Thursday, 19 November 2009

The impact of technology on Higher Education

The piece below was originally written for Insight, Bristol's in-house newsletter for IT & library staff. It explores some themes from my #fote09 presentation, in which I developed the idea of IT department as trusted guide. I'm presenting the essay here in an effort to be more accessible.

Douglas Adams was a great technophile and visionary. In 1999 he wrote how to stop worrying and learn to love the Internet and said:
1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

In 1993 Mosaic, the first graphical web browser, was released. In 2004 Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, was awarded a knighthood, and topped a poll for Greatest Briton. Douglas was right - it took us about ten years to cotton on to the importance of this new technology. But Douglas went on to explain that we still don't understand the Internet. We're stumbling along, cobbling it together. We don't understand it instinctively. We overemphasise the risks and underestimate the benefits. It will take the generation of digital natives, those who grew up with the Internet, to make the best use of it.

The world has been transformed since 1993. Libraries have been at the forefront of this. In 1993 we had too little information. Now arguably we have too much - the volume of information sources is overwhelming! The role of the librarian is to act as a trusted guide through the maze of good and not so good sources. Teaching people about information literacy is more important than ever.

The instinctive reaction amongst some academics to Google was to decry it. But people used Google anyway - it is convenient and it works. So instead we need to harness the power of the network. If I go to from within the University then resources the library holds show up in the results, with a "Get it@UoB" link that takes me to the full text. That's working with the network, not against it.

It's fantastic that we are already doing this, but we could be doing more.

We could export our library catalogue to WorldCat, the worldwide catalogue of over 10,000 libraries. It would make our holdings visible to a wider audience, while also benefiting our own staff and students. You can already search WorldCat from a mobile phone - not something we offer ourselves.

We could deposit all our PhD theses, and many of our published papers in ROSE, Bristol's e-print repository. This provides persistent, long-term, reliable storage for papers to reference papers. They show up in any search engine, exposing the research to new audiences. This increases the impact and reach of our research, enhancing our reputation.

These examples harness the power of a larger global network to enhance Bristol. In a networked world we must think globally, not institutionally.

Should we feel nervous? Once upon a time we were in control. People would come to the IT department with requests, and if we didn't like it we could just say no. Now in an Internet-connected world it is very easy to bypass us. Anyone can get a free webmail account from Hotmail. Laptops are cheap enough that people buy them with their own money. You can get network access from your mobile phone company. File storage and processor cycles cost just a few cents a GB from Amazon.

It may be a hoary chestnut, but this threat is also an opportunity. This is an exciting time to work in Information Technology or Information Management. We should be the trusted guide that people turn to. We won't have all the solutions ourselves, but can find them. For every requirement that comes along we should assess it pragmatically, considering the risks and benefits of different solutions. Some things we'll invent or deploy entirely in house. For others we will use a service delivered over the Internet. Often it will be a hybrid between the two. There is a huge amount for us to do with such services: to customise, build on top, integrate, and train people on them.

Just understanding all this is half the problem. You could read Edgeless University: why higher education must embrace technology from JISC. You could read the report from Sir David Melville (former VC of the University of Kent): the Committee of Inquiry into the Changing Learner Experience. Both argue very strongly that higher education must embrace the web and new technology. Alternatively ask a real expert - try one of this years Freshers, who were three when the first web browser was released.

Monday, 16 November 2009

How to learn to stop worrying and love the Internet

I didn't mention it on the blog at the time, but in October I spoke at the Future of Technology in Education conference organised by ULCC. In How to learn to stop worrying and love the Internet I spoke about how universities must adapt in a global networked world. I covered many of the themes I'm passionate about and try to explore here - network effects, digital literacy, open resources, and thinking outside organisational boundaries.

I've also just heard that my proposal to speak Networkshop 38 has been accepted, so I'll be revisiting these themes in Manchester at Easter, perhaps with a more technical bent to suit the audience. In the meantime the fote video and Slideshare slides are online.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Cloud Computing, Security & Reputation

I read this piece by Bruce Schneier: IT Security in the Reputation Economy. It's a very interesting argument from one of the most respected IT security professionals around.

Bruce starts with the common position that computing is now a commodity. Price and trust as the two factors driving sales of a commodity. Many IT services are free (for consumers at least, and also in education) so that leaves trust. As IT commodiditizes further providers are incentivized to protect their reputation by improving security to greater levels than their customers would demand on their own. Why? An individual company can afford to lose their own data, but no service provider can afford to lose their customers data, as soon after they will lose their customers.

Thinking of universities as service providers, this makes me think we should give greater protection to personal data (eg student databases) than to confidential data (eg financial reports). More generally it is interesting to reflect on two recent cloud computing stories in this light.

First the disaster which befell Sidekick users. Sidekicks are (or were) a popular brand of smartphones in the US. Users had their contacts, photos, appointments etc stored on Sidekick servers, with only transitory cached copies of the device itself. In a spectacular database failure the data vanished. Originally it was announced that all data had been lost with no possibility of recovery, although some has now been found. It is a major embarrassment for T-Mobile and for Microsoft (who acquired Danger two years ago). Perhaps Microsoft will now redouble their efforts to ensure nothing like that can happen again.

Secondly, Google announced a 'government cloud' to attract US federal government customers. It will operate only from Google data centres in the US. They are aiming for accreditation under the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA). There are no customers signed up yet, but it is good that Google are trying to demonstrate their trustworthiness, and in particular are taking public sector concerns more seriously. How about an EU government cloud, Google?

Bruce highlights one problem with his argument - markets only work if customers have accurate information. Therefore service providers have a motivation to hide their security problems. Not good. My problem with the argument is that IT may be a commodity, but not to the same extent as electricity or water. Switching from one cloud provider to another is too difficult. Lock-in, as ever, bedevils the IT industry.

Getting back to universities again: my purely personal view is that the case for moving student email to the cloud is now almost overwhelming, but that the trust issues (are the US/Chinese/French governments reading my email??) are currently too great for us to do the same with staff email. If Bruce is right about the reputation economy expect Microsoft and Google to work hard improving our trust in them. In a couple of years time we may think differently - especially if other Russell Group universities decide to make the switch first.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Should I buy a laptop or a netbook?

