Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Be inspired

There's an exciting event planned for tomorrow night - Inspiration for Life are putting on 24 hours of back to back lectures from some of the University's top researchers and teachers. It's all in aid of the charity formed by Tim Richardson, a physics lecturer who sadly died earlier this year from cancer. Two years ago he did 24 hours of lectures to raise funds for Children in Need, so this event has been inspired by him.

It features half hour lectures from Sir Keith Burnett our VC, Tony Ryan, Richard Jones, Alistair Warren, Brendan Stone, Elena Rodrigez-Falcon, and Professor Vanessa, and many others. Starting at 5pm Thursday and finishing at 5pm Friday, it will be great! Come down and see the overnight shift of volunteers (including me) in their pyjamas, our teaching technologies team led by the inimitable Mr Knowles perform 43 2 minute changeovers between speakers, and musicians busking in the foyer ( including a CiCS harpist!).

The full programme is here, just turn up, pay a minimum of £1 per lecture or £5 for the lot. Stay up all night and support the physicists who are doing the midnight to 5am slot.

You can read how inspired our VC is by the event here.

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Tuesday, 26 February 2013

We are the best......

Another feedback meeting today  - this time from the Student Barometer and International Student barometer survey carried out just before Christmas.  Last year we did really well and this year it was always going to be difficult to follow that, but I'm really pleased to say that we almost did. For International Students IT Support had a 95% satisfaction rate, which put us top of the Russell Group and 8th in the UK. For domestic students, we had a 96% satisfaction rating, which put us top of the Russell Group, top in the UK, and top of the wider survey which includes some international Universities. A clean sweep - well done to everyone.  There were some other outstanding scores, including for the Student Union and SSiD, our Student Services Information Desk. As always, some areas were identified which need improvement, but that's why we take part - to find out what they are and rectify them

Also today we had the final project meeting before the go-live of our Incident Contacts System which will be a simple, efficient way of collecting, storing and retrieving contact details of people who might be needed in an incident. It has no dependencies on other systems, and a copy is hosted off site in case our service/network is down. The only problem with it is, it is so good, all of the pilot departments who've used it want to use it for other things which are outside of the scope of the existing project, so Phase 2 is about to be born!

Monday, 25 February 2013

No time for lunch.....

Today was a mammoth day of meetings. This morning we got together with the Service Managers to look at how we will put together our plans for the coming year. Instead of a fairly detailed plan of aims, objectives and a list of tasks, we're going for a very high level list of aims for the year published on our web site, with a detailed operational level plan within each service area. This will be a constantly updated Google doc with timescales, priorities etc which the whole department can refer to. It should be simpler and more transparent both for our customers to understand, and CiCS staff.

Then I had a presentation from a company who had recently carried out a benchmarking survey for us. Two other Russell Group Universities had taken part, and the company was also able to compare us with other sectors. A whole range of things were looked at, and a lot of data had been collected and fed through to them. Importantly, the study was not just about cost - it also looked at people, processes, complexity, service delivery and volume.

In order to keep the scope manageable, we had chosen the following areas:

Desktop Services
  -  Email Services
  -  Printing Services
Server Management
  -  Storage Services
Data Centre Services
Student Records System

I haven't yet shared the results with the rest if the department so don't want to go into detail here, but I think it's safe to say that in general we are very cost effective. :-)
Issues were raised with us around complexity in some areas, and the lack of metrics for some of our service. The latter is something we are aware of and addressing. I'm glad to say that our email costs are very significantly lower than our peer group, but our printer costs are higher, hence our move to a more sustainable print service.
The company had also interviewed a selection of users, and their comments reflected very much what had come out of our recent staff survey.

