EPSRC. It provides integrated grid access to compute and data resources, and as part of the White Rose Grid, we are one of its core sites. Very interesting discussion on what the NGS can offer Universities, and how it can provide support, training, common interfaces, distributed virtualised data storage and monitoring and sysadmin support. The NGS is keen to improve its engagement with University computing services and this was a good start.

After an update on JANET activities from its Chief Executive, we had another presentation from Eduserve –another body keen to improve links with us. We are in demand at the moment! Eduserve, through CHEST, negotiate many of our site licences with software suppliers, and one of the things we discussed was the reluctance of many suppliers to allow us to provide software for use on students’ own machines. We felt that this was an area where Eduserve could help us, especially if they could provide a central distribution system for any such software – centralised download pages for students for example.

Finally we had a robust discussion about benchmarking – something we have been discussing for ages! Last year we all plotted where we were with certain services on a Gartner Hype Cycle and then compared them. This year we’re going to carry out a web based survey to collect qualitative rather than quantitative data, so that we can see where we are in developments in relation to other Russell Group Universities. The discussion was robust, because some of the group didn't want to spend any money on it, and some of us did!

I’ve kept in touch with base today using my laptop and a USB modem, the Eduroam wireless network, and my phone, and done lots of work on the train or in those boring bits that occur in all meetings! The most useful bit of software I’ve used all day is myChat – it’s great – but more people need to use it. At any one time there’s about 45 people in CiCS logged in – it will be even more useful if more people use it!

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Equality and Diversity

I'm a member of the Equality and Diversity Board of the University which monitors the implementation of the University's Equality and Diversity Strategy. We meet about three times a year, and much of the meeting is taken up by examining different areas and how they are embedding equality and diversity into their operations. We particularly look at gender, race and disability, but no areas are excluded. Recently we've looked at our admissions policies, procurement polices and capital projects, including the design of accessible buildings and the extent to which our contractors have and take seriously equal opportunities polices.

Yesterday we looked at Teaching and Learning, especially the monitoring of progression and attainment and whether there are differences relating to gender, disability or race. Interestingly there are differences in some areas, where females seem to perform better than males. No-one really know why, and therefore what can be done about it - it's a complex area, and is not just affecting us but schools as well. At the moment it's being monitored and more research done into possible causes and solutions.

It will be our turn soon to be scrutinised by the group, so I will have to be on the other side of the table! I would be interested to know what more people think we could be doing to not just comply with the University's strategy, but to be more proactive in its implementation.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Least cost, soonest mended

Programme Board today where we have a close look at all existing projects - looking at progress against timescales, issues, concerns, resources etc. We also look at new project proposals and definitions and project closure documents.

Today we had a couple of new project definitions. The Student Timetables project aims to deliver individual student timetables, via the web, on paper and via hand-held devices.
The timetabling software we use has the capability to deliver individual student timetables, but we've never used it. We've made progress over the years in enabling departmental timetablers to integrate their timetables with the room bookings system and introduce staff and other local data to the system, and this is the next logical step.

The project will enable “student fitting” - allocating students to tutorial/seminar groups so that only the events that students are expected to attend are displayed in their individual timetables. Hopefully this will also improve space utilisation by introducing real-time student numbers to individual events, enabling booking staff to match supply and demand more closely. It will also provide much better and more accurate management information.

The other project is a review of printing across campus - this is a replacement for a project which began its life called Least Cost Printing, affectionately referred to as Least Cost Soonest Mended when we realised it wasn't going anywhere.

The aim of this project is to review and report on current printing procedures at the University in terms of environment, savings and best practice and make recommendations for improvement. The University uses 64,000,000 sheets of paper per year, and our spend for print could be too high and it may be that we are not employing best techniques, service and quality. There are savings attached to not printing and this contributes to energy savings and reducing our carbon footprint. Savings are also achieved by procuring the right/most appropriate output device for printing needs. We also need to consider the whole life cost of a printer and how and where printing occurs. We will be looking at case studies from other Universities that have performed such reviews

Better blogs than mine.....

For anyone who likes reading blogs about technology, I always find the BBC one interesting:

There's a few contributors to it, and posts normally provoke a reasonable debate. Recent posts cover the BBCs iPlayer (interesting that you can download content from it onto an iPhone, but not my iMac) and whether the Information Commissioners instruction to Phorm that it has to be opt-in rather than opt-out will finish it off.

Document management

Last week's UCI (University Collaboration Improvement) Programme Board had a demonstration of our new Document Management System. Well, I say new, we've had it for years, but have had a lot of problems in the implementation phase and we've only just got it working properly. It will allow us to work on documents collaboratively by maintaining version control etc, and also it has a very sophisticated work flow built into it, so that we can move many of our process from being paper based to electronic. We're piloting it in a couple of areas at the moments including the approval of programme specifications and our own computer registration system. After the pilots are completed, we'll be looking at other areas to roll it out acros the University - I suspect there will be a lot of demand for it, and as it's very resource intensive, we'll have to be careful how we prioritise. It gives us the opportunity to review our business processes as well - I'm very keen that we don't just map our existing processes onto it, but that everything is reviewed and hopefully simplified.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Happy Birthday IC

The Information Commons opened exactly a year ago today, so it was only right that we celebrated with cake, balloons, and goodie bags for the first 100 students that came in. There's even ice cream for sale on the entrance area. It's been a huge success - some would say a victim of its own success as students would rather study there than in other spaces so it's remarkably busy most of the time - and we're really pleased at the good feedback we've had. It's even been shortlisted for a RIBA award - keep your fingers crossed for us.

