Thursday, 30 April 2009

Using our telephones in different ways

Exactly a year ago this weekend we upgraded our telephone system - lots of people worked very hard over the Bank Holiday Weekend, and when staff and students came back, no-one noticed any difference. That's exactly the way we wanted it. A very successful upgrade, which gives us the potential to do so much more with the system. All new buildings are already running with VOIP, and I have a shiny new IP phone on my desk - the best new feature on it is a call log so I can see what calls I've missed.

Today we met our suppliers to discuss what new developments we can now implement - all looks very exciting. We're looking at unified communications - one phone number for outgoing and incoming calls, no matter what device you're using to make the call on or where you are. One in-box for messages - emails, voice mails, sms etc. Softphones - ie a phone on your desktop, accessed via our portal from anywhere with access to all the phone functionality including directories, call logging etc.

We're also looking into recording some calls - particularly those to our Helpdesk. This will be for training purposes, as well as to protect our staff who sometimes have to deal with quite rude and ocassionally abusive callers. Currently we have no way of proving anything and get into the "your word against mine" syndrome which this should stop.

We also looked at voice recognition for some self service functions - my experience of this in other areas isn't great but I'm told the technology has got better. I remain to be convinced that it can cope with the huge range of accents and foreign languages that we have in our multi-national University.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Google for students

For some time we've been debating what to do about our current email and calendar systems. Students only have webmail, and a quite small filestore - all recent satisfaction surveys show that they don't like it. The user interface was fine several years ago when we implemented it, but is now regarded as clunky - not as nice as gMail, Hotmail etc - and we don't give them a calendar at all. We've looked at various options, but today our project group agreed to recommend that we outsource our service to Google and implement Google mail and calendar in the first instance - possibly moving to more of the apps later such as Google docs. But, that will require some careful thought about overlapping functionality - we already have numerous places people can share files.

So, quite a big decision - first major service we've outsourced, but I suspect that over the next few years it won't be the last. We've still got a few things to sort out, mainly on the legal side rather than technical, but if we get those sorted and the University agrees with our recommendation, then we 're hopefully going to have the service implemented for students this September.

Of course, then the big decision we will have to take, is what do we do for staff??

Departmental babies

Exciting event this morning - for the last few weeks we've been watching a thrush build her nest on a window ledge outside our offices. Then three perfect blue eggs appeared. This morning - babies are there. But (and this is causing most of us to be on bird watch), two magpies have their eye on them. The thrushes are doing a good job of fighting them off, ably assisted by claps and shouts from the rest of us, but what will happen when we're not here? We need a web cam on them. And possibly an air gun.....

Bit of an animal based morning - I'm dusting off our Business Continuity Plans in case swine flu reaches Sheffield (I know, it was a tenuous link!). Advice has already gone out to staff and students about what precautions to take, and we've got a meeting tomorrow to see if there's any further action we need to take. Hopefully this is just another rehearsal, but better to be prepared.

Edit - photo added, copyright Paul Leman. will try and get one of the babies next time they change shifts.

Another edit: And here it is - not brilliant but you can see that there are 3 babies.

Monday, 27 April 2009

IT and Estates

ICT departments have traditionally enjoyed a close partnership with the Library, and the same is true for our professional organisations. UCISA and its library counterpart SCONUL have a good working relationship with joint events and regular liaison meetings. So, both in my day job and my new role as Chair of UCISA I’ve been thinking about the relationship with other departments and whether we should be building relationships with similar professional organisations. IT/IS departments provide services to all areas of the University but some of those services require closer collaboration with other departments to ensure that the University gets the most added value.

One of those areas is Estates, where we have a number of close links including:

The design and installation of the infrastructure in all new buildings and refurbishments – the pervasive nature of IT and its critical importance in teaching and learning and research means that we need to be heavily involved right at the beginning of the design process.

Data centres – business continuity planning requires close collaboration in the design and operation of existing centres including the installation of specialist equipment such as generators, air conditioning, fire and flood detection, monitoring systems and alerts. This in turn puts pressure on the Estates department to maintain and test such equipment. The growth in eScience and the expansion of High Performance Computing facilities has also lead to increased demand for space to accommodate the numerous racks of kit being acquired both centrally and by research groups.