Battery life2-3 hours6-8 hours
Screen sizelarge screen, 13" - 17"
(good for presentations, spreadsheets, multitasking, anything at all)
small screen, 9"-11"
(OK for email, web, word processing, one application at time)
WeightHeavy, 2.5- 3.5 kg
(heavy enough to notice, too heavy to carry every day)
Light, typically 1.1 - 1.3kg
(light enough to carry everywhere and even run for the train)
ProcessorHigh power processor. Few things need a powerful processor, but it is necessary if you want to edit photos, edit video, or play the latest gamesLow power processor (fine for everyday use such as word processing, web, Youtube)
KeyboardFull size laptop keyboardReduced size keyboard (90% of laptop keyboard size)
DVD DriveBuilt-in DVD drive (can watch DVDs)No built-in DVD Drive, have to connect an optional external USB drive
Price£350 - £900£200 - £350

In summary:

Get a netbook if you value convenience and mobility. The light weight and long battery life mean that you can have it available any time, anywhere. However the cramped screen and keyboard mean that you won't want to use it for long periods, and will turn to a desktop or laptop for prolonged use. My personal favourite netbook at the moment is the Asus eeePC Seashell 1008HA, which has a great combination of weight, battery life, size and slim design.

Get a laptop if you want a workhorse which is comfortable for extended use. It could be your main computer and will do almost anything. You'll use it mainly in a fixed location but it is too heavy to be really portable so you will carry it with you only occasionally. You can use it for long periods, as long as you can find a power socket. Good examples of laptops: The Toshiba Tecra range (for business) or Satellite Pro range (for consumers).

There is a third category: the ultraportable. These have larger screens than netbooks, but longer battery life than laptops. They are not as mobile as a netbook but are more powerful. Until now they've been expensive (upwards of £1000) and aimed at those few top executives who can afford them. Typical examples are the Toshiba Portege range or the Macbook Air. However prices are now coming down, with models based on Intel's new and cheaper CULV (Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage) chip design coming on sale.

Any portable computer will always be a compromise between mobility, functionality, and what you are prepared to pay. The important point is to decide what is important for you.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Unified Communications - a vision from the snake oil salesmen

I've been reading a report from one of the major IT market research firms on what they (and many others) call Unified Communications. They are refreshingly rude and realistic about the state of unified communications today (everyone is evaluating but nobody is deploying, standards are ill-defined, it is unclear which vendors will end up on top, benefits in hard financial terms are difficult to define). However they paint an overly rosy picture of Unified Communications by 2015.

There is overwhelming marketing hype over unified communications and it obscures how communications works. I prefer to think about Integrated Communications. Today for most people integrated communications means email, address books, and calendar. I might want to use all of those in one interface, but it doesn't mean I'll stop using all my other communications tools.

New communications methods arise rapidly, seemingly out of nowhere - think of SMS, Facebook & Twitter. People adopt a new communications method because other people they want to talk to are already using it, not because it has come bundled with something else. Gradually more communication methods will be integrated into a single interface or available on the same device (a web portal or smartphone). This will happen slowly, as the vendors can't keep up with the pace. We should take a tactical, progressive approach. We will never reach the nirvana of Unified Communications that the industry would like to sell us.

There is remarkably little pushback against the unified communications marketing spiel, but there is some. Nick Jones of Gartner (not the research firm I mention earlier) is as ever insightful and refreshing: see his blog post I hate Unified Communications.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Should universities be OpenID providers, consumers, both or neither?

JISC commisioned a report on OpenID which was published last December. There were comments at the time, in particular thinking about the differences between Shibboleth and OpenID. Since then many more providers have announced support for OpenID in some form, but I'm not aware of much activity within UK HE.

One criticism is that OpenID providers typically give no guarantee that a user is who they say they are, so we wouldn't want to use it to authenticate resources of real value. However a university could use it as a mechanism for public resources - for example external users could log in with OpenID to comment on a public university wiki.

I think there is more benefit right now in us becoming an OpenID provider. This is a way to "internalise external web services". When experimenting with Web 2.0 services I often find that colleagues are reluctant to try something. An important reason given is that remembering another username and password is a hassle. It's a fair point. We've worked hard to combine internal university services into one single sign on, and expecting different logons for external services is a large step backwards.

Notable services which allow you to log in via OpenID include:
  • - several web services including HighRise simple CRM
  • Zoho Office - web-based office software
  • comment on blogs at Blogger (but you still need a Blogger/GoogleID to create a blog)
  • Log in to Facebook via OpenID (but you need to have created a Facebook account without OpenID first)
Unfortunately that's almost it, out of what I would call notable services. Other organisations make the same judgment as us - there is more value in being an OpenID provider than an OpenID consumer. They don't want to lose the direct customer relationship. It tends to be the less established companies that fully support OpenID. 37Signals produce excellent webapps but are quite a small player. Zoho is also excellent but plays second fiddle to Google Apps. Those are two of the better companies who are OpenID customers. If we integrated their webapps into our portal I'd be happy that they aren't going to disappear overnight, but I would worry about a lot of the others. I worry when looking at the OpenID directory that I've never heard of most of the sites on the list.

None of these popular web services allow you to log in with OpenID:
  • YouTube
  • Flickr
  • Slideshare
  • Evernote
  • Eventbrite
Due to the importance of network effects I firmly believe you are better off using the market leading Web 2.0 services. I wouldn't encourage staff or students to use a Flickr clone just because it does OpenID. Building university services that tie in with Flickr itself is more likely to be successful, as that is where the content and users are already.

So what should we do? I think there is benefit for individual universities in becoming OpenID providers.
A mechanism for staff and students to comment on externally hosted blogs under their university ID sounds useful. We could even let students log on to Facebook through their university portal - or would that horrify them?

We could become providers at a national level by creating a gateway between OpenID and UK Access Federation, but which acts the opposite way round to the existing gateway. Should we start to think about reconstructing UK Access Federation on top of OpenID?

Or is all this just too soon - should we sit on our hands a little longer and hope more OpenID consumers emerge?

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

How to make your social software succeed

A colleague recently pointed me at Microsoft's Community Clips. It is a community-driven website where users share training videos about Microsoft Office. Why, he wondered, would anyone want to freely document Microsoft's profit-making software?

I was intrigued, so I had a poke around. It didn't look like a vibrant healthy community to me. The most popular featured videos had all been added over a year ago and there was nothing at all within the last 30 days. I then played a few clips. Each video started with a banner "Attention! The Soapbox service will be discontinued as of 31st August 2009!".

No surprise then that Community Clips has the aura of a ghost town. Soapbox launched in 2006 as Microsoft's equivalent to YouTube, and it powered Community Clips. On July 21 2009, MS announced the demise of Soapbox, and on 31st August it will vanish.