This was the subject of my last meeting - going though all of the results of the staff survey with the service managers. Each had picked out themes in their areas and suggested actions to rectify issues which had been raised where possible. Some common themes included communication (it is either too much, or too little), poor interfaces into systems (some are packages, some of our own in-house written ones - both came in for as much criticism I think),  browser compatibility of applications. There was also a general perception that we didn't consult enough, an we do wonder whether we have lost touch somewhat from our academic departments, focusing too much on consultation and discussion at faulty level? Whatever the cause, we will be getting out much more to talk to people.

Busy day  - I think some of us were in meetings for just over 7 hours, but all very worthwhile and all achieved something.

Friday, 22 February 2013


This mornings main session at RUGIT was about MOOCs, Massively Open On-Line Courses. We had a presentation from the University of Edinburgh, who launched 6 MOOCs in January of this year. It was a very interesting presentation, and very timely, as we are discussions what Sheffield should do about them next week!

MOOCs are open to everyone, there are no mandatory qualifications and are free to enrol on. The learners who enrol on them aren't really students - they pay no fees to the institution which has no commitment or relationship to them. There is also a huge drop off rate as people enrol at the beginning and then drop out after only completing part of the course.

The courses are fully on line, but there is evidence that people doing them organise physical meets.
They are very lightly tutored and usually supported by teaching assistants, not academics.
They do offer assessment in various forms, and have low study hours per week. The MOOCs currently offered by Edinburgh are short (5 weeks) and have no relation to each other. At the end you get a certificate of completion rather than credits.
They are a completely different business model to traditional HE.

MOOCs come out of many years of technology enhanced learning. For example, on line and on campus eLearning, and online and off campus distance learning. You need to understand how to do teaching and learning on line before starting a MOOC, and apply the same rigorous approval and quality assurance processes to all.

Many companies offer a framework through which courses are offered, providing the hosting and all related administration. Edinburgh joined Coursera. After they launched their 6 courses 300,000 people joined them - that's a lot of admin you don't want to handle yourself, despite the big drop off.

The frameworks have on-line spaces for learners to self support, wikis, discussion forums etc which are moderated. Courses tend to contain a lot of video, but in short clips.

One thing I hadn't realised is that MOOCs have a start time and an end time with timed assessments. Learners can't join anytime and go at their own speed, they have to keep up.

All of the features of MOOCs, for example the automated assessment tools, are open source because of the enormous licensing costs if you use a commercial product. There also deals being done with some publishers to make their materials available for free on line.

Currently there are no credits earned through completing a MOOC, one reason being the difficulty of validating who exactly is doing the assessed work!

Future of MOOCs not certain, the bubble could burst and they could fade away. Or they could expand and diversify and we could see the emergence of specialised MOOCs in unique areas.
One thing is for certain, they are not a money maker!

Some interesting things to consider when we look at whether to go down this route. I think the important question we will need to have a clear answer to, is Why? There will also need to be a clear understanding of the resource implications, they are not a cheap option.

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Thursday, 21 February 2013

Genomics for Geeks

Opening session at RUGIT is Human Genetics and genomics. The Science of the 21st century and why it needs infrastructure. Delivered by Ewan Birney from European Bioinformatics Institute. EBI.

Absolutely fascinating talk. Great for me as an IT Director with a couple of degrees in Genetics!

As usual, I've made notes during the talk, and they are reproduced here. Hope they make sense.

Starts with a crash course in genomics for geeks. Hope I understand it!
DNA is a covalently linked polymer nearly always found in anti parallel non covalent pairs. Only 4 monomers which are ATCG. Always written as a string of letters. 1 monomer is a base pair.
A genome is all of our DNA. Every cell has two copies of 3 times 10 to 9 base pairs in 24 polymers (chromosomes).
Is that clear to those of you reading this? Don't worry if its not.

Fred Sager, who won 2 Nobel prizes, invented DNA sequencing in 1977 (incidentally just as I was completing my first degree). Costs have come down, and sequencing much better. In 2007 saw next generation machines, huge drop in costs. Halving in costs every 6 months.