The Green Agenda and the need to reduce power consumption and the carbon footprint is another area where close collaboration is required. For example, those racks of HPC equipment throw out huge amounts of heat which has to be removed – a huge waste of energy which requires careful design of both the data centre and the cooling system.

Last, but certainly not least, the design of teaching and learning spaces, as well as their management and utilisation. The operation of 24*7 facilities such as our Information Commons provides interesting challenges both for ICT and Estates departments.

So, you’d think that ICT and Estates departments enjoyed a good partnership wouldn’t you? At the recent AUDE (The Association of University Directors of Estates) conference, only half of the attendees thought they had a close working relationship with their IT Director. I wonder if the reverse question had been asked at the UCISA conference the response would have been any different? Probably not. Of course, there are good examples of working well together –the design of our Information Commons is a good example which was definitely a partnership between the ICT department, the Library and the Estates team. But in many areas there is still a lot of work to be done, and it’s something I’ve committed myself to trying to improve at the national level as well as locally, and we’ve already made a start from the UCISA end. I think the biggest issue is communication and understanding of each other’s concerns, which we can only resolve by talking to each other and close liaison. UCISA will be meeting represetnatives of AUDE soon to discuss areas where we might collaborate, how we might highlight examples of good practice and break down some of the barriers that obviously exist.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Janet's birthday

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a dinner to celebrate 25 years of JANET – the excellent high speed academic network that all Universities are connected to. We are extremely lucky to have this service in the UK and are the envy of many overseas colleagues. It was good to see the early pioneers of JANET recognised, especially my good friend Roland Rosner, one of the early architects of JANET, and responsible for its name. Many people still labour under the misapprehension that the origin of the name is the Joint Academic Network, but they would be wrong. It is actually called after Roland's secretary, Janet, the current acronym being retrofitted later.

On the way to the reception myself and a couple of colleagues thought that we would have a couple of pints of refreshing Fullers Ale, as we happened to be passing a pub. After our first pint of ESB, we thought we'd try a pint of Golden Pride - sounded like a nice pale beer, fairly weak, a Summer supping ale. I was a bit nervous when the pints arrived and found them to be very dark and my fears were confirmed after one sip, which tasted like barley wine. A quick check at the pump confirmed the strength to be 8.5% - hardly a beer to be supping on the way to a drinks reception. I'm ashamed to say we left more in the glass than we drank!

VLE or YouTube

Spent yesterday in Oxford at my first UCISA Executive meeting as Chair – an all day meeting with a full agenda. We met Guy Lambert, MD of the new JISC Services Company which brings together a number of previously separate advisory services including JISCinfoNet, JISC legal and Netskills. It’s newly formed and not clear system how it will develop, but UCISA will play a part in advising the company over the needs of its members in the this area.

We also spent a long time discussing the Denham Report on the future of Higher Education, particularly Sir Ron Cooke’s contribution to it, on On-Line Innovation in Higher Education. The discussion centred on the use of digital media in teaching and learning and particularly how and where is it stored and accessed by staff and students. There is anecdotal evidence of course content being uploaded to YouTube, Facebook, Wordpress and other such sites – is this a good thing? It’s not just course content but blogs of important seminars, conference, and meetings. What are the implications for ownership of the content? Can you remove or recover the content if you want to? The point was well made that the public internet works on the basis of write once, copy many, delete never. Is that well understood by our academics?

If it is the case that such material is being uploaded to such sites, we as IT Directors have to ask ourselves why? The answer I think is glaringly obvious. Even I can upload a video to YouTube, but do we make it as easy to use our VLEs or our media hosting services? Of course not. I’ve been questioned as to why this blog uses Blogger, and not a university solution. Easy – at the time I started writing this we didn’t have an easy to use solution – I set this up myself in about 10 minutes, and have never needed any help to add features other than using Google to search for any answers to any problems I’ve had because of the huge user support community out there.

We’ll probably never be able to make things that easy unless we embrace these new services and stop trying to invent everything ourselves. But there is a need for a gatekeeping function. There are good services out there which are “managed” and control of the data stays with the institution such as iTunesU and the domain branded YouTube service, and we should be actively facilitating the use of these.