A sad story, but despite many such examples I'm sure that collaborative, social Web 2.0 services are here to stay. I expect the audience for this blog will agree with me, but many people within HE remain unconvinced by Web 2.0. If asked I point them at Facebook. Some thought (still think?) it is a passing fad. The hype may have peaked, but at Bristol our student IT survey 2009 shows that more students are using it than in 2007.

Ah, they say, but we did that once. Our organisation tried a project with this social software thing, and it flopped. So it's all a bit pointless isn't it? Well no. Most social software experiments don't work out. I've launched one or two of them myself (so long ResNet Chat!). Suw Charman-Anderson has a great piece explaining why most social software doesn't work out, why this is the normal state of affairs, and not necessarily a problem.

For every success like Facebook, Flickr or Youtube there are another dozen similar ventures that flopped. Why do some fail and others succeed? If you can understand why then you have the best chance of stopping your service becoming another Soapbox.

This fell into place for me through reading Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirkey. Two examples Clay gives are Linux and Wikipedia, and he draws out three rules for social software: the plausible promise, the effective tool, and the acceptable bargain.

Linux and Wikipedia were both announced to a relevant mailing list of like-minded people who might well contribute. They were intruigued by what the project offered, it gave them a plausible promise - something they wanted, but wasn't too ambitious.

Here is Linus' original Linux announcement from 1991:
I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and
professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing
since april, and is starting to get ready. I'd like any feedback on
things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat
(same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons)
among other things).

I've currently ported bash(1.08) and gcc(1.40), and things seem to work.
This implies that I'll get something practical within a few months, and
I'd like to know what features most people would want. Any suggestions
are welcome, but I won't promise I'll implement them :-)
Linus says "this is just a hobby"! People liked this approach. If it had been a big commercial project people wouldn't have been attracted to join. I give you my labour for free and you exploit it, giving nothing back isn't an acceptable bargain. Group of hobbyists together, sharing under a free software licence, is.

Wikipedia illustrates another point - make it as easy as possible to get started and to use it. This is completely crucial - even a low barrier is too high. Anybody can edit wikipedia, you don't even need to sign up for an account. You must provide effective tools - lightweight, simple, that encourage, not discourage collaboration.

Inspired by Clay Shirkey and others, here are my suggestions for successful social software within a university:
  1. Seed your site with useful, relevant content, so it isn't starting from a blank slate. Content you can't get anywhere else is great if you can manage it. This helps make it obvious why the service is useful.
  2. Announce it simultaneously to a large, relevant group. Promise something useful but not undeliverable.
  3. Make your tool extremely easy and effective to use, so your users can get results quickly.
  4. Use single sign on with an ID most people will already have. Your University ID is great, or perhaps something else from a huge common provider like Microsoft or Google. Use no sign in process at all if you can possibly manage it.
  5. Don't make it too official/corporate/commercial - people need to share ownership of the tool. They won't contribute if they feel they are being exploited and there is nothing in it for them. Students may trust the Students Union more than the university. Consider getting the support of your union and putting the service out under their branding.
  6. Nurture your first few users. The founders of Flickr commented personally on the photos of their first few thousand photographers, to make sure they'd come back.
  7. Build your social software on top of a larger network, in order to benefit from the larger network's beneficial network effects.
I'll expand on this - especially on how you can pick the winners and avoid the losers amongst third-party services - in a subsequent post.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

A domain driven design for the University Web

I wasn't at IWMW2009 last week, but I've been reviewing the conference thanks to a colleagues writeup and slideshare. The highlight for me was How the BBC makes websites (also in a more accessible text version BBC Radio Labs - how we make websites).

In the words of Michael Smethurst, "there's very little original thinking in here. For those familiar with the concept of one web, the importance of persistent URIs, REST, Domain Driven Design and Linked Open Data it'll probably be old news."

Michael is being modest. Personally I was familiar with some but not all of those. Even the most basic concept - having a single, unchangeable URI for an item - is rarely implemented. Bringing them all together makes the BBC Programmes site a powerful demonstration of how to do the web properly. More importantly it is a pleasure to use.

We are currently rethinking the University's web strategy and CMS requirements. To do this step back and think not about the web but about the activities the university undertakes.

What do universities do? They teach and they research. I'll use real-world data in two examples to show what I mean.

First teaching. Here's a course hierarchy:
(this would be clearer as a table or diagram but I'm limited by the tools in this blog)
  • Course Family: LLB Law
  • LLB Courses: LLB Law (UCAS course code M100), LLB Law with Study Abroad, LLB Law with Chemistry, LLB Law and French, LLB Law & German
  • year started the course: 95, 96, 97, 98, etc
  • Programmes of Study: 1st year, 2nd year, 3rd year
  • Year One Units: Law of Contract (Unit Code LAWD10008), Law of Tort, Law and State, Constitutional Rights, Criminal Law, Law of Property
  • Law of Contract Lectures: lectures 1 though 6
  • Lecture 1: introduction to contract law
The URI for that lecture would be

Every level in the hierarchy has a web page with a permanent URI. So every course family, course, year, unit, and lecture has a webpage with a single, permanent URI. Ideally we would have a recording of the lecture but as a minimum each lecture must have a presence, at least a placeholder.

Now look at research. Think about web pages for each of the following (again real world examples)

Department of Computer Science
Computer Science Research Groups: Computer Vision, Cryptography, HARE, Intelligent Systems, Interaction & Graphics
Research Group: Cryptography
Cryptography Staff: Elisabeth Oswald, Dan Page, Nigel Smart, Bogdan Warinschi
Person: Dan Page
Dan Page: list of all publications
Publication: Manuel Barbosa, Andrew Moss, Dan Page, Constructive and Destructive Use of Compilers in Elliptic Curve Cryptography . Journal of Cryptology, 22(2), pp. 259?281. April 2009

URIs for the above would be

So every department, research group, person, and published paper has a webpage with a single, permanent URL. Even if the paper itself isn't available electronically it must still have a presence.

Note that in this case the urls do not follow a strict hierarchy as they did in the teaching context. Why? Hierarchies change. Right now the faculty of engineering is merging its departments into larger schools. The URIs for the research groups, people and papers should not change. Our internal organisational structure is completely unimportant in the web context. Breaking a web link pushes us lower in search engines, hides our research and damages our reputation. It should be avoided at all costs!