Since its launch, the IC has gone from strength to strength, introducing several new initiatives during its first year of operation. In May a multi-faith prayer and meditation room was opened. Shortly afterwards a silent PC study space was introduced on Level 5 to complement the successful silent spaces already in operation on levels 2 and 3. During last summer a number of new facilities were introduced: a web-based room and PC booking system allowing students to book 100 of the PCs in the IC as well as 9 of the group study rooms; the flexispace area on level 4 was fitted out with 2 copy-cams and a huge plasma screen all of which are available 24 hours a day without the need to book in advance; hi-tech Sympodium technology was installed in the 2 classrooms on Level 3 and 4 which allow teaching staff to interact with their students in increasingly flexible and innovative ways.

So - Happy Birthday IC - here's to many more.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Carbon footprint

Yesterday I was invited to speak at an NPSA (Non Professorial Staff Association) Open Meeting. Some questions are submitted in advance, others asked on the day. Interesting set of questions posed in advance, ranging from "How is CiCS perceived and what is its most important function", which was a bit like an interview question, to straightforward questions about opening hours in IT room and policies on data storage. It was reasonable well attended I think, and I hope was found to be helpful - I was ably supported by all of the Assistant Directors and I don't think any of the questions stumped us too much. We covered areas including our work on resilience of systems, support for teaching, learning and research, and the Collaboration Programme.

We also announced that we were going to be the first University in the UK to have a carbon footprint calculated for the IT Service. This will be done on behalf of HEEPI, and should give us an indication of what impact we're having on the environment, and how we might improve it.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Students 2.0

Some really good news today. We put in a bid for a SeeChange project - a process to help teams of staff deliver major projects - and we've just heard that we've been successful. The aim of the project will be to to develop partnerships between CiCS, students and departments to encourage the use of web2.0 tools in student learning and research; beyond the classroom and outside the formal structure (unsupported and un-assessed). It will explore and disseminate the safe and appropriate use of web based collaboration tools for students to enable inquiry-based learning and collaborative learning and research approaches. These tools include social tagging, bookmarking and social networking sites that are not centrally provided or supported. It's a really exciting project, and one that we're hoping students will really engage with. Well done to Patrice, and all those responsible for helping to put the bid together.

I was in the IC this morning (first day of term, and it was packed), discussing strategic developments in Learning and Teaching with senior colleagues from other services, including the Library, Student Services, the Careers Service, CILASS and Learning and Teaching Support. We meet every couple of months to exchange news on projects, swop ideas and look for areas where we can collaborate to deliver a better experience to students. Today we talked about many initiatives, including case studies promoting inquiry based learning, student mentoring, the healthy campus project, and internationalisation.

Friday, 4 April 2008

What to do in the event of a disaster

Meeting this morning to discuss a report about maintaining research activity in the event of a pandemic flu outbreak affecting the University - a similar report has been drawn up looking at how we could maintain teaching and learning. What is worrying for me, is that maintaining any sort of University activity relies on systems and networks being available. And we're just as likely to be struck down with flu as anyone. Of course, the discussion digressed to discussing all sorts of disasters - including power cuts - and how widespread the effects could be. For example, the power cut at the end of last year could have had disastrous effects on research departments who have vital research material stored in freezers - cell cultures, tissue samples, cell lines etc. There are hundreds of such freezers for example in our Biology departments, and although we've recently invested considerable sums of money in a generator for our computer systems, there is no other real power protection across the University. However, there is nothing like a good disaster for making people think, and action is now being taken in a number of areas.

I have suddenly found myself Miss Business Continuity in the University, and will be chairing a group looking at the operational aspects of all of our Business Continuity plans and recommending testing and action plans. Also passing on some of the lessons learnt in our recent experiences.

I thought I would update you on my quest for an iPhone. Well I still haven't got one! Turns out that 6 months after they were launched, Apple and O2 still haven't got a corporate contract in place, and it looks like there won't be one in place for another couple of months. Talk about a wasted opportunity!

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Visit to consumer trade shows anyone?

I've mentioned before that I'm a Gartner client, and as such have access to all Gartner 's research and to their excellent analysts. Today myself and the Executive team were lucky to have a visit from Mike Zastrocky, Research Director for Higher Education. We had a lively discussion and covered a number of topics. One point that was referred to many times, is the need for CIOs to develop marketing skills and become technology educators. It isn't enough to run IT and infrastructure services (although that is important), but we have to educate our customers and our senior management about the value of what we provide. We assume that everyone understands what we do, and understands the value of our services. But, in reality, our customers think we're expensive (they earn the money, we spend it), and think they can get equivalent services somewhere else. After all, how much does a terabyte of disc storage cost from PC World? We need to get out into the community, and particularly to the Senior Management Team, and educate them.

Mike presented the results of a recent survey which demonstrated that Executive Management Teams in Higher Education Institutions were not very knowledgeable on the either the future potential of IT developments, or, perhaps more importantly, the limitations. He also showed some research going back 15 years, which demonstrated that the drivers in IT had not changed significantly over that time.

He also made the point that to find out the latest in IT developments, we should be looking at the consumer market, and going to consumer trade shows. This is something I'm definitely going to take on board.

All University staff and students can access Gartner Research. If you log in to MUSE (the University portal), you can access a huge number of research papers on IT by going to the "Using MUSE" tab and under "Channel Guide" selecting "Gartner Research". If you want to access this regularly, you can add this channel by customising your layout to add it to your home tab or any other tab you've set up.