Molecular biologists share their data. Submit to a global database. Synchronises every night. But amount of data increasing hugely. So, data compression scheme now used for DNA sequencing.

Back in 2000 effectively sequenced 1 human. It was epic!
Now, same data volume is generated in 3 minutes in a current large scale centre. Now, it's all about the analytics.

We now know about populations. Only 3 in 10,000 bases between any two individuals are different. Very inbred!
We all have a bit of Neanderthal in us, c2%.

DNA sequencing has 3 potential big impacts on medicine

1 Germ line impact.
Everyone has different risk of disease, but shift is small
Some bigger risk. One is FH, Familial hypercholesterolaemia, or high cholesterol levels.
With FH, if spotted, there is drug that works. Most discovered by cholesterol test in 30s. Seem don't get picked up. So, could pick them up by sequencing.

2 Precision cancer diagnosis
Cancer is a genomic disease where a cell uncontrollably grows.
By sequencing cancer you can understand its molecular form better. Sequence normal as well.
To spot changes, sequence heavily to see errors. Very data heavy. But already showing results. Different molecular forms of cancer react differently to different drugs.
Sequencing of cancer will hopefully become standard practice.

3 Hospital acquired pathogens.
Provides clear cut diagnosis of pathogens
Can be used to sequence the environment, eg a hospital
Can spot things before they take hold, for example asymptomatic carriers. Happened in Cambridge recently.

What can geeks do for biology?
Biology is a big data science
Not quite as big as high energy physics, but only 1 order of magnitude smaller.
Heterogeneity and diversity far larger
Always have dirty data
Need stable algorithms
Very high dimensional statistics problem
Often I/O not CPU bound.

Biology needs geeks!. Can we Convert physicists to 21st century science. NB Don't tell Brian Cox....

Infrastructures are critical, but we only notice them when they go wrong.

EBIs technical infrastructure:
20 PB of raw disk. Don't back up but is mirror in US and it's cheaper to fly discs over than do tape backups!
20,000 cores in 2 major farms.
A VMware cloud allowing remote users to directly mount large data sets
4 machine rooms. 2 London, 2 Cambridge. Only 1 near them.
JANET uplink at 2 Gb/sec, permission to spike to 10 Gb/sec. Moving to 40Gb/sec

There's a big need for data to be available in multiple places. Eg hospitals
Need to broaden base of infrastructure in Europe.
There's a lot of species. Each one needs to be sequenced, data cleaned, kept, curated, available.
Need a robust network with a strong hub.
This is the ELIXIR project and the Hub is at EBI.

Some fun to finish:
Over a beer.....At some point all the data we store is going to be DNA. Why don't we store it as DNA.
Did it on a napkin and got a letter in Nature.
Then did it! Stored all of Shakespeare's sonnets, JPG, PDFs etc.
2 PB information stored in less than a gram of DNA
But will be 600 years before it will be cost effective!

Great talk, I love science! Interesting Q and A at the end about how we as IT Directors can help genome researchers in our institutions, and how we can avoid the self assembled data centres in labs storing their data.

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Webcams and kiosks

This has been almost a meeting free week so far. Almost a miracle. Although one day was blanked out for a possible trip to another University which got cancelled very late, and another afternoon to travel to Edinburgh. But still, lots of catching up done!

Had some great chats with people as well. Discussed rolling out webcams across the campus, we used to have a few, but various things happened to them, and they died a death. Following the success of our own filercam, we need to resurrect a few. Concoursecam will be first. Mind you, nothing we do will be as good as the penguincams on the current BBC1 series Penguins.

Also looked at a possible replacement for our kiosks around campus and in the IC. Some nice ones about, and I of course liked the funky lighting on these.

Currently I'm in Edinburgh at the annual two day meeting of RUGIT, the Russell Group IT Directors. Already had a very interesting discussion about how to prioritise between different areas, particularly around the very high cost of our enterprise back office systems, compared to what we spend on supporting teaching and learning and research.