Each webpage should be about an obvious, real-world thing. If it isn't about an obvious thing, split the page up into smaller pages, until the subject of the page is now clearly one thing. Then give each thing a single URI, and make sure it never changes.

Simple really. Now how do we do it?

Monday, 13 July 2009

Mobile Learning: Telling Tales

On Thursday I attended Mobile Learning: Telling Tales (#mimasmob09), a one day MIMAS event on mobile devices in education. This was an interesting day - lots of frustration but flashes of genius. There are many interesting developments in the field, but few of them are sustainable.

Graham Brown-Martin was very engaging. I always warm to people with a foot in many camps - he's very much the entrepeneur, but also a self described geek with an arty side who ran off to join the circus!

Graham gave a clear explanation of the importance of gaming in learning, as a way to engage learners and experience learning. I've been dismissive of this in the past, as I couldn't see past all the hype over Second Life. I'm still convinced Second Life in particular has little value but Graham's demonstrations of games / virtual worlds for young children were fantastic. I have no idea how we could apply this in a HE context though, and it looks fantastically expensive.

Graham was also very clear in his condemnation of closed VLEs such as Blackboard, and believes that in future the educational technology market will be dominated by consumer industries rather than educational-specific providers. He had a moving anecdote to demonstrate that unless your VLE is accessible on home devices you a disenfranchising vulnerable parts of society.

John Traxler had the wisest words of the session - that we should "stop funding good projects in the hope that they become sustainable, and instead fund sustainable projects in the hope that they become good". Mobile learning currently has two many amateur enthusiasts. It's difficult to scale stuff up. Few if any projects evaluate their pedagogical impact.

We are teetering on the edge of allowing users to provide their own mobile devices, and designing learning around that. This is difficult with mobile platforms in flux. There is no stable infrastructure to build on. [Perhaps the mobile web - HTML - is the best we have?]

Geoff Butters referenced the Demos report Their Space in his explanation of how young people learn [I must read it]. He then described the EU funded Emapps project. This was interestingly conceived, but by the time it was implemented the project was already out of date. Much of the money was spent on devices and mobile data bills. Sadly an example of the unsustainable approach to mobile learning.
Hilary Smith had a very different approach- using childrens' own mobile phones and free tools such as Youtube, blogs and wikis for Key Stage 3 science. I like the approach, but there were huge practical barriers. Too much time was needed to install third-party software no childrens own mobiles. More fundamentally, almost all schools ban children owning mobiles! Many also block sites such as Youtube. The willingness of teachers to cede control or comfort using technology which may let them down was also an issue.

I missed my ex-colleague Andy Ramsden's presentation on QR codes, as I was in a parallel session. I remain to be convinced that QR codes are the right solution to any real problems - the readers aren't built-in to mainstream mobiles, and they are just a bit too geeky! I hope they get leapfrogged by some other technology.

I also missed Stuart Smith's presentation on the mobile website, but I like it as a very practical example of the real-world benefits of mobile learning - taking education out of the classroom and into the salon.

Gary Priestnall's presentation on the SPLINT project was fascinating. This used PDAs on geography field trips. I saw for the first time how augmented reality - display additional data overlaying the real world - can be of educational value. I also now understand why Apple have a digital compass in the iPhone 3GS.

James Clay of Gloucestershire College wrapped up the event and gave the best presentation of the day. He is passionate about learning, understands technology, and is an excellent speaker. His presentation really deserves a blog post of its own - but better still watch The Future of Learning on his own blog.

News of the World phone hacking: how did they do that?

The media was abuzz last week with allegations that investigators working for the News of the World 'hacked' mobile phones belonging to scores of public figures.

How did they actually do it? Graham Cluley, Sophos guesses that they simply accessed the voicemail boxes of the phones concerned. This could be done by a little social engineering. Simply contact the phone provider claiming to be the individual concerned, with a little 'personal' information to convince them. Even easier, try the default PIN code - many people don't change it.

Some suggestions to stop this happening to you:
  • Change your mobile phone PIN code from the default to something only you know.
  • Keep your private personally identifiable information (things like your mother's maiden name) secret. That's difficult to do I know...
  • Do you really want voicemail anyway? Many people find it frustating - often a text is more useful. In that case, just disable it.
On a broader point - mobile phones are one important function which most corporations have already outsourced. Remember the News of the World story when considering outsourcing other services to cloud providers. Obviously similar risks could exist on in house systems, but such problems are easier to fix if in house.

Finally, read confessions of a tabloid hack for a revealing insight into the illegal activities of the press.
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Thursday, 9 July 2009

Why did JANET Talk fail?

A couple of years ago JANET(UK) announced a pilot VOIP service for UK HE, JANET Talk. The pilot has now finished, and will not be extended to a production service, as there is little apparent demand for it. It was obvious to me from the start that JANET Talk wouldn't be a success. I remember pointedly suggesting as much at the Networkshop session where it was launched. The reason? Network effects - or the lack of them.

Imagine you owned the first telephone in existence. It is completely useless - there is nobody to call. It only becomes useful when someone else bought the second telephone. More precisely, as a telephone network grows, its usefulness increases in proportion to the number of potential connections between people in the network - the square of the number of people. 

JANET Talk was only for people in UK HE to talk to others in UK HE. In todays world - a networked, global world - there is no way that a communications service for such a small group of people will be successful. It will inevitably be overtaken by other services with a larger network of users. People will choose to join the larger, more successful service, as that is what their contacts already use.

There are ways you can let a small network benefit from network effects - by connecting it to other networks. The Internet itself came into existence as exactly that - a network of networks. For a VOIP service, the best way to do this is to allow calls to and from the PSTN. Unfortunately JANET Talk was restricted so that you couldn't receive calls from the PSTN. JANET did this deliberately. They don't want to become a public telecommunications provider, as that would potentially open them up to more regulation. It's a very understandable decision from their point of view but sadly it made JANET Talk irrelevant.

Why is this important? Network effects don't just apply to telephones. Everything these days is networked. Web 2.0 is all about social connections & communications. The same factors explain why only a minority of colleagues at Bristol use our calendar service. It's internal only. This is no help to you if if you collaborate with people outside the University. Instead people choose to use - a free, web-based service which individuals adopt of their own accord, with no involvement from the institution.

I've instinctively understood network effects for years. I learnt my lesson launching ResNet Chat. I watched the small, lonely procession of users log in to the chat room one by one, saw the tumbleweed howling through it, and log off, never to return again, while MSN beckoned brightly. 