The outcome of our discussion was that we agreed as an organisation to produce a briefing paper on the issues for our members, and also to investigate a survey to find out what academics are actual using rather than rely on anecdotal evidence.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

New Horizons

On the train yesterday to UCISA Executive meeting in Oxford. I take the opportunity of almost 3 hours of not being interrupted to read relevant papers, and on this journey I’ve been looking at the Horizons Report. This is a collaboration between the New Media consortium and the EDUCAUSE leaning Initiative, and is a report produced every year which looks at emerging technologies which will have an impact on teaching, learning, research or creative expression in learning organisations.

The technologies which are identified are categorised into timescales of when they are likely to be adopted as mainstream use for learning or research applications – within a year, within two to three years, and within four to five years. It’s a very easy report to read, and has a good executive summary – I recommend it.

Six technologies are selected, two for each timeframe and examples of given of their application in education.

One year or less

Mobiles – the evolution of mobile devices into a single portable devices that can make phone calls, take pictures, record audio and video, store data and connect to the internet is already interwoven into our lifestyle. The development of third party applications represents a big change in the way they can be used and opens the door to many uses in education. They can be turned into sophisticated calculators displaying graphs in 3D, used as instrument simulators or deliver campus information to students.

Cloud computing – the emergence of very large data farms has transformed once expensive resources like disk storage and processing cycles into a commodity. Most of use the cloud without even knowing every time we use Youtube, Flickr, or Google. Applications in Education include Science Clouds and Earthbrowser.

Two to three years:

Geo-everything – everything on the earth’s surface has a location that can be expressed with just two coordinates. So, physical objects can be located, as well as the geolocation of digital media such as photographs. This isn’t new – but is growing, as it’s available on more devices. Loads of applications in education especially in field research in science, social sciences and medicine and health. There’s a good example of an annotated map where someone has created a map of the course described in the travels of Marco Polo.

The personal web – only 15 years after the appearance of the first commercial web pages, the amount of information now available is staggering, and what ‘s goring is information about individuals, - we have information about ourselves in twitter, blogs, facebook, flickr, youTube. A New generation of tools for tagging and categorising allows a personal web to be created. Of course, these tools are also useful for research and teaching.

Four to Five Years

Semantic aware applications – new applications are emerging which can gather the context in which information is being used and make connections that would otherwise take a great deal of time and effort. Examples of semantic aware applications in Education are still rare, but the potential is there, and a lot of research into these semantic applications is underway.

Smart objects – a smart object “knows” about itself – where and how it was made, where it is, what it’s being used for, what’s near it, and can report on their state. There are many technologies for attaching this capacity to an object such as RFID, but the potential is enormous. They have been used in industry for many years, and are just starting to be introduced into education – libraries are an obvious example for these applications, but there are applications in Archaeology, and health care. Researchers have developed a tiny smart object which can be injected into a tumour. Once there it can report on the dose of radiation received and the exact location of the tumour.

It will be interesting to see whether these technologies will become mainstream in Education in these timeframes, and if so, are we as IT departments ready to cope with them?

Monday, 20 April 2009

Oracle outshines Sun

This week started fairly quietly, but has got more interesting as the day progressed, especially with the news that SUN (one of our major suppliers) has been taken over by Oracle (another one of our major suppliers). It will be interesting (I hope not in the Chinese sense of the word) to see what effect that has. Oracle now owns Java, and more importantly, MySQL - a rival database to its own. It's already been referred to as myToast by the ZDnet blog. Should big users of MySQL, like Google, be worried?

What will happen to the SUN hardware that all of our systems run on? Given Oracle's relationship with other hardware suppliers including Dell, HP and IBM, will it all survive? The impact on open source software such as OpenOffice will also be closely watched.

As a major SUN user I'm glad they were taken over rather than just go bust, and I think the deal with Oracle will be better for us than if the IBM one had succeded, but I can't believe it's not going to affect us. The Guardian technology blog says that SUN boss Jonathan Schwartz has been known as My Little Pony, but Larry Ellison from Oracle is reputedly somewhat closer to Ming the Merciless - an interesting match!