This afternoon we're looking at working relationships between JISC and RUGIT, and how we might use JANET to exploit new academic connections.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, 15 February 2013

Unified comms and staff survey

This morning we had a demonstration of a technology which could integrate our voice platform (telephones!) with Google apps.  We need to upgrade our voicemail very soon, and this sort of technology might be an appropriate way to do it.

If implemented, we would be able to receive voicemail though our gmail inbox, ether as an MP3 file to listen to, or transcribed as a message. As the systems are integrated, when the message is accessed via mail, it is recorded as being read on the phone.  Emails can also be sent to the phone, and listened to there. Faxes can be sent and recived as PDFs in a browser - I was surprised to learn that faxes are still in use -  so we could use this sort of technology to replace them.

Presence awareness is included, using  integration with Google calendar, and a lot of voice features including voice access to applications, one click dialling, soft-phone support and call following to different locations, devices and numbers.  All very exciting. Lots to think about before we decide what to implement, but I can see great benefits in this sort of technology.

This afternoon we had a meeting with the company who carried out our recent staff satisfaction survey. We had some feedback and discussion about the actual survey - its length, the questions asked and the response rate, and also looked at the responses, both the satisfaction ratings and the verbatim comments. We're starting to share and discuss the data in the department, and will be putting together an action plan to address the issues raised. What is always frustrating is an issue which is annoying or frustrating for our customers which is mainly outside of our control. Issues with browser compatibility from some of our vendors for example.

The verbatim comments are always useful, often giving us an insight into why people answered as they did. Some of them are however a little obtuse.  I am struggling to understand one about this blog which described it as an inappropriate use of hard-raised charitable donations to the medical school. Given that it is hosted by Google for free, written in Blogger which is free, and the date-stamps for the last 10 entries show that 9 of them were written after 5pm, and the vast majority late in the evening in my own time, I'd love to know how they got to that conclusion. Perhaps I should ask for a donation towards it...   :-)

Have a nice weekend folks.

Walkround the IC

 Thanks to our friend and graduate Edward at Reaxive, the Ground and First floors of the Information Commons are available on Google Street view. Just drag the little man into the building, or you can go directly to it here. Don't forget to explore both floors by going up or down the stairs.

Here's a really good picture of Edward taking the photos a couple of weeks ago.

It's a fantastic way of seeing inside the building, and we think we're the first University building in the UK to be put on Google Street View.  More buildings will follow!

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Funding HE

I've been at a one day seminar in London today looking at Funding the UK's Future - Investment in Higher Education.

Opening session was by David Sweeney, Director of Research, Innovation and Skills at HEFCE, entitled Less Talking More Doing.

Unfortunately due to problems with the train and the tube I missed the first few minutes, but managed to get the gist. Basically, be positive, we're in a good position! Following are some key points, in note form as always when I'm trying to blog and listen at same time.

HE sector is looking at growth not austerity.
Research excellence, 11 UK Universities in top 100 in world in research terms.
1.8m students studying in HE in UK, and 84% are satisfied or very satisfied.
Is income growth in the sector.
But, there is pressure on student support budgets. Uncertainty about ability to fund the loan system.

Universities are the only game in town in many parts of the country. Other public institutions have been savaged by government spending cuts. Arts and cultural centres for example hit very hard. Often the University is the largest employer and the most stable institution.
Operating surpluses are highest they've ever been. Sector is in a good position. (My comment - BUT aren't our surpluses high because we have to fund our own capital now?)

Income to HE has gone up. Expenditure has gone down, especially on staff costs. Universities have been prudent.
Businesses are in trouble and can't get money to invest, but we are creating it.

Universities are outward looking and seeking further investment, need to align their objectives with partners in industry and business.
Of the £23bn income to the HE sector, about £11bn comes from public
purse, about half is public money. With that comes a responsibility to do public good.