Don't let it happen to you. When planning a new service, see if it has built-in positive network effects. It is doesn't have these naturally, find a way to connect it to larger networks so it can benefit from theirs. If you can't find a way to do this then you are dooming your project from the start. You're better off doing nothing, unless you want to see your service become irrelevant, pushed to one side by a larger, more popular one.

(image of network effects courtesy of Wikipedia)

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Keep Calm and Carry On - or not?

Keep calm and carry onImage by scottroberts via Flickr

I have a t-shirt I'm fond of wearing with the now cult British wartime slogan Keep Calm and Carry On. I'm very fond of this particularly British message, but when is it appropriate? When do we buckle down and carry on as ever? When do we recognise that the world has changed and we need to change with it or get left behind?

It has been both invigorating and depressing to read a new report from JISC & Demos: The Edgeless University: why higher education must embrace technology. This is a pretty bleak wake-up call to HE in general and IT within HE in particular.

"British Universities have world-class reputations and they are vital to our social and economic future. But they are in a tight spot. The huge public investment that sustained much of the sector is in jeopardy and the current way of working is not sustainable. Some are predicting the end of the university as we have known it."

...that’s just the introduction!

Brian Kelly contributed to the report and highlighted the main themes on the UK Web Focus blog. He picks out one striking quote from a participant:

This seminar feels a bit like sitting with a group of record industry executives in 1999’.

Napster launched in 1999. It provided quick easy and illegal access to popular music in MP3. The record industry fought and squashed Napster, but other, impossible to control peer to peer filesharing services sprung up in its place.

Eventually legal music stores arrived, notably the iTunes Store in 2003. Rights holders were properly compensated, but the music was encumbered by DRM and wasn't portable between different MP3 players. Consumers were being asked to pay for a worse experience! It wasn't until 2008 - nearly 10 years later - that the industry finally licensed legal, DRM-free MP3 stores for the most popular content.

It's not just the music industry either. Newspapers are currently going through the same convulsions. They misunderstood the web - they thought that websites were an advert for their product, but it was their product. Now they are desperately struggling to find a new business model.

What about UK HE? As a culture we still don't get the networked economy, and are slow to understand the implications. Again from UK Web Focus:

"A few weeks ago the “Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World” report was published. And today we see another report which provides a similar top-down view on the importance of Web 2.0 in higher education. If you encounter resistance to change from senior managers in your institution I’d suggest you beat them over the head with these two report[s] until they realise that Web 2.0 is changing the higher educational environment."

To understand the implications of the edgeless university start with Brian Kelly, or better still read the original report (I've also ordered a paper copy which I'll leave in the Bristol Computer Centre staff room). Other good commentaries are from Sarah Bartlett on the Xiphos blog and Chris Sexton, director of Comupting Services at University of Sheffield.

I'll be following up soon with my take on this, starting with reference to another long-sighted Kelly - Kevin Kelly.

Friday, 26 June 2009

What students (and Vice Chancellors) want

It's been an interesting week. We've had a visit from the University Vice Chancellor to Information Services, and several thousand prospective students for the University Open Day. Two excellent opportunities to do some market research - to find out what we should be doing from the top down and the bottom up.

For much of Thursday I was fielding enquiries from sixth formers on the Information Services open day stand. The library was the hot topic, with relatively few queries about IT facilities. Those we did get assumed the existence of facilities but probed their extent: "Do you have Internet in all the rooms?", "Does it stop working if everyone uses it at once?", "Is the Computer Room 24 hours?", "Is there always a computer when I need one?".

Earlier in the week I presented some results from our Student IT Survey of 1400 Bristol students. What do students want? I suggested three requirements:
  • It should just work
  • It should work with my stuff
  • It should be the same everywhere
To these the VC added "It should just work all the time", quoting the example of email as an essential service which we can't afford to go down.

I talked about ResNet and our wireless network as like plumbing - essential utilities which we can't cope without and which work (nearly?) all the time. Once novel, they are now mature, unexciting services. Students do still appreciate them - we score very highly for Internet Access in the International Students Barometer.

We then looked forward, at the personal mobile technology students are starting to carry with them - smartphones and netbooks - and the explosion of innovative web services - Facebook, Google, iTunes, Skype, Twitter, etc etc - which set the standards our students expect. The VC was impressed by the pace of change in IT, and our response to it as an organisation. What would we be important in four years time he wondered? Ebooks perhaps?

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Has Open Source won the argument?

"Open Source software has won the is now generally accepted that the future will involve a blend of proprietary and open-source software" Not my words, but those of a leader in The Economist (a publication more known for a love of free markets than free software).

Why does The Economist like Open Source? Because it reduces the danger of lock-in. Lock-in is an insidious practice which harms customers and leads to monopolies.

"selling software to large companies was sometimes likened to drug dealing, because once a firm installed a piece of software, it had to pay a stream of licence fees for upgrades, security patches and technical support. Switching to a rival product was difficult and expensive. But with open-source software there was much less of a lock-in. There are no licence fees, and the file formats and data structures are open."

I'm a pragmatist on the choice of open source or proprietary software. As an individual I'll happily buy proprietary software if it saves me time or makes my life easier. With an institutional hat on, I'm much more cautious and try to think longer term - what will I get stung for next time? Will I have to buy the whole stack of all the vendor's other products?

True free software abolishes the headache of accounting for all the per user licenses. That's a huge advantage, but sometimes free software just isn't available to do what I want. Next best is proprietary software where the vendor will sell me an easy site licence based simply on head count. That still leaves me worried about data lock-in though. An open source company with a hybrid model - give away the standard product but charge me for the enterprise-ready clustered version - now that's pretty attractive. You'll be using open standards for data storage. Keep your licensing simple and server based (no CALs!). Finally, don't charge too much - but I'm not worried as if you ever do I can take that component out and switch to someone else.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Google Wave: A glimpse of the future

At yesterday's I/O conference Google previewed an early version of Google Wave:

What is Google Wave? It's a communications & collaboration tool from the team formerly responsible for Google Maps. They set out to answer the question "What would email look like if it was invented today?".