Ask the audience

Last week was very quiet - a lot of the University were on holiday. But there were some good networking events. As well as the campus warden's meeting I went to another team meeting and had a question and answer session. Twelve questions had been submitted in advance, one from each member of the team, and I attempted to answer them. I was quite disappointed that despite not phoning a friend or asking the audience I didn't seem to win anything, so I assume I got one wrong. It was a good session for me and I hope the others agreed - it emphasised the need to stay in touch. Other teams out there - feel free to ask me!

We also held an open day for the department in the Drama Studio. I've written about it before - it's an excellent venue, providing facilities both for our own students, those reading drama and those who act as a hobby, and local amateur dramatic groups who can hire it out. It's undergone a bit of a makeover recently with newly decorated dressing rooms and green room, and the installation of screens in all back stage areas as well as front of house so that the stage can be viewed. It was well attended with about 50 of our staff having a look round, most of whom had never been backstage before.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Who stole the stairs?

It's a long standing joke that if you turn up to a University meeting and there's more people there than you expect, someone will ask who's put car parking on the agenda. It's an emotive subject, and one that's difficult to win on. Yesterday I had a very pleasant meeting with our campus wardens - they have the thankless task of patrolling the campus making sure everyone is parked correctly, and displaying the right permits, as well as making sure the campus is a tidy and welcoming place for visitors. The meeting was slightly late starting as some of them shared the news that during the night the metal stairs at the back of one of our buildings had been stolen - literally sawn off and taken.

The difficulties of their work is borne out by the comments in the recent staff survey I referred to in my last post - many commenters complaining that we didn't have enough visitor car parking spaces. An almost equal number complaining that we had too many visitor car parking spaces. Lots of "we haven't enough car parking spaces" , and some "we've got too many spaces for cars, we need more for bikes" - although not as many.

We're looking at different ways of managing car parking - at the moment we have a complex system of permits in three categories, and one change we might make is more "pay on the day"spaces. Or maybe we should have all pay and display? Or just let everyone who wants one buy a permit and then hunt for a space? It doesn't matter what we do, it will generate a lot of heated debate, and probably please nobody!

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Staff Survey

Each year we do a survey of student satisfaction of all professional services, run centrally, whereas staff surveys are the responsibility of the individual departments. We last ran a complete survey of all staff on all of our services 4 years ago, although we regularly carry out mini surveys of individual services, so we decided it was time to do it again.

We emailed all 6666 staff (what a strange number – does it have significance I wonder) and got a 42% response rate, which on examination turns out to be fairly representative of different staff groups and of different faculties. A high response rate can mean one of a number of things – perhaps everyone loves us so much they want to tell us about it, or maybe the exact opposite….

So, it was with some trepidation we attended a presentation of the results last week. As usual the survey had been carried out and analysed externally by the Oxford Research Agency and was presented in a very professional manner – even bad scores are broken to us gently and criticisms made constructively. I don’t want to say too much about the actual results as I haven’t yet presented them to the department – that will happen at a departmental meeting in a couple of weeks. But, like many things – it was a mixed bag.

Some services have a very high satisfaction rating, some not so. Some of the poorer scores we were expecting and are already working on – some were much more unexpected and will take some analysing to work out why and what if anything we can do about them. At every stage in the survey staff have a free text box where they can make comments to explain their scores – and boy, do they!! Most are very helpful, and some are just funny. I remember in the last survey a suggestion that the developer who had written a particular system should be taken out and shot - needless to say they still work for us. In this one, it was suggested that the person who had been responsible for deciding to implement a particular system was "clueless, absolutely clueless". That would be me then!

Many of the criticisms are about the user interfaces into systems, and the unfriendly nature of them. We’ve been spotting this trend from students for some time and now unsurprisingly staff are saying the same thing. We really have to concentrate not just on how functional our systems are but what they look like. Of course, this is not always under our control but we need to weight this very heavily when evaluating systems, and put pressure on suppliers to improve their user interfaces.

What always does surprise me are the amount of comments saying wouldn’t it be good if we could do this, or this service would be so much better if it did that – when it does, they just don’t know how. We’ve invested so much in communication over the last few years, but getting out exactly how best to use each service is still difficult.

We’ll be looking carefully at the results – I suspect we may have to reprioritise some of our current projects to concentrate on those areas where staff clearly are unhappy.

