Summary: How The BBC Makes Websites

7 08 2009

The final plenary session for this year was delivered by Michael Smethurst and Matthew Wood, web developers for BBC Audio and Music.  They took us through their development process for which is designed to provide a permanent home on the web for all BBC programmes.

Their aim was to make URIs human readable, hackable and, most importantly, persistent.  To this end, they begin their design process with the domain objects (programmes, songs, recordings etc) and build models based on how these domain objects relate to each other.  They do not use wireframes or mockups, but do take the domain model to users to check that they are speaking the same, ubiquitous language.  They then translate the domain model into a physical database schema that enables them to richly express the domain model in the language of the user.

Once the model is established as a database schema, it is a case of collecting together all the data needed to create the resource in all of its forms, before moving on to document design.  One of the most poignant points made for some of the delegates I spoke to afterwards was the assertion that document design should be independent of the page layout – as that’s the job of the CSS.  In fact, wireframing doesn’t happen until they add the layout CSS to the HTML pages and any Javascript or AJAX gets added last of all.  Michael and Matthew were very firm that they don’t test photoshop mock ups or wireframes, they test working applications, which enables them to focus more on creating rich content discovery journeys through the resources that are domain driven.

We were given a tour of to see all this in practice and the opportunity to ask Matthew and Michael about their processes in more detail.

Summary: Lightweight Web Management

6 08 2009

Chris GutteridgeChristopher Gutteridges’ talk was full of practical tips to manage the workload of web services management, making you more like Batman with his Batcomputer than Superman rushing to the rescue when things suddenly go wrong.

Chris argued that it is a waste of time and resources to have humans doing jobs that computers can do really well.  To this end, his department has written lots of scripts to perform basic tasks – particularly monitoring tasks – to help make them more visibly more efficient.

Whilst monitoring their department’s systems in this way has made it easier to manage their workload – preventing them from dropping the ball on normal requests in favour of crashing in to the rescue when something unexpectedly breaks – Chris had also noted that this practice was going to be especially important in the current economic climate, when we are all facing uncertainty about our jobs.

Monitoring is enabling them to build a stock of statistics and graphs that show how much work they do for the department they support, and how efficiently they work.  He was concerned by the amount of data people in similar roles in other institutions could be throwing away and argued strongly that they should start preserving that data – even if they don’t do anything analytical with it initially.  He also recommended monitoring the things beyond your control that cause your systems to become unavailable.

Throughout, Chris kept returning to the point that we are here to facilitate research and teaching.  Building a Batcomputer can help you focus on this task and allow you to better enable your researchers and students, rather than rushing round trying to be Superman.

Summary: Agile Prototyping in Academia

31 07 2009

Dave Flanders was unable to deliver his plenary talk in person, so he recorded a screen cast for us with the accompanying slides, including breaks for discussion both within the live audience and with the remote audience using the #iwmwp6 tag.  Dave himself participated using Twitter and this tag, so he was able to contribute in real time.  The live commentary continued using the #iwmw2009 #p6 convention.

Dave took us through the Agile methodology manifesto and discussed how it could be used in an academic development setting.  He promoted various user-focussed approaches to help achieve development goals, useable software and user-feedback.  This included advocating paper-prototyping as a quick way to generate user feedback and refine ideas, and considering how to include your user all the way through developments by having the paper-prototypes and wireframes up on the walls around so the user is in the room with you.  Agile also includes using scrums and sprints as ways of achieving manageable targets and working software quickly and effectively.  

This was very much a practical talk, looking at the manifesto principles and translating them into practical processes that would work in the academic setting, not just the business setting for which Agile was designed.  Dave did note that Agile sits in a continuum between Cowboy (developer-orientated) development and Waterfall (manager-orientated) development, so the principles can overlap.

Usefully, Dave included a break in his screencast to encourage the audience to discuss the issues and any experiences they may have had using Agile.  He emphasised the importance of learning from each other and was on hand on Twitter throughout to answer questions.

You can find Dave’s slides here.