Waves combines previously separate functionality into a tool that looks seamless and genuinely new. It's includes elements of email, instant messaging, wikis & collaborative document sharing. What exactly is a Wave? Start of by thinking of a wave as a threaded rich media email or instant message conversation. These are a few of the features:
  • Conversations can take place one to one or in groups
  • Combines asynchronous and real-time conversation in one.
  • Anyone in the conversation can comment, or amend, in place, in the stream of the conversation
  • Simply drag and drop documents, pictures etc into your browser to share them with other people
  • Rewind and look back through the conversation history
Wave is more than just another Google App. It's also a platform, and a protocol.
A platform: Google's push right now is to get developers on board. You can embed rich content like interactive surveys. There will be plugins and bots to extend Wave how you want - rich content like an interactive survey, spellcheck, even translation. You can embed Waves in your website. Getting a large crowd of developers enthusiastic is a great way to make your platform the one that succeeds.

A protocol: absolutely crucially, Google will release the protocol specification and the code for client and server as open source. They say they want to see many separate but interoperable wave servers - it won't just be a Google App. A company could implement their own private Wave server which will talk to other Wave servers in the cloud, or at other organisations (just like SMTP today) . When the goal is a big as defining the next version of email, that's essential, and it is why I'm excited about Wave. The functionality looks excellent, but it would do no good at all in an isolated environment. I can have all the clever communications software I want, but it is useless unless the people I need to talk to have it too. I don't want a proprietary unified communications product which only works within my organisation - I want an open, global tool which everyone uses. Google have the resources to develop the tool, and by opening the standard the ensure that anyone who wants to can use it.

Communicationss & collaboration tools are normally seen as an enterprise requirement, but Google are a consumer company at heart. This will help them do groupware properly. JWZ put it crudely but got it right in his 2005 essay, Groupware Bad: The first question a social software developer should ask is "how will this software help my users get laid?". If you prefer, how will it make it easier for them to do what they want to do - meet and communicate? Good groupware solves problems for people, bad groupware tries to solves problems for organisations that no actual users want. Google grok this. They say "Google Wave can make you more productive even when you're having fun!".

What are the implications? Wave is hugely important in its own right and also demonstrates Google's strategy more generally. The implications look terrible for Microsoft:
  • Google often say that they can do anything in a browser you can do in a native desktop application. As they put it, "never underestimate the browser". Wave uses elements from the HTML5 spec, which extends HTML further towards rendering complex applications. It's taken over ten years, but finally the web is becoming the platform.
  • Although the ratified HTML5 spec is some way off, Firefox, Chrome, Safari & Opera already support key parts of it. Internet Explorer doesn't (yet?). If it doesn't, tools like Wave will be compelling enough to shift users away from Internet Explorer to other browsers. Microsoft either need to catch up and support modern web standards fully, or lose market share.
  • Nobody else is going to propose a next-gen email protocol with Wave in the offing. By open sourcing Wave Google scare off potential competition. Who wants to go head to head with the gorilla? The only company with both the resources and willingness to do so on this is Microsoft. They difference is that Google's money is from advertising, Microsoft's from software. Microsoft can't afford to open source their software to define the next standard - they'd destroy their revenue. Google, can, and just just did. [As a side note, Microsoft purchased Groove, a very Wave-like product in 2005, and then had no idea what to do with it].
Poor Microsoft. On the day Microsoft announce Bing (another attempt to merely catch up on search) Google are racing ahead...

Wave is exciting, but maybe there's too much hyperbole over it already. I'll finish with a few notes of caution:
  • Wave isn't ready or available yet. So far the developers attending the I/O conference are the only people with access to it. Google suggest that Wave will be available to consumers later in 2009. My guess is that we are at least 12 months away from Wave appearing in the corporate version of Google Apps, or getting the source code to deploy your own Wave server.
  • It's not clear how Wave fits in a mobile world. Threaded, interactive conversations with rich media work well on a large screen.
  • Email isn't going to disappear. Although Wave is an attempt to redesign email from the ground up, email is quick, cheap, lightweight, easy, and universal.
  • Wave doesn't include voice or video communications. In the Googleverse, how does Wave fit in with Google Voice?
A truly unified communications tool should include voice too. Add a few more years for Unified Communications then - by which time our requirements for unified communications will have broadened even further. Perhaps this Holy Grail is as far away as ever - but we've just had a tantalising glimpse.

Monday, 30 March 2009

More titbits from the Student IT survey

When asked "How important is it that the University provides the following services for students?" The most important service is University email account, with 90% saying this is very important. After that ResNet, Public Computers, & Printing all have 78 or 79% of students rating them very important.

ResNet is the most highly rated service, with 85% saying the service is excellent or good (excluding those with no opinion). After that Laptop Clinics, Portal, Email, Help Desk & Electronic Library Resources all rate above 70% on the same measure.

Out of nine possible suggested new services, the most requested were
  • Access student filestore from anywhere over the web,
  • Audio or video recordings of lectures,
  • An email address you take with you when you graduate.
Awareness of the Student Laptop Clinic, 24 hour Help Desk & IT Skills training is poor (around a third of students know about them)

98% of our students own at least one computer. 91% of these are portables of some sort. 11% of computers are Macs, 89% are Windows systems.

Cloud Computing & Google Apps

I recently organised an event on Cloud Computing & Google Apps, with two excellent speakers (Sam Peters & Andrew Charlesworth).

Write up is on the Futures Cafe blog...

Monday, 23 March 2009

Estimating iPhone / iPod Touch owners at Bristol

How many staff and students have we got at Bristol with an iPhone (or iPod Touch)?

With help from the Student IT Survey and mail server logs (big thank you to the mail admins!) I have some stats:

Number of unique users sending email via Bristol mail servers over a 30 day period, expressed as a percentage of the staff and student populations:

iPod Touch0.2%0.3%

Respondents to the Student IT Survey March 2009, expressed as a percentage of the 1439 respondents:

iPod Touch4.5%

What does this tell us, and how do we account for the discrepancy between the figures?

The much lower numbers for email use than ownership suggest that many owners aren't using them for their University email account (but might be using them for personal accounts?)

Ownership of the iPod Touch is high, but email usage is low - perhaps with the lack an always-on data connection this is unsuprising (waiting until you are at the nearest wireless hotspot can be frustrating)

Could selection bias (which students chose to respond to the survey) distort the figures? I have no particular evidence for this, but it is always a suspicion. We true to reduce selection bias by offering an attractive prize draw to respondents - but in this case the top prize is an iPod Touch!

Monday, 2 March 2009

One phone or two?

How many phones do you want - one smartphone that does everything, or separate devices for work and home use?