Uncertain and erratic economic recovery
Continued deficit reduction
Political instability and uncertainty especially in regional support

Unis have big economic impact.
Every £1 from HEIF produces £6 in economic impact.
Most Universities have commitment to KE ( Knowledge Exchange)
Need to work in partnership with business and public sector.

Main risks are losing public funding, and students not wanting to come. Winning on second one, need to keep fighting for first.

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Tuesday, 12 February 2013

It's official....

....our students are amazing.

When people ask me why I love working at a University, I just have to think about tonight. Last night at 1930 a group of our students were told that the musical they had to perform in 24 hours on the stage of the Crucible Theatre was Annie. They had to learn their lines, learn the choreography, learn the music, be directed, blocked, build the set, practice scene changes, design the lighting, sound effects, sort out the technical issues including microphones and sound, design and print flyers, and sell tickets.  All to raise money for the Cavendish Cancer Care Centre. Did they do it?  Of course they did.

It was amazing. From the moment we walked into the theatre and saw the opening chorus on the set:

till the final song

it was amazing. I have worked with a few amateur dramatic companies backstage, and I can't believe what they did in 24 hours, when most companies have 6 weeks of rehearsal.

It didn't even start to fall apart till very near the end, and when it did, it was handled with such professionalism and humour - I cried laughing! I don't really want to single people out, because it was truly a team effort, but the people who played Annie, Mr Warbuck and Miss Hannigan were truly amazing. Of course, the real star of the show was the dog....

The backstage team also deserve a special mention, as do the publicity team who sold so many tickets. Was glad to see that some of them managed to get a drink before the show...

Well done all of you. Can't wait till the next one!

Planning and strategies

Last week I posted about our five priorities, things we would change and business as normal activities for the next academic year. Today was the first of our joint planning meetings with our faculty colleagues who presented us with their drivers for change and areas for support, and we got to see if our plans aligned with theirs. I'm pleased to see that in the main ours did, with wireless and mobile delivery of services very high on their list of priorities. Some other areas for us to think about, including how we deliver distance learning  - through a central unit or devolved to faculties/departments.

Yesterday we had an extended SSB meeting. Several of our new service strategies are nearing completion, and we had a look at the ones for Communication and Collaboration, Help, Support and Training, and Printing. We also revisited our strategies for Teaching and Learning Support and Support for Research and Innovation which were approved some time ago. Others are being prepared, and we will soon have a suite of them for different services, with an overarching introduction to pull them together, instead of a traditional IT Strategy. Hopefully they will all be on our web site soon.
We also had our regular look at project progress, addressed priorities in areas where we have a lot of work coming in, went through our Service Improvement Report, and considered how we publicise our "business as usual" work to the University. A very full meeting! Lots of stuff going on, but too much work coming in for us to do, so we are looking at different ways of delivering and how we can be more transparent in our prioritisation process.

Tonight I'm supporting our students - last night at 1930 a group of them were given the title of a musical, and tonight they have to put it on at The Crucible. Build the set, learn the lines, rehearse etc - all for charity. Will report on it later!

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Priorities and Bitesize

A rare morning - no meetings! was able to catch up on lots of reading, and finalise some information for a planning meeting with other Directors of Services and our Faculty colleagues. As a starting point for discussion, we've been asked to come up with our top five priorities, our top five business as usual activities, and our top five things to change. So, in no particular order, here is our first draft:

Priorities for 2013/14

1  Wireless Everywhere

2  Delivery of IT Support
3  Planning the space in the New Engineering Building

4  Sustainability
     - Green: print, carbon, cooling
     - Services: simplification and standardisation
5  Mobile
   - Service delivery

Top 5 Business as usual activities

1  Improve student related processes including review of student system
2  Review of teaching technologies and support including lecture capture
3  Future proofing of core infrastructure
4  Continuous process improvement  - Process Improvement Unit and facilitation of departmental networks
5  Support for research

Top 5 Things to change

1 How we deliver research infrastructure
2 The way we use teaching space
3 Access to systems and services ( including new portal and identity management)
4 How we collaborate (post-uspace, google apps, others, skills)
5 Transparency of project prioritisation

This will now be shared and discussed with colleagues in CiCS and other departments before our final plans are submitted to the University in March.