Summary: Hub Websites for Youth Participation

30 07 2009

David NewmanIn his plenary session, David Newman introduced us to the HuWY project, which aims to try and experimental method of engaging young people in policy making for web-related issues considered at EU level. 

This project is based on the idea that young people, having grown up with the internet, have a unique and important view on issues such as cyber-bullying, privacy and freedom on the internet, but little interest or active involvement in the regulatory processes and policy making that is going on at the EU to govern these issues.  The aim is to find ways to make the connection between young people and policy makers by understanding each and providing hubs to connect their ideas so they can lead to actual change.

HuWY will first work with young people in 8 countries across the EU, providing them with a hub site of materials to get their discussions going.  The intention is then to allow the young people to go away into their own corners of the internet, use whatever tools or services they prefer (whether its Bebo, Facebook a wiki or whatever) to discuss the issues and generate ideas to solve some of the problems they encounter on the web.  These results will then be fed into another hub, where the task is to organise, tag and phrase these ideas in a format that politicians and policy-makers will be able to understand and use usefully to inform policy.

David gave us an overview of e-participation research and invited us to contribute ideas about how we could encourage our students to take part and the policy makers to listen.  Engaging the latter seemed much harder!  He made the point that young people are politically engaged, just not in the traditional ways, so we need to look at new ways to get young, digitally native people involved in political processes.

Summary: What Is The Web?

30 07 2009

James CurrallIn his unconventional plenary, James Currall abandoned what he refers to as “lecture 1.0” (where the lecturer stands at the front and talks for 45 minutes, then answers questions for 5) in favour of a more interactive, discussion based session in which he took us through and encouraged debate around the topic “What is the Web?”  The audience could take part verbally or by tweeting using the #iwmwp4 tag, which allowed the relevant tweets to be projected up onto the wall via Twitterfall. 

James would check the tweets throughout his talk and respond to them – sometimes conversationally (“yes, Mike, I agree,” then move on) or sometimes by using the points raised to redirect his talk or provoke further debate.  He challenged us to consider what we think the web is and how we can strip down what we do to the simple level of providing content to different types of users when they want it, in the form they want it.

As the live blogger, I have to say I found this format challenging to report upon, as there was obviously no clearly structured argument to follow or series of problems and solutions to report.  I ended up effectively providing sound bites from the discussions, and a little bit of commentary about what was going on e.g. “remote user @RappinRach has asked “is it about portals then?” James wants to avoid using labels for things in this way”.

I will be very interested to hear some more detailed feedback from any remote participants in this event, as there were so many access points through which to follow.  The participants we were aware of were watching the live video streaming and interacting via the #iwmwp4 tag.  I was reporting as @iwmwlive using the established format of #iwmw2009 #p4, so that my echoing tweets did not appear on the Twitterfall and distract from the active conversation.  There presumably were people following my updates as with other sessions.  This provides us not only with different ways of experiencing the event live, but also with different types of records of it which can be searched and referenced in different ways.

I did very much enjoy this session, which Miles Banbery described as more a “walk around” the topic than a traditional plenary talk.  The format was good for stimulating debate and exchange of ideas, but more interesting than those ideas in themselves – for me at least – will be how we handle the records and the experience of the talk for the remote user separated through both time and space.

Summary: Making Your Killer Applications… Killer

29 07 2009

Paul BoagPaul Boag of Headscape gave a rally-cry talk to inspire web managers to think again about their university websites and online applications for prospective students.  In particular, he highlighted the course-finder feature and noted the need for the designers developing these tools to stop thinking in a page-based way and start thinking of their tools more like desktop applications.

Paul gave some practical advice to help enthuse the audience to start experimenting and trying to develop more ambitious, user-friendly websites, despite the cost and political difficulties.  This included addressing concerns about accessibility standards by suggesting graded browser support and developing proof of concept designs so managers can see, and therefore start imagining the possibilities.  He also noted that using existing APIs, Javascript libraries and 3rd party websites can help keep costs down, costs being one of the major stumbling block to the development of better online services in the current climate.