I’ve only very quickly scanned all of the free text comments but it’s nice to see so many positive ones – especially about staff and how helpful and friendly they are - well done folks. Although I do wonder if some of the positive comments might just have been put there by our own staff...

"The ** technicians are the best thing since sliced bread ! So helpful, pleasant and handsome too !! The best dept in the University. Brilliant. Give them all a promotion."

Nice try :-)

Friday, 10 April 2009

Had a strange experience yesterday - went to a project group meeting on network resilience - and really enjoyed it! It was interesting, fun and I understood most of it - should I be worried?

We've done a lot of work to make the core network resilient - two data centres, doubling up of routers, virtual routers at the core, duplicate network connections etc.** Now we're moving out towards the edge and looking at how we provide services to buildings. Currently these are through a small number of aggregation centres located across the campus which provide a great single point of failure. Especially the one that has been for years situated in a basement which frequently floods. The UPSs on them are not particularly reliable and certainly not environmentally friendly. So. we've just begun a major project to get rid of them, and provide duplicate gigabit connections to all buildings, directly linked to the data centres without the need to go through these aggregation centres. Sounds simple doesn't it? But - and there are lots of big buts - we're talking miles of cables, ducts, digging up roads (or using other peoples ducts such as sewers), disruption, expense (the price of kit has risen drastically recently with move of the dollar against the pound). It will be a long job, with some interesting prioritisation along the way.

The first task is to survey what we've got, and where our cables actually go - it will make the London Underground Map look like child's play.

** Our Data Network Manager wrote a really good article for our internal newsletter on how this was done - will see if he'll let me reproduce it here.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Social Sciences Liaison

Had the first of our strategic liaison meetings with the Faculties today - we're trying to get round them all over the next couple of weeks and today was Social Sciences. Had a very productive meeting - we talked about our main services and our plans for them and listened to their feedback. Under teaching and learning we talked about support for learning technologies, our review of our current VLE, technology equipped learning spaces and a feasibility study we're just starting of centralised timetabling. The latter is probably the most contraversial as currently every department draws up its own timetable, inputs it into the system, and we then allocate the rooms. This leads to many clashes, as all departments want to teach at the popular times (or the least unpopular, mainly Mondays and Fridays). If we can do it centrally we should be able to make better use of our teaching space, and ensure an equitable allocation of rooms. Some people will have to teach at 9am on a Monday and 4pm on a Friday though...

The discussion on research centred on the use of our High Performance Computing facility, and the difficulties of storing and curating research data. We also told them about our new collaboration environment, uSpace, which is going live this June, which will enable researchers to collaborate both inside and outside the University and to discover expertise and research interests.

Lots of good discussion around a lot of different topics - it will be interesting visiting all of the Faculties to see what are common interests and what differences there are.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Is there a problem?

How do users find out about interuptions to services, whether scheduled or more importantly, those that are unscheduled and therefore a suprise to all of us! We're trying to come up with different ways, and our service status page has proved useful in keeping people informed about service downtime and scheduled maintenance as well as unexpected outages. We're hoping it will reduce the number of calls to the Helpdesk when there are outages as people learn to look at them before phoning. We also have a Twitter presence as an experiment to see how useful that is and we'll be reviewing it soon. First signs are positive. Our Helpdesk now has a self service function, accessed through the portal where you can access a knowledge base, log calls, and track the progress of any open calls. This isn't being particulary well used at the moment - we need to build up the knowledge base and advertise it more. Or perhaps people prefer the human touch? They certainly get that with over 35,000 phone calls, emails and visits to the Helpdesk last year.

eMail has always been the traditional way of communicating (until the network/email system goes down of course), but there's always a fine line between sending too much information out, to too many people, and not enough. Our incident procedure is always being refined and reviewed, and it's interesting the way the definition of a major incident has changed. Gone are the days where loss of the VLE for a few hours was noticed only by the enthusiastic few, or where we could get away with any service being down before 0800, after 1800 and at weekends. The expectation is now very clearly for 24*7 services, and providing them without 24*7 staff is a challenge. Our response is to try and invest in reliabilty and resilience and build services which don't fall over often and don't require huge amounts of downtime, although with increasing complexity and interdependencies that is a real holy grail.