The other thing a morning free of meetings allowed me to catch up on, was the first of our "bitesize" sessions we're delivering to students in the Information Commons. It was held yesterday and was about creating videos - recorded so that anyone who missed it can watch it on the IC Blog. I watched it and learned a lot! More are planned  -  keep your eye on the IC blog for details.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Jimmy and Clarence

Equality and Diversity Board this afternoon  - a very packed agenda - nearly three hours of meeting but lots of really important things discussed. I sometime moan about the time I spend in meetings, but if it's worthwhile I don't mind. EDB only meets three times a year, and the whole diversity agenda is so important for the University it deserves a lot of time spent on it. We reported on progress on the Equality Objectives project where I lead on the recruitment strand. Lots of good stuff, including a pilot looking at different ways of recruiting for our ancilliary staff. We also had a useful discussion about how we collect data for monitoring equality and diversity for students and staff, how we keep it up to date, how we report on it, and how we get over the reluctance for some people to declare some of the protected characteristics including disability, faith and sexual orientation.

Tonight I went to the opening of another great exhibition in our Library exhibition space - Sheffield Entertained.  Drawing on material from the National Fairground Archive and private collections, the exhibition looks at the history of entertainment in Sheffield. So much stuff covered - music halls and variety, magic, travelling funfairs, early cinema. Curated by our own Professor Vanessa, there's something for everyone. The opening tonight had magicians - who I love but they annoy me at the same time as I really want to know how they do it. How did he take my engagement ring and produce it in a sealed envelope in a zipped wallet??  Two of the stars of the exhibition are Clarence:
and Jimmy:

two ventriloquists dummies. Bit spooky. They belonged to Winnie Fox, Britain's foremost female ventriloquist born in Sheffield in 1903. Her father was Professor de Lyle - a magician who lived where Sunnybank Wildlife Park on Ecclesall Road is now. I was lucky enough to chat to his grandson who was lovely:

Get to see it if you can - great exhibition.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Money, it's a gas...

Started yesterday walking my short journey to work listening to Pink Floyd. Our CFO and me are doing a double act at the UCISA Management Conference in March giving our own perspectives on what a Finance Department wants from an IT department, and what they get or should expect. As there is a connection between our CFO and Pink Floyd, there's some lyrics we might try and weave in. "Money" for example....

Yesterday afternoon the VC came to see us - spent well over an hour chatting with the Executive Team about a whole variety of issues - what we perceive our role to be, how we're supporting the University, what our vision and aspirations are, and what could be done differently to make a difference. A great chat, lots of support for our ideas and lots to take forward.

Later in the afternoon we had a bit of a brainstorm about what our vision of a future Student System is.  Might be a new one, might be development of the one we've got, but we need a vision to sit above the functionality we're looking for. You have to be a bit careful that it doesn't look like a game of buzzword bingo, but we came up with a number of key words which will get woven into a vision statement - student centric, mobile, flexible, user friendly, integrated with other systems (including social media), enabling.

One of the best things about today was a demonstration of some ideas for our new portal to me and the rest of the Exec. All good stuff and quite exciting that we seem to be getting somewhere. Now we need to work on further consultation, and timescales to get something to replace our existing portal by the start of the new academic session.

In other news, filercam is still showing an orange light, Yoda  put in an appearance last week to see if he could help, but couldn't.

And, you might have read about twitter accounts being hacked over the weekend, 250,000 of them. I thought at first that it was more than that, as myself and quite a few friends had been affected, but apparently it targeted early users who'd signed up in 2007.  Anyway, twitter was full of tweets from people like me who had to change their password - so how did the Sunday Telegraph find and pick mine?