Shifting mindsets from page-based thinking to application-based can also be a barrier.  Paul suggested story-boarding and taking sanity checks by asking others to test out your application -thus keeping you on track when trying to design an intuitive, interactive application.  He also suggested looking outside of HE at other types of websites to find solutions that will help make the university website not only more useful, but also more personable.

Personableness was a big feature of Paul’s talk – emphasising the role of the university website as a marketing tool.  He highlighted the potential for choice paralysis, the need for user engagement beyond Facebook and Twitter – including the use of ratings and reviews to add an authentic voice which potential students can trust, and the desperate need for a copywriter.  He did actually stamp his feet at this point!  There is a real need for a personal, personable voice for university websites.  Again, he gave corporate world examples, including Flickr, who were brave enough to put up a blog post saying “we suck”.

In conclusion, Paul emphasised the need to look beyond HE and to be imaginative in our approach to meeting the needs of the prospective students – thinking of them as consumers and gearing our institutional websites to them accordingly.

Summary: Servicing “Core” and “Chore”

29 07 2009

Joe NichollsDavid Harrison introduced Joe Nicholls, who presented this talk examining the ways in which they have been thinking about the way both students and researchers use technology as part of their working practices at Cardiff University.

Joe’s key point was the need for a holistic approach, in which there needs to be an iterative cycle of communication between the web managers/developers and the end users to ensure that there is appropriate education about tools to enable users to do their jobs, but also an understanding of the users requirements when developing new tools.

To understand this, Joe took us through a series of diagrams which demonstrated the different layers of IT interaction that researchers go through in order to do the different parts of their job.  This involved identifying “core” activities and “chore” activities – including many of the practical institution IT services, such as payroll and HR.  He showed how the modern working environment for these researchers involves working across these different layers to complete tasks, and highlighted the need to be aware of this in order to best meet the needs of these researchers when developing new tools.

Joe also made the important point that we have to take into account the external web resources when considering how researchers and students are working, not just our internal services.  Understanding how and why these tools are used can help web managers consider how best to improve their own tools and educate users about best practice (particularly when considering how to preserve content), so you are effectively enabling them to work in a modern IT environment.  This does not necessarily mean teaching them how to use particular tools, but rather teaching them transferable skills and literacies that enable them to move across tools and work effectively.

As technologists, we tend to focus on the tools rather than the task as a whole – making us service providers.  But this isn’t good enough in a modern IT working environment.  We need to be educating users and learning about their requirements, understanding the benefits of external tools as well as our own so that we enable students and researchers, creating a new, agile working environment that capitalises on all of the tools that will benefit people within the university.

Summary: Headlights On Dark Roads

28 07 2009

Derek Law presenting at IWMW 2009In his opening keynote, Derek Law spoke about the uncertainty universities and libraries face as they negotiate the new economic and digital environment.  Law questioned the relevance of the university library, as information and students are increasingly moving to the web. He noted that libraries are failing in a digital world due to a number of factors, including a lack of underpinning philosophy about the provision and preservation of web resources, the rise of the managerial technocrat, complacency and a failure to engage with e-resources.  In a time when large portions of universities’ activities could be outsourced to Google, the issues faced by institutional web managers providing institutional web resources become even more important.

So, how are things changing? 

Law suggested that we are increasingly moving towards a society that uses images rather than words as cultural reference points.  Recording your participation in an event – such as the London bombings – comes in the form or a photograph snapped on your mobile device, rather than a more traditional, literary record.  He also suggested that we may be moving towards a society where a-literacy becomes acceptable.  A-literacy is when the skill of reading and writing text becomes an optional lifestyle choice, and may one day lead to it being possible to complete a PhD without being able to read or write.  After all, why would you need to write a methodology for your experiment, when you could just video the experiment being conducted and upload it?  Law noted that that this, and text message shorthand, does not necessarily signal a dumming down, but rather a change in the way we communicate.  He then went on to show how the traditional functions of a library – such as cataloguing, classification and preservation – are being altered by technology and social change, including metadata, folksonomies and semantic web.