Personally I'm firmly in the one device camp, I can't back this up with firm data, but my observations at Bristol are that many employer-issued phones languish uncharged, left behind in the office. They are only used occasionally - when someone knows in advance they'll be off-site for a few days. The same people carry a personal mobile with them.

Think of our different users within a university:
  • I reckon that most academics want one device. The traditional of the academic for whom work is their vocation plays into this - work & personal life merge.
  • Our students certainly only have one device (we don't pay for their phones!).
  • Our estates staff (electricians etc) have particular requirements and definitely need a work phone as they are out on call around the campus.
  • Our academic-related staff: this is where there is the greatest divide into the two camps. Some people are strongly of the opinion that they want two phones to keep work and home separate, others want one phone and somehow manage to juggle their identities.

Is this a divide between the Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants (of whatever age?).

Leaving aside who owns the devices, I'd like an approach with at least two prongs, as per Gartner's Managed Diversity Strategy:

1. Provide basic low-level support for all devices. For example, we have step by step instructions on how to access our email and Calendar on all major phone platforms.
2. Provide comprehensive support for one specific platform (eg phone preconfigured before you get it, help desk support, perhaps custom applications).

I want to do both, but in the current economic climate option 1 looks attractive while 2 is difficult to justify.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Smartphones: the plethora of platforms

Smartphones are rather like desktop PCs were 25 years ago. There are lots of competing devices with different OSes - it's exciting or a nightmare depending on your point of view. Gartner's managed diversity strategy provides a useful framework to think about support.

If I'm an individual or an enterprise, how do I choose which platform to adopt? My preference is for the iPhone - it's what I've chosen for personal use, and I think it has business benefits too. Each of the platforms however have different strengths and weaknesses. Several people have recently asked me for advice, so hopefully this summary on the blog will be of use to more.

Blackberry: the standard for corporate messaging. We'd have to invest significantly to add Blackberry Enterprise Server to our infrastructure if we wanted to deploy Blackberries. The blackberry data contracts are also at expensive at £15/month, difficult to justify at a time when we are trying to cut costs. The infrastructure costs mean we'd either have to deploy Blackberries in a big way or not at all.

Symbian: Symbian is now owned by Nokia, who are almost the only firm left making Symbian phones. Symbian runs efficiently on low-end hardware. It's a general purpose smartphone OS but I think Symbian's developing niche will be at the cheaper end of the smartphone market, for people who want a phone with only occasional extras. The Nokia E63 could be a good, cheap phone for business users wanting phone+email. The keyboard makes it a decent Blackberry clone from the hardware point of view. Unfortunately for us the IMAP mail client is lacking - for example it will only store sent mail on the device, not on the server.

Windows Mobile: lots of devices in different form factors, from a huge range of manufacturers. Very open platform for third-party applications. I think of Windows Mobile as a 'general purpose computer' - it will do anything. This makes it a great choice if you really want a laptop replacement (but in that case how about a netbook instead?). Unfortunately the Windows Mobile interface is pretty horrible to use. The best Windows Mobile devices are from HTC, who have developed an easier touch interface on top of Windows Mobile. If you want a Windows Mobile get something like the HTC Touch Pro.

Apple iPhone: revolutionary when first released, the sleek hardware, large screen and touch interface make the iPhone a cut above other options. It is lightweight, slim, and easy to carry around in your pocket, so won't be left in the desk drawer. The user interface and other design factors are crucial to the appeal - you can't underestimate how important this is to the average, non-techy user. It makes the device something people will actually use and benefit from.

The on screen keyboard is a barrier for some:it takes time to get used to but can be quite fast when you've learnt. The email client is fantastic, and the web browser way better than any other smartphone. There are various enterprise tools you would expect (eg remote wipe) but not all would work in our environment. It can do calendaring with our Oracle Calendar, but through a third-party sync app which isn't ideal. This is an example of a more general failing: Apple have a limited SDK for third-party apps, perhaps as an oversight, or perhaps to retain their iron control on the platform. Unfortunately all this comes at a price: the iPhone corporate data contract (£15/month again) is more expensive than other options. A shame that the smartphone designed for the masses is affordable only to a few?

Google Android (so far just the G1 from T-Mobile): One to watch. In theory Android should give the iPhone a run for its money providing easy to use web-centric devices. So far manufacturers have been slow to release models - I don't expect a large range until 2010. Android platform not mature, missing too many features, especially those that enterprises want. Android is likely to remain consumer-centric for some time.

Palm Pre: interesting but still unproven and not here yet. When released it will still take time to reach maturity and feature parity with other platforms.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Digital nomads and multiple identites on the move

"Urban nomads have started appearing only in the past few years. Like their antecedents in the desert, they are defined not by what they carry but by what they leave behind, knowing that the environment will provide it. Thus, Bedouins do not carry their own water, because they know where the oases are. Modern nomads carry almost no paper because they access their documents on their laptop computers, mobile phones or online. Increasingly, they don't even bring laptops. Many engineers at Google, the leading internet company and a magnet for nomads, travel with only a BlackBerry, iPhone or other “smart phone”. If ever the need arises for a large keyboard and some earnest typing, they sit down in front of the nearest available computer anywhere in the world, open its web browser and access all their documents online."
From Nomads at last, The Economist April 10th 2008

Is the Nomad a good model for our academic and academic-related staff working on the move? I'm sure it describes some - but how many? Paul Saffo describes four categories of mobile worker, Nomads, Cyber-trekkers, Hermit Crabs & Astronauts - defined by how disciplined they are about what they leave behind. Personally I'm not a digital nomad - but I'm sold on the concept and working on getting there.

Having access to information on the move is very useful. But travelling light is more important. People won't put up with bulky, heavy, awkward gadgets. If your smartphone is larger than some critical size it will spend more time sitting in your desk drawer than in your pocket, and then it is of no use to anyone. Every student has a laptop, but most sit on the desk at home and only occasionally are brought in to the campus.

My starting point on mobile IT is that devices must be genuinely mobile. Even better would be for the devices to disappear into the environment. Use the keyboards and screens of whatever room you are in, and access your data in the portal or in the cloud.