Hosted services, outsourcing and shared services are another way of spreading the risk - although you never get rid of it completely!

Sunday, 5 April 2009

To iPhone app or not to iPhone app

Saw a really good demonstration on Friday of an iPhone application designed for students. It pulls data from corporate systems and directories and puts them together into a neat view. So, you can look up staff and student profiles and click on phone numbers and emails to call or mail them, look at a map of the campus and know where you and your friends are, look at timetables, exam results, campus news and announcements and check your library account and renew or reserve books.

They're looking for Universities to take it up, and the company does all of the integration - all we have to do is show them where the data is and pay them money - and at the moment it's quite reasonable. Looks great. But - how does it fit with our strategy of making everything available to any device? Should we be providing applications for proprietary products - even ones as great as the iPhone? Apparently Apple have about 11% of the mobile phone market, but about 20% of students have an iPhone or iPod touch. Is that enought to provide a service just for them? Should we provide it, and charge for it? The company we're talking to say they're going to port it soon to other platforms including Android and Symbian which might influence our decision.

Any views? I'm tempted to go with it, and hope that it does get ported to other devices. Or I suppose we could approach Apple and see if we can get them to give an iPhone to all of our new students...

Saturday, 4 April 2009

RIP Bob Boucher

Today was the funeral of Bob Boucher, VC of Sheffield University from 2001 to 2007. He died very suddenly just over a week ago, which came as a shock to everyone who knew him. I first knew Bob back in the early 1990s when I worked in Sheffield Medical School and he was Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Chairman of our Academic Development Committee. At the time the University was going through a difficult financial planning process, and to the rest of the University the Medical School seemed to be an enormous drain on resources - all these academic staff treating patients instead of doing research. Bob was tasked to find out what was happening, and he and I worked closely together over a number of years. He was extremely bright, very fair and very kind, and became a great friend and supporter of the school. During this time we travelled a lot to the Far East where we were helping to establish a Medical School, and Bob and his wife Rosemary were extremely good company - working hard during the day, and enjoying themselves in the evening - I have many fond memories of that time.

The main memory I have of Bob is his inability to tell a joke without laughing. He would set off with best intentions, often at a presigious event such as the Graduation Dinner, and as soon as he started the audience would know what was about to happen. Soon he would start to giggle, then he'd start to laugh, and by the time he got to the end of the joke - if he ever did - the audience had usually forgotten how it had started, but were laughing hysterically with him.

Today's funeral was very sad, but conducted beautifully with poignant tributes from friends and family. He was a lovely man and will be very sadly missed. All of our thoughts are with his family.

Friday, 3 April 2009

5 interesting things found on my Twitterfeed today...

Ten years of The Guardian on-line plotted in expletives - very illuminating!

MPs expenses by geographical location - a good example of information from the Guardian's databank, in a mashup with map and postcode data.

How cats can give us tips to be good corporate strategists - if you've got cats, you'll appreciate this.

How to turn your house lights off using Twitter - will appeal to the really geeky

Bakertweet - a way for bakers to tell the world that their bread has just come out of the oven

So who said Twitter wasn't useful?

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Service review

Last week I posted that we were having our services evaluated externally. The review consisted of a review of a lot of background material provided in advance, and then a fairly intensive 2/3 days of interviews - with CiCS as well as our main customers. The review was intended to help inform our IT Strategic Agenda by answering the question - how well is our overall university IT program/initiative doing? It was also intended to provide advice by identifying opportunities for change and improvement in utilizing IT resources.

Got the final version of the report today, and I'm very pleased with it - 5 pages of strengths compared to only a page and a half of weaknesses/opportunities can't be bad! Too many strengths to list, but they covered all areas of the department. The main weaknesses were mainly in areas we knew about - a number of applications need upgrading, we need to engage more with the Faculty structure and we need a prospective student portal.

Interestingly one of the things we consider a strength - evaluating open source products at an equal weight against commercial products - was perceived as a weakness. We agreed to differ on that one - it's been part of our strategy for a long time and isn't something I intend changing.

It was also suggested that we embrace the software as a service concept and outsource services such as student email. More on that later......