Depsite these changes, the underlying functions of providing trusted resources, aggregating unique content and teaching retrieval skills remain in the “library 2.0″ world that we are moving towards.  Law stressed that most institutions seem to be adopting a “digital overlap strategy” (cross your fingers and hope) rather than developing sound policies for the creation, maintenance and curation of digital content.  Most universities simply do not realise how much digital data they produce each year – although there are now personal digital footprint calculators available! Devising policies that manage and preserve that data so that the university remains a relevant centre of knowledge in the digital world is the challenge we now face.

In conclusion, Law proposed that institutions need to have a clear policy to generate trust and value in their online resources, ensuring that they are institutionally defined, scholarly, cumulative and perpetual, open and interoperable.  

We should expect the unexpected as we move towards this future and consider how best to develop these policies.  This was best summed up by the sign “Warning: please look under your vehicles for penguins”.  Useful advice!

You can see Derek Law’s sides for this talk at slideshare by clicking here.

Here are just some of the comments following Derek’s talk:

spellerliveWhat do I take from #iwmw2009 #p1? No one’s got a clue so keep your fingers crossed!

RappinRach#iwmw2009 #p1 Going to grapple with how to find our digital content & what to do with it.

webpackets#iwmw2009 #p1 I’ll take away a brilliant metaphor for how we are reacting to the dark conditions rather than making sure we read the signs

chrislimb#iwmw2009 #p1 Most important thing taken away – reinforcing that modern comms are change and *not* dumbing down

For the full commentary on this session, search for #iwmw2009 together with the #p1 tag.

Lightweight Web Management

24 07 2009

In the fifth blog post written by IWMW 2009 plenary speakers Christopher Gutteridge talks about you can learn from Southampton’s mistakes when it comes to Web management.

Hi, my name’s Christopher Gutteridge and I’ll be giving a talk about some of the problems (sorry, “challenges”) we’ve encountered running the web systems for a bunch of demanding academics. A few years ago we had to face facts, and we couldn’t just run our web systems “by the seat of our pants” any more. We had to get a bit more professional. My talk’s going to be about where we used to suck, and how we’ve tried to sort it out without becoming too officious or restrictive.

For example; one thing that has made our life much easier is to keep a list of the owners of every website. We used to spend ages trying to figure out who to contact about issues with a site, only to discover the person had left nine months ago, and nobody knew their current email. We made a rule that all websites should be owned by at least one current member of our School (not a guest, but students are OK), and that if all the owners leave, we may turn the site off. To make sure we don’t forget, we automatically compare the list of website owners with a list of valid accounts. If the owner of a site leaves we get an alert. It’s way more easy to sort out what to do with a website the day someone leaves than months later, and we save lots of tedious ringing up people tracing if something is still in use or not. A nice side benefit of this is that it was then easy to make an Intranet web page telling our staff which sites they are listed as a contact for.

Another example: We set up a system that reminds us when our HTTPS certificates are 28 days from expiring. That alone has prevented a few embarrassing incidents.

We are far from perfect, but we’ve improved over the years. I’ll be sharing some of the problems we’ve encountered managing an ever expanding set of servers, sites and services, and the solutions we’ve found to more-or-less keep on top of things. Not all our solutions will work for everyone, but you’ll get some ideas of ways to improve your service. I’m not planning to go into scary implementation details in the talk, but ask me at a coffee break or bar if you want any gritty details. I’m easy to spot being 6 foot 3 with bleached hair…

Photo of Christopher Gutteridge

Christopher Gutteridge has been running the Web Systems for the School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, since 1997 and still isn’t bored. He is also lead developer of the award winning EPrints repository software, used by hundreds of organisations. He strongly believes that tedious work should be done by computers, not people.

Christopher will be giving a plenary talk entitled “Lightweight Web Management“.

James Currall on Events 2.0 and IWMW

24 07 2009

In the fourth blog post written by IWMW 2009 plenary speakers James Currall reflects on his early experiences of IWMW events and on the need for greater active engagement with participants at events and tells us that this year he “intends to be more radical“.