Lets say you find the perfect device. The next problem is that you don't want to lug around two phones, or two laptops, and two sets of chargers (one of each for work and the other for personal use). To escape that fate you instead have to wrestle with managing your work and personal identities on the same equipment. This is tricky:
  • Email identities are the easiest to separate. You can have two email addresses, and read them either in different places or in one virtual inbox (but you'd better remember to choose the right From address).
  • Calendar is trickier - to stop yourself getting double-booked you need a view of both personal and work appointments in one place. Putting your personal appointments into your corporate calendar isn't a good solution (how do you get your data out when you change jobs?).
  • Even more difficult is your phone number. You don't want to keep two phones in your pocket, unless you have very baggy trousers! So do you use your work phone for personal purposes? Apart from the cost, there are seemingly insurmountable obstacles with financial and tax regulations. Use your personal phone for work purposes? You won't want to pocket the bill, unless you've got a large bundle of minutes each month. Even worse, it means your employer has your phone number when you're on holiday. If somehow you do combine both into one device, you won't give up either your work or personal number - all those people to notify!
We don't have good, cheap, multi-network solutions for redirecting phone calls. Grand Central looks like the best multi-platform service. Sadly Google appear to have put the service on ice since taking it over (and there is certainly no sign of it outside of the US). One colleague points me towards Advanced Call Manager "It's brilliant" - but only for devices with Symbian OS. Doubtless there are others - all suggestions very welcome...

Further reading:

Dr Carsten Sørensen, LSE
Paul Saffo on Cyber-Nomads: a functional taxonomy of mobile users
Sociology of the mobile phone

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

What is the future of technology in student residences?

Bristol's ResNet service started over ten years ago, in 1998. Now we have 100Mbit/sec connections, live multicast TV, and wireless in some areas. One of the primary uses of the Internet is to arrange your social life. Would we have forseen that 10 years ago?

The University is currently reviewing the residences strategy to develop residences which will serve students for the next 30 years. This is an eon in technology terms, but my role in the process is to develop ideas for residential technologies. The following is taken from my report as a member of the residences Facilities Working Group:

Our aim is to provide facilities which are:
  • Attractive – attract students to study here and live in our accommodation
  • Convenient – be quick and easy to use,
  • Good value for money – what the students want, at favourable cost to alternatives
  • Reliable – high availability
  • Pervasive – present everywhere, and compatible with any device
The residence is a student’s home and place of work. Students work, rest and play in their residence and we must provide facilities to enhance all of these.
The phrase Digital Native is used to describe the generation of young people who have grown up with the Internet. It is present throughout their experiences:
  • Social life - arranged via Facebook.
  • Entertainment - downloaded music and movies.
  • Work - Google is the first reference tool for any research.
  • Communication - Texting and instant messaging.
Internet access is supremely important, as it is the pipe through which everything else is delivered. It is essential that we provide high speed, reliable, convenient Internet access in both study bedrooms and public areas. Students responding to the International Students Barometer (ISB), a survey of over 60,000 UK & international students, rated Internet access as the single most important factor of all elements in the living and learning categories. Internet access rates above even such seemingly essential factors as ‘safety’ and ‘good teachers’! Bristol scores very well in the ISB in the IT and Internet Access categories, contributing to our overall above-average score.

What else do we need to provide? We currently offer IPTV. Three years ago 70% of students surveyed wanted such a service. Now it is in place maybe 20% actually use it. Why? It is now a ‘nice to have’ rather than a ‘must have’. The BBC & ITV websites offer live TV directly. Live TV is being superseded by TV on demand. Alternatives have overtaken the service we provided. Similar arguments may be made for Voice over IP (VOIP) services such as Skype having replaced usage of traditional phone handsets in rooms.

There are still some reasons to offer entertainment & communications services ourselves. In particular the university can act as a trusted guide and provide an easy, convenient option. Students and parents may appreciate this guidance and knowing that a service is there. We must remember though the real risk though that whatever we provide will be overtaken. Our student laptop purchase scheme was intended as just such a convenient trusted guide, but gets little use.

What does this leave us? What do we need to provide apart from a pipe to the Internet?
  • We embed technology in the building spaces.
  • We provide location specific services
  • We provide facilities that students can’t provide for themselves (too large, too expensive)
  • We encourage a productive mix of student-owned and University-owned technologies
We shouldn’t provide mobile phones or laptops to students. These are small, portable, quickly obsolete devices which students prefer to choose for themselves. We should embed power sockets throughout all rooms for charging devices. We must provide wireless everywhere for Internet access on students own equipment.

We won’t provide games consoles, but should provide large flat panel displays and projectors. These are fixed location-specific facilities. In lounges students will connect a games console to a large flat panel for social gaming. In group study rooms students will use a PC and projector provided for presentations and collaborative group work.

We should carefully consider how much technology to embed in student bedrooms. Such technology is expensive and quickly becomes obsolete. Currently the dominant feature in a student room is often a large pinboard covered in posters and photos. In time will the pinboard be replaced by a digital paper display or low energy flat panel? Currently these are prohibitively
expensive, but in five years time?

There will still be an important role for University-provided PCs and printers in public areas. Students own laptops are unreliable. Students appreciate well-maintained hardware that just works. We need to think about different forms of public computer provision, not just the traditional PC lab. Again we should encourage the mix of personally-owned and University-owned technology. Can you send photos straight to the printer from your cameraphone? Can you connect to the scanner from your laptop? Can you connect your iPod to a public PC to download a podcast of yesterdays lecture?

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

How to write

Writing is tough. Writing clear, easy to understand prose is difficult. I'm very concious of my writing skills (or lack of them?) and think hard about how and what I write. Maybe I think to hard and that becomes a barrier to writing at all, if the lack of recent updates to this blog is any indication...

I have a checklist pinned above my desk taken from the University of Bristol Writing for the web workshop (checklist on page 11) much of which applies to writing for any medium.

I also have an old copy of a self-taught course from the Plain English campaign. This was a chance discovery I found when clearing out an old filing cabinet. Miraculously I can still find it when I need it - it has survived my often arcane filing system.

This post was prompted by my colleague Martin Poulter's post Good Practice in Writing which contains some excellent guidance on writing clearly. I'll add a few of my own tips:

Write to a strict word count or space limit. Write something as a paper leaflet - the space limit will force you to be concise. Then rewrite the sprawling website to the same standard.I try to keep email newsletters to 250 words (many would say that is itself too long).

Look for ambiguity
. I know what I meant, but could someone interpret it differently? If that email is going to 5000 people then someone will. Read what you write with a fresh eye. How would someone with a different cultural background or English as a second language read it?

The guidance from many RFCs to be liberal in what you accept and strict in what you generate works well for natural language too. Think about that principle when reading what others have written - force yourself to read the better meaning from something ambiguous, and you'll avoid many unnecessary flamewars.