When I arrived at IWMW 2008, I was met by Brian Kelly who took me on one side and said “there is a really cool voting system in the lecture theatre, can you incorporate its use into your talk – yes?“.  Well that coupled with my eschewing of PowerPoint in favour of a less linear Compendium as my visual comfort blanket and doing about five miles walking during my presentation was part of something that I call Teach 2.0 – in which there is significant participation and engagement rather than some bod standing behind a podium talking to PowerPoint.  This year I intend to be more radical, but you will have to be there or join remotely to find out what that means:-)

At the recent JISC Digital Content Conference I complained that lots of ‘2.0’ things were being presented and dealt with in a ‘1.0’ way.  By that I mean that an ‘expert’ presents in a one-way fashion to a room full of people who absorb the words of wisdom and there is generally little time for questions and answers at the end.  Adding a twitter feed to such a scenario does little to improve the interaction between the ‘speakers’ and the ‘audience’, since there is a considerable gulf between them.  There were workshops, but in the ones that I attended (and I did not mean ‘took part in’) for the most part there were three or four presentations and again little time for Q&A.  All very ‘Conference 1.0′ and JISC should be leading the way:-(

Amongst the meetings/conferences and such like that I take part in (note I didn’t say attend), IWMW goes the furthest to being a ‘Conference 2.0′ event, with a serious attempt to move away from a speaker>audience model, that is why I like it.  Brian, Marieke and everyone else are to be congratulated on how far they have moved it over the years.  I contributed techie stuff for the first few years (possibly the first talk that indicated practical things that could be done (and I was doing) with XML/XSLT.  I then wandered off in management wildernesses for a few years and didn’t keep up with IWMW, but when I got on board again last year in Aberdeen I was really heartened with how things had moved on.  Its not about what technologies you chuck at it (although Brian has tried just about everything over the years and many such have proved to add little), its about allowing everyone to be a contributor, because between us we know a heck of a lot more about stuff that any of us do individually.

At Essex, I will probably disagree with Derek Law who likely wants more control, agree with Mike Ellis whose line on setting content free of the technology used to deliver it is a marvellous breath of fresh air.

You might like to ponder how you get the meat out of the Times Good University Guide so that you can do serious analysis on it – suggestions welcome:-) I am also looking forward to Andy Powell’s workshop.  The eagle-eyed will have figured that this is all about content, with technology playing second fiddle – this post as a whole might give you a clue as to what WE are going to be concentrating on in my session.

See some of you at Essex and those of you that will not be there live, but will be joining us over the wires.  I, meantime, will have to be very careful not to upset sponsors with rude remarks about CMS systems;-)

James Currall is a statistician who has always worked in multi-disciplinary environments. He has been involved in the support of software, ICT planning and user support and training at the University of Glasgow for nearly 20 years. His main job currently is as Director of Information Strategy where he interacts with records managers, archivists, librarians, information technologists, academics and university managers. From a position of being none of the above, James has on a number of occasions been described as an iconoclast as he does not hold dear much of the ‘baggage’ that these professions have accumulated through time. For two years he was on secondment to the University Learning and Teaching Centre, transforming the support of the University Virtual Learning Environment (Moodle) from a tool for enthusiasts into a well supported and managed service, during which time he was very much involved in the management and strategic planning of ICT in Learning and Teaching.

James is also a Senior Research Fellow in the Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute (HATII), where he has, for the last ten years, been developing applied research into information issues drawing on his service and strategic experience and also more theoretical work on the nature of digital objects and the problems associated with their management, security and retention. James has been involved with the highly successful Glasgow MSc course in Information Management and Preservation since its inception, in which he teaches about the transition from storage of information on physical to digital media, the management and preservation of digital materials, information security, the role of numbers as information and a variety of other topics including risk and information management as an investment. In this latter context he was the Project Director of the espida project which developed a sustainable business-focussed model for digital preservation.

James will be giving a plenary talk entitled “ What is the Web?“.


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